Strasburg, Lancaster County (WHTM) After being on display at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for 90 years, the 185-year-old Rocket is on its way to a new home at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
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The move is the result of a rebuilding project at the Franklin Institute. Their Train Factory exhibit hall is being transformed into the two-story “Treasures of the Franklin Institute Gallery” which will feature many artifacts in the museum’s collection, some of which have never been on display. The centerpiece of the hall will still be the enormous Baldwin 60000 locomotive, which was moved there in 1933. But there will no longer be space for Rocket, which was placed on display in 1934.
Rocket was there as a loan; it still belonged to the Reading Company. The Reading became part of The Consolidated Rail Corporation, aka Conrail. (Yes, it still exists.) Conrail decided to make the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania the new home for the Rocket.
In the early 19th Century England had a head start over the United States in developing railroads and railroad technology. Rather than reinventing the wheel (sometimes literally) Americans got into railroading by buying English engines. According to Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania director Patrick C. Morrison, “The Rocket typifies this early American embrace of English railroad technology and precedent. From there, American inventors and mechanics would study, learn from and adapt this technology to their own landscapes, and begin to build and perfect their own railroad equipment.”
Completed in March 1838, Rocket was the first of eight English locomotives bought from the London-based Braithwaite, Milner & Company from 1838 to 1841 by the Philadelphia and Reading Railway. The locomotive burned wood, originally weighed 17,000 pounds, is 17 feet long and, like most early locomotives, it did not have an enclosed cab to shelter the engineer. Rocket was followed by Firefly, Spitfire, Comet, Dragon, Helca, Planet, and Gem. Most of them remained in service for decades. Rocket is the only survivor and the oldest Reading Railroad locomotive.
“The Rocket was built for use at the opening of the line between Reading and Pottstown in 1838,” explains Morrison, “And it faithfully served the Reading Railroad for more than 40 years. In March 1879, the Rocket was retired after having traveled 310,164 miles over the course of its career. Following its retirement, the Rocket sat unused and neglected until it was fully restored for exhibition purposes.”
The Rocket was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Fair of the Iron Horse in 1927.
Morrison states, “We are grateful to Conrail for their tremendous support and for entrusting the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania with this irreplaceable historic treasure of both British and American railroading. We also wish to recognize The Franklin Institute for their outstanding stewardship of the Rocket over these last 90 years. In recent months, a wonderful team of people worked together diligently and carefully to prepare the Rocket for transport, and we are very appreciative of their extraordinary efforts. We will soon begin preparing the Rocket off-site for its eventual exhibition later this year in the Museum’s Rolling Stock Hall, where it will take its honored place amid the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s premier railroad heritage collection.”
Rocket will join The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania’s collection of about 100 historic locomotives and railroad cars. A Smithsonian Affiliate, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is one of 24 historic sites and museums administered by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission as part of the Pennsylvania Trails of History®, with the active support of the nonprofit Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
To learn more about the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, click here.
To learn more about the Franklin Institute, click here.