This Engineer Didn’t Let Ridicule Derail His Locomotive Plans

July 17, 1839

Ephraim Shay c 1892.

Ephraim Shay, an influential entrepreneur, and railroad engineer was born in Sherman Township in Ohio. He served during the Civil War in the Union Army’s 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry. In the early 1870s, Shay moved to northern Michigan and began operating a sawmill and general store in the vicinity of a lumber camp.

The logs harvested from fallen trees at the lumber camp ended up at Shay’s sawmill so that the logs could then be cut into planks, boards, or other building materials. These logs were customarily transported to the sawmill via either boats on the local river or horse-drawn sleds; both of these delivery methods had significant drawbacks, especially during the winter months when lumber camp workers had to contend with snow and ice. Over time, Shay labored to create a more effective year-round means of shipping the logs to his sawmill.

Shay’s initial solution was to build a wooden tramway, with logs loaded onto a couple of freight cars that were pulled on the tracks to the sawmill. While this tramway was successful to a large extent as a more reliable all-weather transportation alternative, it also proved to be dangerous and even deadly for a number of horses unable to safely navigate the downgrades for this new route. Shay, therefore, focused on developing a type of transit that would not require the use of animals.

Shay, setting aside conventional approaches to rail transport, went through an intensive trial-and-error process to come up with a steam locomotive for that region that could effectively function without harm to anyone and with the logs remaining on board and intact. “My friends remonstrated with me for spending so much time and money on such a crazy idea and, in fact, they really thought I was a little cracked and did not hesitate to say so,” Shay recalled in a 1912 account he wrote about those efforts. “Actually, I was tired of it myself and would have been pleased to give it up, but the constant ridicule to which I was subjected angered me and I was obliged to continue in self-defense to make it a success.”

Shay ultimately devised a lightweight steam locomotive, which was able to easily pivot as needed, that could handle sharp curves and steep grades without too much trouble. The use of this locomotive proved to be hugely profitable, with a record number of logs transported from the lumber camp to the sawmill throughout each year. By the 1880s, there was an ever-growing demand for the Shay locomotive across the United States. By the turn of the century, Shay locomotives were in use throughout the world. Shay collaborated with Ohio-based Lima Machine Works (later Lima Locomotive Works) to manufacture and sell these locomotives on a large-scale basis.

One of Ephraim Shay’s locomotives on the Hemlock Central Railroad (Harbor Springs Railway), Harbor Springs, Michigan, USA.

Another one of Shay’s rail-based pursuits was his establishment of the Harbor Springs Railway in the vicinity of Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. This railway (nicknamed the “Hemlock Central” because of the abundance of hemlock trees in that region of Michigan) transported lumber and also took passengers on sightseeing tours. In addition, Shay built an all-steel boat that was called the Aha. He also created hundreds of sleds as Christmas presents for children. Shay died in 1916 at the age of 76.

For more information on Ephraim Shay, please check out

Additional information on Shay locomotives is available at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: