As the need for more powerful steam locomotives became obvious, engineers looked at various ways to improve the design and layout of locomotives to gain that extra power.
As with all forms of design and experimentation, there were several designers who looked “outside the square” for more power. One of these was Eugene Fontaine of Detroit, who came up with a very novel way of trying to increase the power of a steam locomotive.
As can be seen from the above illustration, Fontaine’s answer was the arrangement of the driving wheels. Instead of having driving wheels driving in unison via coupling rods, Fontaine’s design featured driving wheels on top, resting on a smaller set of treads below, driving these by friction. These treads were an outward extension of a wheel, larger in diameter, which actually made contact with the track.
Track conditions were part of the reason for this unusual design. European designs, with large driving wheels and a high centre of gravity, were unstable on American tracks. Safe operation required a lower centre of gravity and smaller driving wheels. While compensation for the smaller driving wheels could be gained by increasing the revolutions of the engine, this put extra stress on the cylinders, pistons, wheels and valve gear.
Two prototype Fontaine locomotives were built in 1881 by the Grant Locomotive Works of Paterson, New Jersey for the Canada Southern Railway. A top speed of 90 mph was claimed, but it seems that this figure was never achieved. The Fontaine locomotive was tried on a wide range of passenger and freight trains, but the expected power advantages over conventional locomotives never materialised. After many modifications, the Fontaine locomotive was rebuilt as a standard 4-4-0 locomotive.
The main source for this entry was “World Railways of the Nineteenth Century – A Pictorial History in Victorian Engravings” by Jim Harter, JHU Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005, pp. 78-79