Bill Thomas and the Cab Forward Locomotive

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

In the dawn of the 20th Century, a Sausalitan built the first of a radical new design in railroad locomotiives – the cab forward. According to George Harlan’s 1983 book, Those Amazing Cab Forwards,

William J. Thomas was “a genius with a master's degree, or was it a doctorate, from the school of hard knocks, an opportunist whose guiding spirit was common sense, with overtones of his own ability to think, mingled with an infectious sense of humor.” Here are some lightly edited excerpts from Harlan’s book:

PHOTO FROM  THOSE AMAZING CAB FORWARDS   Trial run of Engine No. 21 at the north end of the Sausalito yards


Trial run of Engine No. 21 at the north end of the Sausalito yards

 “Brother Bill,” as he was affectionately known, served his apprenticeship in the San Francisco shops of the Southern Pacific at a time when the parent corporation was the Central Pacific. In those days, for some inexplicable reason, as soon as an apprentice had served his time, he became persona non grata at the establishment that had financed his training, so Bill sought employment elsewhere, and the tiny shops of the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railway in Sausalito, California, was his landing place. There he ran the machine tools with a degree of accuracy that attracted his superiors, and Brother Bill was fast. His affable manner, his infectious personality and his charming lisp made him a favorite of all with whom he came in contact.

The inventive genius of this man is difficult to appreciate, even in the day and age of modern technology. Nothing could stop him, he conceived an idea, and he developed it to its utmost. He cracked jokes as he worked, he inspired the men who worked with him, and they worked with a feverish devotion for the magnificent sum of 45 cents an hour! Among the responsibilities of the Master Mechanic of the North Pacific Coast Railroad was to build locomotives. He knew what went wrong with an engine, for when it did, Bill had to fix it.

The position of the cabs in conventional locomotives did not permit a clear view of the track. Boilers, some of most significant size, blocked the view of the enginemen.

In 1900 Bill Thomas got his first opportunity to build a locomotive from scratch. Bill installed an American Balanced Slide Valve in that first locomotive. One of his more successful, and lucrative patents, the valve kept the steam pressure from exerting force on the top of the slide valve. So successful was this innovation, that Thomas sold his rights to it to the New York Central Railroad for $6,000. Thereafter, by Federal Regulation, this feature was a requirement on all locomotives equipped with slide valves, and it was widely used in marine engines, as well.

Then he obtained permission from the management of the North Pacific Coast Railroad to build another engine, one of most radical design. Crude bunker oil fuel was selected to be burned, this making possible the cab forward feature, for the fireman did not have to handle wood or coal but could feed fuel from the tender by merely operating a pump and some valves.

The placement of the cab forward gave the engine crew an unobstructed view of the track ahead. But enginemen had been operating locomotives for so many decades without being able to see the track, so they were unhappy with this feature, and protested that if they hit anything, they would be unprotected from injury. And humorous Bill Thomas replied, "Don't hit anything!"

The life of No. 21, named "Thomas-Stetson" for its inventor as well as the president of the railroad, was very short, and this fact alone had much to do with the suppression of the true worth and influence of the little engine and its notable features.

When new, the locomotive was an immediate success. Bill Thomas was very wise to position the running gear with the engine truck forward; the engine could lead into the curves and did not experience the annoying track jumping with which the early Southern Pacific cab forwards were plagued. The more one notes the features of No. 21, dubbed "the Freak" by North Pacific Coast enginemen, the more one has to concede, royalties or no, that Bill Thomas invented the cab forwards, and the Southern Pacific owed him a debt of gratitude that was far in excess of that which they found in their hearts to concede.

Robert L. Harrison of the Anne T. Kent California Room at the county library has also written about Brother Bill, and adds:

SP’s slight prompted him in 1881 to join the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC) in Sausalito.  He quickly became a Master Mechanic for the narrow-gauge NPC.  With his promotion he married a young woman named Florence.  The couple lived in Sausalito for 20 years where they had three sons and two daughters.  While living in Sausalito he designed the town’s first fire engine.  It was manually conveyed to where it was needed and used to pump water from the Bay to extinguish fires on the Sausalito waterfront.

By 1896 Thomas was well established at the NPC.  At one point he was placed on loan for a short period to assist in organizing the fledgling Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway (later known as the Mt Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway).  Six years later he returned to the mountain railroad.  His love for the mountain railway and for Mt. Tam continued throughout his life.

Later in 1902, following the accidental death of his brother, Ernest George Thomas, on the mountain railway, Thomas joined the Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway as Master Mechanic.  Soon he was named the road’s new Superintendent, the same position held by his brother.   Thomas held that position until the demise of the road in 1930.