The "John Bull" Steam Locomotive


Cree Vicar Dave – SASS Life # 49907

The “John Bull” Steam Locomotive was the second of two train locomotives imported from England into The United States of America in the early 1830’s.  On Christmas Day 1830 the “Best Friend of Charleston” started service in South Carolina.  In the following year the “John Bull” went into action on the “Camden & Amboy Railroad” of New Jersey.  These were the first two successful steam rail lines in America.  These trains hauled mostly passenger cars at an astounding speed of 25 miles per hour.  The engines weighed 4-1/2 ton and cost an outlandish $4,000 each.  They developed 400 HP at 50 psi of steam that powered two 16-inch long by 6-inch diameter cylinders propelling the engine.

Originally the John Bull was a 0-4-0 locomotive.  It only had the four drive wheels on it when it was delivered.  An open car was connected behind it to hold the engineer, fireman and fuel.  But a cow catcher had to be added to the front of the engine to keep it on the track.  Seems that the Americans didn’t quite lay rails as straight as the English, as a result the engine had trouble staying on the track without the cowcatcher in place.

Around 1840 the bell, whistle and lamp were added.  Eventually the tender was covered some ten years later.  The John Bull remained in service for 35 years being retired in 1866 at the end of the Civil War.  It is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History in Washington DC.

Upon first spotting the John Bull electric train set in the Lionel 2008 Volume 1 catalog, I was so impressed I ordered one for my train layout.  Then in the Lionel Club Newsletter “Inside Track” Spring 2008 Issue 120, “John Bull” was the feature article.  This started the ole gears a moving in my noggin inspiring me to build one for Cowboy Action Shooting™.  My eldest son had planted seed in my mind a few months earlier by telling me about a homemade locomotive lawn ornament he had seen made out of a 250 gallon fuel oil drum and metal spoke wheels.

Having amassed a wealth of treasure in the scrap pile behind the old barn over the years, I decided to take inventory for perspective John Bull parts.  To my delight most of the material needed was available on sight.  It says in Proverbs 10:22 “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and He adds no trouble to it.”  One man’s junk is another man’s wealth.  I have both.

There was a 250 gallon fuel oil drum, 30 gallon metal barrel, 55 gallon metal barrel, 2”X4”X around 8’ steel tubing (for the frame), some sheet metal, pipe and pipe fittings, LP cylinders, green steel roofing (left over from a roof job), and odds & ends to finish it off.


Never work on any type of drum, barrel, cylinder or any container until it is properly emptied, cleaned, left open and free from any type of fuel as it could explode when worked on!!

Keep in mind that this article is only to inspire ideas, not a how to essay.  There are other old time steam locomotives like the “Stephenson’s Rocket” that would require far less work and materials.  To find them use a WEB search engine.  Also the metal frame can be substituted with treated lumber and the steel for the sides and roof of the tender with reversed board and batting or other types of outdoor material.

Close Up View Side View Front View Rear View Train Lamp Full View

(Click on picture for a larger view)

The 2”X4” steel tubing frame for the engine is 40” wide by 102” long.  It should have been 48” wide to leave more room for the “drive wheels”.  But there are always glitches on the prototypes.  The 250 gallon drum was shortened to 14” long.  It could have been 16” long.  The 30 gallon barrel was attached horizontally to the back of the drum.  A space of a little over 12” was left between the 30 gallon barrel horizontally mounted and vertical 55 gallon barrel.  This space was filled in with sheet metal the same diameter as the 30 gallon barrel and scallop fit into the 55 gallon barrel.  I acquired a stainless steel bowl from that was almost a perfect fit for the top of the 55 gallon barrel to resemble the mushroomed top on the rear of engine boiler.  With a little adjustment it was screwed into place and DAP acrylic silicone clear caulk filled the void around the edge.

I got the metal spoke wheels from yard sales, steam/tractor shows and old hay rakes on steel.  The large drive wheels are 44” in diameter, forty inches would have been more to size though.  One inch pipe was used for the axles with 1” threaded rod cut in half and inserted in from each end for extra strength.  Flat washers and nuts fit on the rod to hold the cowcatcher and wheels in place.  The threaded rod was plug welded in place after surmising proper length.  The metal spoke wheels for the cowcatcher and tender are 16” diameter and 18” diameter respectively.  Angle iron and 1/2" pipe was used to finish off the catcher.  The stack is 5” thin wall pipe.  The 1-1/2” wrap around tubing was made from legs off an old trampoline set.  The cylinder was cleaned and cut to fit with a reciprocating hack saw.

The tender is 5’ wide by 7’ long.  Side walls are around 55” long.  This leaves around a 30” opening to see the targets.  Safety chains protect the opening.  Inside height of the tender is around 7’ to allow ample room for most cowboy hats.  The back is open to access a wood deck with railing that will be attached to it.

I got the bell and steam whistle on E-bay.  The bell was fairly inexpensive but the whistle was another matter.  Bidder beware.  Anyway when I received my prized brass air/steam operated noise making device I hooked it up to an air hose on my compressor.  To my dismay it didn’t toot.  After emailing the seller I became enlightened to the fine art of steam whistles.  Turns out you need three things to make it work:

1.      A 3/4" air line supply.

2.      A lot of volume, 10 to 20 gallon tank.

3.      An air pressure of around 50 psi or more. 

This revelation set me aback some.  So I did some measuring and found that two 5 gallon tanks would fit up under the engine between the wheels.  The tanks were piped on one end to a union exit and attached with threaded rod on the other.  Then a cradle was made to hold the tanks and 1/2” threaded rod, flat washers and nuts pulled them up into place.  A 3/4" filter/regulator was attached to the union and 3/4" pipe was run from it to the whistle.  Some large gauges, 2” valves, a wood burner door and other odds and ends were produced by family, friends at Church and steam/tractor shows.

All the paint is Ace Hardware rust proof enamel brushed on except for the brass color used on the pipes and stripes, this comes in an aerosol can.

The floor of the tender is covered with 5/4” X 6” treated deck boards.  If you use metal for the frame put something between the treated wood and the metal to protect it from rust.  Tar paper will do.  I held the tender floor height to a minimum to allow for the shortest possible access ramp to the deck/tender.  We try to make all our stages handicap accessible.  The engine looks so neat I might just leave it in our front yard.

The "John Bull" train at the Sucker Creek Saddle & Gun Club

I hope this article gives you some ideas and inspires ya ta build something unique, fun and safe for your club.  Remember to always follow all safety and health rules when building things and playing with them.  My thanks to Mike Reagan at Lionel for supplying photos. 

Hope ta see ya on the trail

God Bless,

Cree Vicar Dave

Acknowledgements; Information was gathered for this article from: “Lionel 2008 CATALOG” Volume 1, “Inside Track” Spring 2008 Issue 120, and “Wikipedia”.