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I've been searching the net for information on Bill Thomas, NPC Master Mechanic and designer and builder of the first cab-forward locomotive, NPC Number 21, but have met with little success. Can anyone point me to sources for Mr. Thomas, published or unpublished? I'm wondering if the NWPRRHS Hogarty Library has correspondence or NPC/NWP documents that may shed light on the man's life and work. Regards,

Mark Drury

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You need to read "Oil Lamps and Iron Ponies" by Shaw, Fisher and Harlan, Bay Books, 1949... It includes much about Thomas' work on the NPC and Lake Tahoe. He later served as Master Mechanic of the Mt Tamalpias line...

Additionally the patents are floating about... he was a very good machinist, a inventive person, and a good guy.

Randy Hees
Thanks for the tip, Randy -- I had no idea such a book existed, and I'm betting it's a little hard to find now, but will try to procure a copy. Glad to have you on the network! I hope to bring my kids over to Ardenwood this spring/summer to see your equipment and the other things of interest there. Regards,

Mark D.
Just ordered a signed (by all three authors) copy of "Oil Lamps and Iron Ponies" in very good condition for less than $30 from -- have to love the internet!

Mark D.
You will enjoy the book... its a collection of histories of several west coast narrow gauge lines, the NCNG, Lake Tahoe, NPC, Sumpter Valley, SPC, Illwaco, Pacific Coast, and Pajaro Valley... very romantic but also good information...

There are a couple of similar "old" histories out there... Redwood Railways by Gilbert Kneiss, covering the NWP and predecessors, and Bonanza Railroads by Kneiss, on the Sacramento Valley, San Francisco and San Jose, V&T, Eureka and Palisade and Nevada Central.

Yes, Randy, I enjoyed the Gneiss "Redwood Railways" book, though one can tell it was a product of its time (given the discussion of Chinese labor). Informative, all the same -- thanks again for the tips!

Mark D.
Besides "Redwood Railways", there is brief mention in Fred Stints NWP Vol 1. and Bray Dickinson's
"Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods", who oddly enough I found out 3 years ago was a relative of mine! Until I read Brays book I didn't realize that Tomales was a "railroad town" in it's early days.
Thanks to Randy for the headsup on the ""Oil Lamps and Iron Ponies" by Shaw, Fisher and Harlan". I'll start looking for a copy. Mainly for the Lake Tahoe connection, as I've met Bill Bliss whose relative D.L. Bliss owned the lumber mill at Glenbrook and ran the railroads up here.
Besides the NWPRR I'm have interests in the North Pacific Coast RR. My father was born in Fallon, CA northwest of Tomales and rode those trains and later the "electric Cars" to Sausalito. He also knew Roy Graves. Can you imagine what a wonderful trip it might have been leaving Sausalito running out to the coast up through Point Reyes Station, Tomales etc? Wasn't at Valley Ford the longest wooden trestle or something like that? What a shame those tracks were tornup!
Regards, Bob Burns
Minimal stuff out there. George Harlan gave him some of the better bio coverage (but not a lot) in his self-published book, Those Amazing Cab Forwards. There was a little bit more in Bray, Wurm, Dickensen & Graves' book on the NPC and a tad in the much older (out of print) Oil Lamps & Iron Ponies by Fred. Shaw with Harlan. Then there's the wonderful Google patent search engine...a bit tricky if you don't know exactly what you are looking for but worth practicing on. I've not taken the time to look up any of Thomas's patents...his feedwater heater for locomotives and so forth, but give it a shot.
Just a quick follow-up to my earlier posted reply. Check this out:
Like you, Mark, I have to say that there's not very much "out there" on William J. "Bill" Thomas.
A contemporary feature article on the construction of "his" cab forward No.21ran in Railway & Locomotive Engineering magazine (V.15, 1902, pp.59, 60; 62), but said little about him that we don't already know. What the article did say, though, was that the 21's design was co-generated by Thomas and J. B. Stetson. This revelation caused me to reevaluate the 21's "name" honoring Stetson which was promulgated by Bray Dickenson and/or Roy Graves. But have any of us ever seen a photo of that engine with a given name painted anywhere on its cab (or elsewhere)? I now have a hunch that the "name" never existed and that someone who read the R&LE article (assuming they did) misconstrued what was said about Stetson's involvement in the project. The R&LE issue can be found online as a Google Book scan (PDF). Google page counts differ from the original volume so go to the scanned version's pp.116+
I've run some Google patent searches but haven't found much there which surprised me. I expected several variations of his novel "porcupine" feedwater heaters. All that surfaced was the patent on No.21's general design. Note that the patent was awarded to Stetson and Thomas. Can we therefore express some safe doubt that Thomas got whole credit as earlier historians have suggested. How about we consider that Stetson did some of the engineering and Bill Thomas did the nuts-and-bolts practical part, or some other cooperative working arrangement? Anyway, here's a link:
There's more patent material showing Thomas the inventor of railroad-related equipment, though nothing newer than c.1891 but hardly anything after that:
Right off the top, a separate Google Patents search on Stetson reveals that he was an active Bay Area mechanical engineer/inventor. Patent 682765 clearly says that he and Thomas weren't done with the idea of an oil-fired water tube marine style boiler with mud drum for locomotives use. The design for a SF cable cars "grip" mechanism looks pretty much like the standard device still used. It's pretty interesting to see that Holman and Hammond were also involved with that patent design since both of them had car building factories rivaling that of the Carter Brothers and the Holt Brothers' plant in Stockton.
That said, I've watched out everywhere probable for Thomas links to any surviving career records, and again nothing's surfaced. Too bad there seem to be no surviving Mt. Tam railroad corporate records!
~Kevin Bunker


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