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On To Sghenegtady!

May 2024
1min read

Thinking of the energy crisis, the poor, decrepit Penn Central Railroad, and the thin trickle of trains on Amtrak, we turn in this issue to a contrasting scene when railroading had all its future before it, the moment of departure for the first steam passenger train on the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad on August 9, 1831. Though it was not the very first scheduled train to be pulled by a locomotive (that was the Best Friend of Charleston on Christmas Day the year before), it was the second in America, and it was the best remembered, thanks to that fine genre painter Edward Lamson Henry, who created the huge canvas below, 42¾ X 110 inches in size. (Our cover is a detail.) The job was done in 1892-3, in time to be exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Henry, like Norman Rockwell in our time, had an enormous insight into ordinary people and into homely, everyday life, and all his paintings will reward the onlooker who takes the pains to walk up and study the detail in them. He carefully investigated everything that went into The First Train . He bought books, and costumes, and even wagons for his task; he went to the site, a crossroads just two miles west of Albany, and talked to a few people who remembered the glorious day.

Pulled by the diminutive DeWitt Clinton —no bell, no whistle, no headlight, no brakes, no pilot wheels, not even a cab—three old stagecoaches mounted on flanged wheels are filling up with a crowd. The engineer stokes his wood fire, and the conductor, trumpet in hand, runs along the train, making final arrangements. The usual detritus of railroading—stone ties, bunches of strap iron for the rails —is already apparent in the foreground. Inside or out, the passengers are expectant but apprehensive.

With only slack chains for couplings, it was a jerky trip: seventeen miles under a shower of sparks in a hundred and five minutes, but only thirty-eight racing back. The promoters and the president (the old patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer) were delighted. Within months dozens of new railroads were clamoring for charters; eventually the Mohawk & Hudson became part of the New York Central. For many years before its merger into the Penn Central, when the company was still strong and proud, a replica of the DeWitt Clinton and her little string of carriages stood in a place of honor at Grand Central Terminal in New York. Abandoned, like so much else, bv the Penn Central, the engine is now at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In a dream brought on by the energy crisis we see the museums and the tourist railroads disgorging their hundreds of ancient coal- and wood-burners and revitalizing the branch lines of the land, the old DeWitt Clinton chuffing proudly at their head. They work; no built-in obsolescence here. And the dream ends with a rousing, ironic toast to the men who made it possible, the sheiks of Araby.

O.J.

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