June 2011 Item of the Month: Railroad Men and their Magnificent Machines

1881, Housatonic Railroad locomotive and crew

Charles Dickens, in his 1842 book American Notes, wrote about an excursion he took by train from Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts.  He describes his trip in this way: “[The train] whirls headlong…clatters over frail arches, rumbles upon the heavy ground, shoots beneath a wooden bridge which intercepts the light for a second like a wink, suddenly awakens all the slumbering echoes in the main street of a large town, and dashes on haphazard, pell-mell, neck-or-nothing, down the middle of the road…there – on, on, on – tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars; scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its wood fire, screeching, hissing, yelling, panting; until at last the thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink, the people cluster round, and you have time to breathe again.”

Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Railroads came on the scene in the United States in the early 1830s and immediately took hold of the national psyche, changing concepts of speed and time and providing limitless possibilities of the movement of agricultural products, goods of industry, and people to all points across the country.  The railroad was the means that brought the Industrial Revolution to the United States, ushering in the modern world we know today.  To the people of the 19th century, the railroad was a dream, a miracle, a danger, and the most marvelous thing they had ever seen.

The Railroad History Archive has many thousands of photographs.  Most focus on locomotives and scenes of the New Haven Railroad, the predominant railroad line in southern New England from 1872 to 1968.  We have photographs of railroad stations and other structures, railroad yards, passenger cars and dining cars.  We have photographs of railroad bridges, railroad tunnels, and railroad trestles.

But few photographs are as evocative as the one above, where railroad men pose with the nation’s new obsession. 

For more information about the Railroad History Archive, visit http://railroads.uconn.edu/

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

James Klar Photograph of the Old Saybrook switch tower

Old Saybrook, Connecticut, switch tower, on the New Haven Railroad. Photograph taken by James S. Klar, 1975.

James S. Klar spent his working life as a city planner, but his first love was photography. After he retired he indulged in his passion full-time, and received training in photography techniques. In 1975 he received a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to photograph 75 railroad stations in southern New England for an exhibition. This photograph of the Old Saybrook Interlocking, or switch, tower, was taken on June 10, 1975, for the exhibition.

James Klar died in 1985 and in 1990 his wife Marjorie donated the photographs from the exhibition to the Railroad History Archive at the Dodd Research Center. The photographs show exquisite details of old railroad stations and structures, many of them dilapidated.

The interlocking tower in Old Saybrook was built in 1912, for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. An interlocking, or switch, tower was an important feature for railroad safety. It allowed the tower operator to communicate with railroad personnel about train movements, and to control junction switches and signals with a bank of levers on the second floor. In the 1920s the mechanical interlocking was replaced by banks of electrical relays, which were replaced by pneumatic assists. By the 1970s changes in dispatching technology rendered the tower obsolete and it was closed. The tower was razed in June 1998.

This photograph of the switching levers on the second floor of the tower was taken in 1997 by Robert Brewster when it was recorded for a Historic American Buildings Survey, which you can find in the Connecticut Historic Preservation Collection at the Dodd Research Center.

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections