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

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!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *