History of the Rensselaer Central

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Excerpts from letters of March 17th, 2003 and March 22, 2003 from Harold C. Crouch, Class of 1943, to Steven D. Smith, Class of 1950, giving historical information about the Rensselaer Central Railroad at RPI. NOTE: Harold’s March 17th letter was sent after Steven had sent him a printout of a photo of Rensselaer Central Railroad locomotive No. 870. Steven had discovered the picture on our website. (If you have memories and/or photos of the RC, please contact Steven Smith or John Nehrich.)

(From Harold C. Crouch)
March 17, 2003
Dear Steve,

Received your most recent letter and wish to thank you for writing. Your letter and the photo sure brought back a flood of memories for me! For the record, here is a capsule of the Rensselaer Central RR’s history.

Locomotive No. 870 was built for the Burden family’s children and ran on the Burden estate near South Troy, NY. The Burden family operated the Burden Iron Works in South Troy. Later, this was taken over by Republic Steel Company. The Burden children grew up and the railroad was done away with, No. 870 being stored in the Burden Iron Company’s office building in South Troy. When the Burden Iron Company was liquidated, one of the people involved with the liquidation was a trustee of RPI. He was instrumental in having the locomotive donated to the Institute. This must have been around the middle 1930's.

A group of RPI students then got together to form a railroad club, with the intention of getting No. 870 to run again. At first, the railroad was the P. I. B. & S. RR - Polytechnic Interbelt & Southern RR, quite a mouthful!! This was subsequently changed to Rensselaer Central RR - a lot more palatable!

The first thing concerned the boiler. After much discussion, the New York State Bureau of Boiler Inspection allowed 100 psig operating pressure. The big hang-up on boilers is what code is it built to? With this matter resolved, the Institute had the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection Company insure it.

Since No 870 came without a tender, one was constructed and a short piece of track was laid on the roof of the Institute’s boiler plant at the rear of the Sage Building.

Attempts to fire the boiler were less than successful - the boiler would not steam! Fortunately, one of the club members, Charlie Culp (left in the photo) had made the acquaintance of a New York Central System freight engineer by the name of Rudy Kniack. Charlie asked Rudy to come over and inspect No. 870, which he did. After inspecting the loco, Rudy asked if the smoke box door could be opened. This was done, and on looking into the smokebox, the ties under the rails below could be seen - a good reason for the boiler not to steam! Some cotton waste and cans of iron cement - Smooth On - were used to seal up the opening in the smoke box saddle to make it reasonably air tight. After this, the boiler steamed better.

Meanwhile, the civil engineering students were busy out at the rear of the Freshmen Dining Hall grading the road bed and laying track for a loop of about 860 feet. The Institute had a nice two stall engine house constructed and a switch was installed on the 15th Street side of the loop to connect to the engine house.

Meanwhile Guy Stillman had a beautiful wood caboose and two gondolas for riding cars built. When the track work had been completed, No. 870 and the cars were taken out for service. Initially, no electric power was brought out to the engine house, so a blacksmith’s forge hand operated blower mounted on a 55-gallon drum together with a piece of flexible metal hose was used to raise steam.

At the start of operations, the Institute purchased cannel coal for No. 870. This has a reasonable BTU content with little ash. I believe it is used in home fireplaces. Eventually this was consumed and the Institute obtained another batch for us. Now, there is cannel coal and there is other cannel coal! This second batch was of the latter - mostly all tar which just laid in the boiler flues and steaming was very poor!! Finally, I got disgusted and asked two of the boys to take a wheel barrow and go down to the boiler plant and bring a load of the soft coal used in the Institute’s boilers. While they were gone, the flues were cleaned and as much of the tar removed as possible. With the soft coal, No. 870 steamed much better!

In operating No. 870, steam pressure could not be maintained and frequent recourse to the hand operated blower was necessary. Then one Saturday before getting up steam, something came to me. On the bench in the engine house was a piece of tin. Without any “scientific” background, the tin was rolled up to form a suitable size cylinder and this was stuck in the bottom of No. 870’s smoke stack, friction merely holding it in place! On getting up steam, No 870 was now an entirely different locomotive! The safety valves now were working overtime!! We had a lot to learn about drafting!

Then there was the boiler water supply problem. No. 870 came with two cute little 1/8 in. pipe injectors complete with a little wood handle for starting it. These injectors were highly temperamental and refused to work if a bit hot! So we had cans of cold water to douse the injector to get them started. Many times we had to drop the fire on account of not being able to get any water in the boiler. Then, one Sunday afternoon I took a walk and got over to Watervliet. At the rear of City Hall, half buried in brush, was a small steam roller used for repairing city streets. The boiler on this roller had two 1/4 in. pipe Penberthy injectors. Going to the proper city authorities, I asked if we could purchase the two injectors. On learning who and what the injectors were for the injectors were given to me! With these applied in place of the originals, our water problems evaporated. Water? How much and when!!

With most railroads a golden spike ceremony has to be performed and R.C.R.R. was no exception. For this occasion, Bob Butterfield, retired New York Central System engineer who had run the big No. 870, came for the event, along with Mr. G. Metzman, president of the N.Y.C.S. We were used to opening No. 870 up, but Bob was more cautious!!

With the operation of No. 870 on steam, it was impossible to “hook the engine up,” i.e., shorten the cutoff. Attempting to do so only made the engine buck and rear. On investigation, it was found that the slide valves had an excessive amount of steam lap. This tied in with the fact of the smoke box saddle being open to atmosphere. Apparently the locomotive was never run on steam for the Burden children. Most likely a high pressure air compressor was nearby, and with a quick disconnect the boiler filled with high pressure compressed air. Thus the children wouldn’t have to worry about water level in the boiler or what the pressure was. As a result, an equal amount was machined off the steam edges of the slide valves, after which the locomotive could be “hooked up” toward center.

A great deal of discussion at club meetings centered around the possibility of having another locomotive. Thus it was that Dick McCray, ’40, designed a Pacific type locomotive for us for his graduation thesis. With drawings in hand, two pieces of steel plate were obtained and taken to the Metallurgy Department Lab where the frames were cut out on the oxy-acetylene cutting machine. The plates were then bolted together and to a true bar which was held in the vise of a big shaper in the Boston and Maine’s engine house in Lansingburgh. The pedestal openings and other fits were thus machined. A wood pattern of the Scullin type was made and iron castings obtained as well as truck wheels. These were machined on the big lathe on the mezzanine floor of the M.E. Lab. The driving wheels were mounted on axles with ball bearings in the journal boxes. A locomotive was beginning to appear!

About this time we got wind of a Cagney amusement park locomotive that was for sale at the old Watervliet Amusement Park. Again, no tender, but we bought the Cagney for-hold on to your hat - $10.00! Take it away! Getting the Cagney into the M.E. Lab, the jacket and asbestos lagging (no problem then!) were removed and a 250 psig hydro test applied to the boiler. Tight!! On this basis, the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection rep. was contacted to ask if we could include the Cagney boiler on the same policy as No. 870. He said, “Yes,’” but recommended that we contact the New York State Bureau of Boiler Inspection. This was done, and shortly some forms were received to be filled out on the boiler. One of the items was: Are there any SNY (State of New York) numbers on the boiler?

Sure enough, on the back head of the boiler was stamped SNY 1819. (I have never forgotten this number!) The forms were filled out and sent in. Shortly, a letter was received to the effect that the Cagney boiler could not be operated at a pressure over 15 psig!! Oh boy! So, at the first opportunity, I went over to Albany to visit the Chief Boiler Inspector-a Mr. Furman if I recall correctly. Mr. Furman related how the Cagney had been brought in from out of state and run at the amusement park for a couple of years. Someone tipped off the operators that the boiler had to be inspected by the state. This was done, and the state inspector denied operation. However, the operators continued operation for the balance of the season and then put the Cagney in storage till we bought it.

In recent years there has been a number of articles in “Live Steam” magazine covering the Cagney locomotives. Apparently the Cagney boilers were built in the Buffalo, N.Y area. With a number of Cagney locomotives running in parks in New York State it seems odd that the State was unaware of their source of manufacture. However, Mr. Furman stated that the boiler could be operated as an unfired pressure vessel. Thus we conceived the idea of running a steam pipe from No. 870 to the Cagney boiler and so running the locomotives double headed, which would not be odd!

However, we never reached that stage! By then, WWII had started and “extracurricular activities” were curtailed as the Institute geared up for the War Effort. Then in January, 1943 I graduated and left Troy, going to work for Rochester Products Division of G.M. in the Tool Engineering Department. In the spring of 1943, I took a weekend off and returned to Troy, heading for the little engine house of the R.C.R.R. On my arrival, to say I was heartbroken is a complete understatement! Vandals had broken into the engine house and made a shambles of it! The beautiful caboose that Guy Stillman had had made was kindling wood, and the gondolas weren’t much better. Oddly, the trucks were still there! Would have thought they would have gone in the scrap steel drive. However, the locomotive was gone. I suppose it was in the M.E. Lab. On the bench was the whistle from No. 870 and I brought it home. A part of it is now part of the whistle on my New York Central System Class K3-r 1-1/2” scale Pacific.

In later years, a live steam friend from Delanson, NY went to Troy to purchase No. 870, but the Institute wouldn’t part with it. Then I learned that the boiler flues in No. 870 had started to leak (probably rusted through after all these years) and so someone removed the boiler from the chassis, and the Institute had the boiler sent to a commercial boiler shop for re-fluing. It is not known whether the boiler was ever reapplied to the chassis or not. The last information received was that No. 870 was in the Pacific Northwest area. How it reached there and why is unknown at the moment. My only hope is that it hasn’t been scrapped!


(From Harold C. Crouch)
March 22, 2003

Received a call from Charlie Culp who filled me in on some of the early history of R.C.R.R.

In the photo, Charlie Culp is at the left, the second person is unknown, Jim Fiske is third from left, while Guy Stillman is on the right.

Guy had the tender and cab for No. 870 constructed and also obtained the rail for the track that was put down at the rear of the Freshman Dining Hall (across the street from the old armory on 15th Street).

Someone went to a sawmill east of Troy and had 3 in. x 4 in. ties cut for the track.

Under the heading of boiler water supply, I often wondered why we never thought of applying an axle-driven pump-there was room on the main driving axle for another eccentric for driving a pump. Also, a hand operated pump could have been applied to the tender. _____________________________________________________________________________

(From James Shaughnessy)
May 15, 2003

Great to hear from you and that material on the Rensselaer Central was most interesting. My Father was Supt. of Bldgs. & Grounds at St.Joseph's Seminary and our house was only about 1000 yards from the tracks and I could here the whistle blowing when they were running the locomotive. In fact, I was a shareholder in the RCRR when I was in 8th grade or early in High School, and of course, rode on it a number of times. Boy, that Harold Crouch has a remarkable memory of that whole affair! Some years ago now, but long after the RCRR and the 870 was gone, I saw the running gear of another live steamer in what they called the Mason Hall, as I recall. It was one of those buildings they acquired off of Peoples Ave.(back of the "E" dorms) and this was not as large a gauge as the 870 and may have been a 4-8-2 or something with several driving wheels. It might be interesting to try and find out what has become of that but where to start in that megacomplex RPI has turned into would be a good question.

An interesting fact in that material is the guy in Delanson mentioned that wanted to buy the 870. I just talked to him this morning, Frank DeSantis, and I'm going to send him a copy of this material and have him add to it what info. he has about the whole time period. Frank is a major factotum in a big live steam club and layout up in Wilton, NY. They have a big open house on Memorial day weekend and you should consider going up to see it.

Also, several years ago I saw, I think in the R&LHS Bulletin or somewhere, the name of Guy Stillman who has some sort of a museum out in the Phoenix area and I wrote to him asking if he was the person associated with the RCRR and he said he was! I will have to go back in my correspondence file and try to find that information if you are interested. If you have one of those RPI Alumni index listings he may be shown in that.

I'll keep you posted on what Frank has to offer and perhaps the Alumni office can locate Stillman if you are interested. Were you and Middleton a member of that grope?

Again, thanks for sending me that material - it might become a fun archeological dig!

- Jim _____________________________________________________________________________

(From Steve Smith - later that same day)
May 15, 2003

Thanks for your most interesting reply, which I'll forward to Bill Middleton and also print out for Harold Crouch.

I had a pretty strong hunch you must have seen and ridden on the Rensselaer Central, living so close to RPI. It's interesting to know that you were a stockholder.

John Nehrich had me e-mail him Harold Crouch's recollections so he can post them on the Model RR Society's web pages. He'll invite anybody with recollections of the RCRR to e-mail me, so I can pass them around. I kind of doubt there'll be anybody with info, but one never knows. We'll see.

Yes, if Frank DeSantis has any information, I'd appreciate receiving it.

In the correspondence back and forth between Harold and me, Harold at one point wrote that Guy Stillman has passed on. Too bad, as I'm sure he would have liked to read Harold's recollections and probably would have had a bunch of his own to add. Harold suspects Jim Fiske has also passed on, but doesn't know that for sure.

Unfortunately I have to go to a memorial service for a family member on May 31st, and Eva and I will have my sister here for that weekend, so I can't go this time to the Adirondack Live Steamer meet.

I have gone to several of their meets, however, and in fact, the one time I've seen you since my days at RPI was at an ALS meet. As I recall, I was about to depart the station with George Hockaday and his Baltimore and Ohio 2-8-0, so all I had time to do was say hello and compliment you on your books on the Rutland and D&H, both of which I'm very pleased to have in my collection.

Following George's death in 1998, his older son, Warren, inherited the locomotive. Warren and his son, Jonathan, are usually to be seen with the 2-8-0 at ALS meets. They live in Clifton Park so it's easy for them to reach the track. Sometimes George's younger son, Bruce, comes up from Connecticut.

Bill Middleton and I didn't arrive at RPI until the fall of 1946, by which time the RCRR was history, sad to say. I had seen a photo of No. 870 in a magazine when I was in junior high or high school, and was really looking forward to getting involved with the RCRR. I met with RPI President Livingston Houston to see if we could revive the railroad, but he told me we'd have to have the boiler inspected by ASME and would have to carry a big liability policy, which would mean considerable fund raising. By the time I met with Houston I was already struggling with my course work and knew I'd best not take on a fund raising project. And I guess nobody else felt they could do it either. Too bad - it sure would have been fun to get it running again. _____________________________________________________________________________

(From Steve Smith)
June 4, 2003

I wrote Harold Crouch to see if he could tell us the dates on which the various RCRR events in his write-up occurred.

As best he can recall, construction of the railroad started in 1938. The golden spike ceremony was in June, 1939. These things happened before Harold arrived at RPI.

Harold Crouch's information was that the scale for the Rensselaer Central was two inches to the foot, with a track gauge of 9-1/2 inches. Some of the events he described (e.g., working on improving the steaming of the boiler and functioning of the injectors) occurred during the 1940-'41 school year. He believes it was the fall of 1941 when the Cagney amusement park locomotive was acquired and construction on the Pacific type locomotive was begun. - Steve _____________________________________________________________________________

(From Steve Smith)
Nov. 9, 2003

In mid-September Harold Crouch mailed me five 8 x 10 b & w glossy prints of pictures made at the Rensselaer Central Railroad track, taken in June, 1939 as he recalled (incorrectly, it turned out - more on that below). He had come upon them while straightening out things in his house. He was interested in my helping him donate them to the archives at the Folsom Library, so I obliged, going to Folsom on October 7th to turn them over to archivist Tammy Gobert. However, before I went to RPI I scanned all five photos, and I will transmit them to you one at a time so as to minimize file size per transmission. (I'm sorry that it has taken me so long to send these photos, but I've had a lot going on here this fall.) Based on info Tammy Gobert had in an RCRR file in the archives, and on some research into back issues of the Poly that I did the day I was at Folsom, I found that the photos were taken on Saturday, May 6, 1939, at which time there was a golden spike ceremony for the formal opening of the RCRR. That was Day No. 2 of a two-day open house at RPI. The May 4th, 1939 issue of the Poly had an article about the upcoming open house, including mention of RCRR. The May 11th issue reported on the golden spike ceremony and included Photo No. 3 of the group of five. Dr. William O. Hotchkiss, president of RPI at that time, bought the first share of RCRR stock. The Poly for March 2, 1939 had a photo showing RCRR student member James Fiske, Class of 1939, handing Dr. Hotchkiss his stock certificate. In the May 6th ceremony, Dr. Hotchkiss drove the golden spike as Jim Fiske looked on. Then retired New York Central Railroad locomotive engineer Bob Butterfield opened the throttle on RCRR No 870 and the locomotive and train broke a pair of ribbons suspended across the track. No 870 was kept busy that afternoon hauling RPI students and various visitors around the loop of track.

All this is depicted in photos 2 through 4. Photo No. 5 was taken that evening, when an attempt was made to have No. 870 take more people around the loop. But the little injectors on the locomotive gave trouble, so that the boiler didn't get enough water, and thus they had to give up on that plan. The efforts to get No. 870 running right that evening were observed by a group of RPI trustees, who had had a trustees' meeting at RPI that day. In his recollections of March 17th, which I sent to you for the RMRRS website, Harold stated that Gus Metzman president of the New York Central, attended the RCRR golden spike ceremony. Perhaps he attended, but he wasn't president of the NYCRR in 1939. He didn't assume that post until September 1, 1944. Tammy Gobert did some checking of RPI records and found that the man who was president of the Central in 1939 - Frederick Ely Williamson - received an honorary doctor of mechanical engineering degree from RPI in June, 1941. Harold Crouch hand-wrote captions on the back of the five photos. Unfortunately he wrote some incorrect information, namely that Dr. Hotchkiss and RPI trustees were officials of the New York Central and that the ceremony occurred in June. Except for those mistakes his information appears to be correct. Harold was not yet at RPI in May of 1939, and I know that he corresponded about the RCRR with Charlie Culp, Class of 1939 not long before Charlie died last spring. Charlie was a key person in the establishment of RCRR, and so I have a hunch that Harold got his information about the May 6th events from Charlie, who probably was relying on recollections of events of almost 64 years previous. Incidentally, Charlie is the fellow on the left in the picture of RCRR No. 870 that you already have on the RPI website. And he appears in some of the May 6th photos, wearing his engineer's cap. Harold could not recall the name of the fellow next to Charlie in the photo on the website. While at Folsom I consulted yearbooks and discovered that he was John Joseph Drislane, Class of 1939. According to the information by his picture, he was a resident of Albany NY. The caption by his photo in the 1939 yearbook mentions that RCRR was one of his extra-curricular activities. - Steve PS-On Friday, Nov. 7, I had a chance to spend a couple of hours at the Rensselaer County Historical Society. I was hoping I might find out something about No. 870 when it belonged to the Burden family or their company. No luck on that but I did enjoy learning a bit more about Henry Burden, the companies he was associated with, the famous Burden water wheel and some of the family members. If I get a chance I'll do more research on the subject, and will let you know if anything on No. 870 turns up.