The Shiny Irons Present: A Cast of Thousands (of pounds)!!!

Print This Post Print This PostWhen the moguls of movies decided to establish an award for lifetime achievement in film, they turned to the one person who epitomized achievement… as measured by size! In 1952, Cecil B. DeMille received the first award bearing his name. This year also saw the release of his penultimate film, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The circus flick earned an Oscar for Best Picture and also earned DeMille a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, in addition to the novel ‘Globe for Lifetime Achievement. For 3 decades, DeMille had been the reigning champ of the film genre of “blockbuster”. BBC Timeshift documentary series notes:

From Ben-Hur to The Ten Commandments, from El Cid to Cleopatra, these were films that set a new standard in BIG. In the days before computers they recreated ancient worlds on a vast scale, and they did it for real. Epic cinema hired armies, defied the seasons and changed cinema. Even the screen wasn’t big enough for the epic, so Hollywood made it bigger – and some cinemagoers experienced vertigo watching these vast productions.

Though the origins of the hyperbolic attribution seem lost to history, at least one of these massive missives gifted us with the phrase “… And A Cast Of Thousands!!!” The Shiny Irons also knows how to assemble a cast of thousands… and DeMille Awards notwithstanding, our cast can “steel” ANY show!!

Advertisements for railroad castings: General Steel

The beginnings of the Irons’ use of steel castings date back to the mid-19th Century. A couple of entrepreneurs working independently developed two innovations which would revolutionize the industrial processes of the day – typical of the time, the innovations first saw use on the Irons. Alexander Holley had built the second American Bessemer steel plant in Troy, N.Y., with funding supplied in part by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railroad’s interest in the new steel making process was driven by the poor performance of the iron rails currently in use. The steel being produced by the new process could be rolled into much more durable rails. The tougher material caught the eye of another inventor, George Westinghouse, later of fail-safe air brake fame. Westinghouse was working on a solution to the problem of trains derailing when switching from one track to another. Called “frogs” (no, really!), mechanical switches are used to direct trains from one track to a parallel track.

The “frog” has a set of movable rails which can be aligned with the rails to either allow the train to pass through on its current track, or to guide it onto the parallel track. The wrought iron “frogs” in use at the time were extremely unreliable, and failure of one would result in derailments, down time, and, when speeds were high, catastrophic accidents. Westinghouse knew that the new steel being introduced had the capability to solve the problem – if only it could be cast like iron. Steel required a much higher melting temperature than iron, and has less desirable flow characteristics by comparison. Poring over trade journals, inquiring of experts in the industry and burning the midnight oil at the public library, Westinghouse developed the expertise in metallurgy needed to solve the problems. The first buyer of the new “frog” was the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, and the performance of the new piece – exhibiting a 20-1 superiority in service life — soon made a “sales pitch” unnecessary. Supplying the demand required the building of a completely new foundry.

Improvements in the processes used for casting steel continued at a rapid pace, and by the fourth quarter of the 19th Century, many different locomotive and rail car parts of steel were being cast. An early visionary of the use of cast locomotive frames, C.M. Darden became Superintendent of Machinery for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad in 1930. By the 1920s, casting technology had matured to the point where entire locomotive beds (the locomotive frame was called a “bed”) could be cast. The 1944 edition of the Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice reported that the first cast locomotive beds were produced in 1924. Integral cradles were soon added to the technical capability, and by the late ’20s, steam cylinders were also being integrally cast. Darden continued to expand the application of steel bed castings:

One of the early proponents of steel bed frames cast integral with cylinders of steam locomotives, Darden was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. One of his favorite projects was the elimination of boiler studs by moving as many locomotive accessories and pipes as possible to hang on the frame instead. The work in this field resulted in US patent No. 1,955,376, issued to Mr. Darden in May 1934, and used by the Commonwealth Division of General Steel Castings Corporation (old Commonwealth Steel Corp.). An image of a Class J3 frame on the erecting floor is shown below.

Later, Mr. Darden’s ideas were incorporated in the design of modern steam locomotives not only built for North American railroads, but also engines shipped after the Second World War to many nations, including India, Turkey, Africa, and Australia. Thus Mr. Darden’s work has benefited railroads the world over.

Casting the entire bed of steel in one piece gave many advantages; greater strength, rigidity, simpler construction being some of them. Darden’s ideas caught on all over the world, and cast locomotive bed technology emigrated to Europe, India and China as the Irons wound their twin ribbons of steel across the world. Larger and heavier became the mantra, and some of the largest steel castings ever made were locomotive beds. A couple of mid-20th-Century behemoths regularly spar for the title of “largest and heaviest ever”, when railroad history buffs trade tales. Manufactured between 1941 -1944, during the height of WW2, Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” locos were built to haul freight over the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. The 1.25MILLION pound heftys were built on cast one-piece beds.

Union Pacific “Big Boy” under restoration

Competition for the heavyweight crown comes from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s 1939 S1. Nicknamed “The Big Engine”, the Raymond Lowey designed streamliner was the largest and heaviest rigid frame locomotive ever built.

The S1 was the largest passenger locomotive ever constructed, with an overall length of 140 feet 2 12 inches (42.74 m). At 77 feet (23.47 m) long and a weight of 97,600 pounds (44,300 kg; 44.3 t), the cast steel locomotive bed plate made by General Steel Castings was the largest single-piece casting ever made for a locomotive. (Reed, Brian (June 1972). Pennsylvania Duplexii. Loco Profile 24. Windsor, Berkshire: Profile Publications Limited. pp. 267–271)

PRR S1 under construction

The days of cast locomotive beds have passed, as locomotive design in the Diesel age lends itself more toward fabricated frames, but the Irons are still very much into the casting of steel. A modern rail car uses dozens of cast steel parts, ranging from small latches and brake fittings, brake cylinder and control valve housings to parts weighing hundreds of pounds such as truck side frames and bolsters.

Cast steel rail car components: Amsted Rail

The strength, rigidity and economy of cast steel components assures their continued presence in large numbers on modern rail cars. New innovations in casting processes continue to shave pounds off the castings while increasing their strength and durability, gifting greater economy and efficiency to the railroad industry. Longer, heavier hauls at lower cost resulting from these improvements will

keep the rails shiny!!! Thank you for joining us!

Ice Dancing on the Shiny Irons

Currently in Antarctica there are 6 major high speed rail lines that span the country. They connect to every single major community in the nation.

Wait, what??? Antarctica?? High-speed rail?? How do you build a railroad down there… the whole continent is made of ice?!?!?

Well, yeah, there is that…. Considering the above is from a web site called “future.wikia”, one might be forgiven for one’s lack of credulity. Still, the Shiny Irons are no stranger to ice. Ice on top of the rails, of course, but ice UNDER the rails as well. When crossing water, the most reasonable method is to build a bridge, but sometimes this can’t be done for one reason or another. An early rumor of the Ice-Skating Irons came in the wake of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in 1869. The Golden Spike driven into the Utah desert by Leland Stanford did not quite connect east to west… there was, at the time, no bridge across the Missouri River between Omaha and Council Bluffs. The Union Pacific Transfer Company maintained a ferry at the crossing until the completion of the railroad bridge in 1872. So… where does the ice figure into the (tall) tale? The U.P. purportedly built a rail line across the icy Missouri during the winter of 1869-70…. A persistent rumor, and supposedly some photographs are extant showing the Irons on the ice, however, The Shiny Irons’ take on this is, (in the immortal words of wikipedia…) “citation needed”….

Another instance of the Icy Irons comes from Alaska (of course!), where the Alaska Railroad ran trains across the Tanana River ice before the completion of a bridge. An ancient photograph of the event must surely be worth a thousand suspicious words:

Alaska Railroad crossing on the ice

The most famous, and best-documented example of the Irons crossing frozen water comes from the Second World War, on the Eastern Front. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the reds were caught every bit as unaware as was the rest of Europe. Blitzkrieg tactics soon resulted in the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) being cut off from the rest of the country, under siege for three years. The only supply line open was across huge Lake Ladoga, east of the city. During the relatively short summer, boats ferried supplies in and people out, constantly harassed by German artillery and air bombardments. During the winter, the lake froze to a depth which made heavy land transport possible across the ice. (Adamovich, Ales’, and Daniil Granin. Leningrad under Siege. Trans. Clare Burstall and Vladimir Kisselnikov. Great Britain: Pen and Sword Military, 2007. pp. 108-109) 

In winter, 1941, the Soviet Volkhov Front liberated the town of Tikhvin and pushed to the shore of Lake Ladoga. Though they were unable to break through to Leningrad, they did open enough of a salient to allow the construction of a rail spur across the ice. This connected the rail line at Tikhvin to the city of Leningrad by rail, at least during the winter.

For the next two years, Tikhvin played a critical role in funneling supplies to the army and civilian population during the epic battles to relieve Leningrad. In recognition of its role during the war, Tikhvin was designated in 2010 as a “City of Military Glory,” one of 45 in Russia.

The tenacity of the Irons cannot be overestimated!!


Play a Train Song

John Denver sings of the twin ribbons of steel… “Steel Rails”

from the 1997 album All Aboard!


The Shiny Irons… White-Out!!!

“Let it… Snow”
Oh, the snowfall’s deeper than the hedges

But we have rotary plows and wedges
So we’ll toss the snow off the edges
And we’ll go, and we’ll go, and we’ll go…
Oh, it’s choked the mountain passes
And the oil is thick as molasses
And it’s still coming down in masses
Got to go, got to go, got to go…
When we finally get it clear
The drifts, they all disappear
And the Shiny Irons reappear
Then we’ll go, then we’ll go, then we’ll go…
The northeastern United States huddles under cover from another brutal winter storm, and we seek the guidance of Google Dictionary…
Winterize: to adapt or prepare (something, especially a house or an automobile) for use in cold weather.
The Shiny Irons are particularly keen about winterizing. As with many other modes of transport, the icy crystals can, in quantity, bring hundreds of tons of cargo to a standstill, miring even the most powerful engines in the deep frozen drifts. Gentle accumulations of a few inches can be dealt with the “old-fashioned way”… the train simply blows through the drift, sending newly-formed snowballs hurtling into the distance. As the accumulations grow taller, more extreme steps need taken. At this point, the snowplows appear.

In slo-motion, an Amtrak “plows snow”
In the very early days of railroading, snow removal technology in use was wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the Irons. Highway snow removal in those mid-19th Century winters took an entirely different direction than we see today. Winterizing of wagons and carriages included removal of wheels and substitution of skis in their stead. The snow on the roads was then “rolled” to produce a smooth surface for ski-borne transport.

This approach wasn’t going to work on the Irons, as the ability of the train to move requires an intimate connection of steel wheel to steel rail. The snow has to GO!!!
The first incarnation of a solution was the Bucker Plow. Initially a simple blade type plow, the Bucker Plow simply pushed the snow off one side of the rails. This was soon superseded by the wedge design,

Steve Talas – Snow plough Train

which split the snowdrift down the middle, pushing equally in both directions. This approach worked well enough for most of The Snowbound Irons, provided the snow was not too deep, and provided there was enough “elbow room” on either side of the track to accommodate the displaced white stuff. The Central Pacific Railroad History Museum web site offers this first person account of a trip across country in 1872, the highlight of the author’s vacation being THREE WEEKS snowbound between Cheyenne, Wy. and Bitter Creek crossing.
When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific pushed the Irons into the Rocky mountains, the wedge plow met its match. Drifts of several feet are common enough in the mountains, and these conditions left no place for the plowed snow to go. A “positive” solution was not long in coming, and it came from a place where the snow fell even deeper. Canadian dentist (yes, dentist!) J. W. Elliot filed a patent in 1871 for “an improvement on a machine for removing snow from railway tracks.” The intrepid tooth-puller did not actually build the device, leaving it to another Canadian, Orange Jull, to gift the Irons the Rotary Plow. Very much the forerunner of the “sno-blower”, Elliot and Jull’s centrifugal fan plow consisted of a set of radial blades

Elliot/Jull rotary snow plow

which cut into the snow, lifted it and hurled it into the air and off the tracks. The sno-blower offered a workable solution to the problem of plowing snow too deep for a wedge type plow, though the approach generated some problems of its own. Because the Rotary plow needs to spin the blade, it must have its own power source, generally a steam or Diesel engine. Additionally, a rotary plow cuts a “groove” in the snow bank, leaving a vertical wall of snow on either side of the track. Called an “open cut”, these vertical walls make the use of more conventional snow plows impossible… that “lack of elbow room” issue again. Other problem areas, such as operating and maintenance expense, mean that Rotaries are used only when nothing else will do the job.
White-Out in the Donner Pass!!!
One of the most macabre events in the early days of travel across the North American continent occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846. Taking a shortcut to California, a group of 20 wagons led by George Donner became snowbound in the Sierra near Truckee, Nevada and were forced to spend the winter in the wilderness. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. One of the most difficult passages on the U.S. transcontinental railroad, the construction of the route over the Donner Pass summit often required working in snow many tens of feet deep. This stretch of Irons has since been the site of serious snow removal issues, highlighted by a 1952 incident involving the City of San Francisco passenger train.

City of San Francisco snowbound
City of San Francisco in warmer times

On a westbound run over “the Hill”, as the Southern Pacific railroad workers called Donner Summit, The City ran into trouble in Yuba Pass. A monster snow slide had blocked the tracks a few miles west of Donner Pass, leaving 196 passengers and 20 crew members cooling (literally!) their heels in the frigid Sierra that January. Frozen in place, the streamliner required three days of non-stop rotary plow, steam and Diesel locomotive, and hand shoveling to rescue the passengers. Snowplows repeatedly became stuck and had to be pulled free, the water and steam pipes under the hapless streamliner froze, and the train(s) became covered by snowfall, creating a serious danger of suffocation, starvation and dehydration! The stricken ticket-holders were finally evacuated by automobile on U.S. Highway 40 which had been opened as part of the effort. The ice-bound ‘liner was wrestled free three days later. Trains and Travel writer Howard W. Bull penned a comprehensive (and a good read!) account of the event in 1953. Most surely a “close call”, a repeat of the 1846 Donner tragedy was avoided and though all the passengers survived, several injuries and one death marred the joy of the rescue; the danger of snow on the Irons cannot be overstated.
Today, the Irons rarely use the Rotaries, their cost and complexity having led the railroads to other snow removal solutions. A few are still in occasional use, but by and large the clearing of the Irons is done by wedge plows, bulldozers, Jordan Spreaders, and even ballast regulators.

The Bamboo Railroad

“If the engine fails and you have to push, walk on the rails… that way you avoid the snakes and land mines on the ground….”
The Irons are itchy… wanderlust runs deep in the twin ribbons of metal, there is always someplace else to go. At the turn of the 20th Century, one could take the train to innumerable exotic destinations, Vietnam… not being one of them. The French colonial government in Indo-China (as Southeast Asia was then known) decided to fix that. The Irons stretched from Western Europe to Bangkok (now in Thailand), and thence to Singapore, but the land south and east of Bangkok had yet to be tracked. Rails existed between many of the cities in the region, but a large gap existed between the Thai border and Phnom Penh. The first Irons were laid on this path around 1930, and by the start of WW2, the modern capital was joined with Poipet on the Thai border.
The realities of politics intervened after the war, and the service was suspended from Phnom Penh to Thailand by the French… Thailand was seen as an ally to Khmer rebels in the area. The war, the Khmer and the French conspired to bring a permanent halt to rail transport along this stretch of Irons, and the tracks were torn, broken, and, of course, land mined. By the end of the 20th Century, the Khmer government was no more, and the region of Western Cambodia was left with a dilapidated, overgrown rail line with no rolling stock. Ingenuity soon prevailed, as the locals created a unique and wholly appropriate solution — The Bamboo Railroad.
As in so much of the Third World, Cambodia has a rich resource base of broken-down weaponry left over from innumerable wars, and the local craftspeople drew on this for the construction of the rolling stock. The “cars” running on the rails are very light, very home-built, and very durable. Wheels and axles are of steel salvaged from the machines of war, beaten into ploughshares in the very metaphorical sense. Car bodies are of wood, mostly bamboo, gifting the Bamboo Irons their name. Power takes the form of 12-cylinder to 20-cylinder Diesel eng… … right…. Power is usually provided by a single cylinder gasoline engine turning a belt driving the rear axle. Speeds are around 40kph, which is smokin’ on a vehicle with no brakes!! Very light flatbeds carry… well, what do you need to move? People, baggage, rice and other staple foodstuffs, motorbikes, cattle… if it’ll fit, it’ll ship. Fares are low, locally set and infinitely negotiable, as there is no central authority out here. Timetables are loose, locally set and… yup, infinitely variable, as there is no….
Running on a single track for almost all the route, there is always the problem of two trains meeting. It’s not as much an issue as it might be in a more industrial area, as the top speeds allow even the brake-less cars to stop well before any metal… er, any bamboo is bent. But, what do you do when two cars meet out in the hinterland, and there’s no siding??? This:

There are some general rules for which car has to be unloaded and moved;
More passengers > fewer passengers
Motorbike in the cargo > no motorbike
Cattle > no cattle (hey, YOU wanna tell that surly 700lb buffalo to move??? Thought not!)
Despite its simplicity and unique adaptation to the needs of the population, the Bamboo Railway may be coming to it’s Waterloo. The Cambodian government has plans to upgrade the Irons from the capital to Bangkok, with Chinese help, money and rolling stock. The locals around Battambang aren’t concerned, though — this rumor has been circulating for some time, but no spikes have been driven.

Play a Train Song

Utah Phillips sings homage to the City of San Francisco, and to the snow… “Frisco Road”

From 1973’s “Starlight on the Rails”


The Shiny Irons Down Under

Thomas Devery: What do you want to go to Australia for?
Jason McCullough: Well, it’s the last of the frontier country. Thought I might like to do a little pioneering.
“Support Your Local Sheriff”, 1969

The land of the Southern Cross, of the Dreamtime, of the kangaroo, (and of Foster’s Lager), of “the Outback”, a 2.5 million square mile desert which covers 70% of this island/continent/nation. This is the land of The Shiny Irons. As in other remote and inhospitable locales, the Irons were an essential element in the quest to move people and commerce in this huge and untamed realm. It is the sixth largest country in the world, yet has a population ranking 53rd, 90% of whom live in urban areas; Australia is very much open space. And open space is what the Shiny Irons do best!

As in the United States and in Europe, the railroad began as a wagonway, with cast iron rails supporting horse drawn (or people drawn – Australia was a penal colony!) wagons. The Australian Agricultural Company laid the first Irons in 1831 to service its coal mines in Newcastle, New South Wales. Coal in the hills south of Newcastle was mined by convict labor, however the efficiency of this solution had long been doubtful. In 1824 The AACo was formed, first to raise sheep and produce wool. In 1831 the Company expanded its operations to include coal production. The lines were inclined railways, gravity powered; two loaded coal wagons would roll down the hill to the town below, automatically pulling two empties back up to the mines. These early wagonways did not have the rail and ties configuration we know today, rather they had rails with a “T” or “I” shaped cross section, about 3-1/2 feet long, each end resting on a rock pillar.

“Fish-belly” rails as used on early Australian railway

Three lines served the three mines, moving coal wagons of 1 tonne (2200 lb.) capacity. Horse power, gravity, and good old elbow grease powered the railroads until 1854, when the first steam locomotive made its way down under.

The impetus for the construction of the Port Melbourne Railway was a common enough, though very exciting discovery… GOLD!!! As in any good gold rush story, the new-found wealth brought people… LOTS of people. An 1851 census gifted the city of Melbourne about 20,000 population … by 1855, the population was over 100,000! Emmigrants leaving Britain in 1852 bought more tickets to Melbourne than to all other destinations! With the increase in passenger and freight commerce, Melbourne’s existing port was no longer large enough to handle the trade, and a larger port was constructed at Sandridge, south of the city. To close the 4 km gap between the new, larger port and the city, a privately owned railway was built in 1854. The Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway operated two trains on a half-hour schedule. Eschewing the old, the proprietors opted to forgo horsepower (and man-power) in favor of steam power. They ordered two locomotives from Robert Stephenson and Company of Great Britain, however, the first locomotive to run in revenue service down under would be home-built. Delays in shipping the Stephenson locomotives irritated the railway owners enough to contract the Robertson, Martin and Smith engineering firm of Melbourne for a local solution. On September 12, 1854, the M&HB Railway hauled a regimental band, several local dignitaries and assorted cargo and baggage from Melbourne to the railway pier at Sandridge. The Sandridge Line, as it has come to be known, still runs today as a tram. Passengers can go from Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station to the beach at Port Melbourne (Sandridge) in 10 minutes.

Flinders Street Station, early 1900s

Up the coast in Sydney, the Irons were showing off their passenger toting skills by 1855. Documents proclaiming the Sydney Tramroad and Railway Company were issued in 1848, with plans to build rail lines up the Parramatta River to carry passengers and cargo. Financial and administrative problems and resultant delays and cost escalations led to purchase of the line by the New South Wales government in 1855. On September 26, 1855, a train carrying the official opening delegation departed Sydney Terminal Station. Extensions and trunk lines followed, though a general climate of political intrigue seemed to stymie any and all endeavors. A bridge across Sydney Harbor helped carry the Irons to Hornsby in 1887, and other suburban lines stretched their arms outbound from the city. In 1895 an electrified tram line was laid from Circular Quay to Redfern Railway Station.

South Australia’s first effort on the Irons was also the first broad gauge rail line in the country (gauge refers to the distance between rails of a rail line). A 10 km horse-drawn rail line connecting the river port at Goolwa with the sea opened for service in 1854. While the iron rails and equine propulsion were seen to be adequate, the oceanic facilities at Port Elliot were not, and the line was extended to Victor Harbor in 1864. State ownership, and steam power, came to South Australia in 1856 when a 12 km broad gauge rail line was laid between the City of Adelaide and Port Adelaide. Over the ensuing years, the urgings of commerce in copper and other minerals, wheat and other crops, and of course in passenger transport, led the Shiny Irons to many other parts of South Australia.

When Sir George Bowen, GCMG, the first Governor of Queensland, arrived in Brisbane, he found the State ridiculously mired on the coast. Ample fertile pasture lands had enticed squatter sheep farmers into the interior, however the intimidation of the Main Dividing Range made transportation of supplies inbound and wool outbound difficult, expensive, and at times, impossible. A magistrate of the time reports of the 125 km journey:

“I have just arrived in Brisbane after a journey of four days from Toowoomba. Any traveler is in absolute danger of his life and it was with the greatest difficulty that I managed to get through at all. At the Seven Mile Creek both horse and rider were nearly precipitated into the creek. Gatton Creek is a wretched place and I noticed drays that had been camped there eighteen days not being able to cross because of the flooded state of the creek.”

By 1861, the area on the west side of the Range was inhabited by a paltry 3,500 settlers, but they tended over 3 million sheep and half a million head of cattle. The effort and expense of transportation across the Range had become a serious problem and rails were badly needed. Parliament in the colony favored a privately funded solution, and the promoters of the Moreton Bay Tramway Company published a prospectus in October of 1860. Capital to the tune of £200,000 was to be raised, and a 90 km wood railed, horse drawn tramway was to be built from Ipswich to Toowoomba. As it transpired, the Tramway promoters’ eyes were bigger than their wallets, and the Company went insolvent before any serious construction could begin. In the interim, the Parliament had rethought the financing, the route, the gauge and the propulsion method. The arrival from Britain of esteemed civil engineer Mr. Abraham Fitzgibbon ensured that the upcoming rail line would, indeed, be Shiny… and Iron. The Minister of Lands framed the first Railway Bill and presented it to Parliament in May, 1863. A bitter debate over the proposed 3 ft., 6 in. gauge for the rail line followed, with numerous voices proclaiming their derision of the proposed narrow gauge, favoring instead the Standard Gauge of 4 ft., 8-1/2 in. The chorus of dissent included even the Rt. Hon. William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer of Her Majesty’s Treasury! However, even this esteemed voice could not be heard from such a distance. The first spade of sod was turned on the narrow gauge railway in February, 1864. Orders for locomotives and rolling stock were sent to England, track was laid, and on July 31, 1865 the first leg of the Southern and Western Railway opened for revenue service; the first narrow gauge trunk line in the world.

Australia being a continent, it would be only fitting for it to have a transcontinental railroad… everybody has one!! The notion of a north-south railroad was given speed by the terrible cost in money and lives of shipment from Adelaide, on the southern coast, to Palmerstown (now Darwin), in the north. In 1862, land speculators financed an expedition to explore routes from south to north, and 4 years prior, a Melbourne businessman had proposed building a railroad spanning the distance. By 1876, the government of South Australia (which administered the Northern Territory) had already built a telegraph line along one of the explored routes, and was eager to back up its wire line with a rail line. Reaching deep into its pockets, the government found… mostly lint – the telegraph line had used up all its spare cash. Bills of authorization were passed despite the meager rations of funds, and the transcontinental construction began. Irons were laid from Port Augusta to “The Gums” (now Farina), stretching the Irons northward into the Outback. A separate project ran a rail line from Palmerstown south into the desert, ending at Pine Creek. Fits and starts marked the meager progress of the transcontinental for decades to come. In 2001, final construction began on the 90-year-old project and the last of the missing 1500 km. was completed in 2004.
An east-west transcontinental railroad opened in 1917, however, it was really a combine of several different railroad lines. Ground was broken at Port Augusta in 1912, and the Irons stretched out across the Nullarbor towards the west coast and Perth. In 1911, King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, introduced a bill authorizing the construction of a railroad linking the two cities. Combined with the existing rail lines from Sydney, through Melbourne, and to Port Augusta via Adelaide, this would link the extremes of the east and west coasts by an unbroken (sort of) rail line. “Sort of” referring to the gauge differences between some of the sections of the line. World War 1 intervened in Australia, halting construction due to lack of supplies and materials, but in 1917, the final spike was driven at Ooldea, South Australia. This transcon did not present the engineering difficulties of the American transcontinental railroad or of the Russian one; there were no mountains to cross, nor any large bodies of water to bridge. This is not to say the effort was without headaches, though. There was typhus, extremes of heat and cold, logistical problems, shortages of material… and the flies, constant, endemic, biting flies. There was also the mind-numbing distance. The Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie line is 1096 miles, with over 600 miles of that across the flat, desolate Nullarbor Plain. In spite of these difficulties, the line was built in record time for Australian railroad construction, averaging over 2 miles per day. Until the advent of Indian Pacific service in 1970, east-west travelers had to change trains at state borders due to mismatched track gauge. In the mid-late 20th Century, the Commonwealth undertook to standardize gauge at 4 ft., 8-1/2 in. The Nullarbor section of this line boasts the longest unbroken straight stretch of Irons in the world, 478 km. with nary a curve to be found!

Alice Springs isn’t the middle of nowhere,

but you can see it from there… on second thought, Alice Springs IS the middle of nowhere….
In 1893, Dost Mahomet Baloch arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia. He brought with him 25 camels. The interior of the Australian Continent, the “Outback” is notoriously difficult to ford. Dry, sandy, windy, with water holes few, far between, and unreliable. Early European expeditions into this expanse used the same pack technology as used in Eurasia and North America, horses, mules and wagons. It quickly became clear that this type of outfitting was unsuited to the task at hand. Horses and mules are ill equipped to walk in sandy soil and constant loose gravel, and they need copious amounts of water in hot, windy conditions. With their narrow wheels, the wagons of the time were very hard to drag through the sand, exhausting the draft animals in short order.

“The Ghan” at Alice Springs, wit the tribute to the cameleers

The solution was to be found in the deserts of Africa and Asia, in a draft animal which had been negotiating this terrain for millennia; the camel. From about 1860, camel caravanners from South Asia, Southwest Asia and North Africa transported supplies into the desolate Outback. Going where horses and wagons could not go, they transported tools, equipment, even water and mail to mining camps, to remote settlements and to construction sites. Cameleers supplied the critical materials to build the Overland Telegraph up the backbone of the continent, and later did the same for the building of the railroad. The Horrocks Expedition in 1846 proved two points; one, camels were eminently well suited to the Outback and two, Australians were ill suited to handle the grumpy beasts. Thus entered the Afghan Cameleers. When the vertical transcontinental rail line was completed to Alice Springs, the train running the line was named “The Ghan”, a tribute to the camel caravanners whose service had been so vital in carrying the Irons across the Outback.

Play A Train Song

Australian balladeer Slim Dusty, AO MBE entertains with a tale of the east-west transcon, “Indian-Pacific”


The Shiny Irons on the Dark Continent

The coming of the railroad was, in every place it appeared, a paradigm shift in the ability to transport tonnage over land. Before the Irons, people carried goods on their backs (or on their heads). A person could carry pounds, or tens of pounds. A team of horses or oxen could carry tens or even hundreds of pounds. With a large, well constructed wagon, hundreds of pounds or even many hundreds of pounds could be moved. Carrying tons, let alone many or hundreds of tons, was simply out of the realm of possibility. Even when the carriage was up to the task, in many cases the road was not. Loads measured in tons were the exclusive provence of the boats, barges and seagoing ships – indeed, that’s why we call it “shipping”. The shipper was left to transport the cargo piecemeal to the docks where a proper shipment could be assembled.

Almost overnight, that changed. The construction of a roadbed of two strips of metal, and of cars which could reliably traverse such a road, made the overland transport of tonnage a reality. Even when drawn by animals, loads an order of magnitude heavier could be moved easily, and the addition of powered locomotives revolutionized even that. In one of the very first applications of the Irons, 5 railroad cars were used to transport ten tons of iron and 70 men.

In addition to the fundamental change in the ability to move loads, the railroads had an equally significant effect on almost every other aspect of life, especially in areas where there was limited communication. Professor James W. King writes in “Railroads of Central and Southern Africa”:

In the subject of understanding world history, railroads have always been an integral part. Whether the subject is the economic history, the political history, or the social history of any one particular country or region, one must also have at least a small understanding of the role that railroads played.

As the rails brought trade and transport to Appalachia, to Siberia, to the vast expanse of Central Asia, they brought outside culture, economic expansion and social change to these areas as well. In the mid-19th Century, European colonial powers were beginning to covet the mineral and natural resources of the interior of Africa. European states, particularly Britain and France, had colonial holdings on the continent, Britain on the southern tip of the continent and France in the west, but large-scale movement into the interior would be driven by the industrial revolution. It had long been known that gold and diamonds were abundant in sub-saharan Africa, but the nearly complete lack of development, the dearth of maps, guides or other directional information, the sheer immensity and distance, made a “California, here I come” type gold rush unlikely. The discovery of industrial resources such as manganese, chromium and copper brought large-scale colonization and with it, the railroads.

Though the Irons were primarily laid for the mundane purpose of transporting goods, there were, as always, those whose dreams were larger.

The Shiny Irons on the Cape: The first railroad in the Cape area of southern Africa was in the Natal, now Durban. The fine harbor at The Point needed upgrading to allow ships to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, and a couple of marshy areas in town made transport from the harbor to the town difficult. In 1860 the first stretch of Irons was laid, a 3.2Km stretch running from Natal Harbor to Durban. Many more miles… er, kilometers of rail would follow.

In 1866, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs found a curious transparent stone on his father’s

farm. A family friend sent it to another friend for comment. After a series of unremarkable journeys, the stone was determined to be the Eureka Diamond, the first diamond to find it’s way out of Africa in modern times. The worth of these gemstones is driven by their relative rarity, and this was much more pronounced at the time. Some geological inspection determined that there were more diamonds in the area – a lot more. This wealth was worth building a railroad for, and in 1885 a rail line was completed between Cape Town and Kimberly. Notably, the planning for this railroad initiated a new gauge (gauge refers to the distance between the rails) more suitable for the mountainous terrain of the southern African interior. The standard British gauge measured 1435mm (4′-8 1/2”) which worked fine, however it was thought that narrowing the gauge would make the track more friendly to the tight curves which would be found in the mountains. A gauge of 1065mm (3′-6”) was agreed upon and the name “Cape Gauge” soon found usage.

Gemstone magnates soon realized that diamonds were everywhere in the cape region, and soon the Shiny Irons were also everywhere.

The Shiny Irons in the Rift: A huge scar mars the east of Africa, a deep gash as if an irresistible force were trying to tear the horn off the beast. This is the Great Rift Valley and, indeed, that is what is happening. Three huge plates of the Earth’s crust are struggling for dominance here, and the valley is the result of two of them separating. One of the noted explorers of the 19th century British Royal Geographic Society, Sir Richard Francis Burton, (from whom the late American actor took his stage name) found his calling here. After the requisite stint in the Army, in Burton’s case in India, Burton traveled the world for the Geographic Society. A noted scholar and linguist, gifted with a zest for discovery, Burton was a natural for a quest to find the “Holy Grail” of Europeans involved in the dangerous business of geographic exploration: the source of the White Nile River. Arab chronicles told of an “inland sea” west and south of the horn of Africa, and in 1857, Burton and fellow geography buff John Speke set off to determine if this was, indeed, the long-sought fountainhead. What they found was the African Great Lakes, formed as part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. By the 1880s, trade goods flowed out of the areas west of the Lakes, making their way to the coast. The larger of the lakes, Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika were being used as conduits for a portion of the trip, providing brief respite from the tortuous equatorial climate, jungle and hardscrabble ground. Enough wealth was being transported to entice the Imperial British East Africa Company to lay Irons at Kilindini Harbor in Mombasa and stretch them into the interior towards Lake Victoria. Construction began in 1895 and around 1900 the rails reached what is now Nairobi, and in 1903, after skirting the northern shore of the Lake, reached Kampala, (now) Uganda. The construction of this line provided history (and filmmaking with a particularly grisly tale, that of the “Tsavo Man-Eaters“.

In 1898, two lions terrorized crews constructing a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River, killing—according to some estimates—135 people. “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood,” wrote a worker on the railway, a project of the British colonial government. “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”


This event was the basis for the 1996 movie “The Ghost and the Darkness”, and while there are many tales of horror and of intrigue which history has magnified… this is not one of them. In 1889, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson was contracted by the Uganda Railway Committee to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya. The river bisects the path of the Kenya-Uganda Railroad about halfway between Mombasa and Nairobi. The area is home to the Tsavo lions, a large cat species infamous for attacks on humans. After the project fell behind as a result of the lion attacks, Patterson and indigenous hunters stalked and killed the lions. For the kingly sum of $5000, Patterson sold the carcasses to the Field Museum in Chicago where they work to this day greeting visitors and reminding them who really runs things in the Rift.

The Shiny Irons go West: Much as in southern and eastern Africa, the construction of the rail lines was done to connect the coastal harbors with the resources in the interior. In modern-day Ghana, the Irons were first laid in 1903. Running from the port city of Sekondi (now the Sekondi-Takoradi metro area), the railroad reached into the jungle to the mining area around Kumasi. Gold and exotic hardwoods rode the rails to the coast. This site offers a wonderfully detailed description of the construction of this line. An example of the rigors of construction a railroad through the East African jungle:

The surveyors had a superhuman task. The forest was so dense and overgrown with brushwood that it was seldom that a clear view of a hundred feet ahead could be obtained. The surveyor-explorers found the country to be gently undulating. Most of the depressions were swamps or contained stagnant, fetid pools concealed from sight by the overgrowing scrub, so that the surveyor frequently found himself immersed to the thighs or waist, and any disturbance of the pools aroused swarms of mosquitoes to attack and plague the invader.


In Sierra Leone, the Irons were laid to serve passengers rather than to haul freight. Founded in 1792 by 1200 former slaves from the U.S. and Canada, Sierra Leone had become a diverse, cosmopolitan nation by the late 19th century. The British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron, based in Sierra Leone, was tasked with intercepting and boarding slave ships illegally operating out of East Africa. Freed slaves from the ships were repatriated to Sierra Leone, and as a result, the country became the destination for a large number of British and American abolitionists and missionaries as well. Railroads to move all these diverse groups were needed, and a consortium of merchants from Liverpool financed and constructed some 350 miles of Irons linking the nation.

A stretch of the Irons in Nigeria was laid to serve a political purpose, opening up the interior of the country and connecting it with the coast:

In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, colonial railways became distinguishing marks of British colonial development policy.  A basic assumption of British officials concerned with colonial development was that rapid, efficient, and inexpensive transportation was necessary if economic progress was to be made in the “undeveloped estates”.


After much debate, it was agreed that a short line of Irons from Lagos to Otta would be built. Construction began in 1895 and, as the railroad proceeded, the political climate began to change. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Crown felt that the minimum extent of the line should be from “a port city” on the coast, running northeast to the northern city of Kano, some 1000 miles away. Beyond this, there was no agreement at all. There were varying schemes, some of which began in Lagos, and some of which began elsewhere. The latter risked sacrificing the expenditure which had been made building a terminus in Lagos, and on improving the harbor there. In a comically piecemeal approach, debate on the basic route continued even as the Irons stretched into the interior. In December of 1900, they reached Ibadan, and shortly thereafter a survey was commissioned to find a crossing point on the Niger River and survey backwards from there to Ilorin. Still, no policy was in place, indeed, there was still no consensus on a route. Events (many of them involving long sections of rail, thousands of ties and countless spikes) had transpired to make the debate pointless, and in 1902 the Colonial Office decided to hold a full-scale review of the situation and establish a general policy. This would include a decision as to the route, which was literally half-done. The pathway from the Niger to Kano was, for practical purposes, already decided as well, as the railroad was currently pointing directly at the center of the Kaduna Valley, so the route to Kano was a foregone conclusion.

Nestled on their ties, the Shiny Irons moved their charges through rich deposits of resources; oil and gas, coal, timber and stone. Gold, iron ore, precious and semi-precious stones of every type, copper, lead, zinc, even marble were along the route. Though the planning and execution were more than haphazard, the rail line reached Kano in 1912. At this point, the overly optimistic planners began discussing extensions of the line, to Lake Chad, and even on to link with the Nile River at Khartoum, Sudan… 3200 miles away. Such optimism was not to be rewarded, however.

The Shiny Irons in the Congo: In the late 19th Century, the major colonial powers operating in Africa were few… and all bickering. Britain and France, Germany and Italy, Spain and Portugal had all carved a slice of the continent. Belgium’s King Leopold had territorial ambitions in the region as well, and in a private venture, established the Congo Free State to extract resources from the Congo region of Central Africa. A part of this adventure was the construction of the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad. The transportation plan for Leopold’s colony was to use the Congo River network, however the river is not navigable for approximately 190 miles between Kinshasa and Matadi due to the Livingstone Falls and its associated cataracts.

During this same period, French colonial administration constructed the Congo-Ocean Railway to link the city of Brazzaville on the Congo River (across the river from Kinshasa) with the Atlantic Ocean port of Pointe-Noire. The 502-mile stretch of Irons was built between 1921 and 1934 and includes the 1690 meter Bamba tunnel and 14 reinforced concrete viaducts. Both the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad and the Congo-Ocean Railroad are still in service, and a proposal is being floated to join the railroads with a bridge across the Congo River.

It should be noted that both the Congo-Ocean Railroad and the Matadi-Kinshasa railroad were built using forced labor. Working under very primitive conditions, the loss of life during construction was staggering, even by the brutal standards of the colonial powers. An estimated 7000 workers died on the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad, while 17,000 died building the Congo-Ocean Railroad. These two rail lines had to run a long time before their rails were shiny.

The Shiny Irons from Cape to Cairo: In the late 19th Century, the Europeans were locked in a continual struggle for domination of their particular slice of Africa.

A Cape Colony politician, Cecil Rhodes, had a dream for Britain’s future in that free-for-all… a railway, through British Controlled territory, all the way from the Cape to the Mediterranean Sea. Interestingly, in this same period, the French were planning a rail line to connect their eastern and western colonies by a line running across the continent, from Senegal to Djibouti or “from the bulge of Africa to the horn of Africa” as it were. Both schemes had very serious technical and geographic challenges to overcome, as well as having to work around the continual imperial intrigue presented by the other competing European powers in Africa. The French rail plan came to naught after a confrontation on and near the Nile river in 1898. A British gunboat flotilla confronted the French railroad construction effort as it was preparing a rail crossing of the Nile near the town of Fashoda. With the British force outnumbering the French about 10-1, the French considered the better part of valor and withdrew. The incident ended the French plan for a cross-continent railway. The British plan continued to be discussed, and by the time WW1 began, they had good rail service from the cape to the southern edge of the rift valley, and from Cairo to the southern edge of the Sudan. In the way at that point was the German colony of German East Africa. The political settlement after WW1 made this point moot, offering this territory to Britain as well, but then the Great Depression intervened, followed by WW2 and the plan went the way of history.

Much of the Cape to Cairo Irons are still in use today, and one of the wonders of Africa can be seen from the train as it crosses one of the wonders of the Shiny Irons! The Victoria Falls Bridge spans the Zambezi River at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. From Zambia Tourism:

Originally referred to as the Zambezi Bridge, the parabolic arch design of the Victoria Falls Bridge is credited to George Hobson. It was constructed in England by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company, and shipped to the Mozambique port of Beira, and then railed up to Victoria Falls. In a feat of Victorian engineering, the Bridge took just 14 months to build. It was opened by Charles Darwin’s son, Professor George Darwin, President of the British Association (now the Royal Society) on 12 September 1905. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists the Victoria Falls Bridge as an historic civil engineering landmark.


The Victoria Falls bridge under construction, and today:






The Shiny Irons in Africa today: Today, the continent of Africa has the lowest number of miles of Irons per square mile of territory in the world. The resource base which first brought the European Irons to Africa is still there, and still enticing. Much infrastructure work is being funded by China, including a network of lines connecting the east coast to the Great Lakes area. A line connecting Djibouti City, Djibouti on the coast with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, opened in January of this year. Chinese financial and technical aid is making possible the completion of a $4b run of the Irons from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

Given this new financial infusion, the Irons in Africa will continue to expand and modernize, bringing new opportunity and growth to what we once referred to as the “Dark Continent”. Perhaps the colonial powers’ dream of a Cape to Cairo railroad and a Bulge to Horn railroad will become reality! That would sure…

keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!


The Luxury Irons on the Dark Continent

Today, you can journey down the same Irons that Cecil Rhodes did, and do so in the lap of Luxury! Rovos Rail is a private railway company operating out of Pretoria, South Africa.

Rovos offers luxury train service to several destinations in southern Africa, as well as a tourist run across that Victoria Falls Bridge we talked about earlier!

Rovos and other private ventures also offer rail journeys in several other places around the globe. Check out their web site, as well as these articles from Style Magazine’s web site.


Play a Train Song

Rock’n’roll from a bygone era, singing about the Shiny Irons from an even more bygone era, The Kinks perform “Last of the Steam Powered Trains”

from a 1969 appearance on the Julie Felix Show.


Over and Under (and Through) with the Shiny Irons

The building of a railroad is really the science of taming the terrain… regardless…. The railroad goes from point “A” to point “B” by the shortest route available. Going around is expensive, time-consuming and inefficient. Particularly in the case of very high-speed passenger railroad lines, “going around” may well defeat the purpose of the rail line. It’s just better to go over than to go around. And it’s better to go through than to go over. In the United States, the opening stanza of “going through” was sung in June of 1833 with the opening of the Allegheny Portage Railroad’s Staple Bend Tunnel. Thought to be the first railroad tunnel in the U.S., it forces its way through a peak in the Appalachian mountains near the town of Mineral Point, Pennsylvania. Construction began on the tunnel in April, 1831, and over the next two years, a hole 901 linear feet was bored through the mountain. The 14,900 cubic yards of rock was removed in the old way – by hand. For $13 per month plus room and board, working 12-hour days six days a week, workers drilled and blasted the mountain into submission.

Famous in song and legend, the “steel drivin’ man” John Henry drilled 36” deep holes in rock walls to build these tunnels. As difficult as this work sounds, the reality is even harder. The drill John Henry wielded was a steel rod about 1 inch in diameter with a cross-shaped point. The drill was held with the point against the rock wall and the other end was struck with a 9-pound hammer.


The resulting trauma blasted a hole in the rock… about a quarter-inch deep. Repeated blows each yielded another centimeter of rock dust until the drill reached the required depth. Several three-man crews worked the wall at one time, enduring a cacophony of racket – the grunts of the men swinging the hammer, the shriek of the steel, the crunch of rock, loathe to be removed. And dust… dust from floor to ceiling, choking, blinding, dust. Bellows operators pumped air into the tunnel to provide at least a minimum of breathable atmosphere but for these workers, safety regulations of any kind were many decades away. After the required number of holes had been drilled, the drillmen retired to lunch. Powder setters pressed black powder charges, wrapped in paper, into the holes, set fuses and ran. The resulting explosions cleared rock to about half the depth of the drilled holes, this 50% return on investment leaving its detritus on the floor of the tunnel. The workers spent the afternoon clearing the mess and, the next morning the process was repeated, pushing the rock wall another 18” into the mountain. For the Staple Bend Tunnel, for the Alleghenies, the option of going around would mean either laying track over the top of the hill or in a serpentine path around it… neither is optimal, but either would be much less effort than drilling through. The efficiency comes from the fact that you have to go around every time… you only have to go through ONCE!!! Other options, while undesirable, were at least available. Later, the Irons would approach mountain peaks where going around or over was simply not possible.

In 1832, while John Henry and company were bludgeoning the Staple Bend Tunnel through Pennsylvania, a New York doctor and businessman was writing a seminal article for the New York Courier and Enquirer. The great-grandson of Mayflower passenger John Carver, Dr. Hartwell Carver knew a bit about pioneering, and was stumping for a railroad across the continent. In 1847, he submitted to Congress a proposal for a charter to build just such a railroad. Recall, this was a time when the most famous cross-country emigrant road was only a few years old, and was strewn with misery and death as travelers clawed their way across an unforgiving wilderness. The good Doctor Carver was going to build a railroad across this expanse of unknown?? From the opening discussions in the late 1830s, Congress debated and squabbled over details, over routes, over financing, until…. In the rapidly expanding California country, a businessman named John Sutter was having a sawmill constructed on the South Fork of the American River. Construction contractor James W. Marshall spied some shiny flakes of metal in the water, and, with a shout of “Eureka” (the California State motto), announced the beginning of the Gold Rush. Gold in the west meant people moving west, and people moving always means business opportunity. Even Congress could see this, and quickly authorized Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to settle the picayune questions of routing and engineering. In a massive engaging of science and technology, Davis sent geographers and geologists, architects and engineers, cartographers and stenographers into the wilds to find a way through which to push the Irons across the land. The Pacific Railroad Surveys returned a veritable encyclopedia of new knowledge about the west, and laid (at least on paper), the way for the transcontinental railroad. Not only was the survey work scientifically demanding, it was also difficult and dangerous. On October 25, 1853

Paiute Indians attack U.S. Army Captain John W. Gunnison and his party of 37 soldiers and railroad surveyors near Sevier Lake, Utah. Gunnison and seven other men were killed, but the survey party continued with its work and eventually reported its findings to the United States Congress.

The final decision on the route for the upcoming rails would remain a political decision, tied, as were so many decisions in the pre-Civil War era, to the intractable issue of slavery. The path on which the Irons would lay was not chosen until after the southern states seceded, leaving the political decision in the hands of northern politicians. Jefferson Davis’ survey crews mapped the paths of five prospective routes, ranging from the Northern Route which left the western tip of Lake Superior and tracked through northern North Dakota, Montana and on to Oregon, to the Southern Route, spanning a much more temperate clime from New Orleans through Texas and along the Rio Grande to California. The route chosen was called the Central route, running from Omaha, Nebraska through the high plains of Nebraska, and Wyoming, then through the roughage of Utah and Nevada to Sacramento, California. While the portions of the route through the fertile soils of the plains offered their own challenges, and while the construction of a railroad through the scrub lands and deserts of California and Nevada could never be called “easy”… it was in the granite canyons of Wyoming, Utah and Nevada that John Henry and his drill really earned their keep. But, before the Irons could tackle the new bridge engineering required to cross the rivers and ravines, before John Henry and his crews could bull their way through the Sierra Nevada, the planners had to solve one other problem….

The Shiny Irons at the Office – and at the Bank. The administration and management of the project presented nearly as many obstacles as the terrain presented. From the beginning, an undercurrent of intrigue surrounded the whole undertaking, with various factions (usually united by money) conspiring to manipulate the route, the financing, even the name of the line. Asa Whitney, a New york dry goods importer, envisioned a route paid for by the sale of land along the route, however, his proposal resulted in no action. As Chief Engineer for the California based Central Pacific Railroad, Theodore Judah surveyed a workable route for a railroad through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time these mountains were considered the biggest obstacle to a “central route” which would end in the Northern California gold field area. In 1859, Judah received a letter from Daniel Strong, a California storekeeper, offering to show Judah a route through the Sierra which was gradual enough for a railroad. The two ended up incorporating the Central Pacific Railroad, securing investment backing from four other California businessmen, known as the “big four”. In the east, a former medical doctor named Thomas Durant gained control of the Union Pacific Railroad by buying a controlling amount of shares. Financial wheeling and dealing on both ends of the line resulted in no small amount of scandal, and some of the names involved ended up with some tarnish… some of the political actors ended up with prison records. Nonetheless, John Henry and his fellows were eventually put to work.

The Shiny Irons Go Over. The soft soil and gentle hills of Nebraska presented their own challenges, but when the Shiny Irons reached Wyoming, the order of the day changed from one of crossing terrain to one of going over, under, and through it. The hardscrabble, wrinkled lands of southern Wyoming added new emphasis to the engineering of bridges… there were rivers to cross, ravines to span, rough, rugged, gulleys, gulches and gorges to conquer.

Dale Creek Bridge, Sherman, Wyoming

Just west of the now-ghost town of Sherman, in southeastern Wyoming, the Irons encountered what would be the most difficult obstacle on the eastern (Union Pacific) leg of the cross-continent trek. Rising to nearly 8000 feet, the intrepid track-layers cleared a smooth groove in the boulder-strewn granite badlands for the rail line. After clearing nearly a mile of solid rock, the workers beheld a 650-foot wide, 150-foot deep scar in the landscape… the Dale Creek gorge. Naught but a trickle in the summer and fall, the snowmelt from the Wind River Mountains to the northwest swelled the springtime creek to a torrent. For the Irons, there were, as always, two choices; go on or go back. In December, 1867 the first stonework began, and in April of the following year rails were laid on the bridge. A wooden trestle, the bridge was every bit as frightening as it looked. Author Henry T. Williams wrote of his impression of the structure:

“Dale Creek Bridge — is about two miles west of Sherman. This bridge is a light airy structure, but is really very substantial. The creek, like a thread of silver, winds its devious way in the depths below, and is soon lost to sight as you pass rapidly down the grade and through the granite cuts and snow sheds beyond. This bridge is 450 feet long, and nearly 130 feet high, and is one of the wonders on the great trans-continental route. A water tank, just beyond it, is supplied with water from the creek by means of a steam pump. The buildings in the valley below seem small in the distance, though they are not a great way off. The old wagon road crossed the creek down a ravine, on the right side of the track, and the remains of the bridge may still be seen. This stream rises about six miles north of the bridge, and is fed by numerous springs and tributaries, running in a general southerly direction, until it empties into the Cache La Poudre River. The old overland road from Denver to California ascended this river and creek until it struck the head-waters of the Laramie. Leaving Dale Creek bridge, the road soon turns to the right, and before you, on the left, is spread out, like a magnificent panorama…”

In sharp contrast to this somewhat pedestrian description of the bridge, author Ellen G. White describes her 1873 adventure of crossing the bridge:

The scenery over the plains has been uninteresting. Our curiosity is excited somewhat in seeing mud cabins, adobe houses and sagebrush in abundance. But on we go. From Cheyenne the engines toiled up, up the summit against the most fearful wind. The iron horses are slowly dragging the cars up the mountain to Sherman. Fears are expressed of danger, because of the wind, in crossing the Dale Creek bridge–650 feet long and 126 feet high—spanning Dale creek from bluff to bluff. This trestle bridge looks like a light, frail thing to bear so great weight. But fears are not expressed because of the frail appearance of the bridge, but in regard to the tempest of wind, so fierce that we fear the cars may be blown from the track. In the providence of God the wind decreased. Its terrible wail is subdued to pitiful sobs and sighs, and we passed safely over the dreaded bridge. We reached the summit. The extra engine was removed. We are upon an elevation of 7,857 feet. No steam is required at this point to forward the train, for the down grade is sufficient for us to glide swiftly along.

As we pass on down an embankment we see the ruins of a freight car that had been thrown from the track. Men were actively at work upon the shattered cars. We are told that the freight train broke through the bridge one week ago. Two hours behind this unfortunate train came the passenger cars. Had this accident happened to them, many lives must have been lost.

Even with guy wires extending down to the gulley floor, the bridge was very unstable, and trains had to slow to 4 mph to cross. Compounding the terror of being suspended above the abyss on what appeared to the uninitiated to be knitting needles, the roaring winds of the canyon would regularly threaten to blow the train cars off the bridge – occasionally making good on this threat!!

The Shiny Irons Go Under. After crossing the ridge which at the time was considered the Continental Divide, the Irons traversed the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming and Utah on the way to Promontory Summit (or wherever the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads might meet) and the waiting Golden Spike. As it transpired, the desolate country north of Utah’s Great Salt Lake would host the joining of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific and the opening of the transcontinental rail line joining Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. In addition to the bridges previously discussed, the eastern leg of Irons contained four tunnels forged by hand and by explosives through the granite obstacle of the Rocky Mountains. It was on the western run from California to Promontory that the true tunneling test was met. In contrast to the U.P.’s four tunnels, the Central Pacific “went under” fifteen times!

The technology of the day relied heavily on muscle power to bore through the mountains. The steam powered construction and earthmoving equipment of the day, while powerful, was large, cumbersome, and unreliable. In addition, the unimproved “roads” and the mountainous terrain made moving large equipment impossible. In the west, however, the task of pounding a path for the Irons through the unyielding Sierra Nevada would fall to “John Henry” only in the most metaphorical sense. The vast majority of the construction of the Central Pacific was done by immigrants from China. Chinese began arriving in the mid-1850’s as contract laborers, on the heels of the discovery of gold in California. Subject to relentless discrimination, the immigrants found it very difficult to work. During this same period, the Central Pacific Railroad was having trouble finding workers. The allure of gold fields enticed large numbers of manual laborers, anxious for a quick (though equally hard-earned) buck. Though it was argued by some that their smaller stature made them undesirable laborers, Chinese workers had already helped build the California Central Railroad and the San Jose Railroad. 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad began to recruit Chinese labor. The Shasta Courier carried this advertisement on January 2, 1865:

The Central Pacific Railroad Company advertises for 5,000 laborers to work upon the road between Newcastle and Illinoistown [Colfax]. It is the intention of the company to employ at once as many men as can be advantageously worked on the distance between these points — 23 miles. The iron for laying this additional amount of track is already in Sacramento and it is expected that the cars will run to Illinoistown by August next. The above opportunity affords a chance for those out of employment.

Heading east from Sacramento, the Central Pacific almost immediately felt the heavy hand of the Sierra Nevada. The terrain they were tasked to tame rose a staggering 7000 feet in only 100 miles. Over the next 3 1/2 years, 12,000 laborers, 2/3 of whom were Chinese, laid the Shiny Irons across, over, and under the Sierra and into the Great Divide Basin. The “last peak” to be conquered was the 7000-foot Donner Pass.

The route which Daniel Strong had advanced to Theodore Judah as an “easier” alternative to crossing the Sierra had a macabre history even in 1865. Twenty years prior, this same pass had been touted as a shortcut on the “California Trail”. Said to cut 300 miles off what was at that time a journey of over four months, the “Truckee Cutoff” was tested by 87 pioneers in a wagon train led by George Donner. Arriving in late October, Donner found the pass which would later bear his name choked by six feet of early-season snow. Blocked by snow in front and behind, the Donner party was trapped, destined for a gruesome and well-documented fate. The Central Pacific workers arrived better prepared. At $28 per month plus room and board, the workers building the Summit Tunnel earned just over twice the wage seen by those who built the Staple Bend Tunnel three decades earlier. Using mostly the same tools and techniques, they drilled and blasted the 1,659-foot Tunnel #6 through rock that was just over twice as hard, working in conditions which could be charitably described as just over twice as bad! The Donner Pass area annually records 51.6” of precipitation, most of which falls as snow. To work the construction site during the winter, tunnels were dug under the snowdrifts. These access tunnels allowed the movement of workers and supplies, even while under sometimes tens of feet of snow.

Tunnels were dug beneath forty-foot drifts and for months, 3,000 workmen lived curious mote-like lives, passing from work to living quarters in dim passages far beneath the snow’s surface. . . . [There] was constant danger, for as snows accumulated on the upper ridges, avalanches grew frequent, their approach heralded only by a brief thunderous roar. A second later, a work crew, a bunkhouse, an entire camp would go hurtling at a dizzy speed down miles of frozen canyon. Not until months later were the bodies recovered; sometimes groups were found with shovels or picks still clutched in their frozen hands. [The Big Four, Oscar Lewis, p. 74. {instead on p. 81 in the New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1941 edition which contains a bibliography but cites no source for this information}]

In addition to the tunnel, the workers built earth retention walls where the tracks skirted the side of the mountain. It is not sufficient to just notch the side of the mountain and lay rails, as the earth above the tracks will slide down onto them, and the earth under the tracks will be washed out. To forestall such calamity, the engineers design stone walls above

“Chinese Walls” between Tunnel #6 and Tunnel #7, Donner Summit

and below the track, as these photos show. The retention structures have come to be known as “Chinese walls”.

On to The Golden Spike. With the completion of the Donner Pass summit construction, the Central Pacific Railroad moved into Nevada, then on to Utah to meet up with the Union Pacific Railroad and connect the coasts. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford drove the last spike to signal the completion of the “Pacific Railroad”. In just six years, 1,912 miles of Shiny Irons were laid across, over, under and through the western half of the continent. The building of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-19th century has been compared to an attempt to travel to Mars today. New engineering and construction techniques were developed, new construction methods were invented, several million man-hours of labor were expended, and a divided nation was made one. Since then, untold numbers of steel wheels have passed this way as the railroads continue to

keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!

Ten Miles In One Day

One of the most amazing accomplishments during the building of the cross-country railroad occurred on April 28, 1869. By the time the Central Pacific had come down from the Sierra Nevada, the C.P and U.P. were engaging in an unofficial race to see who could lay the most track. Obviously, the farther east the point at which the railroads joined, the more revenue the C.P. could claim from cross-country shipping, and vice-verse for the U.P. Additionally, there had become a point of pride between the work crews of the two railroads. One (very) productive day, a U.P. track crew laid an astonishing six miles of track. Charles Crocker, Central Pacific Railroad founder, and his work crews were invited to a “beat THAT” party. C.P.’s crews did… by a mile, also giving rise to a metaphor which continues to this day. Union Pacific work crews responded by laying 7 1/2 miles of track in one day… though that “day” did last from 3AM until midnight.

A gauntlet had clearly been tossed in the direction of the C.P.’s tracklayers. While some of the following may be a bit fuzzy, the actual hammer-and-spike events were documented carefully by officials from both railroads – this had become much more than a friendly rivalry. One of C.P.’s foremen said, out loud for all to witness, that the C.P. would lay ten miles of track in one day!! To add impossibility to the already incredible, the claim was made that the feat would be performed in a standard twelve-hour day… no candlelight vigil needed!! These blasphemies found the ear of Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant, whose ire and ego conspired to get the better of his judgment. He offered to wager the then- phenomenal sum of $10,000 that such a thing could not be done. The bet was covered, and the game was on. The C.P. work crews prepped the area, laid out all the materials and sharpened all the edges… everyone was briefed on their duties, on the timing and on the goal. Wheels were greased, boilers topped off, backup everything was laid out… and on the appointed day, a deep breath was drawn and…. a locomotive jumped the rails. This one-day setback was repaired while the hoots and hollers of the U.P. work crews (at this time only a few dozen miles away) only served to make the C.P. workers more determined. At 7:00 the next morning, Crocker’s well-trained, experienced spike-drivers toed the line again. When the foremen called off the work at 7:00 that evening, a jaw-dropping ten miles and fifty-six feet of Shiny Irons lay where only prairie had been the day before.

When the forward march was halted at 7 o’clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.

A record for hand-laid track, this was never equaled. Today, very little of the Irons are laid by hand, complex automatic equipment can lay track with greater accuracy and much more safely than human track crews – though the the robots’ 3 miles per day rate of return totally pales in comparison to the record of ten miles a day!!

In India, a Harsco track laying machine puts the Shiny Irons in the dirt:

Here, a Plasser machine does maintenance on existing track. The system unfastens the rail from the ties, lifts the rail, pulls the old ties out, scoops up the ballast, cleans it, lays new ties, clips the rails in place and reapplies the ballast!! Scrap railroad ties and trash and debris from the dirty ballast are dumped into open gondola cars for disposal.

Play a Train Song

Stumping for “old school” railroad technology, “There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel”

from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Starlight Express”


Road Tripping on the Shiny Irons

IN 1899, THE GAME OF FOOTBALL WAS STILL A NOVELTY. Only a couple dozen colleges and universities fielded teams, and the majority of these were all but unsanctioned, being affiliated with their eponymous school in name only. Into this hazy world of sport came the plucky gridders of Sewanee, Tennessee. The team from The University of the South were stinging from a disrespect done them by the Vanderbilt footballers. Unable to agree on the split of gate receipts, Commodore Vanderbilt’s Commodores had canceled a football game, and the Tigers were itching to exact brutal revenge on… well, on somebody.

In those days of iron men and mud roads, the visiting team had more disadvantages than mere crowd noise, and just getting to the game might be the tallest hurdle they would face. Being college students, Sewanee’s players researched and found a solution to that problem… take the train!! After a flurry of scheduling, the Tigs were ready for road work… lots of it. They had set up titanic struggles with not one, not two, but FIVE other southern football clubs… an impractical task made, well, made inconceivable by a time frame of SIX DAYS!!! On November 8th, 1899, the surly Tigers boarded a train for a 900-mile-plus ride to Austin, Texas. After dispatching the Longhorns, it was back on the Irons for a short hop to College Station, Texas, where less than 20 hours later, the Aggies succumbed. A 350-mile overnight ride to New Orleans followed. Apparently the ease of sleep made possible by the Shiny Irons’ inherent smoothness agreed with the team, as the Tulane Green Wave was victimized in their turn. Sunday the 12th was a day of rest for the Episcopalian University of the South, as the team convalesced and saw some sights, then it was onto the Irons again, this time a day trip to Baton Rouge. Thumping the LSU Tigers, the Sewanee Tigers followed up with another smooth and comfortable overnight Irons excursion, a 400-miler to Memphis and the waiting Ole Miss Rebels. Another day, another win, such is the result of the rest and relaxation of traveling by train. Sewanee’s team rode 2500 miles on the Irons including three overnight trips, and bested five top-flight opponents in six days, by a total score of 91-0.

Take me out to the ball game…
Take me there on the train…
We’ll get a seat in a Pullman car…
Too bad the ball park is not very far…

For decades, sports teams, journalists, and fans all rode the Irons to the games, many times on the same train. The close proximity enhanced the sense of team among the players and allowed traveling journalists and boosters a closer look at the players. The Irons were, from the beginning, an integral part of the experience. By the late 1800s, baseball game times were being set to coincide with the local train arrivals. Railroads, ever watchful for ways to entice the riders’ dollars, adjusted routes and timetables to add extra capacity for games deemed to be more popular. To more properly cover 2016’s World Series, New York Times columnist Dan Berry rode the modern incarnation of these “trains to the games”; Amtrak’s “Lake Shore Limited” connects Chicago to New York and Boston, skirting Lake Michigan and Lake Erie before heading across the hills to the coast. Coincidentally, this course takes the train through Cleveland, making it a “home run” choice for baseball fans wanting to take in all seven games. Reflecting on a time when the teams and fans rode the Irons to all the games:

In fact, when the Indians beat the Boston Braves in 1948 to win their last World Series, they took a special train from Boston that picked up this same rail line in Albany. It then continued on to Cleveland, where the giddy denizens awaiting them surely believed that other championships would follow, the Yankees be damned.

Today’s passenger rail, even stunted by decades of under-emphasis and neglect, is every bit as inviting. According to the ubiquitous “Google Maps”, a car ride from the home of the long-suffering Cleveland team’s Progressive Stadium to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago billy-goat-cursed Cubs would have set you back 5 hours and 31 minutes, give or take a game-day traffic snarl… and a stop for gas… or two… and a stop for a meal…. Take the train!! A 24-minute light rail ride on the blue-green line from Progressive Field gets you to Cleveland’s Lakefront Station, then six hours of smooth scenic relaxation (with breakfast!) and you arrive at Chicago’s Union Station. The blue line leaves every 8 minutes and, after a transfer to the red line, delivers you relaxed and well-rested at the gates of Wrigley.

In the heyday of the Passenger Irons, the railroads ran special trains to sporting events of national prominence. As late as 1985, the “I-70 Series” contests between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals were served by a dedicated Union Pacific route between the two baseball-mad cities. This run was only for dignitaries, however; politicians, former players, and other notables. The bright yellow 11-car train whistle-stopped across the show-me state announcing that, for this year, at least, baseball was a Missouri game!

The Shiny Irons go to “America’s Game”. In the decades following World War 1, the U.S. service academies at West Point and Annapolis built ever-stronger football programs, and the natural rivalry between Army and Navy made their annual contest a nationally recognized event. Situated half-way between the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., the logical neutral site for the game was Philadelphia. The 1924 contest was hosted at Municipal Stadium, just a short hop from Pennsylvania Railroad’s Greenwich yard. The proximity was noted by the railroad management who quickly put in place a system for moving the growing number of attendees. Each year that the game was hosted at Municipal (later John F. Kennedy Memorial) Stadium, the Pennsy built a temporary depot in the freight yard, hauling the thousands of fans from around the country to the game and back home. This is the largest concentrated move of rail passenger traffic in U.S. history.

This painting shows Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives lined up outside of Municipal Stadium after the 1955 game.

“Mass Transportation” by Griffith Teller

Though by 1975, the Army-Navy Day Special had reached the end of it’s time, the Shiny Irons returned to “America’s Game” in 2005, in a very heartwarming manner. Philadelphia philanthropists and Irons enthusiasts Bennett and Vivian Levin decided this tradition needed to be revived. As the owners of three luxury rail cars, the Levins already had a leg up on a program to transport football fans to the Army-Navy extravaganza, but their plan was to do more – a lot more. In addition to their cars, they cajoled the owners of fifteen MORE luxury rail cars to throw in with them, and arrangements were put in place for Amtrak to pull the cars. The passengers would be football fans who had already paid far more than the price of a ticket; wounded American soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center (in Washington, D.C.) and the National Naval Medical Center (in Bethesda, Maryland). A donor from the Army War College ponied up 100 really good seats, and 88 wounded warriors and their guests attended the 2005 Army-Navy game.

The toughest ticket — for the 2010 game

The tradition continues on the Charitable Irons, the 19-car Liberty Train

passes the Maryland Area Regional Commuter station in Bowie, Md., heading for Philadelphia and the 2010 Army-Navy game.

Excursions on the Shiny Irons. In addition to taking the train to your favorite activity, the Irons can also be the activity. There are dozens of excursion trains taking passengers on sightseeing trips where the train ride itself is among the memories. High Iron Travel offers excursion rides to scenic areas not covered by Amtrak routes.

For over 25 years, High Iron’s special trains have visited the far corners and out-of-the-way places of North America. From the tall timbers of Oregon, to the wilds of the Yucatan, to the stately peaks of the Canadian Rockies, the Caritas and accompanying Pullman and Dome Cars have delighted adventurous travelers and railway enthusiasts.

Sightseeing from the back of a restored golden era passenger car not only offers a sensory experience unmatched in your minivan, but in many cases, the Irons run through territory you can’t see from any other venue. And, if you REALLY want to see the sights of Classic Irons, High Iron offers a special excursion trains to the Spring Meeting and Fall Convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners!

Back to the grandstands, excursion trips are available to Cheyenne, Wyoming’s famous Frontier Days. You’ll ride to “The Daddy of ’em All” behind a steam locomotive from Union Pacific’s “Heritage Fleet” leaving Denver for Ol’ Cheyenne. If your taste runs toward the “Sport of Kings”, Pullman Rail Journeys offers a private train ride to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky. For the children, and the children at heart, Premier Rail Journeys touts itself as the “nation’s largest operator of holiday rail events”. Their Polar Express Train Ride will take you to the North Pole (figuratively speaking) from Massachusetts or from Mount Hood, from Texas or New York! The incomparable beauty of Southwestern Colorado is on the Irons courtesy of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Winding through the breathtaking Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains, the Rio takes you from Alamosa to La Veta, and offers a multitude of diversions for those not into natural wonders… The Oktoberfest train features food, live theme-inspired music, and the best German beers on the Party Irons, as well as an extended stopover in La Veta to explore the German Bier Gardens and festival booths. Rio Grande’s “Rails and Ales” excursion is the Rio’s most popular (wonder why…?). For those not “goin” just to be goin’ ”, the Rio has a fantastic concert lineup for this summer season, too! Here’s a database of the train tours, excursions and tourist railroads in North America… this information may be outdated, call first!

There is a lure to the train that calls to us. The siren song of the bygone time when the Irons were the first and sometimes only choice… that lonesome whistle immortalized in song… the size, speed, power and sheer intensity of the railroad beckons. “Come see the sights with us”. Take the train, not because it is there… take the train because it is the train!!!

’cause that’ll keep the rails shiny!!! Thank you for joining us!!


The Silk Road on the Shiny Irons

For those looking for an excursion of a more exotic flavor, the Shiny Irons becon you to go East… waayyyy East. Central Asia, the area between China and the Caspian Sea, between Russian Siberia and Afghanistan, has been a crossroads of culture and of trade for thousands of years. Lapis Lazuli, the azure stone from which Cleopatra made her eye shadow, came out of the eastern hills of Central Asia and made its way along hardscrabble trails to Egypt. Pottery, precious stones, Chinese and Indian cloth, even steel for Viking swords passed along these trade routes. Alexander the Great found his bride, Roxanne, in Sogdiana. Most famously, Chinese silk was passed from trader to trader, giving its name to the network of caravan roads. Near the conclusion of “The Thousand and One Nights”, the Arab collection of tales which gave us Aladdin, flying carpets and Sinbad, a main character retires to the mystical city of Samarkand. He takes a horse caravan and a couple of months to get there… you can take the train.

Mir-i-Arab, Bukhara, Uzbekistan (from Golden Eagle’s web site)

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers:

Silk Road by Private Train

An iconic 21 day rail adventure between Moscow and Beijing through Central Asia. Join us in September as we retrace the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation. Retracing one of the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation, the Silk Road follows in the footsteps of such legendary figures as Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. For centuries, merchants and adventurers journeyed to and from China on ancient routes through some of the most testing landscapes in the world trading silk, spices and perfumes. These ‘highways’ – stretching some 4,000 miles (6,400 km) – collectively came to be called the ‘Silk Road’.

This incredible tour offers a close-up look at Moscow, Volgogorad, then across the Kara Kum desert into the Old Orient. The 6000 year old ruin of Merv, fountains and golden domes rising from the earth, magnificent architecture and art and history in abundance are yours to behold as the Irons carry you across this ancient portal between East and West. The ride goes from Moscow, in Russia, to Beijing, in China before retracing steps. This is not a ride for the faint of wallet, however, as the “double-occupancy” cabin will set you back enough to buy a mid-sized car. For one who wishes to see the Silk Road in style, this is an unmatched experience. Golden Eagle has sever other luxury train excursions, see their web site!


Play a Train Song

Taking the Irons to a resort hotel… somewhere in the hills. Flat and Scruggs sing “The Petticoat Junction Theme”

from the campy 1964 sit-com of the same name.


Contraband on the Shiny Irons

A NEW ERA IN LAND TRANSPORT WAS INAUGURATED IN 1830 when the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company began revenue service on the Shiny Irons using a steam powered locomotive to move cargo.

One hundred years ago, American Class 1 railroads earned $3.6 billion dollars hauling lading (lading is the cargo a rail car carries) over 400,000 miles of track. Today, those same Irons stretch over only 161,000 miles, but the revenue generated totals a tidy $77.7 billion. By far the largest single commodity shipped on the Irons is coal, mostly destined for electric generation. Other commodities can be recognized by the rail cars carrying them such as automobiles, carried in specialty cars called autoracks, and consumer goods packed in the ubiquitous containers laden on the backs of well cars. Covered hoppers carry grain and other bulk commodities, tank cars transport oil, fuel alcohol, corn syrup and other liquids. The Irons have transported the sublime and the ridiculous, each packed carefully into rail cars common and quite uncommon, each and every shipment noted on a Bill of Lading….

Well, almost… every… shipment….

From the beginning of revenue service, there were shippers who just didn’t want to pay the freight. This could be for various reasons, including simple stinginess, however, it is usually for even less virtuous motives. From the first spike driven, the Irons offered the opportunity to travel long distances at great speed, turning weeks and even months into mere days. Those whose cargoes were acceptable loaded their goods on the train… those whose cargoes were shady loaded them under the train. In Laredo,Texas, the arrival of the Rio Grande and Pecos Railroad in 1882, and the 1888 completion of a Mexican National Railway line connecting los dos Laredos with Mexico City heralded a new dawn of smuggling, as entrepreneurs hid goods on trains bound into Mexico to avoid high Mexican tariffs. In the ensuing years, the transport of covert cargoes has only increased in both quantity and concealment. Though the odd smuggler will do so to avoid paying the freight charge, that is the exception. The Irons are, frankly, so efficient that freight dues are a very small part of the cost of a product, and the handling and shipping expertise available to those whose freight is “above (floor)board” is well worth the cost.

More often, the smuggler is shipping on the sly because the cargo in question cannot be shipped legally at any price. Tax stamped goods such as cigarettes and alcohol, illegal drugs, guns, stolen goods of all types, all command very high profits when moved from areas of low cost to areas of high demand, and, again, the Irons move goods very well. The Volstead Act of 1919, enacted to carry out the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, made the transport and sale of alcoholic beverages very profitable, and, as related in this 1922 article, the Shiny Irons were surreptitiously drafted to the task.

The railroads are carrying whisky in many parts of the United States; it is safe to say that the higher officials know nothing about it. You have only to talk to a bootlegger for a few minutes to get his opinion of the perfidy of the railroads in hauling liquor. There is one well-known whisky runner in Florida who by some means got hold of a rail car oil tank, such as is used by the big oil companies. He had a hatchway cut out of the top of the tank and he upholstered the inside with stuffed burlap. In this tank he could carry $60,000 worth of whisky, in bottles, when they were properly packed. There wasn’t a more gaudily painted, land-going oil tanker in the United States than his. He devised the name of a fictitious oil company and had it painted in brilliant letters on the sides of his craft. He “greased” himself a route along the lower Atlantic Coast, and became famous among bootleggers, North and South, for the size of his earnings. He’s still running at this writing.

These outrageous efforts were more the exception in the alcohol smuggling industry, as small manufacturers and distributors took over in the latter days of Prohibition and on into today. Other goods have replaced booze as the major “non-revenue” shipment on the Irons. Cigarettes are a very high-profit commodity, however, the government is many times the major beneficent of this wealth. Shipping cigarettes from a low-tax state or country to a high-tax one can net a nice chunk of change for the bootlegger. A box car load of cigarettes successfully smuggled can net a million dollars for the enterprising shipper, however this takes a degree of audacity rare even in the criminal world. Enterprising crooks in Slovakia found a novel way to use the Irons to move butts to highly taxed Ukrainian smokers… they dug a tunnel and built a rail line in it! Tens of millions of contraband cigs, as well as illegal drugs, untaxed alcohol, and refugees, traversed the Covert Irons before Slovak law enforcers discovered the operation!

More common are high-profit items such as illegal drugs. Smugglers are reluctant to include drugs as part of the lading due to numerous high-tech inspections that cargoes are subject to in today’s troubled world. Low volume, very high profit shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana can be hidden in numerous places on a train. Many times the smugglers will board the train at a rail yard and secret the drug package in a surreptitious location, marking it with coded graffiti to alert the people on the other end of the line to pick up the shipment. Sometimes the train will be stopped in a remote location by creating a real or simulated emergency condition, causing the train crew to stop long enough for the drugs to be loaded. When smuggled from a “producing” area, the drugs are usually of very high purity, and a relatively small package of a few pounds can be easily concealed. The high value per volume of the drugs means that after being diluted for sale, this small package can be worth millions of dollars. In the U.S., most of these shipments originate in Mexico, Central America and South America and with dozens of trains crossing into the U.S. every day, chances of discovery are low. Moreover, the relatively anonymous nature of the shipment means that, particularly for the “shipper”, chances of capture are even lower. For the pick up crew, the anonymity vanishes, however, the logistics of tracking the shipment require watching it literally every mile, as the retrieval team can jump on board the train at many points and toss the package to waiting subcontractors. For a train which may be going thousands of miles, and contraband which may be destined for anywhere along the route, it is not feasible. Desperate lawmakers have attempted to put pressure on the railroads to stop the flood, but there is precious little the railroads can do.

A Google search of “smuggling” and “railroad” returns many references to the Underground Railroad, the mid-19th Century network of people and trails used to help escaped slaves move from the American Southeast north and eventually to Canada. Not at all a “railroad”, the Underground seldom used the Shiny Irons, as it was too public and the risk of capture too great. An estimated 100,000 people followed the Underground to freedom. With heartbreaking irony, the railroad today IS moving people in secret. Mostly fleeing from economic hardship and war-ravaged countries, millions of people find themselves on the rails trying to find a better life. Refugees, many of them children, flee gang violence in Central and South America. Moving north toward the United States, many find their journey includes a terrifying five-day ride on “El Tren de la Muerte” or “The Death Train”. Hanging from ladders and platforms, or riding on the roof of the train, the fortunate will arrive in the north of Mexico. The unfortunate will not. For those who survive, a two-day walk across the Mexican desert will, many times, herald another train ride, this time across the U.S. southern border to Texas, Arizona or California. For a fee, the “coyotaje” will smuggle the immigrant across the border, often on the rails. Locked into boxcars or autoracks, the refugees trust to luck to avoid the x-ray scanners and other devices used by border enforcement agents to detect drug and human smuggling, trust to luck that the train will stop before their strength is exhausted, and trust to luck that, when the train does stop, someone will let them out. Many, many times, this does not happen. Botched human trafficking results in tragedy often enough to barely be news. The Irons see their share; reports from 1985, and from 2002, testify to the heartless nature of human trafficking.

To combat smuggling of all types, the railroads have installed hi-tech scanning systems which can “look inside” rail cars and cargo containers, allowing inspection teams a clear view of the contents of a rail car, even as the train continues to move.

Using scanning technologies as mundane as x-ray, and technologies seemingly from Star Trek, such as muon detector tomography, the railroads up the ante in the battle with smugglers. Trained imaging teams posted at border crossings scan the cars of the passing train, alert for anomalies which indicate something which shouldn’t be there. If the imaging team spots something suspicious, the train is ordered to stop and a more detailed inspection is carried out. The age-old struggle to ship cargo and stop contraband has entered the space age, even on the oldest of powered transport. Moving into the future, the railroad industry will continue to make every effort to keep the cargo safe, legal, and moving…

and that’ll keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

Stay Off The TRACKS!!!

pIn an earlier post, The Shiny Irons stressed the urgent need for vigilance at grade crossings (the intersection of a road and a railroad track is called a “grade crossing”). We noted that the difference in weight between a standard full-sized family sedan and an “average” freight train is the same as the difference between a family sedan and a can of pop… and the sedan, if struck by the train, will fare no better than the can of pop run over by the car.

Reports over the last few years have shown a decline in the number of fatalities at grade crossings, however, the latest data from 2016 is disheartening. Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit public safety organization, offers safety education to the public;

Ever stopped to consider the dangers involved with crossing highway-rail grade intersections or trespassing on railroad property? At Operation Lifesaver, we have.

Operation Lifesaver reports that, while the number of vehicle-train collisions fell 2.4% in 2016, the number of fatalities rose a sobering 13.7%. Additionally, the number of deaths due to trespassing on train tracks rose 12.8%. These are chilling numbers in any case, and especially so considering these deaths are entirely preventable. Most grade crossings in the U.S. are marked with at least a “crossbuck”, the familiar x-shaped sign saying “railroad crossing”. Many more are marked with the crossbuck and a set of red flashing lights and warning bell. About 35% have access controlled by a gate which drops across the traffic lane in front of oncoming traffic. Yet BNSF Railroad’s 2014 statistics show that 52% of grade crossing collisions occurred at crossings with active warning devices!!! For your own safety, be on the lookout for grade crossings!

Do not EVER drive around a gated crossing.

Do not EVER cross a grade crossing when a traffic control signal is active.

Stop, look and listen at grade crossings without active traffic control signals.

Operation Lifesaver’s data show that deaths from trespassing on train tracks rose to 511 from 453; trespass injuries grew to 483 from 415. Again, these are totally preventable. The train tracks are private property, and are a dangerous place to be. In October, 2011, three teenagers died on the tracks while taking a “selfie” with an oncoming train in the background. One of the parents pleads in Union Pacific Railroad’s “Inside Track” online magazine’s report;

No one should have to go through this and I hope people will seriously think about the campaign’s rail safety message and share it with their loved ones.”

In March of this year, another teen died on the tracks during a photo shoot for a modeling portfolio. The train tracks were to be the backdrop.

According to authorities, [she] was having photos taken with the train tracks as her backdrop. She began moving away from a train coming down the tracks when she was struck by another train coming in the opposite direction, on another set of tracks.

Union Pacific released two animated YouTube videos urging people to take selfies away from railroad tracks as part of a railroad safety campaign launch in August 2016.

The Irons are an indelible part of our culture, and we are very familiar, perhaps too familiar with the sights and sounds of the tracks. It is, nonetheless a very dangerous place, where things happen very quickly, where things are very large and very heavy. The Shiny Irons are not a playground, they are not a backdrop, and they are not a hiking path. The only place you can be hit by a train is on the tracks! Stay alert at grade crossings! If you are not at a grade crossing, STAY OFF THE TRACKS!

Play a Train Song

Sights, sounds and smells of old time railroading, Johnny Horton sings “Coal Smoke, Valve Oil and Steam”

from “Done Rovin’ “


Polishing the Shiny Irons

The story of the Shiny Irons is a story of speed. In 1805, a locomotive designed by Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England first threw down the gauntlet, running at the pace of 5 miles per hour. Lest we scoff, we in our 150-mph-capable automobiles, remember, this was a time when most travel was done in the time-honored manner of Boy Scouts, soldiers and those whose automobiles have failed… walking. And 5 mph is a brisk walking pace! The ubiquitous equine could add some haste to the hustle, as well as take a load off the traveler’s tired dogs, but the (perhaps legendary) 1830 race between Peter Cooper’s “Tom Thumb” steam locomotive and a horse-drawn cart established on whose back the future would ride. As the Irons evolved, beloved 19th Century scribe Samuel Clemens wrote of a journey “out west” which showed the true nature of the advance:

… our train, with its great, glaring Polyphemus eye, lighting up long vistas of prairie, rushed into the night and the Wild. Then to bed in luxurious couches, where we slept the sleep of the just and only awoke the next morning (Monday) at eight o’clock, to find ourselves at the crossing of the North Platte, THREE HUNDRED MILES from Omaha — fifteen hours and forty minutes out.”

Clearly the rails offered a change not of time, but of the scale of time. By the 1930’s, passenger service between cities at speeds of 130mph was common. Competing for the traveler’s dollar, the railroads offered not just a ride, but an “experience”:

The zenith of passenger rail in the United States came in the 1950’s. The cataclysm of the Second World War brought with it social advances which would conspire to doom the train ride. Though the war spurred a huge increase in railroad construction and use, it also made clear the need for a good highway system, and coaxed the money for such out of the Federal Government. Following the National Defense Highways Act of 1956, the U.S. Interstate Highway system made private automobiles a viable means of travel over the vast expanse of the nation. Also prodded by the war effort, a monumental improvement in aircraft technology gave the fledgeling airlines a huge advantage in speed over even the best rail lines. By the late 1960’s, passenger rail had all but vanished… here.

The Irons in the Old Country. Established in 1883, the “Orient Express” was, and is, one of the most famous trains in the world. Also the oldest International Train, the Express originally carried passengers from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey. The ride took one past some of Europe’s most beautiful architecture, including the Munich Station.

Münchner Hauptbahnhof

Much as in the United States, World War Two would herald a sea change in the status of the railroads of Europe. In a brutal irony, the destruction would have the opposite effect on the railroads of Europe, and later of Japan. In the nations where the war was fought, much, if not all of the infrastructure was completely destroyed. Factories, office buildings, roads, bridges… and, of course, railroads, had been brought low by the warring parties in an effort to halt the ability to resist. All had to be rebuilt, and the rebuilding was to be done using the latest techniques. In the post-war 1940s, as in the early 19th century, the easiest and most efficient way to move goods and people was still on the Irons, and so the railroads were repaired first. Built to modern standards and operated efficiently, the railroads quickly became the mode of choice for the inter-city traveler in these countries. Though roads were also rebuilt, Europe and Japan lacked the “car culture” which raved in post-war America. Additionally, with little or no indigenous oil production, gasoline prices were and continue to be very high. These factors made the Irons a lasting part of the transportation infrastructure in the rebuilt economies.

Need for Speed – East Asian Model. Billed as the first dedicated high-speed rail network, construction on Japan’s Shinkansen (literally “new trunk line”) was started in 1959. A largely mountainous island nation, Japan had only a rudimentary inter-city highway system and its railroad network was a circuitous narrow-gauge system ill-suited to carrying passengers at speed. The first leg of the new generation of railroading opened on October 1st,1964 with a route from Tokyo to Osaka. This linking of the modern and ancient capitals of the nation was an immediate success, carrying its one millionth passenger before three years had passed. By 1976, over one billion riders had made the trip. The sleek visage of the power cars and their phenomenal speed, combined with the still-fresh memory of the War prompted the sobriquet “bullet train”, a pseudonym which has become the generic term for high-speed railroading equipment. The first models of the Shinkansen clocked 125mph, and today’s examples regularly run 185mph. To achieve these speeds, the designers made short work of obstacles. Tunnels charge through mountains, bridges and viaducts span rivers and valleys, and intersecting roads and streets are sent over or under the tracks. This gives the bullet train the needed straight shot at the target.

Today, the traveler in Japan can ride the high-speed to most parts of the island nation. The oldest, Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka, carries the most riders. Shinkansen trains run on time, with the vast majority departing on time to the second. The cars are spacious, comfortable, and safe — Shinkansen records no passenger or crew fatal accidents in its history. Oh, and if I forgot to mention, they are faaaaaast!!!

Need for Speed – the U.K. Europe started quite a bit behind the Japanese in building high-speed rail networks but in the interim, they have aquitted themselves well. In Great Britain, lagging political will and economic resources had left the fastest trains languishing at under 90 mph by the beginning of 1970. Unwilling to build dedicated high-speed trackage as Japan had done, the British turned to rolling stock innovation. The Advanced Passenger Train project began life in the 1960’s as a solution which could maintain high speeds on rail lines mostly built in the 19th century. To tame the twisty tracks, the train was made to… tilt. Like a motorcycle rider entering a curve, the train tips to the inside of the curve, allowing curving speeds up to 40% faster than conventional trains. Unfortunately for the APT, overambitious technology , underambitious funding and… bad weather doomed it to a premature retirement. The first model deployed sported a gas turbine, straight from the Rolls Royce airplane engine works which, unfortunately proved troublesome and fuel and maintenance hungry. In a parody announcement of the time, APT riders were bid;

Welcome aboard the APT, stopping for repairs at Penrith, Crewe, Glasgow, Penrith, and Crewe

Desperate for some good publicity, British Rail launched the APT at Christmas, 1981, a particularly bad time of year for weather-related delays, and during a particularly bad winter. Combined with the aforementioned issues, the project was dead before it had breathed open air. Forgotten amid the clucking of the naysayers was the APT’s revolutionary tilting feature. Riders all over the world today have a much more comfortable riding experience as Italian, Swiss, German and even Japanese and Chinese trains lean into the curves, a technology pioneered, if not perfected, by the ill-fated APT.

Need for Speed – The Continent. The overriding problem facing British Rail was a lack of support, both political and financial. Things were far different across the English Channel. In France, the largest country in Europe, support for passenger rail was found in abundance all across the political spectrum. With this support came an open checkbook. Much as the first Credit Mobilier financial institution had financed the first French railroads, the Declaration d’Utilité Publique was granted, by the French Government in 1976, to build the LN1 (PSE) route from Paris to Lyon. That year, the first TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”, or, high speed train) prototype was built by Alsthom (now Alstom) and SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), the French national railway. In 1981, the first rail line was completed, offering service at high speed for a good portion of the route from Paris to Lyon. By 1989, the TGV had carried its 100 millionth passenger. The French approach to high-speed rail might be summarized as “slapping the problem with a giant cheque-book”, but it has produced a fine rail network, and also avoided the infrastructure, technology and public relations hassles the British encountered.

AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), the Spanish high-speed rail network, came to life in 1986 when the Spanish government sanctioned a 160 km/h (100 mph) maximum speed. The ideal was to connect all areas of the country to Madrid with a maximum travel time of 4 hours, and to Barcelona, the economic hub of the nation, in 6-1/2 hours. To accomplish this lofty goal, the Spanish state rail operator, RENFE, created a special governing body to coordinate and oversee construction and deployment of the AVE network. Following the French model, the AVE system’s new lines take as direct a route from point “A” to point “B” as possible. Additionally, several models of rolling stock were needed, to provide 350 km/h (217 mph), and 270 km/h (167 mph) speeds. Additionally, unique at the time, 50 units were designed to provide variable-gauge service. Gauge is the distance between rails of a track, and Spain has track with both “standard gauge” (1435mm) and “Iberian gauge” (1668mm). The rolling stock is designed to adjust from one gauge to the other by moving the wheels inboard or outboard. The innovative Talgo system accomplishes this task without the train even stopping!

In Germany, the ICE (Inter-City Express) connects 32 major German cities with a network of trains traveling at up to 300 km/h (186 mph). ICE was the brainchild of the German Federal Ministry of Research and Technology who commissioned a 1968 study into the feasibility of inter-city high-speed rail transport in Germany. In the summer of 1980, a three-unit test train capable of speeds of 350 km/h (217 mph) was ready to be tested, and a test track running between Rheine and Freren was being completed. The results were encouraging enough to prompt a 12 million Deutchmark investment by the German Federal Railway, Deutsche Bundesbahn, and the rechristening of the project as InterCityExperimental. A close coordination between Deutsche Bundesbahn, the carbuilding industry and the government resulted in a 1985 delivery of the first InterCityExpress trainset, for testing purposes and also resulted in a 1988 land speed record for rail guided vehicles. ICE began regularly scheduled service in 1991.

In Russia, the “Sapsan” (Perigrine Falcon) high-speed train provides 250 kp/h (155 mph) service between St. Petersburg and Moscow and, later, Nizhny Novgorod. Seimens-built trainsets are part of a 300 million Euro, 30-year contract.


Need for Speed – China. The world’s most populous nation has also become the world’s most prolific high-speed rail builder. In less than ten years, China has gone from no high-speed rail to the world’s leader. The country is interconnected with 12,500 miles of bullet tracks. That’s enough to go from New york to L.A. And back… twice. Much as was seen in the American west in the wake of the rail expansion of the 19th century, economic expansion follows the construction of the Chinese rail network. A large percentage – as much as 40% by some estimates – of the rail passenger traffic into the three mega-cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou is “generated traffic”, people who would not have made the trip if the train were not available. Pro-rail economists in China see this as concrete evidence of the positive economic impact of the bullet trains. By 2020, China is expected to have nearly 20,000 miles of high-speed rail lines in service.

Other’s Need for Speed. Smaller nations are also seeing the possibilities of high-speed rail. A proposal being floated in SouthEast Asia would link Bangkok, Thailand with Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then to Singapore. An on-again-off-again proposal to link the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo is being pushed by Chinese train and infrastructure building firms. King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government plan to plug the world’s largest solar farm into an Alstom-built TGV and provide 200 mph train travel from Tangier to Casablanca… no doubt Humphrey Bogart’s “Rick Blaine” (… “we’ll get on a train together and never stop”) would approve.

Need for Speed – U.S. In America, high-speed rail travel of the quality enjoyed in Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere, still eludes the prospective passenger. The Amtrak Acela trains of the Northeast Corridor can run a top speed of 150 mph, but this is only realized for a distance of 35 miles between Boston and New Haven due to curves in the line. A section from New York to Washington, D.C. Allows 135 mph speed. Most of the track used by America’s national passenger railway is owned and maintained by freight railroads. The Southwest Chief, the successor of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s Super Chief, still runs the same basic route it ran in 1936 when it was inaugurated. The first run of “the train of the stars” carried Hollywood royalty from Los Angeles to Chicago and back, offering the luxury service of a Pullman sleeping car train. Gable, Durante, Janet Leigh, Rosalind Russell, made the trip at speeds of over 100mph, and averaged “a mile a minute” over the trip… 5mph faster than today’s Southwest Chief.

Seeing the Need – U.S. Much talk has been shed in favor of (and against) high-speed rail in the United States, indeed, if words were pennies, we’d have 200 mph service to every city. What gets in the way is the sheer volume of pennies needed. Federal grants of several billion dollars have been offered, but no track is laid and no trains run. California’s High-Speed Rail Authority estimates $6 billion for the construction of the first segment of the state’s proposed rail system, running the 130 miles from Madera to Bakersfield… a sobering $46 million a mile. The HSRA, if successful, will use a hobo stew of funding methods, including public money and bond sales. Also available are Cap and Trade funds.

In July 2014 The World Bank reported that the per kilometer cost of California’s high-speed rail system was $56 million, more than double the average cost of $17–21 million per km of high speed rail in China and more than the $25–39 million per km average for similar projects in Europe.

An intriguing proposal put forth by private industry would build a rail line offering 150 mph service to Las Vegas. Called XpressWest, the (on-again-off-again) proposed service would ferry an estimated 5 million passengers annually to ‘Vegas. Running along the I-15 corridor, the rail line would connect Las Vegas with Victorville, California and link to a proposed California High Speed Rail terminal running from there to Palmdale, then to the coastal cities. Most, perhaps all, of the authorization has been granted for the Victorville to Vegas line, with the stickler being, of course, funding. A federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan was denied the project due to the project’s use of rolling stock which was not American made. Not to be so easily undone, the XpressWest backers are now planning a high-speed rail rolling stock assembly plant, located in Nevada, to go along with their high-speed rail. The RRIF loan was seen to be necessary as the project struggled to raise the estimated $4-$6 billion in private capital needed. The upcoming (possible) move of the Oakland Raiders NFL football team could spur new private capital interest in the XpressWest project, as the (proposed) location of the Las Vegas terminal would be in the end zone of the (proposed) new Raiders Stadium… hmmm, after all, Las Vegas IS for gamblers!

If the U.S. is to have true high-speed rail, we need to be cognizant of the lessons of History. The British put forth a half-hearted effort and got the result which one would expect. The rest of the Europeans and the Japanese went all-in and got wonderful high-speed rail systems. The Chinese dove in head-first and became the world leaders in track mileage, though there is some speculation they may be going too fast. If the return on investment can be seen, we may see private capital put to the test… after all, it was Vanderbilt who sold his fleet of barges and built the New York Central… to the consternation of all. Boston financier Charles Hellier took the bankrupt Charleston, Cincinatti and Chicago Railroad and dug, blasted and bridged a rail line into the then-priceless coalfields of Appalachia… and his contemporaries thought a Sanity Commission should be appointed….

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

– Orson Welles

Perhaps an Elon Musk, a Jeff Bezos may see the revenue in carrying Los Angeleans, heavy with wallet, to the brightly-lit casinos of Paradise, Nevada… and help build a bullet train factory on the way.

That’ll get the trains moving fast… which will keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

We ARE the “Jet Set”

In the 1950s and 1960s, all things seemed possible! Huge rockets were hurling satellites and people into orbit around the Earth, the race to the Moon was in full swing, nuclear power was poised to make electricity cheap in unlimited quantities, and jet powered aircraft whisked passengers across the oceans at unheard-of speeds. As noted, high-speed locomotives were pulling passenger trains across Europe at phenomenal speeds as well. Not to be upstaged by Boeing’s 707 “Jetliner”, the New York Central Railroad experimented with turbojet propulsion as well. Gas turbine engines, which are literally jet engines which, instead of blasting their angry superheated gasses out the rear of the engine, have instead been engineered to turn an output shaft had been used on the Shiny Irons since the Union Pacific’s late 1940’s GTEL project. NYC, however, elected to shelve the output shaft and go full turbojet. The resulting “loco”-motive morphed a fighter jet and a commuter train….

Still the fastest locomotive ever built in America, the “Black Beetle” featured a Budd RDC-3 Diesel power car with the twin-jet pod from a Convair B-36 bomber attached to the roof. The hybrid-on-steroids clocked 183.86 mph in test, and,according to rumor, was slowing down at the traps!


Play a train song

Early love for high-speed rail, the incomparable Hank Williams singing Roy Acuff’s ode to the

“Pan American Flyer”


Big Cars on the Shiny Irons

ON HER 2002 ALBUM “SWEET TALK AND GOOD LIES”, country music artist Heather Myles sings;

I like big cars,
Like the one that’s sittin’ in my Grandpa’s yard.
He’ll say: “they don’t make ’em like that no more,
“Not Pontiac, Cadillac, Chevy or Ford.”
Big cars.
Yeah, I like big cars.

Myles’ lament of bygone days describes a genre of American automobiles which have passed into history. The modern automobile is smaller, lighter and more efficient, much to her chagrin. On the Shiny Irons, though, we still got big cars!! In fact, the cars are getting BIGGER. Over the last half of the 20th Century, weights of standard American freight cars crept up from 220,000 pounds to 263,000, to the current gross rail load of 286,000 pounds (71,500 pounds per axle), while much of the new track and many of the bridges are being built to handle loads of 300,000 pounds and more!

How big is a train? A “rule of thumb” for size and power is, one ton of lading (lading is the commodity inside the rail car) requires one horsepower to move… a typical loaded railcar of the 1940s-1950s was 180,000 (74 tons when the weight of the car is deducted), and a typical train was 60 cars. With the 1500-2000 horsepower locomotives of that day, a barbershop quartet of pulling power would be required. Today’s more athletic locomotives are pumping out 4000-5000 horsepower (that’s a lot of time in the gym!), and thus, today’s Fab Four can pull 140 cars carrying around 125.5 tons each! Other logistic factors tend to limit the consist to around 100 cars, but the increase in lading weight per train is still very impressive!!

In the quarter-century after Richard Trevithick’s “Pen-y-Darren” proved the locomotive concept, the technology advanced rapidly. In 1829, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company went shopping for a locomotive for revenue service between the two eponymous towns. At trials held in the small village of Rainhill, a the father-son team of George and Robert Stephenson entered a locomotive with the perhaps optimistic sobriquet of “The Rocket”. Winning the bid, The Rocket inaugurated a continuing tradition of heavy hauling. At 8600 pounds, the puffer was heavy, indeed… for it’s day.

In the succeeding years, the speed and weight of the rolling stock outpaced the carrying capacity of the rail bed, necessitating a change from the iron surfaced wood track to iron rails and later steel rails. Performance increases even outstripped the braking capacity of the equipment, driving innovative technological advances. One of the most important changes was the shift from wood to coal as the primary fuel for the locomotives. Coal has a fuel value (measured in calories) nearly double that of wood, which allowed a locomotive to pull considerably more tonnage. Between 1860 and 1870, the percentage of ton-miles transported by coal-fired locomotives increased from 50% to 90%. Even in the early days when the locomotive fed on wood, the freight cars it dragged carried coal… a lot of coal, In Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860, Frederick Moore Binder notes:

The rich Pennsylvania anthracite fields were close to the big eastern cities, and nearly every major railroad in the Eastern United States… extended lines into the anthracite fields. Many railroads began as mining company shortline railroads. By 1840, annual hard coal output had passed the million-short ton mark, and then quadrupled by 1850, and as it grew it pushed railroad construction, mining and steel production in a synergistic symbiosis.

The demand for coal drove the railroads and shippers to develop more, larger, and lighter coal cars. Additionally, innovative loading, handling, and unloading systems were developed for fast turn around of the coal cars in service. In the mid-nineteenth century, the railroad was pressed into a service which would really put the “big” in “big cars”….

US Civil War railway gun and crew

The military forces of the world realized early on the capacity of the railroad to move troops and equipment; the use of the Irons themselves as a weapon was not far behind. During the U.S. Civil war, naval guns and field howitzers were mounted on modified rail cars and transported to battlegrounds. In subsequent conflicts, ever larger and heavier guns were mounted on rail cars, and the size and weight of the installations threatened to overwhelm even the Irons’ heavy hauling prowess. In the above photo, note the number of wheels under the car.

How much Iron can the Irons carry? As noted above, the normal weight limit of a modern rail car in the U.S. is 286,000 pounds. This sits on a pair of two-axle trucks (the wheelsets the rail car rides on are called “trucks”), for a load per axle of 71,500. This “axle load” is the guiding metric for carrying larger loads, and, generally, if you want to carry more weight, just add more axles! This same principle is seen on highway equipment, and even very large transport aircraft can land on unimproved or “soft” runways simply by adding lots of wheels to the landing gear. This principle was employed to extreme as rail mounted artillery became more common. By World War One, railroad artillery weighing north of a half-million pounds was being deployed.

France’s Obusier de 520 modele 1916; 518,000 pounds

As the track, roadbed and general quality of the railroads of the time were not the equal of today’s construction, these cars rode on a nearly unbroken cushion of wheels. The American army took delivery in 1918 of a 14” railway gun mounted on a 72-foot, 535,000 pound carriage. Spreading the load to the Tortured Irons under the behemoth were trucks sporting a total of 24 axles. The railway gun reached the extent of its excess in World War Two with the German “Schwerer Gustav” 80 centimeter gun. Tipping the scales at nearly 3 million pounds, the portly field piece rode on 8 trucks totaling 40 axles! At 38 feet, Gustav was also one of the tallest rail cars ever built. While these heavies were riding the rails, military tactics were moving in a direction which would make rail-guided weapons obsolete; however the age of “big cars” was just beginning.

In 1958, the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad moved what was billed as “the highest and widest load ever moved by rail“, a steel reactor container for a nuclear power plant. The 91-ton load reached 21 feet, 4 inches above the Irons and was 14 feet, 11 3/4 inches wide. The stint on the NYC&StL was part of a nearly 1600 mile journey for the nuclear fuel tank… at 15mph! America’s appetite for energy has driven many “high, wide, heavy” loads onto the Overtaxed Irons. This page from a Santa Fe Railroad advertisement shows a 300,000 pound oil refinery component being moved on not one, but three flat cars, with two cars supporting the load while spanning a third which rides idly between them (…slacker…)!

The current overload of choice again comes from the energy industry, in the form of turbines and transformers for electric generation facilities. The transformers, known as Large Power Transformers (LPTs) are used to change the voltage output from a generating facility to a higher voltage for more efficient transmission over long distances, or to a lower voltage for use by end users. They are very heavy, with the larger ones clocking 410 tons, and very, very expensive… at ten bucks a pound, that’s $7.5 million on that rail car. Though there aren’t a lot of these made, the size and weight, not to mention the cost, means you can’t just toss it in the back of a pickup truck for delivery. This costly cargo drove the development of a specialty rail car engineered just for this job. Called a “Schnabel” Car, the heavyweight heavy hauler resulted from an idea regarding the “floor” on which the load rests. The epiphany? … “who needs a floor”??? As this photo shows,

Consumers Power Company CPOX820 Schnabel Car, photo by Terry Cantrel

the Schnable concept dispenses entirely with the load-bearing floor, instead using the load (the transformer in this case) as a structural member, with two “beak-like (‘Schnabel’ in German)” structures on either side transferring the load to the Irons through a complex array of span bolsters and trucks. With 20 axles under the load, a 670 ton gross weight Schnabel Car can cruise with the axle load kept to a comfortable 67,000 pounds. Though the weight rating isn’t up there with the largest rail guns of the past, the 155-foot Gustav would nestle snugly in the middle of CPOX820’s 167 foot 6 inch length!! BIG CARS, indeed! Here, crossing the Susquehanna River, is the biggest of the Big Cars (currently);

WECX 801 was built in 2012 to transport nuclear reactor containment vessels for Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The biggie weighs in at almost 400 tons light weight, and the top of the roof is 18 feet above the Irons. Loaded, the car can weigh over 2 million pounds!! Length, like gross rail weight, can vary with the load being carried, but with 18 two-axle trucks on each end, this big boy can span a couple of small counties!

Starfire Engineering is in the big car business, too. An 8-axle, 195 ton depressed center flat car for hauling heavy transformers appears on our web site, as well as a 12-axle straight deck flat car. See our web site and give us a call, we will design a car to meet your heaviest hauling needs!

In addition to the mundane, everyday 2-million pound power generation loads, the Brawny Irons have also seen some… less common loads. In the waning days of the 19th century, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, N.Y. was a swanky playground for the well-heeled New Yorker. The Hotel Brighton’s three-story opulence catered to this clientele, but by 1888, an uninvited guest threatened to close the doors. Erosion caused by ocean waves had pushed the beach inland until almost half the hotel was hanging over the edge! The proprietors were not to be undone, and hired the “biggest case of housemoving on record”. The hotel was raised, twenty-four sets of railroad tracks were laid under the building, six locomotives and 112 flat cars employed and the hotel was moved 500 feet back from the water’s edge.

A few years before the Stephenson family’s “Rocket” first hauled freight for profit, well, actually about 10,000 years before, an asteroid collided with northwestern Greenland. Famed Arctic (and Antarctic) explorer Robert Peary went looking for it in 1894, finding several sizable chunks of iron in Cape York, Greenland. Peary thought it would be a great idea to take them back to New York for display – but first he had to get them overland to the boat. With a total known weight of over 128,000 pounds, this overwhelmed the capacity the local heavy hauling service, which was done by dogsled, so Peary did the logical thing and built Greenland’s first (and only) railroad. A few of the pieces were too large even for the ambitious Arctic entrepreneur, but he did manage to get a 31 ton fragment known as “Ahnighito” onto the newly constructed Icy Irons. Now in the American Museum of Natural History, it sits on three pillar supports – which run clear down to the Manhattan Island bedrock!! This remains the largest meteorite ever relocated.

The railroad industry in the U.S. is eagerly eying the 300,000 pound gross rail limit for standard freight cars, and much trackage and several bridges can already handle this load. This will push the car builders and designers to add capacity to their designs (without adding weight to them – the Irons do not like carrying weight that does not pay!), and replacing the aging fleet with higher-load cars. Along with the burlier standard fleet, we will see ever more capable specialty cars to handle even the heaviest hotels and meteorites… er, generators and transformers…. Starfire Engineering is in the forefront of design engineering for standard revenue service freight cars AND for specialty hauling cars…

… ’cause we want to keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

North to Alaska

Where the river is winding,
Big nuggets they’re finding.
North to Alaska,
They’re goin’ North, the rush is on.

Johnny Horton’s ode to nineteenth century prospector Sam McCord provides the musical interlude to the 1960 Henry Hathaway comedy/western movie “North to Alaska”. Based (… very loosely….) on actual events, it tells the tale of prospecting for gold in turn-of-the-century Alaska and Canada. Starting from west coast ports, prospective prospectors sailed to Skagway, then, toting the required one year’s supply of food and other goods, climbed the icy face of Chilkoot pass and vanished into the interior. The prospectors were a very hardy bunch, men (and some women) seasoned by the wilderness at the frozen end of the earth. After the initial shock of entering Grizzly Bear country, they began the four hundred mile hike to Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), near Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada where, in 1896, miners had discovered huge reserves of gold.

For the Twenty-First Century hardies, the jaunt has been made somewhat easier. The Klondike Highway connects Skagway to Dawson, easing the burden on a miner’s tired sled dogs…. The Shiny Irons, however, recommends the wonderful White Pass and Yukon Route railroad for the portion from Skagway to Yukon capital Whitehorse. The “Railway Built Of Gold” was chartered in 1898 to run from Skagway to Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory. In 1900, the last section of the Golden Irons closed the gap between Bennet and Carcross, and service began on August 1, 1900. By that time, most of the claims in the Dawson/Bonanza Creek area had been staked, and the “gold rush” had slowed to a trickle. There was still much serious mining for sulphur, lead, silver, and nickle, which kept the rails shiny and the railroad financially solvent for some time.

In 1982, the railroad suspended operations due to a collapse of mineral prices, but in 1988 the lure of the scenery prompted a repurposing of the Irons as a tourist route. WP&YR offers a multitude of excursion passes through what is an absolutely breathtaking exhibition of natural wonder. You can get to Skagway on a tramp steamer from Seattle or San Francisco, but don’t worry about the “year’s supply” of chow, the good folks at White Pass and Yukon Route have ya covered!!

Play a Train Song

Folk singer Mason Jennings is driving spikes on the Great Northern Railway, circa 1929… “Empire Builder”

from 2004’s album “Use Your Voice”


The Shiny Irons in Song and Legend

As immigrant America traveled over the waters from innumerable foreign ports, many times they brought only what they could carry. Nevertheless, they carried, in their heads and hearts, a tradition of music we have come to call folk songs.

The term Folk music came from England, where they took the German word “volk”, meaning people, and applied it to mean the common people of England, the illiterate peasants who passed on stories and legends through song as they were unable to publish books.

Folk songs record the experience of the people who wrote and sang them, and as America moved out of the eastern port cities, the songs documented their journey. Generally uneducated and illiterate, the immigrants worked with their backs. The mines and mills of the budding industrial heartland offered ample work, though it was dangerous and dirty. Pacing the move into the Ohio Valley, the railroads carried the tools and supplies needed to build the industries, and the immigrant found work on the Irons as well. This living adventure was recorded in the songs and tales the people created as their history. As the measured meter of sledgehammer and pick axe, the cadence of steam engine and the shrill blast of train whistle were the tempo of the railroad, so the rhythm of guitar, fiddle and banjo were the gait of the railroad worker. Music was used by workers doing repetitive manual labor to keep timing and tempo in sync.


Prisoners breaking rock for railroad ballast, sing a “work song” to keep tempo

As the railroad became less a novelty and more a part of everyday life, the folk songs of the people began to reflect this new reality. Folk music scholar Norm Cohen’s 768 page work “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong” offers a deep insight into the relationship between the people and the railroad, as recorded in their songs. As noted in the intro to Cohen’s work, the coming of the rails was a seminal event for growth and economic expansion in America, but the relationship between the railroad and the people it impacted was many times a rocky one.

Nothing has so drastically altered the face of this continent as the parallel steel ribbons that Americans began to weave across it in the 1830’s. … To many Americans, these same ribbons were lines of worry, for the growth of the railroads was not viewed unanimously with total approval.

The Opening Stanza: Probably the first train song, prominent Baltimorean Charles Carroll commissioned a song for the 1828 opening of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. “Railroad March” was played again in 1927 at the anniversary of the railroad. In the years since, untold numbers of train songs have been written. Untold, in part because so many were never committed to published work, and in part because it is a genre that defies dedicated definition.

Who Gets to Sing: Jim Reeves’ “The Wreck of the Number Nine” is certainly a train song… how about “The Ballad of Casey Jones”, about a famous* train driver? How about “John Henry”, the steel drivin’ man whose hammer and iron spike carved holes in the rock walls of a railroad tunnel faster than a steam powered drill? (*Note, whether Casey Jones or John Henry actually lived, or whether they actually did the deeds for which they are famous is gloriously irrelevant!)) Jones and Henry’s eponymous memorial tunes certainly belong in the genre, as the events described are directly related to the railroad. Other songs, though famously remembered as train songs, push the definition. Traditional ballad “The Midnight Special” has a title about a train, and the spiritual message of being carried from bondage on the ‘Special certainly qualifies, but it is at heart a prison work song… at least in the form it has come to us today. Pop reference Wikipedia’s write-up on the subject lists 1000-ish songs, and a walk along those tracks reveals such tunes as those discussed above, but also Michael Martin Murphy’s “Cherokee Fiddle”. A moving portrait of pride and poverty, this concerns an aged Native American fiddle player who meets the passenger train as it comes in the station and entertains the passengers in return for whiskey. Johnny Cash’s seminal work “Folsom Prison Blues” makes the list, however, much like “Midnight Special”, and “Cherokee Fiddle”, it is only peripherally about trains. Candidates whose qualifications include only a mention of The Irons, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” (“… and a freight train runnin’ through the middle of my head”) do not make the cut.

There Are No Bad Songs: But there are Bad Men… lots of bad men!
Ask Mr. Google about “bad men” and “trains”
and he’ll likely answer you “see ‘Jesse James’ ”
(hey, that’s the start of a good modern folk train song!) Indeed, an early tune called “The Ballad of Jesse James” was penned by Billy Gashade in 1882, and the second line concerns the robbery of the “Danville train”. Actually a couple of trains, the Chicago Tribune’s 1883 write-up proclaims the perpetrator to be a mystery… though, thanks to Gashade, we know better. Other train robbers, Sam Bass, Cole Younger et. al., got the folk song treatment as well, though the Union Pacific train robbery Younger is credited with probably did not happen. On the Texas-Mexican border, Mexican bandido Jose Mosqueda was immortalized in song, though he had already been immortalized in portrait… on a “wanted” poster following the 1891 robbery of the Rio Grand Railroad’s Brownsville to Point Isabel train.

“Robbin’ ” Hood and the Shiny Irons: A ride on the rails that run through the lyrics of these songs reveals a stark disconnect between the actions of the men and the treatment by the lyrics… the train robbers overwhelmingly are viewed as heroes. This is a theme that runs deep through the genre not only of train songs but of folk songs in general. Mosquedo was seen as a champion of the populace who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor farmers. Jesse James’ exploits against the railroads were viewed as retribution for the railroads’ seizure of land for rights of way. Though the land owners were compensated for their land, the popular sentiment, particularly in James’ native Missouri, was that the land owners had no choice but to surrender their farms. As the robbers kept very poor books, it cannot be quantified, but modern scholars hold that the train-jackers kept far more for themselves than they donated to the poor.

Singing on the Rails – The Great Depression: “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-reee?” The end of World War One and the associated Spanish Influenza epidemic heralded a tremendous upswing in prosperity in America. Industrial, retail, and office jobs in the cities brought a great number of people to these cities, while an increase in the demand for oil brought the extraction industry to Oklahoma and Texas. The boom would end with a monumental bust in October of 1929, throwing millions out of work and ushering in the era of the “hobo song”. In spite of the grim misery of the actual times, the era of the Depression might well be called the golden age of the train song. Chronicled by such troubadours as Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Rodgers, Cisco Houston and others, the songs of the “travelers” are still staples of folk in the 21st century. After leaving Texas, Woody Guthrie hopped a train to California in search of work. Along the way, he logged the tales of dozens of travelers in such songs as “Hard Travelin’

I’ve been ridin’ them fast rattlers, I thought you knowed
I’ve been ridin’ them flat wheelers, way down the road
I’ve been ridin’ them blind passengers, dead-enders, kickin’ up cinders

telling of going to North Dakota to cut wheat, to Pittsburgh to work steel… and serving 90 days in jail, likely for being caught riding the train without having bought a ticket. Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” offers a very appealing (and probably not very realistic) portrait of the traveler;

Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin’
That’s the hobo’s lullaby

Many of the Depression Era train songs detailed the strained relationship between the travelers and the railroad detectives, brakemen and other workers. Cisco Houston’s “East Texas Red” records a fictional encounter between a pair of itinerant workers and a railroad “bull”. Railroad police were called bulls, as were brakemen who were not friendly to the illegal riders. In Southeast Texas;

There used to ride a brakeman and a brakeman double tough
He worked the town of Kilgore and Longview nine miles down
Us trav’lers called him East Texas Red the meanest bull around.

In this song, the brakeman chases two men off the railroad right of way, but they return later and murder the brakeman.

Song and Legend in Better Times: The end of the Depression and of World War Two heralded another period of optimism, which was reflected in the train songs. Though written much after the fact, Guy Clark’s childhood reminiscence tells of that optimism. “Texas, 1947” explores the effect that changing railroad technology had on a small town in far western Texas. Clark was born and raised in Monahans, Texas, right at the southeast corner of New Mexico. The song tells of a Diesel-electric locomotive pulling a passenger consist through the town… at speed. The people of the town have been accustomed to seeing the normal steam locomotives;

Trains are big and black and smokin’ – steamin’ screamin’ at the wheels…

After a build-up of nervous anticipation, the train makes its appearance, a shock and awe look at the future, which is here… and… gone;

Look out here she comes, she’s comin’
Look out there she goes, she’s gone,
Screamin’ straight through Texas
Like a mad dog cyclone
Big, red, and silver
She don’t make no smoke
She’s a fast-rollin’ streamline
Come to show the folks

Upon her return from Oz, actress Judy Garland conspired with noted lyrics designer Roger Hammerstein, MGM movie studio and the MGM Chorus on “The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe”, a wonderful ditty from the movie “The Harvey Girls”. Ever the railroad song, The AT&SF not only had a “… list o’ passengers that’s pretty big”, it had quite the railroad history, too. As noted in “The Shiny Irons in Movies and Television”, Leavenworth, Kansas railroader Fred Harvey’s restaurant chain Harvey Houses provided the plot for Garland and company.

In the early 20th Century, Elizabeth Cotton wrote her own train song. Life intervened, and in the bustle of making a living, the song was stored away in Cotton’s head for decades. In the late ’40s, Cotton took work as a housekeeper and nanny for the family of folk legend Pete Seeger. Remembering her love for guitar and singing, in 1958 Cotton would go on to record “Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes” for folk music gold mine Smithsonian Folkways. The tune has become a folk staple, recorded by dozens of artists, as diverse as Herb Alpert, Alan Jackson, and Jerry Garcia. The stint in the studio also made Elizabeth Cotton, then in her 60s, an icon of the American folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s.

While the years of the early rock’n’roll era were definitely a golden age for trains, and as much for train songs, the decade from 1955-1964 was also a golden age for goofy songs and associated goofy dance crazes. The Shiny Irons did their part in hauling this craze to the consumers, assisting Eva Boyd, a.k.a. Little Eva, with her 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion”. Dancers lined up, each person with their hands on the hips of the dancer in front of them… kinda like… a train… and;

Now that you can do it, let’s make a chain, now
(Come on baby, do the loco-motion)
A chug-a chug-a motion like a railroad train, now

In 1965, Roger Miller channeled the 1930’s hobos with “King of the Road”. Another itinerant worker, Miller sings of;

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination, Bangor, Maine.

By the ’60s, we’d moved past the time of turmoil with the railroad workers, partly because Miller has taken pains to become familiar with them;

I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names

The Song Fades to Black: Several songs of the 1960s featured trains prominently in their lyrics, though they were not specifically about trains; “Last Train to Clarksville”, “Marrakesh Express”, Bob Dylan’s “Freight Train Blues”, Taj Mahal’s awkwardly named “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride” featuring the little-known Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. With the denouement of the passenger rail in the U.S., the train song as such had reached the end of its time. The genre would not go quietly into the night, though. In 1971, songster Steve Goodman penned a tune and showed it to folksinger Arlo Guthrie. As Woody’s kid, Arlo knew a good folk tune when he heard it, and on his 1972 work “Hobo’s Lullaby”, he recorded “City of New Orleans”, the penultimate train song.

Train songs in the decades since have been few and far between, mostly cover versions of older songs. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, part of the new folk revival, sang of the disappearance of the train in their 2003 work “Wayside/Back in Time“;

Standing on the corner with a nickel or a dime
There used to be a rail car to take you down the line

The Irons in Song and Spirit: The train song has been as much a part of the spiritual life of the folksingers as of their physical life. When the folksinger first laid eyes on the rails, the image of physical transport was intertwined with the image of spiritual transport. The Transcendent Irons became a metaphor for the journey to the next life in a wealth of train songs. From the tradition of gospel “field song” sung by slaves in the American south, “The Gospel Train” was published in 1872;

The gospel train is coming,
I hear it just at hand,
I hear the car wheels moving,
And rumbling thro’ the land.

Other songs from this tradition include “Be In Time”, “Glory Bound Train”, “I’m Going Home on the Heaven Bound Train” and many, many others. Other train songs with a spiritual theme include “Life is Like a Mountain Railway”;

Life is like a mountain railway
With an engineer that’s brave
We must make this run successful
From the cradle to the grave

In 2003, country and gospel recording artist Josh Turner warned of another spiritual train… one which was on the other track, carrying the un-righteous to their doom;

There’s a long black train
Coming down the line
Feeding off the souls that are lost and crying
Tales of sin only evil remains
Watch out brother for that long black train

Kids Sing, Too: Many of the songs written about the railroad have been aimed at the younger rider. The traditional “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is a popular starter song in many elementary school music classes. “The Little Engine that Could”, “Down By the Station”, Choo-Choo Train” are aimed at small children, and older young folkies are familiar with “Casey Jones”, John Henry”, Wabash Cannonball” and other train tunes. As soon as the train appeared on the folk horizon, it began to make its presence felt in folk music, and though the trains have mostly stopped, the folk tradition continues. Fueled by the songs of yesterday, and those from yester-centuries, The Anthem of the Irons continues to be heard in the land. An unknown Irons songmaker appropriated the tune from Hedy West’s much-covered “500 Miles” to lampoon the modern passenger rail service with “The Amtrak Song;

If you miss the train I’m on,
And you doubt that I’ll be back,
You will know the train I’m on
Is called AmTrak.
Lord, I’m one; Lord, I’m two;
Lord, I’m three; Lord, I’m four;
Lord, I’m five hours late
To New York.
Not a seat on the train,
Not a place to put my pack,
As the train crawls along
Decrepit track.
Lord, there’s one; Lord, there’s two;
Lord, there’s three; Lord, there’s four;
Lord, there’s five wrecks a month
On this line.
Warm flat soda to drink,
Stale sandwiches to eat,
And I’d hate to see the cow
That gave this meat.
Lord, there’s one; Lord, there’s two;
Lord, there’s three; Lord, there’s four;
Lord, there’s five strains of mold
On this bread.
Four O’Clock in the morn,
And a blizzard at my back,
As I’m standing by the track,
In Buffalo.
Lord, there’s one, maybe one,
Only one, surely one,
Lord, there’s one train a night
On this line.
There’s a train going here,
There’s a train going there,
But you can’t get there from here
On AmTrak.
There’s just no train at all,
Yes, there’s no train at all,
‘Cause they’ve cut the train that goes
From here to there

… ahh, well, the trains still run despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Thank you for joining our song-circle and keep the rails shiny!!

The Crescent City and The Shiny Irons

Author Ted Anthony tells us in his folk song pilgrimage “Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Folk Song”;

Somewhere in the hills where North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet sits The Village. It’s not a real town—at least not the kind of reality we’re accustomed to…. The Village has no physical boundaries, only songs and the stories they contain.
The roads that lead out of The Village – and the railroads, always the railroads – sweep south through the Appalachian Mountains… winding past Nashville to the Mississippi Delta…. All roads end down in New Orleans….

Anthony’s folk song is, of course, “House of the Rising Sun”, made familiar to Americans through Eric Burdon and the Animals’ 1964 hit song. In his ten year long quest to uncover the roots of the song, Anthony discovered it is much older than Burdon’s half-century-young version, winding through the eponymous city, back across the Pontchartrain and through Delta country, up into the hills and disappearing into the mists of time. “… Rising Sun” is an eclectic mix of old English troubadours, Scots-Irish immigrants, black minstrels, creole, country, barroom bawdy; a tale of innocence lost and woeful warning. Set in New Orleans.

As one of the very oldest cities in America, the Big Easy has a story both long and flavorful. Long thought of as a boat town, the Crescent City’s nickname comes from the large bend in the Mississippi River where the town was originally built. Less well known is the very old relationship between the Crescent City and the Shiny Irons.

As the Nineteenth Century dawned, American commerce was moved primarily over water. The Irons were just beginning to prove their mettle. One of the very first railroads in the U.S. was the Pontchartrain Railroad outside of New Orleans. The railroad began as a tramway, a rail track which carried horse drawn carts. In 1831, a steam engine was added to the railroad. Called the “Old Smoky Mary”, the puffer transported goods and industrial supplies from the Mississippi River port of Marigny, near today’s French Quarter, to the Pontchartrain Lake port of Milneburg. The mostly unpopulated Milneburg area was also a popular picnicing and recreation area, and the railroad also carried passengers on holiday, disembarking them at the park covered with a thick layer of soot and ash! The Smoky Mary continued to ride passengers up the five miles of Elysian Avenue for just over 100 years, smoke and soot notwithstanding. The last passenger stepped off on March 15, 1932, and freight service continued until 1935.

Play a Train Song

In the wonderfully optimistic days before World War Two… The Andrews Sisters version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”

from their 1941 single.