I first experienced steam locomotives as a child in eastern Massachusetts. Those of you who live near or visited Boston or Cape Cod may be familiar with the place that has them. It's called Edaville Railroad. It's one of the oldest heritage railroads in the country. It's a 2 ft narrow gauge line which operates excursion trains around cranberry bogs.
Even in a standing position, a steam locomotive with its engine running over powers the senses. You become completely enthralled. Somehow you sense the raw power of the thing. When you think about when it was invented, you realize the sheer magnitude of the technology. It had played a very major role in changing (and improving) the way human beings live.
The US had started to use steam locomotives in the late 1820's. The South Carolina Railroad was the first commercially successful railway. In December of 1830 the inaurgural train was hauled by The Best Friend of Charleston steam locomotive.
Diesel electric locomotives appeared in the mid 1930s. Diesel reduced maintenance costs dramatically and increased locomotive capacity. A new diesel locomotive could provide perhaps 350,000 miles a year vs. approx. 130,000 for a steam locomotive. The switch over to diesel was slow in the 1940s because of World War II. The rate of replacement increased in the 1950s.
The Grand Trunk Western used some steam locomotives on regular passenger trains through 1961. The Union Pacific is the only remaining Class I railroad in this country that hasn't totally dieselized. It has one operational steam locomotive, Union Pacific 844. The Silverton branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Western (now Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad), uses steam locomotives still and has since it began in the early 1880s.
Here are some pictures from the most recent time I saw a steam locomotive (Winter, 2009).
Steam locomotives are very special, truly wonderful things. Seek them out to see for yourself!