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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p27  Chapter II
The Higher Irons

Handle your tools without mittens, remember, the cat in gloves catches no mice.  . . . Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanack.

During the spring semester in 1837, Professor Eaton and his assistants delivered a series of lectures about the significance of the higher irons, swivel trucks, headlights and steam whistles planned for the Schenectady & Troy Railroad. Since John B. Jervis was the inventor of the swivel truck, and the West Point Foundry was installing these along with radical flanged wheels on its new locomotives, a field trip was organized for the upperclassmen​a in Civil Engineering.

The new T‑shaped "higher irons" they saw on the testing tracks were, they agreed, about as awesome an invention as the locomotive itself. The T‑rail system of track adherence had been invented in 1831 by Robert Livingston Stevens, eldest son of the great engineer-inventor John Stevens. The idea seized young Stevens during a voyage to England to purchase locomotives and rails for the family's Camden & West Amboy Railroad in New Jersey. The awkward L‑shaped rails with board and stone-block supports would — he reasoned — forever doom the railroad as a costly engineer's toy of little economic  p28 value. But the whole prospect of the railroad might be changed if some method could be devised that would permit heavier locomotives and higher speeds. He begged a few blocks of hardwood from the ship's carpenter and began whittling. Before Land's End was sighted he had the model for a rail that was actually a broad-based T. Such a rail, he reasoned, could be spiked into thick wood beams that would be partially buried, horizontally, in the earth of the railroad bed. The structure should not heave up out of the ground during winter freeze-ups, the way the stone blocks did.

But a flat-top rail also called for a new design in the wheels of railroad cars. Simple enough. Stevens moved the precarious L‑rails' flange over to the inside rim of the car's wheel. There it would act as a guide to bevel the wheel safely around curves at speeds of — oh, possibly even twenty miles an hour.

The British ironmongers roared protests but finally cast the "utterly insane" T‑rails, O‑headed spikes and flanged wheels. The invention's only defect on the Camden & Amboy right of way back in New Jersey was that the locomotive shivered and squealed like a Halloween witch whenever it rolled into a curve. Then Isaac Dripps, Camden & Amboy's master mechanic, built an iron V‑shaped shield mounted on two small wheels. He substituted this device for the large fore wheels of the locomotive. Huzza! It ended the pressure squeals and shivers on curves. Moreover, the V‑shaped shield proved to be a safety plow; it butted tree limbs, stones and livestock away from the wheels, and prevented derails. Only a few townships had passed laws against the ancient prerogative of "free range" for cattle, so Dripps' invention won the nickname of "cowcatcher."

The Stevens-Dripps inventions were adopted for the Mohawk & Hudson by John Jervis — and improved. Jervis designed a four-wheel fore truck that attached to the locomotive's front end by a swivel. This enabled the boiler to act as a counter-balance on curves and heralded locomotives that might weigh  p29 as much as 25 or 30 tons and achieve speeds of 35 or 40 miles an hour.

Such speeds, explained the Mohawk & Hudson foremen, demanded new safety devices. Two of these would be tried out on the Schenectady & Troy, together with the Jervis swivel truck, the Dripps cowcatcher, and the T‑iron rail. First, a massive bull's-eye lantern was being designed for the attachment to the front of the locomotives' boilers, a foot or two above the cowcatcher. This was an adaptation of the thick-lensed hand lamp carried by ship watches and town criers. By using a series of tin and mercury-glass reflectors behind the foot-high lens, a beam of light could be focused 50 to 100 feet down the track. Obviously this locomotive 'head" light offered the prospect of railroad travel after dark; at slower speeds, of course. The second innovation on these locomotives would be an adaptation of that law of matter that enabled any boy to pucker up and whistle. Air under pressure seeks prompt escape and shrills resentment if the only escape is through a small hole. The same law holds with steam. By incorporating a small dome with valves atop a locomotive boiler, and attaching a cord from the top valve back to the engineman's seat, a locomotive could be induced to produce an infinite number of shrieks. These would be decidedly superior to the conductor's megaphone, or bugle, as a safety measure to frighten cattle, horses and pigs off the right of way, and to warn pedestrians and teams at the turnpike crossings.

On the Rensselaer Institute's porch, after field trips to West Point Foundry and the local railroad shops, the seniors and juniors declaimed their new wisdom to freshmen and sophomores and even to a few of the "children" in the Classical Course. One of the "Classical kids" permitted to eavesdrop was Theodore Dehone Judah. The records show that he enrolled during 1837. The average age of the Classical (or College-Preparatory) Course pupils was fifteen. Ted was eleven and a half that fall. But, the teachers had decided, he was  p30 precocious, if moody. The lectures of Senior Professor Eaton and the porch seminars of the Civil Engineering candidates between fall 1837 and summer 1839 shaped Ted Judah's life goals.

Through the same months the railroad grew from an inventor's toy to a machine of promise. Congress recognized this in July, 1838, when it ruled that all the railroads in the United States could be used as postal routes. New England began to acknowledge it when engineers completed the New Haven & Hartford Railroad, started construction on a Boston-New Haven line, and began surveys for a score of "higher irons" in Maine, the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshires. The Reverend Samuel Parker (just back from Oregon) recognized it when he told reporters at the Erie Barge Terminal about Reverend Marcus Whitman's new mission post on the Columbia River and assured them that a transcontinental railroad to Oregon could be built via the South Pass-Snake River route. He was saying just that, he continued, in the book he was writing, The Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, and would act as guide to any expedition of engineers who wished to examine the route and measure its gradients.

These railroad excitements had influenced Ted Judah to study Mechanics, Composition, Geometry and the other subjects of the Classical Course. Now he had reached a decision. The Institute's tuition fees were really beyond his mother's means. When the spring term of 1839 ended, three months after his thirteenth birthday, he went to work on the Schenectady & Troy Railroad as a surveyor's assistant. The two years at Rensselaer Polytechnic were his only formal education for his Jason role in the railroad's tedious search for Northwest Passage.

The lures of Western destiny had already moved Phil Sheridan, Charles Crocker and Brett Harte out over the Erie Canal. John Sheridan took his family to Somerset, Ohio, where fine money could be earned building new canals and turnpikes.  p31 Charles Crocker escorted his mother and sisters to the new family cabin in Marshall County, Indiana, and joined his father and brothers in the brutal job of burning and "stumping" woodland into crop fields and pasture. Henry Harte barged his wife and son up the Mohawk Valley in search of a community that would show appreciation for a School of Literature and Art.

Leland Stanford followed, too, when his father enrolled him in the Methodist Seminary at Cazenovia, New York. Cazenovia's cluster of saltbox and Greek Revival homes was typical of the villages created in western upstate New York by the post-Revolution Yankees and the commercial influences of the Erie Canal. Its largest tavern specialized in lodging, grog and thick steaks for the cowboys who drove herds of steers over the Great Western Turnpike to Albany and New York City markets. Ten miles east, bordering Peterboro Swamp, the 1,000‑acre estate of Gerrit Smith was divided into 50‑acre plots for the Negro slaves being smuggled out of the South via hay wagons and peddlers' carts. (Smith and his fellow Abolitionists identified the technique as "our Underground Railroad.")

Nine miles west on the turnpike the village of Pompey was bucolically New England, with a village green, a Christopher Wren church steeple, a fieldstone general store and big-chimneyed Early Northern Colonial homes. By 1860 one United States Senator, two State governors, three Supreme Court justices, five big-city mayors, one major general and two industrial titans (one of them the grandfather of Winston Churchill) would give Pompey the right to refer to itself as the "Birthplace of Giants." But in 1841 its most distinguished local boys were Horatio and Silas Seymour, sons of a teetotaling Episcopalian farm family. Horatio Seymour, after a commendable term as military secretary to Governor William L. Marcy, had just been elected mayor of Utica, with excellent prospects of one day becoming New York's governor. Younger brother Silas found engineering a more intriguing livelihood than politics, and was winning a reputation in New York City  p32 as a civil engineer and an authority on the construction and maintenance of railroads.

Another Pompeyan, twenty‑three-year‑old William George Fargo, had left the village only a few months before to become a messenger for the Albany firm of Pomeroy & Company. It was a new, hence uncertain, form of employment. He delivered parcels and letters entrusted to the Pompey Company at the railroad and Erie Canal stops between Albany and Buffalo. That summer Bill Fargo made the acquaintance of a former Albany shoemaker named Henry Wells; in 1844 they formed their own parcel-delivery service and titled it Wells, Fargo & Company.

West across the lovely hills another 40 miles, the Montezuma Swamp lies at the north end of Cayuga, largest of the Finger Lakes. Montezuma's 20 miles of ooze and malarial fogs were the despair of the Erie Canal's engineers; Irish shovelmen earned the nickname of "bogtrotters" by mucking the barge channel through it. Again, engineering problems centered on Montezuma when the New York Legislature approved plans for an Erie Canal channel that could handle 50‑ton barges. Samuel Benedict Reed reported for duty at Montezuma as a junior engineer on the channel enlargement. He was twenty-three years old, a native of Arlington, Vermont, and had several years' experience as a surveys and engineering assistant on New England railroad projects. Sam Reed worked in the swamp through 1841, came down with malaria, shook it off and went on West to join the engineering staff of the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad.

Geneva, the headwaters port of Lake Seneca, is 25 miles southwest of the Montezuma Swamp. Robert Casement, his wife Ann and five children, emigrated to Geneva in 1828 from Ramsey, Isle of Man. Like most Manx, Robert was an instinctive boatman and builder. (An ancestor had built the great water wheel at Loxey; a Casement had designed and built the mercantile piers at Southampton, England.) John Stephen Casement was born in Geneva on January 19, 1829. Daniel  p33 Casement was born there three years later. By 1841 there were ten children in Robert Casement's household. Some of them were big enough to put in a 12‑hour day on a farm. Robert began asking questions about Michigan. Were those homesteading lands over there as good as the newspaper writers made out?

Cazenovia, Pompey and Geneva were still abuzz about the Latter-day Saints. On September 22, 1827, on a hilltop just north of the Rochester Pike and twenty miles northwest of Geneva, a twenty‑two-year‑old farmer named Joseph Smith claimed to have dug up a chest containing gold plates that had been "revealed to him by the angel Moroni." In 1830 Smith published The Book of Mormon, attesting it to be a faithful translation of the script engraved on these gold plates by the prophet Mormon at the dictation of the angel Moroni. Within a year The Book of Mormon and the Church of Latter-day Saints that Smith and his counselors formed to perpetuate his teachings had thousands of converts. The glacial mound where the plates had been revealed was formally named the Hill of Cumorah. Religious bias set off fist fights, gun battles and home burnings and forced the Latter-day Saints — most people called them Mormons — onto the trails West.

By 1841 the Saints were settled on a hilly peninsula jutting out into the Mississippi River toward the new Territory of Iowa. Joseph Smith named the new town Nauvoo, and interpreted it as meaning, "the City Beautiful." It was reputed to have 15,000 residents, hence excelled both Galena and Chicago as the largest city in Illinois.

Another "upstater" was not only becoming a powerful figure in Mormonism, but seemed likely to send thousands of converts to the City Beautiful from the British Isles. Brigham Young was an excellent carpenter and the owner of a chair factory at Mendon — a few miles west of the Hill of Cumorah — when The Book of Mormon persuaded him out of Methodism. In 1835 he was elected to the Latter-day Saints' ruling presidium,  p34 the Council of Twelve. During the last year or two he had preached stirring sermons throughout Wales, Scotland and the English Midlands, urging farmers, miners and tradesmen to accept the revelations of The Book and join the Saints in the Promised Land of the American West. Rumor had it that Brigham Young's future in Mormonism was as assured as Horatio Seymour's was in Democratic politics.

So the tide rolled on. Cazenovia, Pompey, Geneva and the little Hill of Cumorah had all been the New West a generation before. But by 1842 there were 3,300,000 settlers west of New York State. Even Leland Stanford, daydreaming over his stolid Methodist textbooks, planned a future as a lawyer in Chicago or Milwaukee, or one of the new cities on the frontier. Obviously steamboats, canalboats and Conestoga wagons could not handle the transportation and bulk distribution needs of three million . . . five million . . . ten million people pushing relentlessly toward the Rockies and the Great Desert. The railroad's swivel trucks, higher irons, headlights and steam whistles had been invented just in time.

Thayer's Note:

a Although the foundry at West Point has just been mentioned, the upperclassmen in question are not West Pointers, but Prof. Eaton's students at Rensselaer Polytechnic (chapter 1). The Military Academy may have been involved just the same; see the obituary notice of Gen. Thomas A. Davies in the Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 12th, 1900.

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