On The Right Track, 1887

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In the midst of this throng of bearded and mustachioed gentlemen is the inventor of the startlingly modern conveyance behind them. Joe Vincent Meigs, sixth from the right in the second row, is as completely forgotten as is his invention. It was something new in the way of rapid transit—an elevated railway of the type we would call a monorail, various forms of which had been tried during the nineteenth century by inventors such as Palmer in Great Britain, Lartique in France, and Stone in the United States. On this bright May day in 1887, Meigs’ company was having a reception for the Philadelphia City Council so that it could ride over the 1,114 feet of track Meigs had put up in East Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It is not surprising that the gentlemen from Philadelphia had journeyed all the way up to Massachusetts. Rapid transit—els, streetcars, subways—was a major concern of America’s burgeoning cities in the i88o’s, and Meigs claimed that his system had all the answers: it was comparatively inexpensive to construct; it would not kill people or livestock at crossings; it did not shut out all of the sun from streets.

Meigs’ invention was indeed ingenious. He had fastened two separate tracks, one above another, to girders supported by a single file of posts. The locomotive rolled over the two lower rails on wheels tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees and was propelled by pairs of steam-driven horizontal wheels fastened directly under its chassis (see diagram, far right). These horizontal wheels gripped the top rails by means of hydraulic pressure and their flanges lipped under the lower edge of the rails, making derailment virtually impossible. The coaches were constructed in the same manner, except that their horizontal wheels were merely balance wheels.

Very little is known about Joe Meigs. He was born in Nashville in 1840 and during the Civil War commanded a Negro artillery battery in a unit formed of Tennesseans loyal to the Union. But his first love was always rapid transit, for when he applied for a patent for his system in 1873, he had been working on it for six years. The patent was granted in 1875; in 1886 the Cambridge line was built.

Nothing came of the meeting commemorated in this picture. Philadelphia did not construct a Meigs railway, nor did the line expand in Massachusetts, even though Meigs continued to promote his idea throughout the nineties. The company failed, not because of engineering problems, but because of its inability to raise sufficient capital. More than half a century would pass before population pressures would force cities once more to consider the monorail.

One person other than Joe Meigs is recognizable in this picture. Conspicuously seated in the center of the front row, his walking stick leaning against his leg, his glossy topper on his left knee, his drooping face turned slightly to his left, is the president of the Meigs line, General Benjamin F. Butler. In the years following the Civil War, former generals were assiduously recruited to lend their prestige to companies. This undoubtedly is what Meigs had in mind when he asked Butler to join his firm. But Butler’s administration of occupied New Orleans during the Civil War was riddled with charges of financial irregularity, and in Massachusetts, where he had been governor from 1882 to 1884, his probity was suspect by conservative businessmen. One wonders, then, if he did not frighten off prospective backers.

In the early years of this century, Meigs was living in Massachusetts and devoting his time to writing about his family genealogy. He died in Lowell in 1907. It is a touching admission of defeat that a man who had once been an inventor for the future should, at the end of his life, turn to the past.