Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rail Transportation

Very early locomotive, on display on the back of a railroad flat car.

Recently we've been posting a lot about transportation. We've done horses and mule, walking, water transportation and bicycles so far.  Here we're considering trains.

Late oil fired steam engine, on display in Douglas Wyoming.

Locomotives, or at least steam engines, are so associated with the second half of the 19th Century that it's a shock to realize that the first steam locomotive was built in 1784 and the first railway model was built in the US in 1794.  Amazingly early.  The first actual working railway was built just a few years later, in 1804, in the United Kingdom.  That early line was an industrial ore hauler, so at least from the US prospective, trains have ended up where they started, hauling things, rather than people, for the most part.  Sort of a case of the past being prologue to the future, really.  The first working railroad in the US came on in 1830, with Baltimore and Ohio.  It was a hopeless crude thing, but it was a start, and from there on trains developed rapidly.

The first locomotives basically looked like a boiler, with gears, on a platform, because that's what they were. They soon began, however, to more closely resemble things we'd recognize as trains.

The first engine and train in America 
Really early train on display on the flatcars of a train in 1900.  Note that the passenger cars on the old train are coaches with wheels altered for rails.

Locomotive engine 
Locomotive, 1850.  In the twenty years between the top photograph and this one, locomotives started to take on a more familiar form, and they'd grown larger.

By 1860, in North America, they'd not only taken on a familiar form, but their rails now stretched throughout the settled East.  In just 20 years the United States and Canada had gone from all roads and water ways to having an interconnected rail transportation system in the East.  Railways had already become an inseparable part of North American life.

The Goliah, at Wadsworth, Big Bend of Truckee River 
Locomotive in California, 1865.

And not only that, but a major undertaking in the United States would, as is well known, link the West and East by rail, in the Transcontinental Railway, where the two sections of the rail would join on May 10, 1869.  Indeed, that accomplishment came in the context of an early example of the government sponsoring a business, something that we rarely think of occurring in the 19th Century, but which the Lincoln Administration, which got it started, recognized as a national need, or at least laudatory goal, that was beyond the means of private enterprise for a wide variety of reasons. The inducement in that 19th Century context involved the Federal government giving to the two building railroads what it had a lot of, land, with the railroad acquiring a swath of sections (square miles) across the path of their lines, which allowed them to have a certain economic payoff in the future, and which also accordingly encouraged the railroads to sponsor development.  The railroads descendants today still retain much of that original grant along what had been the Transcontinental line.

 Massive Union Pacific railyard in Laramie Wyoming, a town built on the Union Pacific.

As monumental achievement as that was, it was only the beginning in a seemingly ceaseless and relentless expansion of rail lines that would see rail penetrate nearly every section of the West by the mid 1880s.  What had taken days to achieve before the rail lines came in, accordingly shrunk in time, sometimes to just hours. And rail continued to be put down relentlessly in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century in the U.S.

North of the border, in Canada, the Canadians would have a trans Canadian railway completed by 1885, linking the two coasts of a nation that still had not yet taken its full continental form, and which struggled with a national identity that really started to fully form about that time.  Railways were being built all over Europe at the same time, of course, with national and trans European lines put down everywhere.  The Russians achieved a monumental chore with the completion of the Trans Siberian in 1916, achieving what is arguably the greatest railroad in the world, but doing so only one year before the fall of the government that backed it.  Railroad penetrated into China from Russia, and into Arabia from Turkey.  The British built them in Africa and Australia.  The trans Australia railway was completed in the midst of World War One, being completed in 1917, and bringing yet another example of continental expanses being closed by rail.

Railroads were the long distance land transportation of their era, and they dominated everything about it.  By the 1860s they'd revolutionized the transportation of people and goods.  Americans and Canadians were made into a continental people by the railroads, or at least more completely so, and the Russians could aspire to be the same.  Australia, a nation whose unification was completed by World War One found its coasts united during it.

Former Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne Wyoming, on the line of the original Transcontinental Railroad.

In the U.S, and Canada, an economy that was mostly local prior to 1860s ceased being so by the end of the Civil War, when railroads penetrated into Kansas, and for the first time goods, and perhaps more significantly beef, could be transported across the nation by rail car.  A nation that had been principally a local pork consumer prior to 1865 in short order became a beef consuming nation, particularly as refrigerator rail cars came in about  the same time.  The great cattle drives that followed the Civil War, inspired in part by a huge increase in cattle in Texas during the war, were only made economically possible as the railheads had penetrated as far west as Kansas.

Refrigeration and rail also allowed the nation to have its first really national beverage company, Anhauser Busch, which made use of rail and refrigeration to ship beer all over the United States by the 1870s.  A nation which before had tended to look for everything to be local, now became accustom to every sort of good being shipped across the nation, even something as routine as something to drink.

And rail was glamorous, and would in some ways always remain so. Certain trains, and even railroad men, became famous, and were celebrated in song.  Casey Jones, a real railroad engineer, was for example celebrated in song for his dramatic effort to stop his train to stop his train to avoid a collision, and thereby save lives.  Working on the railroad was celebrated by a song dedicated under that title.

Rail occupied and dominated long distance travel, and even intrastate travel, for decades and decades. Rails continued to expand in the country throughout the first half of the 20th Century and rail transportation was the critical national means of transportation throughout the first half of the 20th Century.  When people traveled any distance at all, they normally traveled by rail.   My father, for example, traveled from Casper Wyoming to Lincoln Nebraska, where he was attending university, by rail, not by car, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  U.S. troops were moved from coast to coat during World War One and World War Two by rail, not by truck as a rule, and not by plane.  Railroad labor troubles during World War One were so disruptive to the war effort that the Federal government took over the rail lines during the war.

And the situation was largely the same in other nations.  In Germany, the military was in control of the rail lines prior to World War One, and German mobilization was based on strict railroad timetables.  The rail lines themselves became lines of combat in World War One, and to a certain extent World War Two, inside of Russia and the Russian civil war saw the odd use of armored trains, which made a reappearance in Soviet use during World War Two.

Rail came to not only serve towns and cities, of course, but to impact their features and even their locations. This is well known in the West, as towns competed to be railheads, which could spell the difference between economic isolation and elimination and prosperity.  Locally, for example, Casper Wyoming beat out Bessemer Wyoming in these regards, meaning that Casper, which was established literally just days prior to the railroad entering Natrona County Wyoming would go on to become one of the largest cities in Wyoming and the county seat, while Bessemer passed away and is now a farm field.


This meant that any significant town, and even many insignificant ones, had rail lines and features associated with them, such as depots. But now often missed, and often now neglected, it also mean that a towns hotels, including its best hotels, were typically within walking distance of a railroad depot. The same was true of anything requiring shipping of anything heavy.

 Parco Hotel, in Sinclair Wyoming.  Just a block or two from the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad.  This hotel is no longer an operating hotel.
 Union Station in Delver Colorado, photo taken from the front of the Oxford Hotel.

Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow, Wyoming and Union Pacific station.

Consider then the state of the railroads in relation to nearly every society, just after World War Two.  Troops who had gone to training stations by rail and then to points of embarkation by rail, came home largely by rail.  All materials of any significant nature, except for short hauls as a rule, were moved by rail, with perhaps the only exceptions being intrastate hauling and oil and gas pipelines.  People traveling from one city to another traveled by rail.

World War Two era poster urging people not to travel if it wasn't necessary. This photo shows the inside of a packed train car.

But then, something began to happen to rail, and that something was two things really. The Interstate Highways and Air Travel.

Air travel changed everything about how Americans, and ultimately everyone else in the developed world, thought about traveling long distances. Acclimated to long trips by train as a rule, planes became an option. Expensive at first, as time went on traveling by air became more and more affordable, particularly when the time element was considered.  Even by the early 1950s air travel was displacing train travel. Businessmen started traveling by air.  The military switched from shipping men locally from their duty station to another duty station by train, to air.  Ultimately air became so efficient, that it displaced the train as a fast mail carrier for letters and small packages, with that becoming so efficient that large sections of that business were wholly privatized.

 Western Airlines airliner, Casper Wyoming, early 1950s.  Sailor is boarding aircraft.  This scene says a lot about the change after World War Two, as this airport was built as an Army Air Corps training base during World War Two, with enormous runways.  Post war, it became an international airport, replacing the much smaller local airport that had existed up until that time.

This didn't happen all at once, of course, and in this late era, there were a series of efficient locomotives designed just for fast passenger service. Streamlined steam engines yielded to streamlined diesels, as the internal combustion engine began to take over the rails. But for most of the country, the 1950s and 60s would see the end of passenger train service. The only exceptions were in densely populated sections of the country were commuter rail hung on.

And, also in the 1950s, a new threat to rail arrived in the form of greatly improved highways, particularly the Interstate Highway system.  With Federal funding for highways, under the guise of defense spending for highways designed to speed military mobilization, supposedly, tax funded highways provided a means for trucking companies to compete with privately owned raillines, albeit rail lines that had in some instances been put in with incentives, particularly land incentives, in the 19th Century.  The new Interstates boosted the commercial trucking fleet enormously, and over the road trucks took over quite a bit of commercial hauling.  Without having to pay for their "rails", and able to go anywhere there was pavement, the trucks were liberated from steel rails and could deliver more easily  from port to port.

So, slowly in this same period freighting saw major inroads from trucking, with some sectors of shipping, such as livestock shipping, going over to trucks entirely.  By the 1970s trains were no longer hauling, for the most part, mail, people, and livestock, as well as many other items.  By the late 1990s tracks were being abandoned in some locations, and the old rail lines converted to walkways under "rails to trails" programs.

Pedestrian path in Casper Wyoming, converted from the line of the Great Northwestern Railroad.  Old depot on the right, now an office building.

But rail is persistent, and in spite of the inroads it remains important to us today, even if its faded into a the background to such an extent we can hardly recognize it.  It remains the heavy hauler for the nation, transporting good far more cheaply, and far more environmentally benign, to the extent that anything is, today, carrying more pounds per gallon of feul cheaply than any of its competitors.  And in the expensive fuel world in which we've been recently living (but which seems to be potentially fading back out today), its seen a bit of a revival.  New lines have been put in, in the West, where it remains vital for heavy hauling.  Major coal hauling lines have been built, and even here locally a major petroleum loading hub was just constructed.  In Denver, as in many other cities, a local light rail service for passengers has dramatically expanded, and it will soon run from Union Station to the Denver airport.  Rail hasn't yielded easily, and even in North America, the domain of the automobile, it has kept on.

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