The Little Engine That Could

Last updated

The Little Engine That Could is an American folktale (existing in the form of several illustrated children's books and films) that became widely known in the United States after publication in 1930 by Platt & Munk. The story is used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association listed the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". [1]



The story's signature phrases such as "I think I can" first occurred in print in a 1902 article in a Swedish journal. [2] An early published version of the story, "Story of the Engine That Thought It Could", appeared in the New-York Tribune on April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing. [2]

A brief version of the tale appeared under the title Thinking One Can in 1906, in Wellspring for Young People, a Sunday school publication. [2] This version reappeared in a 1910 book, Foundation Stones of Success. [2]

Another version was published under the name "The Pony Engine" in the Kindergarten Review in 1910, written by Mary C. Jacobs. [2] A different version with the same title appeared in a magazine for children in 1916 under the name of Mabel C. Bragg, a teacher. [3] She introduced new events to the story, such as the train's kid-friendly cargo, but she "took no credit for originating the story". [2] [3]

The story first appeared in print with the title The Little Engine That Could in 1920, collected in Volume I of My Book House, which is a set of books sold in the U.S. by door-to-door salespersons. [2] The Book House version began, "Once there was a Train-of-Cars; she was flying across the country with a load of Christmas toys for the children who lived on the other side of the mountain." [2] The story was labeled [4] "As told by Olive Beaupré Miller"; the first edition gave credit to Bragg, but subsequent editions did not as Miller subsequently concluded that "the story belonged to the realm of folk literature". [2] Miller was the founding editor and publisher of The Book House for Children, a company based in Chicago.

The best known incarnation of the story The Little Engine That Could was written by "Watty Piper" in 1930, a pen name of Arnold Munk, who was the owner of the publishing firm Platt & Munk. [3] Munk used the name Watty Piper as both an author of children's books and as the editor of many of the books that Platt & Munk published. He personally hired Lois Lenski to illustrate the book. This retelling of the tale The Pony Engine appeared in 1930, with a title page that stated: "Retold by Watty Piper from The Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg's copyrighted by George H. Doran and Co." [2]

In 1954, Platt & Munk published another version of The Little Engine That Could, with slightly revised language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris Hauman. [5] Although there had been many previous editions of this classic story, "It was the work of George and Doris Hauman that earned The Little Engine the title of being worthy to sit on the same shelf as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ." [5] A 1976 rework that featured art by Ruth Sanderson received a lot of attention at the time of its release, in part because it prompted a discussion of gender stereotypes. [5]


In the tale, a long train must be pulled over a high mountain after its locomotive breaks down. Larger locomotives, treated anthropomorphically, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they refuse. The request is sent to a small engine, who agrees to try. The engine succeeds in pulling the train over the mountain while repeating the motto: "I-think-I-can".

The story of the little engine has been told and retold many times. The underlying theme is the same—a stranded train is unable to find an engine willing to take it on over difficult terrain to its destination. Only the little engine is willing to try and, while repeating the mantra "I think I can, I think I can", overcomes a seemingly impossible task.

An early version goes as follows:

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 great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. 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 it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can." It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

A Disney version of the story was published in 1976:

The story begins with a toy-filled train pulled by a small red engine on its way to a town on the other side of a mountain but the engine shortly breaks down upon reaching the mountain. The toy clown flags down other engines to help them: a shiny yellow passenger engine, a big black freight engine, and a rusty old engine. The shiny passenger engine and big freight engine both refuse to help them and the rusty old engine is too tired and must rest. Finally, a little blue engine arrives. Although she is simply a switcher engine and has never been over the mountain, she agrees to help pull the train. In the end, she was able to successfully reach the top of the mountain before slowly heading down towards the town.


Later versions would revamp the story to have a more specific appeal for children – the stranded train is recast as a train of good food and anthropomorphic toys for the children across the mountain, thus in saving the train the little engine seems to be working for the benefit of the child reader, making the successful deed all the more triumphant.

In these versions another character appeared and remained a key part of the story hereafter – the clown ringleader of the toys who attempts to find help with several locomotives but is rebuffed. The number of engines in the story also eventually became standard across the tellings: The happy locomotive on the toy train who breaks down and cannot go on, the pompous passenger engine who considers himself too grand for the task, the powerful freight engine who views himself as too important, and the elderly engine who lacks either the strength or determination to help the toys. The little blue engine always appears last and, although perhaps reluctant (some editions have the engine clarify her role as a switcher not suited for excursions), always rises to the occasion and saves the day for the children over the mountain.

Each engine is defined by its appearance or function and is not given a name or personality beyond its role on the railroad. It is only in the 1991 film adaption that the engines' personalities are expanded on, including the granting of names: Farnsworth (the express engine), Pete (the freight engine), Georgia (the friendly engine of the toy train), Jebediah (the elderly engine) and Tillie, the titular "little engine that could". The clown was also named "Rollo" and a sixth engine character, Doc, appeared briefly to recover the broken-down Georgia and thus tie up the hanging story-thread of what happened to the failed engine of the toy train, which all other versions leave unaddressed. The 2011 adaptation expanded the storyline, this time with the little engine now working in DreamLand with Rusty (an old steam engine) alongside other Dream Haulers, trains that carried dreams to the real world while the original personalities of the previous locomotives absent from this version.


The tale with its easy-to-grasp moral has become a classic children's story and was adapted in January 1991 as a 30-minute animated film produced in Wales and co-financed in Wales and the United States. The film named the famous little engine Tillie and expanded the narrative into a larger story of self-discovery.

In March 2011, the story was adapted as a 3-D film named The Little Engine That Could , produced by Universal Studios and featuring the voices of Whoopi Goldberg, Jamie Lee Curtis, Alyson Stoner, and Corbin Bleu. [6]


Burl Ives recorded the story told as a song "The Little Engine That Could" written by Gerald Marks and Milton Pascal with an orchestra directed by Percy Faith. [7] The song was released on the album Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck and Other Children's Favorites in 1964.

"Little Engine" toys and rail tours

From 2005 to 2008, a full-size replica of the Little Engine That Could made an annual circuit around the United States. Arranged through Rail Events, Inc., a number of tourist and museum railroad operations hosted the "I Think I Can" Rail Tour. [8] The replica was constructed in 2005 by the Strasburg Rail Road in southeast Pennsylvania who also constructed the Thomas The Tank Engine replicas that tour the United States. [9] The last tour was in 2008. [10] In 2009, the replica only appeared at the Texas State Railroad. [11] In 2011, the website for the tour said that there would be dates announced for 2011, [12] but dates were never posted and the message was still present in 2012 until it went offline. [13] The last time the train ever operated was on September 16, 2012. [14] As of 2015, the replica is owned by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and has since been repainted to remove all references to the Little Engine That Could. It is currently displayed at the depot. [15] Reasons for why the tour stopped are unknown.

American toy company Whittle Shortline produces wooden toy trains of The Little Engine That Could as a domestic alternative to Thomas the Tank Engine . [16] Maxim Enterprise held the license prior to 2006.

List of other Little Engine That Could books


A 1949 recording of the story by Paul Wing was inducted to the National Recording Registry in 2009. [25]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Toy train</span> Toy depicting train

A toy train is a toy that represents a train. It is distinguished from a model train by an emphasis on low cost and durability, rather than scale modeling. A toy train can be as simple as a toy that can run on a track, or it might be operated by electricity, clockwork or live steam. It is typically constructed from wood, plastic or metal. Many of today's steam trains might be considered as real ones as well, providing they are not strictly scale or not enough detailed ones in favor of a robustness appropriate for children or an inexpensive production.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">James the Red Engine</span> Fictional steam locomotive

James is a fictional anthropomorphic red tender locomotive from The Railway Series children's books by the Reverend Awdry and the TV series adaptation Thomas & Friends. He is a mixed-traffic engine, which means he is just as capable of hauling coaches and trucks. He has a 2-6-0 ("Mogul") wheel arrangement and is engine number 5 on the North Western Railway, The Fat Controller's railway on the Island of Sodor.

Notable examples of railways in fiction include:

<i>The Railway Series</i> British fictional book series about trains and railways

The Railway Series is a series of British books about a railway known as the North Western Railway, located on the fictional Island of Sodor. There are 42 books in the series, the first published in May 1945 by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry. Twenty-five more books were written by Awdry, the final one being written in October 1972. Sixteen more were written by his son, Christopher Awdry, between September 1983 and July 2011. The series features many anthropomorphic vehicles, including Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas became the most popular & famous character in the series and the titular character of the television series Thomas & Friends from 1984 to 2021. Many characters and stories from the books formed the basis of the children's television series.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">M-10000</span> Streamlined petrol-electric trainset

The M-10000 was an early American streamlined passenger trainset that operated for the Union Pacific Railroad from 1934 until 1941. It was the first streamlined passenger train to be delivered in the United States, and the second to enter regular service after the Pioneer Zephyr of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania</span> Railroad museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is a railroad museum in Strasburg, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">4-2-4T</span> Tank locomotive wheel arrangement

Under the Whyte notation for the classification of steam locomotives, 4-2-4 represents the wheel arrangement of four leading wheels on two axles, two powered driving wheels on one axle, and four trailing wheels on two axles. This type of locomotive is often called a Huntington type.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Live steam</span> Steam-powered models and toys

Live steam is steam under pressure, obtained by heating water in a boiler. The steam may be used to operate stationary or moving equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sodor (fictional island)</span> Fictional island in The Railway Series books

The Island of Sodor is a fictional island featured as the setting for The Railway Series books by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, begun in 1945, and for the popular Thomas & Friends television series since 1984, although the Television series depiction of the island is significantly different and is widely understood that the Railway series and the TV series are different canons. It is depicted as being located in the Irish Sea, between the Isle of Man and the English mainland near Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, with the real-life Walney Island depicted as part of Sodor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Southern Pacific 4449</span> Preserved SP GS-4 class 4-8-4 locomotive in Portland, Oregon

Southern Pacific 4449, also known as the Daylight, is the only surviving example of Southern Pacific Railroad's "GS-4" class of 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotives and one of only two GS-class locomotives surviving, the other being "GS-6" 4460 at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri. GS is an abbreviation of "General Service" or "Golden State," a nickname for California.

<i>C. P. Huntington</i> Preserved 4-2-4T steam locomotive on display at the California State Railroad Museum

C. P. Huntington is a 4-2-4T steam locomotive on static display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, California, USA. It is the first locomotive purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad, carrying that railroad's number 1, and it is named after one of the Big Four who founded it.

The Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association puts on the second- or third-oldest Threshermen’s Reunion in the United States. It is held in the middle of August each year, from Wednesday through Saturday, in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, about eight miles east of the city of Lancaster. The association’s name is taken from the 1890s book Rough and Tumble Engineering: Book of Instructions for Operators of Farm and Traction Engines by James H. Maggard.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wooden toy train</span> Childrens toy

Wooden toy trains are toy trains that run on a wooden track system with grooves to guide the wheels of the rolling stock. While the trains, tracks and scenery accessories are made mainly of wood, the engines and cars connect to each other using metal hooks or small magnets, and some use plastic wheels mounted on metal axles. Some trains are made to resemble anthropomorphical, fictional, and prototypical railroad equipment.

<i>The Little Engine That Could</i> (1991 film) 1991 film

The Little Engine that Could is a 1991 animated adventure film directed by Dave Edwards and co-produced by Edwards and Mike Young, animated at Kalato Animation in Wales and co-financed by Universal Studios through their MCA/Universal Home Video arm and S4C, Wales' dedicated Welsh-language channel. It was released on VHS by MCA. The film features the voice talents of Kath Soucie and Frank Welker. It is based on the 1930 book of the same name, by Watty Piper. The film was also syndicated in the US on broadcast television as an Easter special in March/April 1993.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Day Out with Thomas</span> Railway events licensed by Mattel

Day Out with Thomas is a trade name, licensed by Mattel for tourist events that take place on heritage railways and feature one or more engines decorated to look like characters from the popular long-running classic British children's television series, Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. The events are held around the world in Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. They include a full-day of activities for families in addition to rides on trains pulled by the iconic engine, Thomas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas the Tank Engine</span> Fictional steam locomotive

Thomas the Tank Engine is an anthropomorphised fictional tank locomotive in the British Railway Series books by Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher, published from 1945. He became the most popular and famous character in the series, and is the titular protagonist in the accompanying television adaptation series Thomas & Friends and its reboot Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go.

<i>Chuggington</i> British childrens television series

Chuggington is a British computer-animated children's television series aimed at toddlers, produced by Ludorum PLC and Herschend Entertainment Studios. It is broadcast on the BBC’s CBeebies channel and other channels internationally. Originally composed of 5 series running from 2008 to 2015, the series left its five-six year hiatus when a new batch of episodes was released on Disney Junior in the United States on June 29, 2020, and on CBeebies in the United Kingdom on January 2, 2021. A seventh series is currently in production.

<i>The Little Engine That Could</i> (2011 film) 2011 American film directed by Elliot M. Bour

The Little Engine That Could is a 2011 American computer-animated adventure film based on the 1930 story by Watty Piper.

Thomas & Friends is a media franchise created by Rev. W. Awdry and Britt Allcroft. The franchise revolves around a railway, called the North Western Railway, located on the fictional Island of Sodor. The current title character of the franchise is Thomas the Tank Engine, an anthropomorphised steam locomotive, who works with other engines, including Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, Toby and many others. The franchise began with stories told from Wilbert Awdry to his son. In 1984, it was turned into a television series, which spawned a reboot series, titled Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mary C. Jacobs</span> American horticulturalist and author

Mary Catherine Goslin Jacobs was an American horticulturalist and author, known for her story The Pony Engine, an early published version of The Little Engine that Could.


  1. National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children" . Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Plotnick, Roy 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. doi:10.1080/13614541.2012.650957. ISSN   1361-4541. S2CID   145333174.
  3. 1 2 3 Blair, Elizabeth (July 8, 2014). "In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero". Retrieved September 9, 2022.
  4. The Little Engine The Original Tale from 1920 By Olive Beaupre Miller, John Kurtz-Simon and Schuster
  5. 1 2 3 Cullinan, Bernice E., and Diane Goetz Person. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Continuum International Publishing Group, August 1, 2003. Pg. 634
  6. The Little Engine That Could (2011)- Behind the Voice Actors
  8. "I Think I Can Rail Tour". Archived from the original on November 28, 2010. Retrieved June 19, 2008.
  9. "Day Out With Thomas". Strasburg Rail Road. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  10. "I Think I Can Rail Tour Schedule". Archived from the original on July 6, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  11. "I Think I Can Rail Tour Schedule". Archived from the original on December 14, 2009. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  12. "I Think I Can Rail Tour Schedule". Archived from the original on June 13, 2011. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  13. "I Think I Can Rail Tour Schedule". Archived from the original on March 6, 2012. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  14. "Great Smoky Mountains Railroad 2012 Railfest". Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  15. "Steam Shop Tour Success! | Restoring1702". September 25, 2015. Archived from the original on February 3, 2019.
  16. "Whittle Shortline Railroad" . Retrieved November 29, 2008.
  17. Barrett, Nina (October 28, 1990). "The Little Engine That Still Can" . Los Angeles Times.
  18. I Knew You Could! - Google Books
  19. I knew you could! : a book for all the stops in your life (Book, 2003) -
  20. The little engine that could: and the fire rescue (Book, 2003) -
  21. Choo Choo Charlie saves the carnival (eBook, 2004) -
  22. The little engine that could and the snowy, blowy Christmas (Book, 2010) -
  23. Good Night, Little Engine - Google Books
  24. "The life lessons of "Three Little Engines"". CBS News. August 1, 2021.
  25. ""The Little Engine That Could"--Paul Wing (1948)" (PDF). Library of Congress.
  26. Disneyland Ride Review: Ride in the animal cars on Casey Jr. Circus Train – Orange County Register
  27. Television Musicals: Plots, Critiques, Casts and Credits for 222 Shows Written for and Presented on Television, 1944-1996 - Google Books (#59)
  28. "Jumpstart's Read for the Record Event Highlights". Archived from the original on February 25, 2009. Retrieved June 19, 2008.
  29. Poem: The Little Blue Engine
  30. The Little Engine That Could-John Denver-Topic on YouTube
  31. The Little Engine That Could-Burl Ives-Topic on YouTube
  32. The Little Engine That Could: Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians-Internet Archive
  33. Choo-choo : the little switch engine (Book, 1954) -
  34. The Story of Puff 'n Toot - Puff 'n Toot Singers - Topic on YouTube
  35. Little Engine - EminemMusic on YouTube