Organized in 1879, the George W. Whitcomb Hydraulic Company began producing hydraulic mining equipment in Chicago.
Primarily pneumatic (air) drills were produced. In 1892, control of the company was given to William C. Whitcomb. William C. had been the captain of the first football team at the University of California, Berkley. When he took the reins of the company, he was ready. By 1906, Whitcomb began producing gasoline powered locomotives.
In the beginning, the company focused on small train locomotives to be used in mining. Whitcomb would buy components and assemble the locomotives to suit the needs of the buyer. On a separate front in 1902, Vassar Swiss Underwear Factory began operation in Rochelle. Whitcomb recognized a great opportunity.
With their experience in pneumatics they felt that they could produce machinery that would greatly benefit Vassar. Many have forgotten Vassar but recall Caron Spinning, who bought the Vassar Plant in 1915. The engineers at Whitcomb produced pneumatic knitting machines for the Vassar Company.
In 1907, Whitcomb was growing and they needed more room. With access to two railroads and major roads, Rochelle was the ideal location for Whitcomb. The first Whitcomb Plant was on Wood Street on the south side of Rochelle. That plant later housed Rochelle Furniture.
In 1912, Whitcomb built a new plant on the east end of 5th Avenue. When they moved to the 5th Avenue location, Whitcomb added a new product to their line.
The Parton-Palmer automobile was produced in a one-story building next to the new building constructed by Whitcomb. Whitcomb took over the assembly of the Partin-Palmer. From 1929 to 1933, Whitcomb went through a very difficult period.
The national economy collapsed during the Great Depression and banks closed and money disappeared. Was there embezzlement, mismanagement of funds, or did business simply slow down? In any case, by 1940 Whitcomb was bought out by Baldwin Locomotive.
The name of the local concern was changed to Whitcomb Locomotive. Whitcomb was still a major player in the construction of specialty locomotives. With the onset of World War II, Whitcomb Locomotive was positioned to play a major role in the Allies’ war effort.
There were a few minor problems with the commonly-used steam locomotives utilized in Europe. To create steam required water towers. A steam locomotive used 80 gallons of water for each mile traveled. For the enemy air-force it was pretty simple to stop rail traffic. You would simply fly around until you spotted a rail road track (pretty hard to hide). The pilot would follow the track until they found a water tower and then destroy the tower.
Another down side of steam locomotive was the steam. The white cloud produced by a steam locomotive was visible for miles. Whitcomb Locomotive could produce a locomotive that was powered by gasoline or diesel. The main engine turned a turbine which charged batteries. The batteries provided power to electric motors which each turned an individual wheel. This system increased the pulling power of the locomotive.
Whitcomb had already re-armored several U.S. made tanks, so they were familiar with the needed armament. Whitcomb could provide better cooling (nice for the African front), reduced visibility (no steam), more pulling power and added armor. The Whitcomb plant began producing a locomotive a day for the war effort.
The 65-ton engines were 25-feet long. The largest locomotive produced by Whitcomb was 100 tons and 40-feet long.
How did Whitcomb do in the war? The first American-powered train in World War II, first Allied train into Rome, first Allied train to deliver supplies into Belgium, first hospital train into Belgium and the first Allied train to cross the Rhine and enter Germany.
The story of Whitcomb Locomotive is an amazing American story. From underwear to the perfect locomotive for a World War, Whitcomb Locomotive isolated the problems and created the solutions.
In 1952, the Whitcomb Plant was sold to Austin-Western Company which made road maintenance equipment. Later, Midwest Prestressed Concrete Company owned the structures. Although no longer in production, the workhorse of World War II was an iron horse built in Rochelle.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and a Rochelle city councilman.