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The Train's A'Comin'!

Linda Roorda


Who among us isn’t fascinated by the steam trains of yesteryear?  As the big locomotives and cars rumble past, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been and where they’re headed.  To feel the pulsing ground vibrations of an old steam engine as it chuffs down the track, to see huge billows of smoke and steam with cinders and ash in the air, to smell the smoke and oil, and hear the blowing of the whistle and clanging of the bell all make the heart beat just a little faster!  The train’s a’comin’!


Constructing model trains was a hobby of my dad’s, along with setting up a track and miniature town for display.  I remember watching him when I was in kindergarten as he built a passenger car with its tiny pieces.  In the mid to late 1960s, I also enjoyed it when he took us kids on the annual drive to a small, non-descript building in Carlstadt, New Jersey.  There, our eyes were opened to a whole ‘nother world as both O (1/4” scale) and HO (1/8” scale) gauge trains were set up in working displays.  And, many a youngster has been thrilled to open the much-anticipated Christmas gift of a model train set like these!


At the Carlstadt Model Engineers Association’s display (341 Hoboken Rd, Carlstadt, NJ 07072), the HO-gauge trains run through small towns, farming communities and mountain passes – with sound effects of the old locomotives.  It’s not huge by any means, encompassing two rooms, but it’s a fantastic setup nonetheless.  Check out their website for photos, videos and further information.  


My dad, Ralph Visscher, was born to Dutch immigrants in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but grew up in Clifton, New Jersey next to the train tracks, where he developed his love for the old steam engines.  Clifton had two train stations – one for the Erie Railroad and one for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Eventually, they consolidated as the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in 1960.  We lived opposite the closed Erie station in the latter 1960s, a great paved playground for us kids; but it has since been demolished like many others, the loss of a priceless piece of history.


In speaking with my father while writing this article in 2014, he told me, “Steam engines were doing a great job, getting better and better, especially when the Big Boy locomotives were developed and used out west.”  He told me their wheel designation was 4-8-8-4, which I’d learned from my research so I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He explained, “They had a front 4-wheeled truck to stabilize the engine on the curves, followed by 8 driving wheels, another set of 8 drivers, and a rear 4-wheeled truck underneath the engine’s firebox with the tender car coupled behind that.  Tenders carried the train’s fuel [coal, wood or oil] and water.  The Big Boys were used to pull freight cars a mile or more in length over the western mountains.” 


In the 1940s after World War II, he added that it was determined diesel engines could do a better job and go faster than the old steam engines.  “But, actually, a steam locomotive could accelerate faster from a standing start than diesels, which were slower to get started; once they got up to speed though, the diesels could travel much faster than steam engines.”  By 1950, he said, the railroad companies had switched all their locomotives to diesel.  “But, now and then you might see a rare steam engine being used on the track just because it was available.”


My dad also explained that steam locomotives needed a tremendous amount of water to create steam from the burning fuel.  For example, in The Great Book of Railways, I learned that the Big Boys used “22 tons of coal and 44 tons of water every hour.” (p.20)  Clean-burning anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines was used to fuel steam engines in the eastern U.S. with coal from Wyoming used for the western trains.  I was surprised to hear my dad say that oil was also used for trains out west because of the availability, but with the proximity of oil wells that makes sense.  “And, water tanks,” he added, “were set up every so many miles along with places to take on more coal.  Some trains used extra tenders to carry additional fuel needed for their run.  And, sometimes, to get a train up a mountain, more than one engine was coupled together to haul the freight cars up, or they used pusher locomotives at the rear of the cars.”


And then my dad, who never passes up the opportunity to tell a good story, shared this one about a well-seasoned engineer running a steam locomotive with a long line of cars.  They’d just hired a new young fireman on the crew.  As the train pulled up to a water tower, the engineer placed the tender exactly in position to take on water.  Pulling the chain on the gantry (crane), the young fireman filled the tender.  When he was done, he released the chain, took a look in the tender to check the water level and fell in, yelling for help, paddling to stay afloat, wondering how long it would take for them to get him out of there.  After a while the old engineer strolled back to see what was taking so long.  Peering into the tender, he pondered the sight that met his eyes, and calmly said, “You know, son… you don’t need to tamp the water down!”


I have to admit – I really enjoy researching and writing articles for the learning I gain in the process, but this article was one of my absolute favorites as it meant so much to my Dad who was on Hospice at the time of this writing (passing away in April 2015).  And it carries childhood memories of time spent with my dad at the train shows.  So, come along and together we’ll learn the history of those grand old iron horses, the steam locomotives.


Looking back to the start of the 19th century, life was moving forward at a relatively slow pace.  The times still invoked thoughts of the century past in every-day life, but now there was a sense of optimism in our new nation.  And, if they could only have known of the many improvements to come in the new century, they’d have shaken their heads in disbelief, just as our view backward amazes us at how far we’ve come.


Since the invention of the wheel, man has been contemplating how to make a better wheel or vehicle to transport all manner of goods.  England’s mines were the backdrop for development of the early steam locomotives by some of the best engineers in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.  Beginning in February 1804, Richard Trevithick’s locomotive invention hauled iron and passengers, followed by locomotives for racked/cogged rails (trains with a center driving wheel which engages with the racked or cogged rail for climbing steep grades) as designed by John Blenkinsop in 1812.  The next year William Hedley’s Puffing Billies came on the scene (the first smooth-wheeled locomotives), with George Stephenson’s steam locomotive of 1814 designed to work at a typical colliery (British deep-pit coal mine).  [The Great Book of Railways, pp.8-9]


On a side note, the above research regarding Hedley’s Puffing Billy trains brought to mind a favorite children’s song that perhaps others remember.  “Down by the station, Early in the morning, See the little pufferbellies, All in a row.  See the station master, Turn the little handle [we sang throttle], Chug chug, puff puff, Off they go!”  Supposedly written by Lee Ricks and Slim Gaillard in 1948, the words go back to a 1931 Recreation magazine, with a tune similar to Alouette; and first popularized by Tommy Dorsey.  (Wikipedia) 


American ingenuity took a little longer than the Brits to work itself up to full steam.  With the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company forming in 1823, the intent was to construct and operate canals between New York City and the coal mines near Carbondale in northeast Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the idea of locomotive power became their focus as a more efficient means of transporting both coal and passengers.  With that in mind, the D&H engineers took a tour of England’s renowned locomotive factories to gauge what would best meet their needs. 


This tour led the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company to order the first steam locomotives for use in the United States.  Built in England in 1828 by Foster, Rastrick & Company, the Stourbridge Lion was shipped over in pieces and reassembled at New York’s West Point Foundry.  Ready for its first official run on August 8, 1829, it was meant to carry coal from the mines near Carbondale to the canal at Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Weighing about 7-1/2 tons, however, it was too heavy for the wooden track, a definite disappointment as the engineers had sent requirements to England for a locomotive weighing not more than 4 tons.  However, by the early 1830s, steam locomotives were being built in the United States.  


Col. John Stevens, the “father of American railroads,” set up an experimental track by 1826 on his property in Hoboken, New Jersey to prove the viability of a steam locomotive operation.  In 1830, Peter Cooper built the first American-made steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, which ran on common track.  The public was additionally impressed when George Pullman invented the Pullman Sleeping Car in 1857, improving passengers’ over-night travel. 


With much of our early transportation dependent upon beasts of burden over roads which were not of the best quality (see Homestead article No. 5, Traveling From Here to There), or by boats on the rivers and lakes, a boon developed with the construction of numerous canals.  Following close on the heels of New York’s Erie Canal debut in 1825 (see Homestead article No. 24, Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal) was the burgeoning development of the railroad.  With a good percentage of engineers graduating from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, their knowledge was put to active use in surveying, planning and developing the railroads.  With their expertise, many of these West Point graduates soon became presidents and officers of the various railroad companies. 


Each state soon began granting charters to these newly-formed railroad companies.  Among the earliest to be chartered was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in 1827.  Intended to run between Baltimore and the Ohio River, its first section opened May 24, 1830.  New York’s Mohawk & Hudson Railroad was incorporated in 1826, and began operating in August 1831.  Its first locomotive was the DeWitt Clinton, named for the former governor of canal fame.  The Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad followed soon after with its opening in June 1832.  Even then, ideas were being discussed regarding laying longer track from New York to Buffalo; but, it was a delicate subject as the state was heavily in debt for the Erie Canal which had just opened in 1825.  


Throughout the succeeding decades, many small railroad corporations merged to operate more efficiently.  In particular, the New York Central, headquartered in New York City, eventually became the main consolidated corporation in the northeast and Midwest as it merged with more than half a dozen other companies.


Innumerable side tracks were laid to meet the transportation needs of outlying regions as freight was shipped more efficiently than previously.  Towns vied for the opportunity to be on a rail line or spur, able to ship products out from a nearby hub rather than the expense of taking goods to a station many miles away.  Some towns were established after track was laid.  Stations built in towns on the line included water towers there and along the route to replenish the locomotive’s need to create steam and thus power.  The public found it convenient to take a passenger train for a trip to the next town or hundreds of miles away.  It sure beat the slow horse and buggy!


But, a major issue began to build as train schedules were based on differing times in towns along any given route.  To bring this under control, the railroads determined standard time was of vital importance.  At noon on November 18, 1883, standard time zones for both American and Canadian railroads began.  Prior to this date, both nations were riddled with innumerable differences in time across the countryside.  The vast differences stemmed from the use of “high noon” as each town clock was set depending upon when the sun was at its peak above their town.  Obviously, the discrepancies in time caused a nightmare for train schedules, and standardized time was the only logical answer.  Without government approval, the powerful railroad companies established four standard time zones which remain close to those still in use.  In 1918, Congress formalized the arrangement, putting the railroads under the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Prior to America’s adoption of standard time, the Great Western Railroad had established standard time in Britain beginning in 1840, with virtually all railroads adopting London time by 1847.


It should also be mentioned that tracks were also built to different size specifications.  Northern railroads typically used a standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch or 4 ft 9 inch wide track.  This was based on English track dimensions and the fact that U.S. railroads expected to import more British-made locomotives.  This was the gauge used by George Stephenson (British inventor above) for his locomotives simply because he was familiar with this track width from a local mine near Newcastle.  As it turns out, that gauge was used for the mine track just because it was the common width of local ancient Roman roads in England.  It was next determined by measurements taken at excavations in Pompeii and elsewhere that ancient Roman roads were made for a standard chariot wheelbase of about 4 ft 9 inches or slightly less!  And that is how 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails became the industry standard.


The early American railroads like the Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Albany set their rails at 4 ft 8-1/2 inches, the Pennsylvania R.R. used 4 ft 9 inches, the Erie and Lackawanna both used 6 ft 0 inch tracks, Canada used a 5 ft 6 inch gauge, while Southern U.S. rails were set at 5 ft 0 inches. 


Obviously, the discrepancies prevented trains from running on certain track, necessitating standardization throughout the industry.  I found it interesting to learn that for 36 hours over two days commencing May 31, 1886, thousands upon thousands of workers pulled spikes from all west-bound tracks in the South, moved the rails in by 3 inches to 4 ft 9 inches, and immediately replaced the spikes. Thus, as of June 1886, all North American tracks were capable of running locomotives built for standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails.


Impressive tunnels, bridges and viaducts were also designed and constructed to carry trains over stunning views of open water or above valley floors between steep mountain cliffs.  With the need for better materials, wrought iron rail was produced in England by 1820.  Following this, steel in America became available in the mid-1800s with the process improved in England by 1860.   


Naturally, the feasibility of a transcontinental track came under discussion and planning for several years before it became reality.  With the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 under President Lincoln, healing began for a war-torn nation as the north and south pulled together in a common goal after the Civil War.  The idea alone of a main railroad line from one ocean to the other across an entire continent was exhilarating!  Thus, the Central Pacific Railroad toiled westward over the plains and up the eastern Rockies while the Union Pacific laid its track eastward out of California, over and through the western side of the Rockies. 


Meeting at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike was nailed into the track in an exciting celebration.  In honor of the occasion, the Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s No. 60 (Jupiter) steam locomotives met face-to-face with a single railroad tie width between them.  See painting: Celebration of the meeting of the railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.”


This event was the conclusion of several years’ worth of investment in time spent planning, designing, and hard physical labor of laying track.  Many an immigrant, particularly the Irish and Chinese, found work in this venture.  Across the plains and through tunnels blasted out of the seemingly impassable Rocky Mountains, the rails moved inexorably toward each other with much of the original roadbed still in use today. 


The meeting of tracks thus created a transcontinental railroad connecting innumerable side tracks and spurs from all across the nation.  It was where the east met the west, no longer necessitating travel for months by wagon train from the Mississippi River to the Oregon Trail and points along the west coast.  Nor did it require a lengthy sail by ship through dangerous seas around the horn of South America to reach our nation’s western lands.  


Closer to home, Sayre, Pennsylvania housed the extensive Lehigh Valley rail yard.  Completed by 1904, it held the second largest factory of its kind in the world.  Large cranes were in place to lift a locomotive and move it anywhere.  With nearly everyone in Sayre working in one way or another for the railroad, it’s been said that the huge factories were noted for building or rebuilding one steam locomotive every day during peak production.   In fact, between 1913 and 1921, the factories at Sayre built over 40 K-class locomotives.  (The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.181.)


Along with a growing railroad industry came the need of medical services for injured railroad workers. Robert Packer Hospital, established with railroad money, was named for Robert, son of Asa Packer who was the director of Lehigh Valley Railroad.  The hospital’s adjoining Guthrie Clinic was modeled after Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.  Donald Guthrie, MD, a graduate of Mayo, was appointed Superintendant and Surgeon-in-Chief of Guthrie Clinic (named in his honor), taking up his position in January 1910.


Headquartered in New York City, the Lehigh Valley Railroad made an obvious impact on our region’s economy.  Begun as the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in the 1820s, it once held a monopoly in the mining and transporting of coal.  In order to break its monopoly, the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad was incorporated in 1846.  In 1853, under Asa Packer’s expert management, this mouthful of a company name became known simply as the Lehigh Valley Railroad.   One of its passenger trains, the Black Diamond Express, with an Atlantic 4-4-2 locomotive, held quite a reputation.  Known as the “Route of the Black Diamond” (named for the clean-burning anthracite coal it carried), the track ran from New York City, west through New Jersey to Easton, Pennsylvania, northwest past Wilkes-Barre and through numerous switchbacks to climb the mountains on its trip northwest to Sayre, Pennsylvania, then into New York by going north to Van Etten, northwest to Geneva, and finally west to Buffalo. 


Beginning in 1876, the Lehigh Valley Railroad “took control of the newly reorganized Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre Railroad, started by Ezra Cornell of Ithaca.  The famous university that he founded in 1865 would fill regular and special trains with college students and their families for decades.  Special excursion trains were often set up with tiered-bleacher seating on flat cars for passengers to watch crew races on Cayuga Lake as the train kept abreast of the scullers. (History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.126)  The line to Geneva provided the Lehigh Valley a means to construct their own line into Buffalo, but its grade out of Ithaca to Geneva was too steep for heavy freight trains to travel.  A diverging route was planned from Van Etten (then known as Van Ettenville) to Geneva along the east side of Seneca Lake.  In 1892, the new bypass was open and the line was also completed from Geneva to Buffalo.  The original route from Van Etten [through Spencer] to Geneva via Ithaca was now used for passenger trains and local freights.”  Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society.


With a new luxury train scheduled for its first run on May 18, 1896, the Lehigh Valley Railroad ran a contest to name the train.  With over 35,000 entries received, the winner was Charles Montgomery, a hotel clerk from Toledo, Ohio.  His submission, Black Diamond Express, “was considered most befitting the premier train of a railroad whose history and revenues were so closely intertwined with anthrocite.”  [The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.152]


“Running from New York City to Buffalo, the Black Diamond was promoted as a train of luxury.  The 315-foot long train was the fastest in their fleet.  The Black Diamond had chefs on board who were skilled in culinary arts.  Complete kitchens had every facility present for ‘preparing and serving substantials and delicacies in most appetizing fashion.’  Day coaches were outfitted with plush velvet chairs, a large comfortable smoking room, and lavatories for both men and women.  The last car seated 28 passengers and included a parlor and an observation platform.  It was equipped with plate glass windows at the rear and wicker chairs for passenger pleasure.  Touted by the Lehigh Valley as ‘The Handsomest Train in the World,’ the roadbed it traveled soon became known as “The Route of the Black Diamond.”  Because of its appeal to newlyweds on their way to Niagara Falls, the train was nicknamed the ‘Honeymoon Express.’”  (The Lehigh Valley Historical Society took much of its information from the book, The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, pp.152-153]

Of course, accidents occurred for all railroads and the Lehigh Valley was no exception.  Its second worst passenger train wreck took place on August 25, 1911.  As the No.4 train headed east out of Buffalo, it derailed on the Canandaigua Outlet Bridge because of a broken rail.  One passenger car rolled over onto its side, while two others fell into the creek 40 feet below with 29 killed and 62 injured.


Built in 1916, a 30-bay roundhouse and turntable just south of Manchester, New York was used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad on its route to and from Buffalo.  With the train yard seeing a decline in freight traffic during the post-World War II era, its doors closed forever in 1970.  Once considered the largest in the world, the Manchester Yard employed over 1000 people during its peak years.  In the mid-1960s, my dad had taken us kids on a ride to see the train yards along the Jersey shore.  Touring a round house, I can still envision the locomotive inside as it was turned onto a different track.  Fascinating stuff!

In the decades after World War II, as better and more modern means of transportation came onto the scene with trucks traveling over better paved roads and planes reaching distant destinations in only hours, the old trains and their tracks began disappearing.  Lehigh Valley passenger service also declined, ending with the Black Diamond Express making her final run with her sister train, Star, on May 11, 1959.

 The famous Black Diamond Express on the Lehigh ValleyAbove photos and article extractions obtained from Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society


As bigger and better locomotives were built throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, record speeds were reached at or above 100 mph.  The first train ever to record a speed of 100 mph was the Empire State Express of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad on May 9, 1893 on a run between Rochester and Buffalo, NY.  Great Britain’s famous Flying Scotsman hit 100 mph in 1934, while the British Mallard reached a record 126 mph pulling 245 tons in 1938.  Just recently, on February 25, 2016, the Flying Scotsman returned to the tracks in England, fully restored.  Retired in 1963 when diesel engines took over, she spent a number of years pulling tourist trains along the western coast in the U.S. Press release


Sandwiched in the years between two world wars, the largest steam locomotives were built in both America and Europe.  In the U.S., engines were often coupled together to provide strength for running with longer lines of loaded freight cars strung out behind, especially as they traversed the mountain passes of the western states.  Then, in the early 1940s, the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in Schenectady, New York built 25 of the largest locomotives ever.  They were dubbed “Big Boys,” intended for hauling freight over the western Rocky Mountains.  


In August 2013, Big Boy Engine No. 4014 was prepared for return to the Union Pacific’s Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming from a Pamona, California museum.  Expected to begin its journey in April 2014, it will be pulled by several modern locomotives.  Following complete restoration over the next several years to full working condition, it will be put back on the line for excursions.  [An internet search of Big Boy No. 4014 will provide photos and videos of this magnificent locomotive.  Follow the story of this steam engine online here.]


Over time, the amount of coal needed to fuel these big steam engines contributed to their demise.  In order to stay competitive with OTR (over-the-road) truck transportation and by plane, diesel and electric engines were designed and implemented.  Germany’s Rudolph Diesel designed the first successful engine in 1897 which bears his name.  By 1912, the first successful German-built diesel locomotive was also in use.  Simply put, I learned that diesel operates differently by using an oil injection as compared to a gasoline-powered engine with spark plugs. 


Freight cars in America have often been pulled by several locomotives coupled together, providing greater strength than a single engine.  Modern locomotives are designed with diesel engines and electric generators which help them reach top speed much quicker than a simple diesel engine alone.  Thus, the “world’s first streamlined diesel-electric [locomotive was] a Denver-Chicago express” which began running in 1934.  (The Great Book of Railways)


With the invention of electricity, it wasn’t long before the great inventors put it to use in operating trains.  Electric trains are connected to an overhead electric wire/cable which provides power.  The first electric tram, designed by another German, Werner von Siemens, was on working display at the Berlin Trades Exhibition on May 31, 1879.  His brother, Sir William Siemens, settled in England and designed the first electric railroad which began running in 1883 in Northern Ireland.  It was not until 1890, however, that London’s first electric railway began operating in underground tunnels.  London’s Metropolitan Railway soon became the world’s first subway in 1863 by using underground steam trains.  Following these world firsts, America’s first electric railway was put to use in 1895 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with electric locomotives pulling steam trains through tunnels under Baltimore, Maryland.  (The Great Book of Railways)


And, of course, we also have subways and elevated rails which provide convenient transportation beneath and above city streets.  In the latter 20th century, travel by traditional passenger train declined.  There are, however, some passenger lines still in operation, including scenic excursions, just as there are freight lines providing an important transportation option.  Locally, we can watch a freight train pass through Van Etten and Spencer.  I do enjoy the days when I can clearly hear its whistle and the sound of the heavy engines and cars clicking and creaking over the rails as it passes through our community, reminding us of the halcyon days of long ago.


At the end of every freight train was the red caboose.  These cars were used until safety laws were relaxed in 1980 at which time improved safety monitoring devices were implemented.  Cabooses provided shelter and cooking facilities for the crew who were needed to switch or shunt a train or individual cars onto another track.  This was dangerous work as men could become injured or run over when coupling or uncoupling the cars.  The crew also kept an eye out for any shifting of loads in the cars, or damage to equipment and freight, or axles that might be overheating.  The cupola on top helped them keep an eye out for problems on the track or with the cars. 


I love to watch a train, hear the whistle, count the cars, and pace my car with the train if the track is parallel to the road just to see what its traveling speed is.  I remember our fascination as kids as we watched trains and waved to the engineer or brakeman.  The son of our friends, Scott, is an engineer for CXS in the Midwest, gave a few wise words of warning in an interview several years ago:  “Please wait at railroad crossings.  If your route takes you across a busy set of railroad tracks, leave earlier for your destination.  Something that weighs 3 million pounds, moving at 50 miles per hour, does not stop fast.  It can take a mile or more for something like that to stop.” 


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