09 December 2006

Wood-burning Trains: "A Storm of Fiery Snow"

Anthracite country is often called the cradle of American railroading, and with good reason. Apart from a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the anthracite mine operators were the first Americans to use rails, and they greatly advanced the science of building railways. White and Hazard built a nine-mile rail line from their Summit mine down to the Lehigh [River] in 1827. Gravity carried the coal cars and a carload of mules (who refused to walk down once they had experienced rail travel), down to the Lehigh, and then the mules pulled the cars back up.

Rails spread quickly throughout the anthracite region, and the rest of the East, and eventually locomotives followed. Schuylkill county had more track than any other small area in the country. Companies building railroads alongside the canals drained away canal business and bought up much of the region's coal property. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the nation's largest and most powerful companies, dominated the area, but there would be five railways so intermingled with th anthracite trade that coal and railroading were often considered a single industry.

Surprisingly, these trains didn't run on coal. For the first few decades, American trains burned wood, even those that existed for the purpose of hauling coal. Anthracite did not burn well in locomotive fireboxes as they were then designed, and the bituminous fields were not yet widely exploited outside of Pittsburgh. Wood was bulky and burned fast, though, so the trains had to stop often to refuel. All along the tracks, people made money cutting wood to sell to the railroads—just one more way that trains would help turn the United States from a forested nation into an agricultural and industrial one.

The era of wood-burning trains is one that train buffs look back on with particular nostalgia. With clean-burning wood, locomotives could be much flashier: They were painted bright red and fitted with polished brass ornamentation. Engineers were flashier, too, often wearing ornate suits and vests with shiny buttons. When the switch to bituminous coal occurred later in the century, the inevitable accumulation of soot and grime meant that engines had to be painted plain black, and engineers switched to overalls. Some say that when the engineer's uniform was toned down, his status as a workman fell, too.

One problem with the shiny, wood-burning engines proved hard to ignore: They spewed out a continuous shower of sparks and cinders wherever they went, "a storm of fiery snow," as Charles Dickens called it when he visited the United States. It was a beautiful display at night, but it had a predictable downside. Wood-burning trains commonly set nearby fields and forests ablaze; some said the trains burned more wood outside the firebox than inside.
SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 121-123

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