A Thing or 2 abt. Ross Winans

…that Elkridge should know


NOTE:   THIS POST IS BEING CONTINUALLY UPDATED. If you should have anything to contribute, please contact me directly by email, and please give me your sources for credits.   I’m looking for ORIGINAL DOCUMENTED SOURCES to back up the numerous questions and discussions created from the different descriptions about these subjects.  Thank you for your help.


Brief Background


Individual Locomotive Types

Business Abroad

Forward to Other Work

Baltimore’s Cap’n Nemo

The Whole Steam Gun Debacle

Next for Cap’n Nemo



Brief Background:

Born in Vernon Township, N.J. on October 17, 1796, into a family of horse breeders, Ross Winans married Julia de Kay (1800-1850) in 1820 and they had five children. He moved his family to Baltimore in 1828.   Winans became a father-in-law to George Whistler, Jr., an engineer and brother to painter and graphics artist, James McNeil Whistler (Ftn.1),  through George’s marriage to Winans daughter, Julia, named after her mother.  After the death of his first wife, Winans married Elizabeth K. West (1807-1889) in 1854.

Winans was not only an inventor holding many patents, and, a pro-Southern sympathizer who was an elected political representative and an advocate of states rights, but also a pioneer developer of low-income housing project for workingmen (today known as Mt. Winans), and had a vital interest in sanitary engineering and public health, particularly in regard to water and ventilation.   He also lobbied for a public water supply for Baltimore City.   Along with all that, he published religious writings, including a pamphlet on religious tolerance, speculative Theism, and a collection of Unitarian sermons.

Winans was in litigation in a “Twenty Years War Against the Railroad Companies,” suing train companies regarding patent right infringements and royalty issues.   He traveled to do business abroad and, as a result of all his endeavors, was one of the first multi-millionaires in the U.S., leaving an estate of over $20 million (Ftn.2).

At the age of 81, Ross Winans died on April 11, 1877 and was buried in Greenmount Cemetery.

Winans signedjpg


According to Scharf (Ftn.3),  “In December 1825, Mr. Ross Winans (then of New Jersey) exhibited in Baltimore, the model of a rail wagon running upon its way, weighing as it stated, about 125 lbs. On this little wagon were deposited 5 cwt., or ten “fifty-sixes” on these two men were many times placed, and the whole was drawn by a piece of twine or packing thread playing over a pulley by which a ½ pound weight was suspended, and which was publically handled by many gentlemen, among who was the venerable Charles Carroll of Carrollton.   Thus, this piece of pack-thread and a ½ pound power several hundred times drew across a large room the car weighing 125 lbs., 10 fifty-sixes, 560 lbs., and two persons of 300 lbs. – total 985 lbs.”

In 1828, Winans developed a friction wheel with outside bearings, which established a distinctive pattern for railroad wheels for the next one hundred years or so (Ftn.4).

According to Scharf (Ftn.5),  “Mr. Winans went to Europe with his invention and was there plundered of the most valuable portion of it – “the outside bearing” – through the bad faith of those whom he permitted to try it in public as an experiment. The outside bearing, of which he is unquestionably the inventor in its application to railroad carriages, is now the only bearing used throughout the world.”

Also in the very late 1820’s, Winans entered service as an engineer with the B&O. One of the first tasks was help Peter Cooper build the “Tom Thumb,” a steam-powered locomotive traveling from Pratt & S. Charles Streets for twenty miles southwest to the first terminus at Ellicott Mills on the upper branch of the western Patapsco River.

By 1831, he was appointed assistant engineer on machinery.   He invented and patented an improvement in the construction of axles, or bearings on July 20, 1831.   In the same year, he built the “Columbus” – his first eight-wheeled double-deck car, which he immediately patented though he was not the first to build one.   It was his first ever built for passenger purposes.

According to Scharf (Ftn.6), “the “Columbus” was a large box, such as any competent mechanic, other than a coach-maker, could build.   It was supported on trucks at either end, had seats on top, which were reached by ladder at one of the corners of the car, which were cut off so to speak, and where the doors were.”

In 1835, he went into partnership with George Gillingham (Gillingham & Winans) and in 1836, they succeeded an earlier leaseholder at the B&O shops at Mt. Clare, continuing to manufacture locomotives and railroad machinery there.

By 1841, he opened his own shop adjacent to the B&O new Mt. Clare Shops, along W. Pratt St. between Arlington & Schroeder Sts. in southwest Baltimore, with the B&O as his primary customer having 140 locomotives delivered to it.  Winans’ second best customer was the Philadelphia & Reading (Ftn.7) Railroad.   These two customers represented 70% of his sales. Engine sales of the “Camel” type were mostly sold for $10,000. Sales were expedited by syndicates of what we would now call investment bankers, like Enoch Pratt, because banks did not yet have the accumulated capital to make loans for commercial purposes.

Ten “Camels” were delivered to the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, which was running its lines from the north near Harrisburg, PA, including one “engine sold them from Maryland Mining Co. for $9,000 cash.”   Ten more sales were recorded to the B&S’s successor line, the Northern Central Railway.  Two units went to the Elmira & Canandaguia Railroad in N.Y., which were subsequently sold to the Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad.    C&P Master Mechanic James Millholland was familiar with keeping these engine types running and making improvements to them.   Winans typically offered a 30-day trial period at the customer site.    During the period of 1843-1863, about 267 engine deliveries by Winans to 26 American railroads are documented.

Winans was a pioneer in the development of substituting coal-burning steam locomotives for the less efficient wood- burners. He was an eccentric, and his locomotive business made him independently wealthy. His customer relations were simple – he built engines his way and you bought them.    Winans set trends in locomotive and car design rather than followed them.

Winans quoted:   “As far back perhaps as the year 1836, [there was] the firm of Gillingham & Winans, and after the dissolution of that firm, I myself, down to 1842, manufactured a rail road wheel.”

Individual Locomotive Types:

The majority of Winans engines were freight as opposed to passenger types without the use of leading (pony or pilot) trucks. Early models (before early 1848) are sometimes referred to as “Baltimore engines.”   After June of that year, his steam locomotives, popularly known as “Crabs,” “Muddiggers” and “Camelbacks” were used all over the fledgling rail network in the industrial northeastern U.S. to the turn of the century.   The B&O stated (Ftn.8) that this type carried Union troops and supplies over the heavy grades of the Alleghany Mountains during the Civil War.   [But if they were freight trains, did the men sit in a cattle car?]

The “Camel” was favored by Winans and was a type 0-8-0 wheel arrangement.   The engines were all low-speeds at 10-15 miles per hour by the steam capacity of the boiler and were heavy haul units.   At that speed, a single “Camel” could haul a 110 car train of loaded coal hoppers on the level.   The most distinctive feature of the Camel was the cab atop the boiler.   There was a large steam dome, slide valves and used staybolts in the boiler.   More than 100 iron tubes, each over 14 ft. long were installed in the boiler. The “Camel” was about 25 ft. long with an 11 ft. wheelbase. Among these were three major variations – short, medium and long furnace models (Ftn.9).   The standard “Camel” engine had 43” wheels and was painted green.

There are only three documented catastrophic failures in “Camel” engines.   One blew up [Ftn. 10] with the loss of four lives in 1868. Non-catastrophic failures were more prevalent, but fewer were documented.

Business Abroad:

It is possible that during his time in Europe, the engine designs impressed a Russian delegation and then was when he was asked by the Czar to build the Imperial railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg.   Winans sent his two sons (Ftn.11), as well as his son-in-law, engineer George W. Whistler, Jr., to Russia for several years for that project.   Winans may have sold as much or more equipment in Russia as he did in the U.S.

Forward to Other Work:

Bored with the business, and having a design disagreement with Mr. Hayes of the B&O and/or a dispute with Henry Tyson of the B&O over the use of leading bogies (trucks) on his locomotives, in 1857 he closed his locomotive shops (Ftn.12).

Baltimore’s Cap’n Nemo:

In 1858, Winans and his son, Thomas, designed and built a series of spindle-shaped boats, usually referred to as the “cigar” ship/boats, an engraving of which was published in the Illustrated London News the same year.   The first constructed featured was an unprecedented and technically unfeasible mid-ship propeller, enclosed in a shroud.   The propeller was driven by steam engines located in each hull section.   The intent of its shape was to allow the ship to progress with less disturbance from weather and water.   The ship was discussed at length in the pages of the Scientific American journal. After a series of trials and modifications, it remained tied up at the Winans docks at Ferry Bar, south side of the Whetstone Point peninsula and along the north shore of the Middle Branch or Ferry Branch of the Patapsco River. It was never subjected to a trial at sea (Ftn.13).

Politics and the Civil War:

During the Civil War, Winans was elected a member of the Maryland House of Delegates (lower house of the state legislature) and was arrested twice for his anti-Federal activities and speeches.   On the day before the Baltimore riot in 1861, Winans moved a resolution “protesting in the name of the people of Maryland against the garrisoning of Southern forts by militia drawn from the free States and calling upon citizens of the state to unite “to repel, if need be, any invader who may come to establish a military despotism over us.”   He was arrested shortly after the riot and released, and elected again on April 24 as part of a States Rights ticket.

The 1861 special sessions was held in Frederick to discuss the issue of the secession of Maryland from the Union.   For Winans, according to Scharf (Ftn.14), the day of the adjournment of the Legislature, proved an eventful one…[on May 14th, one day after martial law was declared in Baltimore]

“…the arrest of Mr. Ross Winans…and [by] the action of Major Morris, the commander of Ft. McHenry, in refusing to obey a writ of habeas corpus, marked the rapid strides towards despotism which the administration was making. Mr. Winans, while returning from his legislative duties, was seized and held a close prisoner by an armed force on a charge of high treason.   The arrest was made at the Relay House, on the B&O and Washington Branch Railroad,

EHS  Relay Hotel det

Painting by Stephens Berge

by order of General Butler, and although Governor Hicks and a large number of the members of the Legislature were in the same car, they were powerless to prevent the seizure of Mr. Winans, who was at once conveyed to Annapolis and subsequently to Ft. McHenry.”

Winans remained there a short time and was released without trial only after signing a “parole” guaranteeing his loyalty to the federal government.

“His friends, being very indignant at his arrest, nominated him the next day for Congress, but the substitution of military for civil rule in Baltimore and the consequent[ial] political changes thereby, prevented any attempt to elect him.   His name was withdrawn and Hon. Henry May, the “independent” and conservative Union candidate, was substituted in his stead.”

Meanwhile, Winans firm [machine shop] was reportedly preparing weapons and munitions for the defense of Baltimore against Union troops.    According to The American of April 23: “At the works of the Mssrs. Winans, the entire force is engaged in the making of pikes, and in casting balls of every description…”.

The Whole Steam Gun Debacle:

While Winans is credited as the inventor of the Steam Gun, which is said to be among the weapons bought from the $500,000 fund that Baltimore Mayor Brown and Maryland Governor Hicks gathered for the defense of the city, this experimental weapon was NOT designed or built by Winans.   I’m setting the record straight RIGHT NOW — just like those who hang for dear life to the legend that George Washington built Gun Road (he did NOT), Winans keeps getting credit for something he didn’t create.  The steam gun discussed here was invented by Charles S. Dickinson and built in Boston in 1860.   It passed through Winan’s machine shop [most likely to be loaded with casting balls, nails, or other types of missiles] during the period when his workers were making pikes, shot and other items ordered by city authorities. When it emerged, its former history was forgotten and word spread that it was built by Winans to oppose Federal troops.  [I seriously doubt that Winans tried to tell the truth and clear up any misconception].

According to Scharf [who also wrongly states that Winans built it, helping to fuel the misconception] (Ftn.15),   “…it was asserted that this invention could throw two hundred balls a minute to a distance of two miles, and would be terribly destructive in front of an army, mowing down regiments like grass.   It was protected by a bullet-proof cone of iron and could be made to project missiles of any size.   Its efficiency, however, was never tested*, as it was captured when on its way to Richmond at Harper’s Ferry and instead, was placed in position to guard the Relay House on the Washington Branch of the B&O Railroad.” 

[RECENT UPDATE:  According to a current Elkridge source, it was * demonstrated in Baltimore City [or at Relay House ?] for “reporters” only and proved to be extremely dangerous.  One would suppose logically that the designer and builder would be present to make sure it worked.   However, for a further discussion on demonstrations,  see**.

To continue in this matter and form a further understanding, I write add yet another source  (Ftn. 16): 

“On May 11, 1861, the noon train from Baltimore to Ellicott City was halted at the Relay House and pressed into the service of an artillery company with two cannons and several hundred infantry soldiers.  Their mission was to capture the much… feared centrifugal steam gun.  The gun was reportedly being drawn by six mules along Frederick Road towards Ellicott Mills — its destination to be Harper’s Ferry where it would defend Virginia. 

That  “almost the same instant as the locomotive approached its destination, the steam gun appeared coming down the turnpike. The gun and the two mule drivers were taken without resistance.   The gun was immediately returned to the Relay House [was it there to begin with?], where it aroused curiosity with the 6th Mass. Regiment camp [before or after its demonstration?].”  

Plans were made to demonstrate** the prize which the inventor, Charles S. Dickinson claimed:   “would mow down opposing troops as the scythe mows standing grain.  The possession of this engine will give the powers using it such decided advantages as will strike terror in the hearts of opposing forces and render its possessors impregnable to armies provided with ordinary offensive weapons.” 

However, Mr. Dickinson, who was nearby when the gun was captured, had removed some of the necessary parts before the capture.  One account stated, “the death-dealing engine stood as harmless as an old barn door.”  [Unless Dickinson put the parts in again to make the gun operable, what would be the point for it to guard the Relay House?]

A different brief account  [Ftn.17] states,  “In May of 1861…the gun was disguised as a piece of agricultural equipment and drawn by a team of six mules… The two drivers immediately surrendered the gun, However, Mr. Dickinson, the inventor who had been accompanying the shipment, escaped back to Baltimore n his carriage. The steam gun was taken back to Relay where it was discovered that a number of essential parts had been removed by the inventor and that the gun was inoperable.  Thus, the true effectiveness of the weapon was never known.” 

In one fell swoop by this account, it is declared there was never knowledge of a demonstration of the gun as previously stated there was, AND, also brings to mind any train of thought to its logical conclusion that Dickinson (if a Bostonian) was a traitor to the Union and should have been arrested in Baltimore.  Otherwise, there would have been no need to “escape.”   Knowledge of his arrest is not known at present. 

By the same Elkridge source, I was told that, after the war, the steam gun was dumped into the Patapsco and silted over.  In addition,  I was also told there were attempts to retrieve it by a certain gentleman, but apparently this is not true.  When I get more info on sources of who, what and when, I will add them to this post chapter].

Next for Cap’n Nemo:

After the Civil War, Winans and his son took their cigar boat enterprise to Europe, and several similarly designed boats were built in England (probably at Southampton) and in St. Petersburg, Russia.   None of these were put to trial at sea either, though press reports survival of trips in the Solent and in the English Channel.

The boats themselves remained tied up in Southampton into the 1880’s, but inspired no imitators.   Where they went or what ever happened to them after that is another question (Ftn.18).




Ftn. 1:    James McNeil Whistler lived in Baltimore for awhile with Thomas Winans, who provided James with a studio and spending money.  James also sold Tom some of his early art work.   It should be noted that when Winans sent his sons to Russia along with his son-in-law George Whistler, Jr. to build a railroad, that the Whistler boys’ father, an engineer, had already been in Russia for years building an Imperial  railroad.  It probably was that marriage that opened the doors to the project for Winans.

Ftn. 2:     Findagrave.com / Maryland / Greenmount Cemetery / Ross Winans

Ftn. 3:    Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore, pg. 429   NOTE:   Scharf information was retyped from previously ill-typed copies, therefore sentences run amok and connecting words left out.  Few if any corrections are in [  ].

Ftn. 4:    en.Wikipedia.org / wiki / Ross_Winans / Railroad Work.  All information, unless otherwise footnoted from other sources derives, not necessarily verbatim, from Wikipedia.

Ftn. 5:   Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore:  pgs. 449-450

Ftn. 6:   Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore:  pg. 453

Ftn. 7:   Statistics:     the records of the P&R Railroad contain detailed info on “Camel” engine mileage’s and rebuildings. This line received a series of 48 deliveries from 1846 to 1855.  By 1858, the P&R had racked up in excess of 3.5 million miles on its 44 engines, with the “Camel” fleet representing 20% of the P&R motive power roster.  By the end of the Civil War period in 1865, 28 of its 48 engines had not yet been rebuilt.  By 1870, only 4 of the 48 were not yet rebuilt, but these four had accumulated almost one million miles of road service.  The average service life before a rebuild was about 13.5 years.   Similar dates for the B&O gives an average service life of 8.5 years before rebuilding.  A total of 15 “Camel” rebuilds are recorded at the C&P shops in Mt. Savage, PA from 1866 through 1875.

Ftn. 8:    B&O RR Co. / Dining Car Dept., Concerning Blue China,  pg. 3

Ftn. 9:   Technical:    the small units had 17″x22″ cylinders and the others had 19″x22″ cylinders.  The medium unit had about 23 sq. ft. of grate area, expanded to more than 28 sq. ft. in the large furnace model, which model had a firebox more than 8 ft. long, requiring lever-operated chutes for the fireman to feed the front of the fire.  The fireman worked as the tender, as the firebox was behind the drivers.  This design required that the drawbar passed beneath the firebox and it typically heated to a cherry red color.  Even after rebuilds with a more conventional cab design, the fireman worked in the tender, which was 8-wheeled, generally with brakes on the rear truck only.  They held 5 tons of coal and 8.5 tons more of water (more than 2,000 gallons).  Fully loaded, the tenders weighed 23 tons, only 4 tons less than the locomotive.

Ftn. 10:    Eddy, Richard.  History of the Sixteenth Regiment New York State Volunteers, (Philadelphia 1864), pp. 49, 63-64.   Briefly:  Union soldiers were either maimed or killed while on duty at Relay.  One was William McDonald of Company E, 16th N.Y.Volunteers, who fell ill and fainting on the track, leaving one leg exposed on the rail.  Others died from one of Winans’ “Camelbacks,” which exploded, leaving one unidentifiable soldier horribly mutilated with legs driven down deep into the mud, the train fireman scalded to death, and the engineer thrown over trees.

Ftn. 11:  Thomas Winans returned to build a Russian-style estate in west Baltimore, named “Alexandrofsky” in 1830.  It was  demolished around 1940 to expand a housing block and fill in the street grid of white marble-stepped brick rowhouses.  Further west and overlooking the Gwynns Falls stream valley was Winans’  fieldstone mansion with extensive porches and balconies called “Crimea,” which was later sold to the city using a substantial money bequest from Mr. Leakin in the 1920’s, to be set aside for purchasing it and the large property for a future park and wilderness forest reserve, now known as Leakin Park.   The contents of “Crimea” were sold at auction.  Fortunately, 23 boxes of Winans’ papers and journals were donated to the Maryland Historical Society. Surrounding the estate are remnants of a cannon embankment with slotted places for carved logs resembling iron artillery pieces.   These are Winans’ supposed attempts to deter Northern troops from camping on his grounds — a testament to his pro-Southern sympathies.  A water wheel apparatus still exists along the stream for drawing fresh water uphill along with a small family cemetery now wooded in by the forest and left to decay by the last property owner [which I believe was a church].   A small clapboard Gothic style chapel also exists along the entrance road on Eagle Driveway from W. Forest Park Ave. 

Ftn. 12:    Which were later leased to the Hayward & Bartlett iron and steel foundries.

Ftn. 13:     Winans’ cigar shaped ship was either inspired by or was an inspiration for Capt. Nemo’s submarine in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” by author Jules Verne.

Ftn. 14:    Scharf’s History of Maryland:  pg. 429

Ftn. 15:   Scharf’s History of Maryland:  pg. 415

Ftn.16:   Elkridge Heritage Society,  Elkridge: Three Wars & the Peace, Lawyers Hill Heritage, 1983, p. 15

Ftn.17:  Howard Co. Historical Soc.,  The Raid of Ellicotts Mills, 1962, p. 32.

Ftn. 18:   see www.modelshipmaster.com/products/other_types/cigar_boat.html




7 thoughts on “A Thing or 2 abt. Ross Winans

  1. Mary,
    I don’t know if I missed it when reading this article, but when what was called the Winan’s Steam Cannon had its first demonstration downtown, the ammunition contained all sorts of metal, nails, etc. They underestimated the force and blew out the side of a building. It is thought to be under years of silt in the Patapsco River. Christopher Vale, I believe, had really tried to locate it using all sorts of devices. A half-size replica is at the foot of Buttermilk Hill.

  2. Thanks Polly. With all this wealth of information, I’m looking for the most originally historical documented sources to get to the truth of all the discourse I am finding that conflicts and which raises reasonable questions, or leaves open gaps that should be filled. [Unlike, for example, Scharf who did not have all the facts and repeated legends and hearsay to a public that believed him and who referred to his writings like the social “last word.” As far as I have read of his books, he never listed his sources. And he wrote flowery, run-on sentences and mixed up phrases of words typical of the Victorian and Edwardian periods.] So, what I need help in getting are your sources about the demonstration and where “downtown” they would think it safe enough to “blow out the side of “what ?” building. I talked with C.V. but he didn’t know about its location or anything about digging it up. Thanks again.

    • Mary, (This is Tina) Maybe you can try to get The Scientific American, May 25, 1861 from the library of congress (or ask your local library to get a copy for you). Wikipedia lists it as a reference and mentions that the gun was demonstrated in Baltimore in 1861. It did not give Polly’s very interesting anecdote, but perhaps the magazine article would. There are other references give there. You said you didn’t like the wikipedia article for some reason. It reads well to me. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winans_Steam_Gun.

  3. Hi Tina-
    In fact the complete text and illustration in the article “The Baltimore Steam Battery” in Scientific American, May 25, 1861 can be obtained through a resource called “Historical Magazines from 1740-1940.” It is available from the Howard county Library http://www.hclibrary.org/. Find it under “Online Learning and Research” in the drop down menu on the homepage. Then select Research Tools on the next screen. The specific resource is listed under Newspapers & Magazines– http://hclibrary.org/index.php?page=497#newspapers. You may need to input your library card number before you can access it from home.

  4. You have some good information on Winans. I wrote most of it. It was the basis for the wikipedia article (which has recently been updated, by the way). I recall driving by the replica steam cannon on Rt. 1. I’ve hung out
    in Elkridge a lot, mostly watching trains.

    I am the author of a book on Winans, primarily his locomotives. see ISBN 0-9725966-2-3.
    I could be talked into donating one to the Society. Let me know.

    I recently decided to do another, broader book, including his other endeavors. There is a lot more material available now. There was an article just published this year by a Russian that discusses Winans & Whistler’s Russian adventures. Suffice it to say they made a lot of money, so much that the Czar had to sell off Russian America (aka, Alaska) to pay W & W.

    This new book is “in work.” I just keep finding more relevant stuff. I will have to draw a line at some point and declare victory. It will come out in ebook (Kindle and Nook) format, with a .pdf edition available.

    So, can you point me to information on the iron furnace? That is a particular interest of mine, since I live next
    to the Snowden estate, and can’t stick a shovel in my yard without hitting iron ore. I have done research and
    books on the facilities in the Western part of the State, Lonaconing and Mount Savage. And some research on the Muirkirk facility.


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