No chapter in railroad history can rival the popular appeal of the wood-burning era. Its great funnel-shaped smokestack, gallant red paint, and polished brass have endeared the wood burner to generations of Americans. Its appearance during a western film raises an excitement second only to that caused by the nick-of-time arrival of the cavalry. Ah, but those imperial clouds of heavy black smoke pouring from Hollywood’s iron horses are as phony as the wagon master’s peril. No scrap of wood has touched their grates in a half century, and all that glorious plumage is generated by an oil burner. The wood burner’s light, billowing gray smoke and its accompanying shower of sparks have never been shown in a modern film.
Railway locomotives burned an astonishing amount ot wood. In the 1850’s they were devouring four or five million cords yearly, according to one estimate. The little Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad (seventysix miles) required nearly thirteen thousand cords annually, while the mighty New York Central cremated over two hundred ten thousand cords a year. If the quantities consumed seem staggering, think of the physical labor in cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking this mountain of logs. Think also of the expense of storing and transporting it to wood depots along the line. Think of the thousands of small farmers and unskilled laborers this trade supported. In Massachusetts alone some fifty-three hundred men were engaged in woodcutting.
Wood burning had come to the American railway as naturally as the strap rail track. It was clearly the cheapest, most abundant fuel. There had been a brief flirtation with coal burning, but only anthracite was available, and it proved difficult to burn in the narrow fireboxes of the day. Wood was easily ignited and burned readily—indeed, it burned too readily. It was a bulky fuel of rather low calorific value. Great quantities had to be handled and carried, which meant frequent refuelling stops if tender size was to be held within reasonable limits. In addition, it proved a volatile agent under the forced draft of a rapidly running locomotive. The pyrotechnic display sent sparks into neighboring fields, wood lots, and barns. Dickens called it “a storm of fiery snow.” The railroads were accused of burning more wood outside than inside the locomotive’s firebox. A rash of claims and lawsuits seemed to follow every errant spark. One of the most distressing fire losses occurred on the Newcastle and Frenchtown line when sixty thousand dollars’ worth of fresh bills burned up on one of its trains. Travellers sometimes complained of singed clothing and flesh; one asserted that some ladies “were almost denuded.” The problem grew to such proportions that a legion of inventors tried to perfect an effective spark arrester. Over a thousand patents were granted, but few of the designs can be said to have been more than half successful, and most fell far short of that. Sizzling embers continued to spew freely from the fiery chariot’s chimney.
A solution to the several problems of wood burning lay in the conversion to coal. It was a dense, compact fuel, less prone to propagating embers. As the price of coal dropped with increased production it became an increasingly attractive alternative.
Naturally the hewers of wood opposed the conversion, and so did the more orthodox mechanical officials, perhaps for less obvious reasons. But it was reported in 1858 that “the master machinist fears that if the coal-burning locomotive be introduced, his occupation, like Othello’s, will be gone.” Actually coal burners enlarged the mechanical supervisor’s profession on a grand scale. The hotter flames and voracious fly ash of coal burners more quickly eroded the locomotive’s innards, creating an everlasting backlog of repair-shop business, and the mechanical department was more fully engaged than ever before.
Perhaps the real losers in this technological shift were the locomotive engineer and his helpmate-apprentice the fireman. An engine driver at the beginning of the railway era was a much respected technician of no mean social status-something akin to an airline pilot of the present day. He controlled a powerful, complex, and somehow mysterious machine. He was the well-paid master of one of the most glamorous mechanisms on the face of the earth. Wood burners were clean: the light ash blew away, and the upkeep of their ornamental surfaces was a relatively simple duty. The engineer dressed the part of his august station, and from surviving pictures we see him as something of a dandy among workingmen. But the coal burners changed all that. An oily grime dusted both man and machine with a stubborn black deposit. Fanciful decoration gave way to plain black paint; suits and vests gave way to practical dungarees and overalls. The locomotive became more common and workaday. Its master became just another segment of the labor force who at the end of the workday was almost indistinguishable from a factory hand.
By the middle 1850’s serious experiments with coalburning engines were under way on several roads. During the next fifteen years many major lines abandoned wood burners, and by 1880 over 90 per cent of railway fuel was coal. But for a full forty years wood had been the principal fuel for the railways of America.