Ephraim Shay (1839-1916) was a logger himself, and like those who try to build a better mousetrap, he decided to build a better logging locomotive. In 1880, he constructed a successful prototype, basically a flatcar with a steam boiler mounted amidships; fuel and water on opposite ends. What set this locomotive apart was the unusual cylinder arrangement. Two vertical cylinders drove a crankshaft, which in turn drove a pair of geared trucks through a system of universal joints and sliding shafts (jackshafts). On most Shays, the boiler is offset to the left of center, to balance the cylinders on the right.
In 1882, Ephraim assigned the rights of the locomotive that would bear his name to a company that would eventually become Lima Locomotive Works (Lima, OH, pronounced LIE-mah). They refined and enlarged the design: Shays could burn coal, oil or wood, and varied from tiny two cylinder, two truck models to three cylinder, four truck monsters weighing over 400,000 pounds.
Shays produced a distinctive sound; due to the rapid firing of the cylinders it seemed they were going about 6o mph, whereas they were actually chuffing along at 12 mph! This slow speed, high tractive effort locomotive could climb grades as great as 14 percent. One other advantage the Shay had was the exposed cylinders and running gear.This made repairs relatively easy, as everything was accessible.
When the Shay patents expired in the early 1920s, the Willamette Iron & Steel Works (Portland, OR) constructed locomotives that closely resembled a Shay. These "Willamettes" never reached the popularity of the Shay (only about 33 were built).
Shay production lasted until 1945. There were 2,771 Shays built, of which approximately 84 still exist. It's a testimony to the Shay design and construction quality that many of these remain in active service - usually in tourist railroads - for many decades after they were constructed.
In the center of Cadillac MI, you can see a city park display honoring Ephraim Shay, with a two-truck Shay on display. You can also visit the location where the first Shays were built, to see modern replicas run by the current landowners - George Ice.
To see a narrow gauge (HOn30) model Shay choose this link.