A History of its Industries, Railroads and Inventions



The American
A Definitive History


The locomotive roundhouse was by far the most distinctive structure of any railroad yard, and in many cases, the most distinctive structure in the entire town. For over a century, hundreds of thousands of people started and ended their day in one of the 3,000 roundhouses that dotted the United States. However, since they were built for a very specific purpose, only about 200 remain standing today. This limited edition, hardcover, full-color book, written for die hard fans of the American Roundhouse, attempts to preserve some of that history. Once the hardcover edition is sold out, a digital edition (with far fewer pictures) will be available on Amazon and other book sites. Features hundreds of photographs collected by the author over a 20 year period.

Erie Railroad roundhouse in Piermont, constructed in 1842


Excerpts from the introduction:

The rapid development of railroads beginning in the 1820s had a profound effect on daily life in America, permanently changing the way people lived, worked, and played. During the mid- to late 1800s, railroads became the dominant form of transportation of both people and products. They opened up the western part of the country to settlement, created new opportunities for Americans to travel to other parts of the country, and fueled the Industrial Revolution by dramatically lowering the cost of bringing raw materials to the factory and finished goods to the marketplace.

The single most valuable piece of equipment of any railroad was the locomotive. Converting water to steam for sending power to the driving wheels is in theory a simple process, but steam locomotives quickly evolved from the simple contraptions of the 1830s to incredibly complex and powerful machines containing thousands of components and hundreds of moving parts. It was vitally important to the survival of the railroad corporation to keep them in running order for as many hours a week as possible. They needed to be properly maintained, repaired when broken, and protected when not in use. The solution to all three of these needs was the roundhouse.

By the 1850s, the standard roundhouse design had become widely accepted—that of a large, circular building that partially or fully surrounded a turntable for turning locomotives. Since turntables had to be placed at terminal locations anyway (steam engines had to be run in a forward direction), it was only logical to construct a building around it so that locomotives could be turned to an available stall for servicing.

Early roundhouses were small compared to the mammoth structures of the early 1900s. In the 1850s and 1860s it was not unusual to see a fully enclosed circular building 120 feet in diameter with a 40 foot-long turntable in the middle that could house 10 to 15 locomotives. But railroad owners quickly realized that the more freight and passengers that could be hauled at once, the greater the profit, so locomotives quickly became larger and more powerful. The first locomotives that were used consisted of four driving wheels, sometimes supplemented by two leading trucks to keep the engine on the tracks. These soon gave way to Mogul-style engines with six driving wheels along with leading and trailing trucks, followed by Consolidations with eight driving wheels. This necessitated adding extensions to roundhouse stalls or the replacement of the entire building. What was considered a large structure in 1850 was dwarfed by those being built at the turn of the century, and they only became bigger throughout the 1920s and 1930s as steam locomotives reached their maximum size before the advent of diesel engines.

The number of engine terminals also increased dramatically after 1850. The decade leading to the Civil War was prosperous for the country. The central (Midwest) and south-central parts of the US were being rapidly developed, which led to an increase in railroad miles from 9,000 to 31,000. Early railroads with limited capital were merged into giant trunk lines, such as the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads, while an infusion of capital led to the completion of other trunk lines such as the Erie, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Chicago and Rock Island, and the Illinois Central. These corporations, and many others, needed locomotive terminals at many midway points in addition to the terminals normally found at one or both ends of the line. Many small towns and villages along the mainline suddenly hosted a new roundhouse and sometimes machine shops for heavier repairs. Hundreds of new villages were created from scratch where multiple railroad lines crossed or interchanged with each other. These railroad “hubs” often became the site of roundhouses and other infrastructure that generated thousands of jobs.

States and territories which contained the highest ratio of tracks per 100 square miles unsurprisingly had the most roundhouses. For example, the “territory” between New England and Chicago along the New York Central and the Erie lines had 19 railroad miles per 100 at the turn of the century, followed by New England with 12.3 miles and the Midwest with 11.7 miles, compared to a national average of 6.5 miles per 100. Of the individual states, New Jersey had the densest amount of tracks with 30 miles per 100, followed by Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, and New York. These ratios shifted over time, but by the 1950s steam locomotives were being phased out, so the central, southern, and western parts of the country never caught up to the number of locomotive terminals found east of the Mississippi River.


Orange and Alexandria Railroad roundhouse in Alexandria, Virginia

Union Pacific's roundhouse in Pocatello, Idaho (eventually expanded to 53 stalls)


Pittsburgh and Lake Erie roundhouse under construction in Haselton, Ohio


Operational roundhouses located in the United States open to the public:

Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum (Sugarcreek, Ohio): built by private owner in 2011, 18 stalls, standard gauge, brick construction

California State Railroad Museum (Sacramento, California): built by the museum in 1981, 6 stalls, brick construction, standard gauge

Cheyenne Depot Museum (Cheyenne, Wyoming): built by the Union Pacific in 1931, 7 stalls of 48 remaining, brick construction, stores heritage rolling stock

Colorado Railroad Museum (Golden, Colorado): built by the museum in 2000, 5 stalls, narrow gauge, brick construction

Como Roundhouse, Railroad Depot and Hotel Complex (Como, Colorado): built by the Denver, South Park and Pacific in 1881, 6 stalls remaining, narrow gauge, stone construction

Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum (Willimantic, Connecticut): built by the museum in 2000, 6 stalls, standard gauge, cement block construction

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum (Durango, Colorado): built by the museum in 1989, 8 stalls, narrow gauge, reconstructed from burned 1881 roundhouse

East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company (Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania): built by the East Broad Top in 1882, 8 stalls, narrow gauge, brick construction, contains original railroad equipment

Georgia State Railroad Museum (Savannah, Georgia): built by the Central of Georgia in 1855, 7 stalls remaining, standard gauge, brick construction, largely rebuilt in 1926

Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village (Dearborn, Michigan): built by the museum in 2000, 6 stalls, standard gauge, brick construction, replica of an 1884 Detroit, Toledo and Milwaukee roundhouse

Historic Prairie Village (Madison, South Dakota): built by the Prairie Village, Herman and Milwaukee in 1997, 3 stalls, standard gauge, wood construction

Minnesota Transportation Museum (St. Paul, Minnesota): built by the Great Northern in 1907, 20 stalls, standard gauge, brick construction, known as the "Jackson Street Roundhouse"

Mount Clare Shops, Baltimore and Ohio Museum (Baltimore, Maryland): built by the Baltimore and Ohio in 1884, 22 stalls, standard gauge, brick construction, enclosed

North Carolina Transportation Museum (Spencer, North Carolina): built by the Southern Railway in 1924, 37 stalls, brick construction, largest surviving roundhouse

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park (Jamestown, California): built by the Sierra Railway in 1910, 6 stalls, narrow gauge, wood construction, used in over 200 movies and TV shows

Steamtown National Historic Site (Scranton, Pennsylvania): built by the National Park Service in 1995, 13 stalls, brick construction, rebuilt from existing 1932 Delaware, Lackawanna and Western roundhouse

Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (Rollag, Minnesota): built by the group in 1976, 5 stalls, standard gauge