Welcome to Old Time Railroading 2009
Compiled by George Riley, Gary Quale and Chris Lane/Photos by G. Riley unless noted.
Getting Into the Mind of the Nineteenth Century
Though little more than a hundred years removes us from the 1800s, this century would be completely foreign to our modern world view. The first two decades of the nineteenth century would have shown little change in mind set or technology from the earlier colonial era. Most of the population still lived in settlements and small cities located along the eastern coast or adjacent to navigable rivers in land. European settlers had barely penetrated more than 500 miles inland, leaving the rest of the vast continent all but unexplored.
The bottle neck to both territorial and economic expansion was transportation. As in centuries past, people and their goods moved at a walking pace. Vehicular transport was dependent on horses, mules or oxen drawing carts or wagons over a disjointed system of rough and often seasonally impassable roads. The most efficient means of transporting supplies was by water. Ships and boats were still dependent on sail power or lacking wind, the strength of their crews to pull, row or pole their craft. The building of canals that occurred at the turn of the 19th century did little to speed up the process since they too relied on either man or horse power. This world moved at a sedate three miles an hour.
By the end of the 1700s experiments with both steam and electricity were underway both domestically and abroad. These two sciences would prove to be revolutionary in the development of our modern world. The first to bear fruit would be harnessing steam. By 1712 Newcomen had developed an atmospheric steam engine that was the first machine to successfully harness the expansion of steam and mechanically put it to use. Though large and of limited efficiency the Newcomen engine successfully pumped water out of the mines in Wales. James Watt, working with a model of Newcomen’s engine, further refined the concept and developed the first practical reciprocating steam engine. Though large and not suited for mobile use this machine revolutionized manufacturing and was instrumental in heralding the industrial revolution. However, the marriage of steam power to transportation would take a number of decades of development.
Finally in 1804, Trevithick constructed and successfully operated what is considered by many the first steam powered railway locomotive. This ungainly machine heralded the future development of steam traction on rails and led to the rapid developments that followed. Suddenly the world accelerated from its leisurely pace to ten, fifteen or even twenty-five miles an hour. The next half century would prove to be a test bed in the evolution of railroads since there were no proven standards or pre-existing concepts in place.
For our purposes as modelers, the first century of railroading in the United States began roughly around 1830 when steam technology finally began reaching our shores from England, which was at the time the leader in railway construction. American railroads then rapidly evolved to deal with the unique challenges posed by the continent. The twenty year period that followed the first introduction of steam traction can best be called "the age of experimentation." What occurred during this era would not only change the technology available, but would also impact economic, social and cultural standards.
By 1850 railroads had begun to more closely resemble our modern day concept of railways. Most of the Eastern Cities were now linked by rails that were inexorably moving west towards the Mississippi River. Rolling stock, physical plant and rights of way had begun to take familiar form. During this "age of challenges" over the next two decades, the nation and railroads would face many challenges that included a major domestic military conflict and the construction of the transcontinental railroad to link up the east and west coasts of the nation.
Coal had begun to supplant wood as a fuel source allowing for faster, larger, more powerful locomotives. Spurred by the necessities of war, the steel industry was able to more economically process high grade steel for both rails and locomotives. In addition, ancillary technologies, such as the telegraph, which allowed instant communication between distant points and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, also played a key role in the progress of the railroads.
1870 proved to be the beginning for the next era in railroad development. The years between 1870 and 1885 would be the "age of expansion" for the nation’s railroads. In addition to the Union Pacific/Central Pacific transcontinental route, several other transcontinental lines would be completed further opening the western United States to settlement and economic development. Narrow gauge lines were being built to reach even the most remote and sparsely populated areas. America was truly a railroad nation.
While railroad technology continued unabated with new practices and hardware, the financing of this expansion would bring about dramatic changes in the world’s financial markets. Improved accounting methods allowed for interchange of cars between the railroads which in turn increased competition and subsequently lowered freight and passenger tariffs. The ability to interchange spurred the final adoption of 4'-8" as the national standard for class 1 railroads and led to the rail network being re-gauged to this standard.
Considered the "Golden Age of Railroads" by many historians, the years between 1885 and 1914 should be the regarded as an era of great consolidation. At no other time in our nation’s history would the railroads be as crucial to the economy and culture. Goods and passengers could reliably and quickly be transported literally from coast to coast and all points in between. It was a rare location that did not have some sort of rail access. The railroads expanded their infrastructures and improved services. Many profitable narrow gauge lines were standard gauged and incorporated into larger systems. A series of consolidations gathered smaller companies into larger systems as well.
As speed increased with the advent of superheating and larger locomotives, so did safety. Westinghouse air brakes and Janney knuckle couplers became mandated for all interchanged traffic. Wooden passenger cars would be gradually phased out in favor of all metal cars. These would prove not only stronger but also less flammable than their predecessors. For freight cars steel would also begin to replace wood, first in its use for underframes and structural framing, finally the entire car would be built of metal.
Perhaps, however, the most dramatic change would occur when the genie of electricity would finally be unleashed. Previously captured to operate the telegraph in the 1850s this source of power would lead to electric lighting, which would dramatically change railroad signaling and replace kerosene for car and locomotive lighting; telephones would streamline communications; and finally electric traction would make street railways practical, accelerating the growth of cities.
In a little less than a century, the United States went from a rough frontier to a fully developed modern nation due in largely to the part played by the railroads. Ironically, both scale railroad models and toys have been a part of the American experience since the first rail was laid down. Today, however, we rarely venture back more than fifty or sixty years when we look for subjects to model. Perhaps we should look back to the first century of the railroads to document both a different time and technology. The internet has been a boon for research in this era since one can now find a wealth of information without even having to leave the comfort of home. A number of first class museums also house a remarkable number of examples from this period in their collections. Books and old post cards as well as insurance surveys will also be an aid in capturing this bygone era in miniature.
The modeling the first century of railroading does not mean that one must scratch-build every item. There are a surprising number of models in the major scales available both ready-to-run and in kit form. One can either decide to model a specific place or capture a general time period with stunning results. So if the modern world just doesn’t strike your fancy, take an adventure into the past —George Riley