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Mr. French's Improvement

This page was last updated on June 25, 2015.

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(This article was first published in the UtahRails.net blog on March 2, 2013)

In November 1873, the U. S. Patent Office awarded a patent to James S. French for his "Improvement In Locomotives."

This invention is an improvement upon the device patented by James S. French, April 19, 1870, No. 102,107, which consisted in the employment of grooved driving-wheels having wedge-shaped grooves, upon locomotives, for the purpose of increasing adhesion to the track without correspondingly increasing the weight of the wheel or engine. My present improvement consists in adapting the pair of driving wheels thus grooved to be raised and lowered at pleasure by the engineer.

That earlier patent from 1870 was for the design of just the grooved wheel, and this 1873 patent added the practical design for use on a railroad steam locomotive. A later patent, awarded in March 1874, U. S. Patent added a flange to the inside edge of Mr. French's grooved wheel, combining the features of his grooved wheel, with a standard railroad flanged wheel.

I first read of Mr. French's improvement in the late 1970s when I first read Clarence Reeder's "The History Of Utah's Railroads, 1869 - 1883," in the chapter about C. W. Scofield's Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad.

The local newspapers had carried reports that a special locomotive had been ordered which had great steam capacity with less than the usual weight of iron. This engine provided for mechanical adhesion or traction in place of adhesion induced by weight of the locomotive. This was achieved by the use of a device invented by Col. James S. French who had been president of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. A third or supplementary pair of driving wheels was placed to the rear of the ordinary drivers and connected with the latter so that they revolved at the same rate of speed. These additional drivers had a grooved tread and could be lifted from the track at the discretion of the engineer. When climbing grades or starting, the grooves sat astride the rail and compelled advance motion with each revolution of the drivers instead of allowing the wheels to slip as they normally did on steep grades or heavy trains. In tests, a locomotive so equipped was run up a grade of 1,000 feet to the mile (18.9 percent grade). However, whether this locomotive could perform such marvels remained unknown in Utah since no such machine was every delivered to the W&JVRR.

(Read Reeder's account of the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad)

Wasatch & Jordan Valley number 2, named "Deseret," was equipped with James S. French's "Improvement in Locomotives", U. S. Patent 144,271. The patent consisted of a rear set of drive wheels that were grooved in the middle of the wheel tread, with outside flanges that were designed to grip both outside edges of the railroad rail. These special rear drive wheels were held away from the rail surface until a force was applied by the engineer by use of a lever, lowering the special drive wheels to the rail surface, thus increasing the tractive power of the locomotive. The design could only be used on a railroad that was built specifically to accept the special drive wheels due to the special guard rails and frogs required on turnouts.

The Uniontown Standard of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, noted in its issue for September 11, 1873: "On the 6th of September the National Locomotive Works shipped six-wheeler 'Deseret' to Salt Lake City, Utah. Col. McAleer and E. T. Duckworth accompany her to test the feasibility of overcoming heavy grades with light machinery, by French's Patent." The item goes on to say that the loco is "...intended to run on grades of 500 feet to the mile; to accomplish this the hind drivers have a grooved tire that is applied to the rail by a small steam cylinder attached to the engine similar to an air brake and can be applied to give any amount of adhesion." (500 feet rise in one mile = 9.4 percent grade)

The 'Col. McAleer' mentioned was L. F. McAleer, recently made Superintendent of the National Locomotive Works; and E. T. Duckworth a traveling engineer, in charge of set-up and initial operation of new locomotives.

There seems to be no mention in the local press concerning the arrival of this odd locomotive, or its initial performance, other than a note in the Salt Lake Tribune's "Hotel Arrivals" column for October 5th, 1873, which notes the arrival of one L. F. McAleer, of Pennsylvania, at the Valley House in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Herald of July 19, 1873 noted: "...two new locomotives are also on the way, one of which has French's patent attachment for climbing. This invention has been tested at Connellsville, where the locomotive was built, and advices from there received here are to the effect that it is a great success."

The Deseret Evening News of September 17, 1873 noted: "...the Company have purchased, or ordered, a locomotive of the patent improved climbing variety, manufactured by French, of Virginia, which, it is said, is capable of making ascents of four hundred feet gradient to the mile, the climbing apparatus acting as a brake on the down grade." (400 feet rise in one mile = 7.5 percent grade)

The design was apparently a failure, with W&JV number 2 being rebuilt to a conventional 2-6-0, or at least an 0-6-0, since later D&RGW records show the locomotive as having six drive wheels.

Wasatch & Jordan Valley number 2 was built by National Locomotive Works of Connellsville Pennsylvania. It was completed in September 1873 and delivered to Utah in October 1873. In May 1880, the locomotive was transferred to Scofield's Utah & Pleasant Valley Railway as that road's second No. 2. After D&RGW took control of the Scofield roads in December 1881, U&PV No. 2 became D&RGW No. 110, then D&RGW No. 2 in 1886. Research has not yet revealed what happened to the locomotive after that.

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