In 1967 young people were told that plastics were the future and the future did not disappoint. Today the world is made out of plastic, carbon fibre, corrosion resistant lightweight alloys, high strength concrete and LEDs. This technology has generally converted our world from one where stuff is expensive and people are cheap, to exactly the opposite. I could go on and on about the many economic ramifications of this, but in essence “things” went from being crafted and artisan, to being so invisible that they might as well not matter. Back in the day the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was the largest private employer in North America with over 300,000 employees, roughly the same as WalMart. This vast army of workers was needed to polish, paint, lubricate and generally maintain all of the expensive, labor intensive technology that allowed humans to move at speeds faster than brisk walk. Replacing the materials of old was part and parcel to being able to replace the workers that cared for them, however as we charge into the middle of the 21st century some of these materials have soldiered on in the service of railroad signaling and, until their inevitable replacement, they provide a window into the pre-digital industrial age.
Steel and Iron
Steel and iron are the stereotypical railroad materials as demand for bridges, rails and locomotives practically created the modern steel industry. Of course steel wasn’t just used for girders and boilers. Back in the day this was the only metal one had available for structural components of any size, and before the advent of plastic or other composites, metal was one of the only materials available with an adequate strength to weight ratio. Stronger, weather proof and more durable than wood, iron and steel became the materials of choice of railroad signals and signal structures. The US&S style N color light signal mast shown above is almost completely made of iron and steel, right down to the base. Cast iron housing and brackets, sheet steel backing, steel pipe mast, strap iron ladder work, heck, even the signal wires are sheathed in iron. Read more
It was just a hunch, a guess made on the way back from a jobsite. Having been through Minerva, Ohio in the morning, I knew an Ohi-Rail crew was out, so I looked for them again on the trip back east and home. No luck finding them until they unexpectedly came out of the woods, rumbling back into town, heading for the Norfolk Southern interchange. Since the motors were both old, high nose, unrebuilt Geeps, I decided to follow them a bit. At the eastern edge of town, they cross Route 30 and, while waiting on them, I chanced upon a track repairman, who told me that they were heading out to pick up 35 stone (ballast) cars for the repair of the line south of town. After jawing for a bit, I lit out for Bayard where the Ohi-Rail meets the NS and found the crew doing their brake test.
During the course of my correspondence with Doug Bess about his article “My Railfan Experience in Germany,” it came out that he and I were in Germany at almost exactly the same time in ’71 and ’72. To my knowledge, our paths never crossed—Doug was stationed in Wiesbaden and I was stationed in Mannheim—but his story brought back many memories. Read more
Among my nearly annual visits to the Canadian West, 1984 was a momentous year . At Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, I spent time trackside observing and photographing the many Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) freight trains, as well as VIA Rail passenger trains that emanated from the provincial capital of Winnipeg, fifty-five miles to the east. At Portage, more lines (subdivisions) spread out. During that June visit, my genial hosts (aunt and uncle!) let me use their Toyota to visit many nearby Manitoba towns.
While the Western Canadian grain industry was contracting—undergoing major changes—I realized that the handwriting was on the wall for Canada’s wooden “country” elevators. Consequently, I made the effort to photograph them. While doing so, I noticed myriad trackside details that completed the Manitoba trackside scene. Read more
Driving into town on a rain splattered spring morning, Clifton Forge looks like dozens of other small towns scattered about the mountains of western Virginia. The only clue to the town’s past is a small sign pointing the way to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Heritage Center.
Clifton Forge was once a booming railroad town. In the early 19th century, a settlement grew up along the Jackson River between Slaughter Pen Hollow and Smith Creek which eventually became known as Clifton Forge. Read more