What is the Shay Locomotive?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Shay locomotive was the premier example of steam train technology in its time. Developed by an innovative Ohio shop owner, the Shay locomotive soon rose to become both the pinnacle of steam power and one of the most widely operated train locomotives. Fewer than 200 Shay locomotives still exist today, but many are carefully preserved in museums in tribute to this remarkable and historic train.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Ephraim Shay served under General Sherman in the American Civil War, but returned home relatively unscathed to marry a longtime sweetheart and open a sawmill. After relocating to Michigan, Shay began to seek better ways to transport logs to his sawmill. After developing prototypes for use at his mill, Shay partnered with the nearby Lima Machine Works to create consumer locomotives.

The Shay locomotive was a geared steam train, meaning that the wheels created equal traction and did less damage to the track. The system also allowed the train to maneuver steep grades and tight bends in the track with relative ease and lower risk of derailment. It was considered to be a major improvement on existing trains, cutting significantly the transportation costs associated with logging. Ephraim Shay patented his locomotive in 1881, then received a second patent in 1901 after significantly improving the design. Many other inventions that helped power the locomotive were also patented by his workers and engineers.

The first version of the Shay locomotive was known as the “A” class, and had only a two-cylinder drive. After teaming with Lima Machine works, the following versions were all three cylinder and weighed between 10-150 tons (9-136 metric tons) depending on the series. Class B locomotives had two trucks attached, Class C had three, and the mighty Class D Shay locomotive had four.

Nearly 3000 official Shay locomotives were built, though after the patent expired, similar designs continued production but could not be technically classified as Shays. Mostly distributed across America, some Shays did reach other countries as well. Over the last years of major steam transportation, the unique design of the Shay became one of the most recognizable locomotives in existence.

Today, only about 160 Shay locomotives still exist. One of the last and largest ever built remains in operation at the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia. Other working examples include a Class B locomotive called the Dixiana at the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad in California. Some no longer operating models remain on display at various transportation museums, including Ontario's Canada Science and Technology Museum, Los Angeles' Travel Town Museum, and the Colorado Railroad Museum.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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