For nearly 100 years these iron horses hauled the freight which built nations and moved the world economy. As engineering improved, steam locomotives were adapted to distinct roles.
Although there were many variations even among locomotives of the same wheel arrangement, most freight locomotives shared a few common characteristics: smaller driving wheels and a two-wheel pilot truck.
While there were examples of Consolidations pulling passenger trains and Pacifics hauling freight, the locomotives listed here were considered freight locomotives the majority of the time.
1. Mogul 2-6-0
The Mogul was one of the most common freight locomotives in the mid 19th Century until it was replaced in many roles by the Consolidation. Although primarily a freight engine, some did find their way into passenger service.
In later years, the Mogul found its way onto branchlines and working local freights.
As the name implies, the Prairie type first arrived on the many "granger" roads of the American Midwest.
The 2-6-2 never gained much acceptance on the major railroads in the US however. One big exception was the Santa Fe which built some of the largest and also used them in passenger service.
Mostly however, the Prairie found a home on short lines and industrial railroads where its balanced design made it perfect for light rails and moderate tonnage.
The Consolidation easily holds the title of the most popular, by numbers produced, locomotive of all time.
When the design originated they were the biggest machines on rails. As time went on and larger types were developed, the 2-8-0 hung on as a durable, reliable workhorse in yards, branch lines and industry. Even in the final days of steam, they could still be found earning their keep.
4. Mikado 2-8-2
Adding a two-wheel trailing truck to the Consolidation provided room for a larger firebox and much greater steam capacity. The Mikado would emerge as the standard freight locomotive for much of the early 20th Century on mainlines across North America.
Adding one more axle to the trailing truck enabled an even larger firebox. The "Super Power" design concept led to the Berkshire which many consider the best fast-freight steam locomotive ever built.
Among the most common and beloved examples of "modern" steam, the Berkshires' time in the spotlight was brief as new diesel locomotives came in to take their place. Several have been preserved and can still be seen or even ridden behind today.
The Decapod was a heavy freight engine well suited for slow, high-tonnage drag freights. The many drivers also offered a long wheelbase which distributed the weight of the locomotive over a larger area to the benefit of light rail.
Almost written off with the success of the Mikado, large orders for the type in the 1910s helped propel the design into the coming decades.
The first railroad to add a trailing truck to a Decapod was, you guessed it, the Santa Fe. Originally a simple addition to help with reverse moves, engineers quickly took advantage of the added firebox space afforded to push the design further.
Just as the Mikado had done to the Consolidation, the Santa Fe type quickly began taking over the heavier freight trains when an eight-drivered locomotive just couldn't handle the load.
8. Texas 2-10-4
Arriving at the very end of the steam era, the Super Powered 2-10-4 was the ultimate freight locomotive. Unfortunately, orders for new diesels greatly reduced the production numbers for the Texas type. But of those railroads that used them, they immediately earned a reputation as superb freight engines.