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Old Steam Locomotive



Railroad Photographs

From the steam locomotive & railroad library of L. B. Radka



(This Web page is dedicated to the efforts of Lucius Beebe)


A locomotive climbing out of a smoke-filled tunnel in Virginia


Old steam locomotives and their railroads demanded powerful action, and for model-railroading buffs or students of old technology, these dynamic railroad photographs should add more steam to the memories of a bygone era than the idle illustrations so often found pasted upon the Internet.  As time permits, in no particular order here, Larry Brian Radka has decided to try to rectify the situation a little by sharing some movement.  The action consists mainly of black and white images, often tinted to reduce monotony.  Beside his short descriptions of each of the photographs, pertinent definitions of railroad terms and historical details will occasionally ride along to help fulfill this short but nostalgic trip on the rails.



Now that we have made it through the tunnel, we will leave Old Virginia and resume our pictorial journey with the two struggling locomotives to the south, in the photograph above.  In his description of this "exciting action photograph" of a steam locomotive helping another up a steep grade, Lucius Beebe wrote:  “Fighting every inch of the way, No. 1341, a Southern Railway system 4-6-2 is at the head end of the westbound Skyland Special as it toils up the 4½ per cent grade east of Saluda, North Carolina.  At the rear of the train in this exciting action photograph by W. H. Thrall, Jr., is No. 5028, a 2-10-2 helping push the six mail cars, coaches, and Pullmans of the Special over the hump.”




The 4 ½ percent grade referred to in Beebe’s description gives us a  237.6-feet-per-mile horizontal rise of the railroad tracks.   “A grade or gradient of one per cent rises one foot for every hundred feet traveled horizontally,” explained Martin D. Stevers.  In Steel Trails, The Epic of the Railroads, he went on to explain that “Another common way of measuring grades is to give the rise in feet for one mile traveled horizontally.  On this system, a one per cent grade would be called a 52.8-foot grade, since this rise in a mile would give one foot of rise every hundred feet traveled.”   The weight of eleven mail and Pullman cars and the steepness of the 3 per cent grade is so great for the train in the photograph above that five steam engines were required to pull it up the mountain.  They are hauling the "Denver Limited" up Soldier's Summit in the Rocky Mountains, on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  At Ibex station, the line reaches an altitude of 11,522 feet.
It is noteworthy to point out here that the 4-6-2 and 2-10-2 figures mentioned by Beebe above refer to the locomotives’ wheel arrangements.  In Railways of To-Day, Cecil J. Allen explained them as follows:  “The wheels supporting a locomotive are of two kinds.  There are, first of all, ‘idle’ wheels, which have no function beyond that of helping to distribute the weight of the engine evenly over the tracks.  And then there are the ‘coupled’ wheels, which comprise the driving wheels proper, and one or more pairs of wheels of the same diameter, connected to the driving wheels by means of coupling rods, which ensure that the whole of the coupled wheels move in unison.  The notation referred to consists of three figures, the middle one of which indicates the number of coupled wheels, and the first and third of which show the idle wheels in front of, and behind, the coupled wheels respectively.  If there are no idle wheels behind the coupled wheels, the last pair of the latter being located under the driver’s cab, a cipher must be used in the notation accordingly; similarly, if the leading pair of engine wheels are not coupled, the first figure of the notation is ‘0.’”  The Mallet, which uses two sets of coupled wheels, of course, is an exception.



In Steel Trails, The Epic of the Railroads, Martin D. Stevers explained in 1933 the locomotive wheel arrangements and their classifications illustrated in his illustration above as follows:

“The Whyte or wheel plan classification is not only convenient but it reveals much of locomotive history, purpose, and use with its simple numbers.  First comes the number of leading truck wheels (both sides); then the drivers; then trailing wheels.  Thus, a six-wheel switcher, without leading or trailing wheels, is a 0-6-0.  Originally, the firebox was carried between the last drivers, as in the long used ‘American’ 4-4-0.  Later, to get more power, additional drivers supported a longer boiler.  But when even the ‘Decapod’ 2-10-0 was not strong enough, wider fireboxes were supported on two trailing wheels.  Now four often are used.  The names usually are for the regions where the type was first used.  The electric locomotive ‘C’ denotes a motor unit, while the Mallet designation is self-explanatory.  Many types have been omitted, only these being shown which illustrate the development.”



One of Allen's colorful depictions, of the English Mail express No. 401 above. is hauled by a 4-6-0 express locomotive.

These photos demonstrate the massive coupling and size of locomotive wheels.



The huge passenger locomotive illustrated in the lower photograph is of type 4-8-4.  This means that it has four "idler" wheels in front (two pairs), followed by four pairs of driving wheels, then two pairs of small idlers in the rear.  The small wheels are nceessary to distribute the weight of the locomotive.  The big wheels (70 to 80 inches in diameter) are drawn by a rod connected to the shaft of the steam piston.  The cylinder in which the piston moves is located between the small forward wheels in this type of locomotive.
Below, we see a smaller, thirsty steam locomotive with fewer wheels about to take on water, a serious concern for many railroads throughout the United States.


“In his Railroad Album, Highliners, Lucius Beebe discussed some of the water problems for steam locomotives as follows: “One of the most potent arguments by Diesel engineers in favor of the internal combustion motor for train power is the difficulty, in some railroading divisions in the West and Southwest, of obtaining suitable water for steam locomotives.   Water in many localities is characterized by such a high mineral content that it must be chemically treated before introducing it to engine boilers and tubes.  In some part of Texas, the Texas and Pacific Railroad pipes its water for distances of 250 miles.  In northern states, winter weather creates the problem of preventing water in trackside tanks from freezing, while to avoid the delay of water stops some railroads, like the New York Central, replenish their tenders on fast through trains from track pans, and the Pennsylvania equips its limiteds with tenders whose tanks carry as high as 30,000 gallons at a time.



At Lucin, Utah, this Southern Pacific fireman is swinging a water spout over the tank of a Vanderbilt-type tender to fuel the Overland Limited on its westward run toward the High Sierras and the Pacific.”



Speaking about this photograph which is in the Denver Public Library Western Collection, Beebe wrote:  "At some remote date, to which the costumes of the spectators furnish the only clue, this Colorado Central (later C. & S.) narrow-gage locomotive seems to have left the straight and narrow without, however, apparently doing much damage to the track or railbed.  The scene is the outskirts of Central City, in an age when Central was pleased to consider itself the metropolis of the 'richest square mile in the world.'  It is safe to assume that traffic was resumed within a few hours."
That water spout would probably have been frozen solid and covered with snow if it were located anywhere near the engine in the photograph above.   It shows an old steam locomotive with a huge rotary snowplow spinning snow away from the rails of the Bernina Railway in Switzerland, which reaches 7,400 feet above sea-level.  This type of plow has cleared snow drifts 17 feet, 9 inches in depth and keeps the railroad open for traffic throughout the winter.  Below it, to show the possible size of such a plow, we have included a static picture of one mounted in front of an old electric train belonging to the Riksgrans Railway in Sweden.  Note the large searchlight above it, to light up the snow-covered way.
The command of cold weather over hot locomotives is exemplified above.  These snow and ice covered engines were photographed just after their long wintry runs in New York State.

Above, we see one of the Rio Grande Southern's "Galloping Goose" railcars that was used to keep the wintry tracks open.  "Recently," wrote Lucius Beebe, "a 'Galloping Goose,' left mementarily unattended by its operator, coasted wildly down the east slope of Dallas Divide for a distance of fourteen miles and around a number of sharp reverse curves without jumping the track.  No. 7 is shown here in the house track at Ridgeway, Colorado, where the Southern connects with the Montrose-Ouray line of the Denver & Rio Grande Western.





















The observation car above was provided with bookcases, a writing desk, and even a stenographer.  The Pennsylvania Railroad Company's Broadway Limited was a twenty-four-hour train that ran between New York and Chicago.  Before the railroads were built, it took a week to go from New York to Buffalo, nearly three weeks from New York to Chicago; and trips from New York to the Pacific coast were never thought of, except by hardy pioneers, who expected their good-bye to be forever.  The busy man in 1917, after his noonday lunch and final instructions from his superintendent, could depart from Chicago on the limited and arrive in New York twenty-one hours later.  It took, however, four days in 1917 to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.



Yet, the traveler had all the comforts of home on his railroad journey, in fact, much more than the average home at the time.  A modern first-class train consisted of a baggage car, one or more day coaches, Pullman sleeping cars, a dining car, a library and smoking car combined (probably outlawed by the Nicotine Nazis today); and day trains often contained a parlor car.  The library was equipped with a bathroom and barbershop.  Trains were solidly vestibuled throughout, thus excluding noise and dust as one passed from car to car.  The train was warmed by the engine's steam in the winter; and, at night, electricity lit up the train.



Some people were not fortunate enough to enjoy such railroad luxuries, but didn't bother to pay for them either.  Economic circumstances forced them to ride in the back of the bus.  Here are a couple of pictures of hoboes riding the rails.  Many were free spirits—traveling light—always on the move, grabbing rides on passing trains, heading home or leaving some place in search for adventure or work.  For some interesting hobo history and the story of a modern-day hobo, be sure to visit Hobo Ed’s Web site.
Ed rode freight trains when he needed to achieve mobility, and his favorite freight train route was along what is referred to as the ‘highline’; from Spokane Washington to Helena Montana via the Northern Pacific Railroad in a boxcar.  Ed’s rail name was Diamond Ed.
The old C. P. Huntington below sailed around the Horn in 1863 and was pressed into service.  The Southern Pacific loaned this pioneer in early California railroad history to the centennial exhibit at the California State Fair.
With 15,000 of its former employees in the armed forces during World War II, the Southern Pacific relieved the labor shortage by employing women as blacksmith helpers, rivet heaters, turntable operators, engine wipers, scrap sorters, stationary firemen, crew and yard clerks, cutters, machine tool operators, and other occupations.  One of the 4,000 females, “Railroadettes,” employed at the mechanical and stores departments of the Pacific Lines was Edna Keepers—shown below using a steam and chemical solution to clean a Southern Pacific locomotive at Eugene Oregon.
A caption for this 1939 photograph of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation states: “NEW ROUTE—Southern Pacific train disappearing into the new tunnel bored for main line north because tracks had to be relocated for excavation of base of huge new Shasta Dam which will retain waters of the Sacramento River in canyon near Redding.”


Beebe tells us that "Here is M. V. No. 93, a well-shopped Mikado with tender tank attached, rolling a short cut of high cars eastward at Carpenter's Bluff, Texas, with a full head of steam and safety valves popping."
This Niagara type locomotive, from an original painting by Howard Fogg, is chugging along at eighty miles an hour as it scoops up water from track pans.  The Twentieth Century Limited is making New York Central's run along the Hudson River at New Hamburg, New York.

Above we see New Hope Steam Railway’s Locomotive #40 (2-8-0), built by Baldwin in 1925, rounding one of the many curves over tracks of the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad in Pennsylvania.



Here we see a colorful postcard image of Norfolk & Western's 2-6-6-4 storming through Ford, Virginia.  That may be an old carbon arc light hanging on the pole in front of the station?


This is the Baldwin-designed back head of a freight and passenger service 4-8-4 steam locomotive built at Philadelphia for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
Above, we see a photograph of one of the Northern Pacific Limited's  observation lounge-cars of the early 1900's.  "Pintsch burners had given away to floriated electroliers, electric fans presaged air-conditioning," wrote Beebe, "but the fringed curtain, the potted plant (on the extreme left) and the velvet table-cover still survived as vestigial traces fo an earlier Victorian scheme of decoration."



The photograph above is from the February 17, 1912 edition of Scientific American.  Its article "How Railroad Men are Made" describes the scene as "Apprentices engaged in practical work on a mammoth modern locomotive, carefully supervised by capable instructors."  Notice the student working on the electric generator in front of the smokestack.  It powers the adjoining Edwards carbon arc searchlight (headlight).


Carbon arc searchlights were often used on trains around the turn of the twentieth century.  Above we see a good example.  It is the special train of Prince H. R. H. Henry of Prussia in the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway station at Milwaukee, March 4, 1902.  “The photograph was taken at 9 p. m. by the light of the searchlight headlights,” stated the 1902 edition of Our Wonderful Progress.  “This is the latest device for averting collisions, as the piercing rays can be seen for many miles along the track and flashing against the sky.”



I hope you have enjoyed your look at these old steam locomotive and railroad photographs from my small collection in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  Check back once in awhile for added steam engine and railroad photos.


The US standard railroad gauge is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.



Why was that gauge used?


Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US Railroads.


Why did the English build them like that?


Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.


Why did “they” use that gauge then?


Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.


Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?


Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.


So who built those old rutted roads?


Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.


And the ruts in the roads?


Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.


The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for! an Imperial Roman war chariot. And bureaucracies live forever


So the next time you are handed a spec and told we have always done it that way and wonder what horse’s ass came up with that, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.


Now the twist to the story…


When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.


The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is bout as wide as two horses’ behinds.


So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.


And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important.



This page was last modified on Monday, February 19, 2018