Farewell To Steam

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There is a story of great feats of engineering too—of speed and danger, of wilderness tamed, rivers bridged, tunnels drilled, mountains surmounted. Here, for example, is Henry Flagler, 82 years old, achieving his dream at last, making the first ride across the railroad he built out to sea to reach Key West—twenty miles on embankments, seventeen on bridges. Here between Batavia and Buffalo is the famous speed trial of old 999, making 112.5 miles an hour, back in 1893. Out at Promontory, Utah, is the greatest denouement of all, as the Golden Spike goes down in 1869, in a burst of booze and oratory. Bret Harte writes a poem:

What was it the Engines said, Pilots touching, head to head Facing on a single track, Half a world behind each back?

(They might have said: Achievements pass. For the rails bypass Promontory on a shorter route today, Mr. Flagler’s railroad has been blown away, and old 999 has become a state lair exhibit. Where she passed, the trains today move no faster than at a sedate eighty miles an hour.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Then, for a time, the railroad story becomes an extravagant tale of wild speculation, swindled bondholders, great systems devouring little ones, Wall Street coups, freight-rate scandals, rival financial titans. The harsh word is robber baron, and there are two notable quotations that come down to us from that era. There is the long argued-over retort of Vanderbilt, “The public be damned!” And there is the more characteristic remark, half aloud, half to himself, of another railroad king, on learning of a little railroad that no one had yet gobbled up: “Great Scott! Is there anything like that still left outdoors?” This was a time when, as Philip Guedalla noted, the names of railroad presidents were apt to be a good deal more significant than those of the occupants of the White House.

There was a railroad of song and folklore, where Jesse James stopped the mail car every night, where the cars just barely cleared the burning trestle, where the brave engineer kept his hand on the throttle, where Dinah blew her horn all the day. But the most significant story is found in a series of railroad maps, by decades. Here at the start are only a few little wiggly lines around Charleston, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Expanding steadily, as in an animated movie, they eventually envelop America in a giant spider web. They carry the emigrants west. They bring the crops east to be traded for the products of industry. They build cities, and woe betide those they pass by. They make the desert, as the orator said, bloom like a garden. They create wealth and opportunity. In 1848, old Number One of the Galena & Chicago Union smokes her way into Chicago, first steam locomotive to reach what would become the railroad capital of the country. The same story is told over and over again, of all the western cities, until the big balloon stacks appear under the southern California sky to touch off a boom that is not over yet. No wonder the railroad and the steam behemoth that moved along it were the symbols of America.

Steam could not last forever, any more than the stage coach, after the invention of a more efficient device. The perilous state of most railroad finances—beset by subsidized highway, air, and water competition, regulated as though a nineteenth-century monopoly still existed—required some drastic economies, and this the diesel provided. The public, deserting the railroad passenger services in droves, saw less and less of the changeover.

But steam is dying hard, nevertheless, and it retains an ever-growing army of admirers. They turn out by the thousands for one “last” ride after another; they swap endless pictures, spikes, tickets, old timetables, even recordings of railroad noises; and they jabber away happily in professional jargon. They organize a great many clubs and societies; they have authors and prophets like Lucius Beebe and Stewart Holbrook and Archie Robertson; they sustain several magazines of substantial circulation. They organize excursions, a sizable business, and even buy and maintain old engines. They attract rich members like Vincent Astor and the late William Gillette, the actor, who built little lines on their own land. Enthusiasm is their hallmark. Here is an item from one fan publication, offering pictures of the Western Pacific Railroad: