As the builder of the first steam locomotive to run on tracks in the United States, Colonel John Stevens earned the title of "Father of American Railroads."
His engine, named the "John Stevens" in honor of its builder, was 16 feet long. Its unique system of propulsion was similar to that used in today's mountain railroads which operate over terrain too steep to allow adhesion of the wheels directly to the rail. The engine's small steam boiler provided power to turn two gears, the lower of which engaged a rack between the running rails. This ingenious arrangement enabled the engine to achieve a speed of 12 miles per hour. Passengers sitting on benches attached over the rear wheels were carried on demonstration rides. The "John Stevens" worked so well that Stevens elevated a portion of his 630-foot circular track to prove that his engine could ascend a grade.
Although Stevens planned his railway only to demonstrate the capabilities of his engine, for many years he had been unable to obtain permission from the state of New Jersey for its construction in Hoboken. At the time Stevens became interested in railroads, he had already established a reputation as a pioneer in the development of the steamboat. Yet despite his reputation, the state of New Jersey greeted his plans for a railroad with polite disinterest. Unable to obtain a charter to begin construction, Stevens in desperation took his case to the public, but newspapers ridiculed his ideas.
Only Stevens' great faith in steam power encouraged him to persist. "I can see nothing to hinder a steam-engine from moving with a velocity of 100 miles per hour," he wrote. Finally New Jersey granted his charter, and in 1825 the "John Stevens" was tested successfully.
Stevens' locomotive aroused great public enthusiasm, and at the time of his death, railroads were under construction throughout the East. Stimulated by Stevens' efforts, men were already dreaming about a transcontinental railroad.