In Search of Watty Piper: A Brief History of the "Little Engine" Story

 Celebrating More Than One Hundred Years of Thinking I Can!

Roy E. Plotnick

University of Illinois at Chicago

One of the most popular and famous children's books of all time is "The Little Engine that Could." Published by Platt & Munk, it has sold many millions of copies, and appeared in numerous editions, since its first printing in 1930. Its title, and its theme of "I think I can" have become part of the American vernacular. Surprisingly, the origins of the story are clouded in mystery and controversy. In addition, many other versions of the story have been published over the last 100 years. This brief article attempts to reconstruct the history of this beloved tale.

The Little Engine that Could - 1930

By far the most familiar telling of the tale of the Little Engine first appeared in 1930. Published by Platt & Munk, it was "retold" by Watty Piper and illustrated by Lois Lenski. Someone named "Watty Piper"  never existed; it is a pseudonym for Arnold Munk of Platt & Munk and was used on numerous other children's books published by the firm. The frontispiece and title of this edition included the statement "from the Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg, copyrighted George H. Doran and Co." and a notice of trademark for the title in later printings  (for more details on  variants of this edition,  see this article by Stan Zielinski

Platt & Munk published a new edition in 1954, with slightly revised language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris Hauman. Other publishers have also printed this edition.  One of these, by E.M. Hale and Company, contains a biography of "Watty Piper."  Among other things, we are told that: "Born in Europe, Watty Piper first came to love books as a 14-year old, when he became an errand boy in a Chicago bookstore, at $2.50 a week." This closely matches the biography of Arnold Munk. 

current edition
The story, with different illustrations, also appeared in the collection Stories that Never Grow Old, a collection of stories that had been previously published under the name Watty Piper.

Yet another edition, with illustrations by Ruth Sanderson, was published in 1976. The copyright page claims both the title and "I think I can" as trademarks of Platt & Munk. 

 A new version, illustrated by Loren Long, was published in 2005.

A Controversy Erupts: did "Uncle Nat" write the story?

Beginning in 1949, Mrs. Elizabeth M. Chmiel (d. 2002) of Tucson, Arizona began to write publishers claiming that her cousin  Frances M. Ford (then 95 years old) had written the story circa 1910 under the pseudonym "Uncle Nat." The story appeared in personalized letters sent to child members of the "After School Club," an educational organization based in Philadelphia. Although Mrs. Chmiel had, at that time, no copies of the letter, Grosset & Dunlap decided in 1953 to publish a version of the tale under the title of the Little Engine that Could and crediting Mrs. Ford as the author. A 1955 article in the New York Times finally produced an April 1912 copy of the newsletter, as well as several other "Little Switch Engine" stories.

A large fraction of Platt & Munk's income derived from the Little Engine that Could. As a result, they vigorously defended their perceived rights to the Little Engine story, in particular to the title. They responded to Mrs. Ford's and Chmiel's claims by:

1. suing Grosset and Dunlap to block publication of a story under the title "The Little Engine That Could."  This was based on a claim of trademark protection of their use of the title; and

2. announcing in September 1955, a nationwide search with a $1000 reward, for "information establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the exact identity of the actual author of the famous childhood classic." The award notice also listed a variety of then known earlier versions of the story. 

The lawsuit between Platt & Munk and Grosset & Dunlap was settled in 1955. It was agreed that Grosset & Dunlap could publish the story under the title The Pony Engine, a title originally used in 1910 (see below). The lawsuit delayed the publication of the book until 1957; unfortunately, Mrs. Ford had died in 1956 at the age of 102. The Pony Engine was "adapted" by Doris Garn and illustrated by Gregorio Prestopino, with Frances M. Ford receiving credit. This version stayed in print until at least 1987.  Ironically, rights to both versions now belong to the Penguin Group. , which has absorbed both Platt & Munk and Grosset & Dunlap.
E.M. ChmielElizabeth M. Chmiel with a copy of the Uncle Nat letter and the Pony EngineFrances Ford in 1955Frances Ford in 1955

The "Prehistory" of the Little Engine. 1902-1916.

The Platt & Munk search, as well as independent investigations by Mrs. Chmiel and myself, have uncovered an extensive publishing history for the Little Engine story prior to the Platt and Munk publication in 1930. The earliest of these is dated 1906. The association of the phrases  "I think I can" and "I thought I could" with the sound of a laboring locomotive goes back even further, to at least 1902. Karen Hinz and I have independently noted the possible similarities to the story of the "Good Samaritan." Some of the most important versions in the evolution of the story are:

A.  Story of the Engine that Thought It Could.  Published in the New York Tribune on April 8, 1906, this story is attributed to a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing to the Norstrand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn; the church had just paid off its mortgage after many years.  This is earliest full version I have discovered to date:

In a certain railroad yard there stood an ex
tremely heavy train that had to be drawn up an 
unusually heavy grade before it could reach its
 destination. The superintendent of the yard was 
not sure what it was best for him to do, so he
 went up to a large, strong engine and asked :

"Can you pull that train over the hill?"

"It is a very heavy train," responded the en

He then went to another great engine and 

"Can you pull that train over the hill?"

"It is a very heavy grade," it replied.

The superintendent was much puzzled, but he 
turned to still another engine that was spick
 and span new, and he asked it:

"Can you pull that train over the hill?"

"I think I can," responded the engine.

So the order was circulated, and the engine
 was started back so that it might be coupled
 with the train, and as it went along the rails it
 kept repeating to itself: "I think I can. I think
 I can. I think I can."

The coupling was made and the engine began
 its journey, and all along the level, as it rolled 
toward the ascent, it kept repeating to itself:
 "I ---think ---I can. I ---think ---I--- can. I ---think--- I ---can."

Then it reached the grade, but its voice could 
still be heard: "I think I can. I----- think-----I-----can. 
I -----think----- I----- can."

Higher and higher it climbed, and its voice
grew fainter and its words came slower:

"I -------think --------I-------can."

It was almost to the top.

“I ---------think"

If was at the top.

"I ---------can."

It passed over the top of the hill and began 
crawling down the opposite slope.

'I ------think------- I------ can------I----- thought------I-------could I----- thought----- 
could. I thought I could. I thought I could.
 I thought I could."

And singing its triumph, it rushed on down 
toward the valley.

B. Thinking One Can. 1906. This version appeared in Wellspring for Young People, a children's Sunday school publication. The author is unknown. This was reprinted in 1910 in a D.A.R. publication.  Here is the complete version of the story as it appeared:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for,  pulling a few cars on and off the switches.  One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill "I can't; that is too much a pull for me," said the the great engine built for hard work. Then the  train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. At last in desperation the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the
grade and down on the other side. "I think I can,"  puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As is went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."     Then as it near the top of the grade, that had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly, but still kept saying, "I--think--I--can,   I--think--I--can." It reached the top by dint of brave effort and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

To think of hard things and say, "I can't" is sure to mean "Nothing done." To refuse to be daunted and insist on saying, "I think I can," is to make sure of of being able to say triumphantly by and by, "I thought I could, I  thought I could.

C. The Pony Engine. 1910. The story, which appeared in the Kindergarten Review, was written by Mary C. Jacobs (1877-1970). This is the first use of this title. A footnote stated  that "an illustration given in a lecture served as the basis of this little story." Republished virtually verbatim, but with no credit given, in The Child's World Second Reader  (1917; Johnson Publishing Co.).

D. The Little Steam Engine, 1911, appeared in the Riverside Second Reader. The authors were James H. van Sickle and Wilhemina Seegmiller. This is the first version to be illustrated.   This version was later reprinted in William Bennett's Book of Virtues (1993). 

E. The Royal Engine, 1914. Certainly the most outre version of the story, this appeared in a collection of stories entitled The Golden Goblet . The author was Rev. Jay Thomas Stocking (1871-1936). In it, the peaceful kingdom of the "Locomos" is attacked by the "Automos" and the Locomo King rides to the rescue!

Rev. Jay T. Stocking (1870-1936).

Mabel Bragg and the Pony Engine

As noted earlier, Platt & Munk stated that The Little Engine that Could was based on the Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg, a noted Boston educator in the field of health education. This story was published 1916 in the short-lived magazine Something to Do. Ms. Bragg never claimed to have originated the story. In addition, there is no evidence that George H. Doran ever owned the rights.  Karen Hinz has a page on Mabel Bragg.
something to do

Olive B. Miller and My Bookhouse

The "Watty Piper" version  borrowed heavily from The Little Engine That Could, the first story under that title, that appeared in 1920 in the book series My Book House. This series was edited, partly written, and published in Chicago by Olive B. Miller.  The 1920 edition credited Mabel Bragg, but this was dropped in all later editions. The illustrations in this publication are very similar to the Lenski illustrations used in the later (1930) Platt & Munk publication. The trains and scenery are designed to resemble toys. I have recently uncovered the "dummy book" for the Platt & Munk edition, which was used by Lenski to prepare her illustrations. The handwritten text is directly copied from My Book House.

The Little Engine that Could was also distributed separately by My Book House as a promotional item, starting as far back as 1923.  A number of versions of this exist, including a miniature book. A recording of Sally Hamlin reading the story was released on the Victor label in 1929. 

My Book House was extensively revised in 1935; the first two volumes. Including the Little Engine that Could, received new full color illustrations. 

Recorded Versions:rca victor record3

Numerous recorded versions of this story have appeared over the years.  An RCA recording narrated by Paul Wing and a Disney record are fairly common.  A recording of the Ford/Garn Pony Engine, narrated by Boris Karloff, also exists. See discography below. 

Who Wrote the Story?

It is now more than one-hundred years since the earliest known publication, by an unknown author, or the story of the determined little engine.  More than 50 years of research have not proved, to general satisfaction, who originated the story. Nevertheless, the question is, as it should be, irrelevant to the generations of children who have enjoyed it.

A Matter of Gender

    Since I made this page available, the most frequent question I have received is whether the little engine was male or female. Many seem to remember the engine as male in the Watty Piper version and are surprised to discover it is female.  For example, Prof. Laura Moore teaches a class on gender, where they analyze children's books. She wrote me in 2000 that "of the 400+ students I have asked, less than a dozen remember the engine as female". One possibility is that since the Little Engine is blue, young readers implicitly assume it is male. 
    This question has been surprisingly contentious. In a 1976 letter to the New York Times, Judith Weinstein asserts that the Little Engine story was sexist, because the "`big strong' males do the important work and can't be bothered with children's concerns and that only the `little, kind' female can be relied upon to help out children and become a part of their world.". On the other hand, an article in Publishers Weekly has called it a "good example of pioneer feminist lore." More recently, Stefan Kanter, writing in Men's Health in 2000, complains that the "thrusting locomotive, one or the most obvious phallic symbols in the lexicon, was now female." According to Diane Ravitch in The Language Police (2003), a version of  the story contained in a reader was criticized by California school textbook adopters because the engine was portrayed as male.
    I have done a quick analysis of the available versions of the story, focusing on the genders of the unhelpful "big, strong" engines of the helpful "little engine." All possible variants are found. For example, in Thinking One Can (1906) and The Pony Engine (1910, 1916,1957) all locomotives were neuter.  In the Little Switch Engine (1912) the little engine is identified as "he."   The Little Steam Engine (1911) and both the My Book House and Watty Piper versions of Little Engine that Could (1920, 1930) have the big engines as male and the small engine as female.  Interpret this how you want!

For more details on the history of the story, see:

Plotnick, R. E. (2012). "In Search of Watty Piper: The History of the "Little Engine" Story." New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship 18(1): 11-26.

And a recent NPR story:

A Call for Help:

I am still looking for earlier (pre-1905) versions of the story. They may have appeared in a Sunday school publication or a reader. If you come across one, let me know!  Also: I do not give advice on whether you can legally publish your own version of the story - I am not a lawyer!!

Bibliography and Discography

Published versions

    Story of the Little Engine That Thought it Could New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, p. 6

    Thinking One Can. The Wellspring for Young People, Pilgrim Press, Boston, Vol LXIII, no.42, October 20, 1906.
                  - reprinted in: Sharpe, Estelle Avery. 1910. Foundation Stones of Success, vol I: Conversational Lessons on Social Ethics. Howard-Severence Co., Chicago.

    Jacobs, Mary C. 1910. The Pony Engine. Kindergarten Review, Milton Bradley, Springfield, MA, vol 21, Sept. 1910. 
                      reprinted (with minor changes and without credit)  in: The Child's World, Second Reader  1917. B.F. Johnson Publishing Company, Richmond, VA.

     Van Sickle, James. H. and Wilhelmina Seegmiiler, 1911. The Little Steam Engine. pp. 102-106 in: The Riverside Second Reader, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
                         reprinted in:  William J. Bennett, 1993. The Book of Virtues. Simon & Schuster. p. 530-532.

    untitled "Little Switch Engine Stories", in “Uncle Nat” letter from The After School Club of America, Philadelphia, dated April 18, 1912.; other stories in letters dated August 8th, Oct. 4 1912; Jan. 23, 1913. attributed to Frances M. Ford.

    Stocking, Jay. 1914. The Royal Engine, p. 49-58 in: The Golden Goblet. Pilgrim Press, Boston.
    Bragg. Mabel. 1916.  The Pony EngineSomething to Do, Bennett Publishing, Boston, vol II, no. 5, p.306-308, January 1916. -mentions prior versions by Jacobs and Stocking.
    reprinted in: Eleanor Skinner and Ada Skinner, 1918, Happy Tales for Story Time. American Book Company, Chicago. p. 80-82.  In acknowledgments “To the Pilgrim Press for “The Pony Engine,” retold by Mabel Bragg, from a story by Jay Thomas Stocking.”
    Miller, Olive B. 1920.  The Little Engine that Could.  In: My Book House. The Book House for Children, Chicago. vol 1. In the Nursery; numerous other formats, including:MBH
    The Helpful Engine, in Herman Dressel, M. Madilene Veverka, and May Robbins, 1928, The Laidlaw Readers Book Two, Laidlaw Brothers, Chicago. 

    Piper, Watty. 1930. The Little Engine that Could. ill. by Lois L. Lenski. Never Grow Old Series. Platt & Munk, New York.  Several versions, including:
    •    full color dust jacket, full color illustration glued on front; may or may not have “Trade Mark” below title on front cover;
    •    full color dust jacket; red embossed illustration on front cover
    •    a boxed edition  (shown here)    boxed version
                    1954. illustrated by George and Doris Hauman, Platt and Munk , New York.  “Silver Anniversary Edition” ; many versions, inc. Little Golden Book and Wonder Books editions.     An edition published by E. M. Hale and Co., Eau Claire, WI contains a biography of "Watty Piper."
                    1959 in: Stories that Never Grow Old. Platt & Munk.
                    1976. illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. “I think I can” claimed as trademark.
                     2005. illustrated by Loren Long

    Gray, William S.And May Hill Arbuthnot. 1941. The Little Engine. p .128-133.  in More Friends and Neighbors. Scott, Foresman and Co., Chicago.  Acknowledgments given to Mabel C. Bragg “from the Pony Engine.”

    Garn, Doris. 1957. The Pony Engine, ill. by Gregorio Prestopino. Grosset & Dunlap, New York.
    “From Frances M. Ford’s version of the famous story.”  Various editions, including Wonder Books, Nursery Treasure         Books (large format), Dandelion Library (w/ Bedtime Stories by Thornton W. Burgess).
------------------- 1957. in Read-aloud Train Stories. , ill. by Art Seiden. Wonder Books.

    The Little Engine that Did! Ca. 1976.  Rock Island Railroad. - public relations pamphlet for their new diesel engine.

Sheet Music:

    Milton Pascal and Gerald Marks. The Little Engine that Could. Note says based on 1930 Platt and Munk version. M. Witmark and Sons, N.Y.  1951. 


    Sally Hamlin. narrator. The Little Engine that CouldVictor 21824. released June 1929. 78 rpm spoken word.  (thanks to for providing this recording!)

    Paul Wing ,narrator. The Little Engine that Could..  2 discs, Red Label, 78 rpm. Label credits Mabel C. Bragg.  Cover indicates by special arrangement with Platt and Munk.  Inside illustrated.. RCA Victor Youth Series. Y341 - this was a best selling record. Released ca. 1948

    ---------- 45 rpm.    same. Records are yellow RCA Victor Youth Series.. WY341

    ----------- same, except with read along illustrated book inside jacket. Music by Norman Leyden conducted by Henri René.  RCA Victor Little Nipper Series, WY 384.

    ---------- same, on LP The Little Engine that Could.  RCA Camden Cal-1008 1960.

    Art Gilmore, The Little Engine that Could. Music by Billy May, version credited to Warren Foster, talking train by Sonovox. 78 rpm. Copyright by Capital Records, 1954. Capital Records, Learning is Fun Series, CAS-3205.
    Rufe Davis,. The Little Engine that Could. song by Milton Pascal and Gerald Marks. Orchestra conducted by Milton Franklin. “Bozo Approved” 78 rpm.  Capital Records CAS -3142.

    Burl Ives w/ Percy Faith Orch.  The Little Engine that Could. song by Gerald Marks and Milton Pascal.  78 RPM . Columbia Children’s Records, MJV-113.

    The Little Engine that Could.  45 rpm. Pickwick Int., Mr. Pickwick. MP 19

    Cricketone Players and Orchestra The Little Engine that Could. 45 Rpm. Pickwick Int.,  Cricket C-116.

    The Little Engine that Could and other Railroad songs and Sound Effects. LP, Pickwick Inter., Happy Time Records. HT 1009.

    Frankie Starr w/ the Peter Pan Orchestra, directed by Vicki Kasen. The Little Engine that Could. 78 rpm Synthetic Plastics Co., Peter Pan Records, 385. 1955.

    Frann Weigle,. The Little Engine that Could. narrated with music and sound effects; a “Star-Bright Musical Pack O’ Fun, with Unbreakable Record, Punch Outs, Coloring, Puzzles, Story to Read” 78 rpm. Children’s Press, Chicago.  R-1015

    Anne Lloyd, The Sandpipers, Mitch Miller and Orchestra. The Little Engine that Could. 45 rpm. Little Golden Record FF 682.

    ---------------------- same, on 45 rpm “Three on One EP” Train Songs,   credit to Pascal/Marks on label. Simon and Schuster, Golden Record EP 318, 1956.

    Larry Groce, The Little Engine that Could. Story and song. Story is Watty Piper version, with accompanying storybook. 33 1/3 rpm.  Disneyland Record, A Little Golden Book and Record, 216. 1976.

    The Little Engine that Could.  Show ‘n Tell.  Picturesound Program, record and filmstrip. Gabriel 1980.
    The Golden Singers and Orchestra. The Little Engine that Could. on LP of same title. , A.A. Records, Wonderland Records. LP 193. 1974.

    The Little Engine that Could. LP.  United Artists UAC 11037.

    The Little Engine that Could, in LP of same name. story adapted by Richard Holland, narrated by Peter Fernandez. MGM Great Children’s Stories, CH 507. 

    The Little Engine that Could.  in LP The Little Engine that Could and the Submarine Streetcar.  LP with storybook inside cover. Credit Platt & Munk. Disneyland, 1969.

    Boris Karloff, narrator, The Pony Engine, on LP The Pony Engine and other Stories for Children. . Credited to Doris Garn. Caedmon TC 1355. 1963?

---------- same, Cassette, Harper Collins, Harper Audio. 1994. 

Film and Video

Little Engine that could. Adapted by  Margaret Friskey; illustrations, Katherine Evans. Chicago:  Society for Visual Education,; 1953. Filmstrip( 40 frames) ;
Abstract:     The story of a little engine which conquers all obstacles in order to bring a merry Christmas to the good little boys and girls who live on the other side of the mountain.

Little engine that Could. Chicago : Society for Visual Education, 1966.  Filmstrip (42 frames) and  sound  cassette .

Little Engine that Could. Chicago:; Society for Visual Education, Edition: Golden anniversary ed. 1976. Filmstrip (59 frames) and sound  cassette (11 min.).

Little Engine that Could.   Old Greenwich, CT ; Listening Library, 1984.  Filmstrip (71 frames .) and  sound cassette (14 min.) 

The Little Engine that Could.  Coronet Instructional Films.;  Coronet Film & Video ; Columbus, Ohio. 16 mm  Film: 1963; VHS -1985. 11 min.  Tells the story of the little engine that pulled a trainload of toys up the side of a mountain and the children waiting on the other side.

The Little Engine that Could VHS MCA/Universal Home Video. 1991  A little engine named Tillie helps the big engine Georgia deliver a cargo of toys to eagerly waiting children.

Copyright Roy Plotnick, 1996.; revised 1999.2003, 2006, 2012, 2014.  This material cannot be copied or distributed without my permission.

Roy Plotnick