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The Rocket Takes Off

The Rocket Takes Off

Posted on August 11, 2023

In its first move in 90 years, the 185-year-old Rocket steam locomotive recently took off from The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to make its way to its new home at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Completed in March 1838, the Rocket was the first of eight English-made locomotives purchased by the Philadelphia & Reading Railway from 1838 to 1841.  The others, all made by London-based Braithwaite, Milner & Company, were named Firefly, Spitfire, Comet, Dragon, Helca, Planet and Gem, most of which remained in service for decades.   The Rocket is all that remains from this group and is the oldest surviving Reading Railroad locomotive.  The steam locomotive Rocket originally weighed 17,000 pounds and is 17 feet long. As with most early locomotives, it did not originally have an enclosed cab to shelter the engineer.

“In many respects, in the early 19th century, England was a few years ahead of the United States in developing railroad technology, and in embracing the concept of railroading in general,” says 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.”

Morrison adds, “The Rocket was built for use at the opening of the line between Reading and Pottstown in 1838, 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 shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition — Chicago World’s Fair — 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.  The Rocket came to The Franklin Institute on loan from the Reading Company in 1933.  It was placed on public display in 1934.  Since that time, it has been displayed on a portion of its original tracks next to the Baldwin 60000 locomotive.  The Consolidated Rail Corporation — Conrail — the owner of the Rocket, identified the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania as the next home for this incredible early steam locomotive.”

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.”