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Horses In Harness

May 2024
3min read

by David Weitzman; David R. Godine; 108 pages.

by William D. Middleton; Golden West Books; 238 pages.

by Charles Philip Fox; Reiman Associates, Greendale, Wis.; 255 pages.

Each of the triumvirate of forces that moved the world eighty years ago— steam engines, trolley cars, and equine muscle—has been the subject of a recent book. Of these, the most unusual is Superpower: The Making of a Steam Locomotive , by David Weitzman, which is just what the title says it is, and something more. For years every railroad man knew Lima, Ohio, as the home of the Loco, the sixty-five-acre, fifty-building complex where steam engines were built from the ground up. Weitzman, a California schoolteacher and industrial archeologist, has made it his business to know as much as anyone living about what went on there. In this handsome book he follows a young apprentice named Ben through his training, and shows us the myriad processes that resulted in a new locomotive.

It is the mid-192()s, and already the diesels that spell doom for the superb, deep-breathing steam engines are beginning to scuttle around the switchyards. But Lima is getting ready to produce the Berkshire, a steam locomotive of unparalleled efficiency. Ben is put to work on the prototype. He meets Will Woodward, the designer, who tells him what it will cost: “You can have a shiny new 2-8-4, painted in a nice shade of black with white wheel rims and handrails, the numbers on the cab and your road’s name on the tender in aluminum leaf, leather-upholstered cab seats, polished bronze bell and … oh yes, a complete set of tools, ready to run for $184,140 and a few cents. … Locomotives, you see, are like potatoes and beans—you price them by the pound.” He gets to know the pattern shop, where the engineers’ drawings are turned into 110 ; the lovely, full-sized wooden models around which sand is packed to make molds, and sees those molds filled with molten steel to form the twenty-thousand-pound side frames; he hammers rivets in the boiler shop and watches the drivers being turned on the wheel lathe. In the end the first Berkshire stands finished in the erecting shop, and Ben’s pay is raised from twenty-five to thirty cents an hour.

Weitzman writes with authority, eloquence, and a sense of the people who did the work, and he illustrates his text with crisp drawings. Weitzman’s evocation of life at the Loco offers a vivid example of what is really meant by the current truism about our nation’s shifting from an industrial to an information economy. And in teaching all those tasks that no American will ever have to know again, the author imparts a stirring sense of the greatness of the enterprise, and of what we have lost with the passing of this part of our industrial heritage.

Where the trains stopped, the trolleys started. Last year marked the centennial of the first successful electrified streetcar operation, in Richmond, Virginia, and by the time of the First World War there were some 260,000 miles of street railway tracks in the country, with 60,000 cars rolling along them. William D. Middleton has made a lifelong study of light rail, and the results are displayed in The Time of the Trolley: The Street Railway from Horsecar to Light Rail . Today the trolley car seems so wistful, toylike, and quaint a creature that it is hard to remember what a powerful agent of urban change it was in its early years: trolleys summoned up neighborhoods from weedy lots just outside of town, delivered mail and milk, plowed snow-choked streets, and, painted black, carried passengers on their last ride to the cemeteries in the new suburbs the trolley lines had created.

The Time of the Trolley —actually the first of a three-volume revision of Middleton’s classic 1967 work of the same name—tells the story through a lively text and hundreds of engaging illustrations, and does much to retrieve from the mists the name of Frank Julian Sprague, the “father of the electric railway,” whose reputation has waned with the trolley, yet who, on his death in 1934, was ranked with Edison and Bell. “Perhaps no three men in all human history,” said the Herald Tribune at the time, “have done more to change the daily lives of human kind.”

And where the trolley stopped, Dobbin was waiting. In the nineteenth century you went to work by horse whether you were Jesse James or William James, in 1885 there were fifteen and a half million horses pulling America along; their iron shoes put their impress on every aspect of our lives, and it is the world of the working horse that Charles Philip Fox explores in Horses in Harness .

Beginning at the end of the horsedrawn era, when the gas buggy was snarling its way into the picture and the Breeder’s Gazette was whistling in the dark (“We are no nearer to the horseless age than the manless age”), Fox looks backward to explore every aspect of a vast civilization of livery stables and buggy manufacture; of great, heavyhaunched Percherons harvesting wheat out on the Kansas prairie; and steam pumpers, boiling with smoke and flashing with polished nickel, lurching toward the warehouse fire behind grays three abreast.

Horses in Harness is part historical narration and part scrapbook. It reprints in full Swift & Co.’s statement about how the firm worked its horses—ten hours a day on three feedings of six to eight quarts of oats, No. 2 White only; recalls the discussions of what kind of shoe belongs on a stumpy hoof or an acute-angled one; and is splendidly illustrated with pictures of the infinite variety of commercial wagons—billboard wagons, disinfecting vans, ravishing quick-lunch trucks with stained-glass windows, beer, medicine, ice cream, lumber, and coal wagons. But nothing suggests the pervasiveness of the horse better than an inscrutable list of vehicles whose names and variations every American once knew: Skeleton Gig, Very Spicey Gig, Paris Lady’s Chaise, Spider Phaeton, Calèche, Izzer Buggy, and Panel Seat Democrat.

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