A Whitcomb RSTC4 locomotive of the Buckingham Branch Railroad, Dillwyn, Virginia. Photo by William J. Grimes of Dillwyn, Virginia.

(William Grimes at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Whitcomb logo.


The Geo D. Whitcomb Company was founded by George Dexter Whitcomb (1834–1914), of Chicago, Illinois, who started a modest machine shop in 1878, and began the manufacture of coal mining machinery, laying the foundation for the concern that became known as The Whitcomb Locomotive Company.



Early in life, George Dexter Whitcomb, moved with his family, from Brandon, VT, to Kent, OH. Here he started his business career, engaging with the Pan-Handle Railroad, as purchasing agent. While in this employment, the air brake was invented, and he became very interested in its development. He co-operated in making the tests of the Westinghouse Air Brake and was one of the original stockholders and members of the board of directors of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, when it was organized.

In 1868, George and his wife Leadora had a son, William Card Whitcomb. As an adult, William received an engineering degree from the newly founded, University of Southern California in 1889. Upon graduation he would join to assist and improve his father's business.

George left the Pan-Handle Railroad about 1870, moving to Chicago, where he took charge as manager of the Wilmington Coal Mining and Manufacturing Company's mines at Braidwood, IL. He also managed the Wilmington Coal Association which handled the output of the Braidwood, IL coal field.

He continued in charge of these mines until about 1878. While there, the Harrison Mining Machine was brought to his attention. The concept of the power pick was that of a hand-held machine controlled by one person and operated by compressed air. He saw merit in the idea and took hold of the machine. He developed and perfected it into what is now known as the "Puncher Machine." This machine was the first successful undercutting machine put on the market in this country. He resigned his position with the coal company about 1878 to devote his entire time and attention to the mining machine business.

In 1896, his firm, then located at Orleans and Ohio Streets in Chicago, Illinois and was incorporated under the laws of Illinois as the George D. Whitcomb Company.

In 1886, he ultimately relocated to California, on account of his son, Carroll's, health. Here he purchased a tract of land and built a home and founded a suburb of Los Angeles, Glendora, California. He settled his family and spent most of the rest of his life at this place, he and wife Leadora and one of their daughters moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1914.

About 1900, William Card Whitcomb became vice president of the company and soon hired William Frederick Eckert as an engineer. During this time the company was producing knitting machinery and pneumatic mining equipment. In 1907, George D. Whitcomb resigned as an officer of his company, leaving William Whitcomb the president and majority stock owner.

Mules and man power had long been used exclusively as the motive power in moving coal from the mines, but this method was expensive and unsatisfactory. Because of the insistent demand for a more economical method, experiments were being conducted using for power— electricity, compressed air and rope drive. Gasoline engines were definitely a novelty in those early days, nevertheless William Whitcomb, together with Eckert, decided the principle could be successfully applied to a small mine locomotive. In April, 1906 the first successful gasoline locomotive was built and installed in a large Central Illinois coal mine.

William Card Whitcomb, photograph courtesy of John Whitcomb Castle. (Machinehead61, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rochelle factory

The Geo D. Whitcomb Company's largest knitting machinery customer was the Vassar Swiss Knitting Company of Rochelle, in northern Illinois. In 1907, the Geo D. Whitcomb Company moved to Rochelle, where they continued to build knitting machinery, and gasoline powered locomotives for coal and metal mining operation. The reputation of the Whitcomb gasoline locomotive spread at such a rapid rate, that before long, greater production facilities were needed. In 1912 the plant was again moved to larger facilities in Rochelle. At that time the company ended its knitting machinery production to concentrate on locomotive production.

George Dexter Whitcomb died in 1914, in Los Angeles, California. His son, William Card Whitcomb, assumed complete control of the company his father founded. Now, William became responsible for performing sales, accounting, engineering and assumed the function as the face of the company.

World War I saw the output of the Whitcomb Plant almost entirely devoted to government orders. Hundreds of armor-plated locomotives were built for overseas service on trench railways in France. These small 6-ton and 9-ton, narrow gauge locomotives proved highly efficient in trench warfare and they were used extensively in hauling needed supplies up to the front lines. In appreciation of their excellent contributions to the war effort, the Whitcomb Company was awarded the "Certificate of Merit" by the United States War Department.

Many new innovations in the locomotive field were being introduced during this period. The first explosion-proof electric mine locomotive was designed and built by Whitcomb, in 1914. After exhaustive tests the United States Bureau of Mines issued Whitcomb a "Permissibility Plate." Whitcomb was the first builder of locomotives for underground work to receive such an endorsement. The first Whitcomb electric trolley locomotive was produced in 1921, and in 1929 Whitcomb engineers designed and built the largest gasoline-electric locomotive that had then been offered to American railroads. This development was closely followed by the diesel-electrics, which revolutionized and forever changed the American rail transportation system.

In September 1926 William Whitcomb now relaxed his personal oversight of the operation of his company. He hired Carl Heim from Chicago, to take over many of the company's operations management, including in the positions of Vice President and Treasurer.


Tex-Mex 501, a Whitcomb Boxcab, 1939.

Texas-Mexican Railway Whitcomb Boxcab No. 501, shortly after arriving in Laredo, Texas from Rochelle, Illinois in 1939. The Tex-Mex was the first Class I to dieselize. Amazingly, this 660-hp locomotive was never renumbered or rebuilt, and served the line until it was finally scrapped in 1964.  (Everett L. DeGolyer, Jr. Collection, SMU Digital Library)


Partin-Palmer automobile

From 1914 to at least 1916 the Geo D. Whitcomb Company assembled Brass Era cars in Rochelle for an automobile company, named Partin-Palmer.

The Partin Mfg. Co. was a large automobile sales agency in Chicago, that in 1913 joined with the Palmer Motor Car Co. of Henry Palmer in Detroit, to manufacture cycle cars, with a model called Partin-Palmer. The company first moved to Chicago to take over the Staver-Chicago automobile factory. By 1914, Partin and Palmer were no longer with the company, and it moved to Rochelle where the Geo D. Whitcomb Company assembled them for a year.

In 1915 the company got into financial trouble in Chicago, and the car's name was changed to Commonwealth (1917-1922). In the 1916 catalog of the Commonwealth Motors Company, it states that Partin-Palmer automobiles were being produced in Rochelle under the personal supervision of Mr. W. C. Whitcomb, Vice-President of the Commonwealth Motors Company. Production moved to Joliet, Illinois. In 1922, Leland Goodspeed designed a new car for the company, which became the Checker Cab.

A restored Partin-Palmer automobile is displayed at the Flagg Township Museum in Rochelle, Illinois.


Baldwin ad from Engineering and Mining Journal, July 13, 1931. (Machinehead61, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

A World War II print advertisement for Baldwin (Whitcomb) "Little Giant" switcher locomotives. (See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Baldwin Locomotive Works

Beginning in 1927, the Baldwin Locomotive Works began representing the Geo. D. Whitcomb Co. in the sales division, using the global organization of Baldwin to assist Whitcomb in overseas sales. In 1928, Whitcomb and Heim conducted a recapitalization of the Whitcomb Company, and invited Baldwin to participate. Baldwin accepted and purchased about half of the offered stock, with William Whitcomb and Carl Heim remaining in control of the majority of the company stock. In March 1930 Baldwin placed three of its officers on the Whitcomb board of directors, including then Baldwin President George Houston. This gave Baldwin three out of the seven board members.

By late 1930, in the Great Depression, The Whitcomb Company was having cash flow problems. Baldwin offered an unsecured loan for $125,000, in the form of a 90-day promissory note issued in December 1930. The condition of the loan was that Baldwin would be given a fourth board member for the duration of the loan, giving Baldwin four out of the seven board members, and so majority control of the board. On March 5, 1931, the bank holding the largest cash reserve of the G. D. Whitcomb Company seized the account to apply towards another debt that the company owed the bank. This left the Geo D. Whitcomb Company unable to pay its debts.

With a majority of members on the board of directors, Baldwin was able to direct the board to file for voluntary bankruptcy. Although William Whitcomb voted against the action, the bankruptcy was filed in Federal Court in the Northern District of Illinois. This move ended the Whitcomb family ownership of one of the most innovative industrial companies of its time.


Rock Island (CRIP) No. 368, a Whitcomb 44-Ton and caboose No. 18098 in the yard at Bureau, IL on March 20, 1966.

(Roger Puta, courtesy Marty Bernard, railfan 44, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Whitcomb Locomotive Company

In April, Baldwin created a new corporation and called it the "Whitcomb Locomotive Company," in the state of Delaware. On April 13, 1931, the Federal Court put the assets of the Geo D. Whitcomb Company up for sale. Those assets were then purchased by the newly formed Whitcomb Locomotive Company, a fully owned subsidiary of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Both William Whitcomb and Carl Heim were removed as officers of the company. Heim was tried for embezzlement of approximately $75,000 of Geo D. Whitcomb Company funds, but was acquitted.

On November 15, 1932, it was announced that the Whitcomb Locomotive Company acquired the Milwaukee Locomotive Manufacturing Company. The Milwaukee Locomotive, started in 1909, had been operating as a department of the National Brake and Electric Company of Milwaukee, a subsidiary of Westinghouse Air Brake Company. As a result of the sale, Westinghouse became a stockholder in Whitcomb Locomotive.

In February 1934, William Whitcomb filed suit against Baldwin Locomotive Works in Chicago Circuit Court, to recover the lost value of his company stock. However, after several years of litigation the case was ultimately dismissed in May 1937.


65-DE-19A diesel-electric built in 1944 for the USATC, now No. 602 on the WK&S Railroad, PA.

(User:Ekem, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)


World War II

During World War II the Whitcomb Locomotive Company built road switchers for military service in Europe and the Middle East. The United Kingdom ordered the first fifty two in 1941, from Baldwin Locomotive Works, who allocated the order to their Whitcomb Locomotive Company. They were center-cab Bo-Bo locomotives built as Whitcomb type 65-DE-14, and were followed by variants 65-DE-14A and 65-DE-14B in 1942 and 1943.

They served in the North African Campaign and on military trains in Palestine and Lebanon, and then in the Italian campaign. The order was received by Whitcomb for the new design in December 1941, and the first locomotives were delivered to Africa by June 1942, less than half the normal development time for a new design. By late 1944 the company was producing one 65 ton locomotive a day.

On December 31, 1943, the War Department conferred the Army-Navy Production Award ("E" award) to the Whitcomb Locomotive Company and the presentation ceremony was held in the Rochelle plant on January 26, 1944. By the end of the war two additional stars (each star representing six months) were added for continued production performance.

From this design Whitcomb developed the 65-DE-19A for the US Army Transportation Corps. They were built in 1943 and 1944 and served in many theaters of operations including Great Britain, France, Italy and Belgium.

Whitcomb 65 ton locomotives powered the first Allied trains into liberated Rome (July 4, 1944), Paris, the first supply and hospital trains into Belgium, the first train into Germany (April 9, 1945) as well as the first American powered military trains used during WW II (North Africa, early June 1942).

After the war many were sold to civilian railways and industrial railways in the U.S., while others were sold to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the Netherlands. However, the Dutch soon found theirs unsatisfactory and replaced both the diesel engines and the electric traction motors in the early 1950s.


Washington & Old Dominion RR Whitcomb 75 Tonner No. 55 at B&O Riverside Yard, January 19, 1969.

(Roger Puta, courtesy Marty Bernard, railfan 44, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Post World War II

Whitcomb continued to expand and progress after the war and the increased volume of business made it essential to expand storage and shipping facilities. A warehouse complete with the latest in material handling equipment was erected in 1947. A ten-ton overhead yard crane was installed to facilitate handling and storage of steel slabs and sheets. During 1948, a combination loading dock and locomotive test building was erected.


Sims Metal B-L-H (Whitcomb) 50-Tonner, at Richmond, VA.

(William Grimes at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



The last Whitcomb Locomotive Company locomotive manufactured at Rochelle was shipped on January 4, 1952 (construction number 61189). It was a 25-ton diesel-electric locomotive delivered to the Central Procurement Agency of the Transportation Corps. This locomotive was lettered and numbered USN No. 65-00330.

In February 1952 locomotive production was moved from Rochelle in Illinois to Baldwin’s factory in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. Industrial locomotives continued to be built under the Whitcomb name at Eddystone through the end of December 1952, when the name was dropped. All Whitcomb line locomotives built after then carried the B-L-H identification name.

Production of the Whitcomb Locomotive Company line, with the latter ones under B-L-H name, came to an end in March 1956 — after producing approximately 5,000 locomotives.