NEB&W Center for Steam-Era Studies

From NEB&W Railroad Heritage Website
Jump to: navigation, search
Scenery, Structures & Details - Introduction
Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

In 1993, before the Rensselaer Society became caught up in just our basic economic survival, we had decided to set up what we were going to call the "Center for Steam-Era Studies." (It seems that every building on the RPI campus is called a center, so we chose the name so as not to be left out.)

I think that you'll recognize that much of the following we do in a small measure anyway, and that our books are representation of the direction of the Center. Raising funds for this center would have allowed us to do this work in a more timely and organized fashion.


The overall goals are to collect, analyze and distribute information about the steam-era world of railroading, and industry, and the culture that was affected by this state of technological development.

The specific goals are:

1) To preserve the memories of the whole of the steam era world.

2) To further the development of the Rensselaer layout as a historical and educational display.

3) To educate new generations about this era.

4) To continue research and data analysis of railroading, industry and culture at mid-century, and how it differs from that of today.

5) To disseminate knowledge and promote excitement about this era to other modelers, the model railroad industry and the general public.

6) To promote and facilitate product development among the model railroad manufacturers in terms of both needs and accuracy.

7) To recognize the steam era as historical before it passes from living memory.

8) To develop courses, both for credit and noncredit, at Rensselaer about subjecting relating to steam-era technology and culture.

9) To provide scholarships and other means to attract the best and brightest students of steam-era modeling to Rensselaer.

10) To raise a sufficient endowment so that we can concentrate more on the Center's goals and less on yearly fund raising.

For input, we collect printed matter such as freight waybills and traffic reports, historic photos, documentation via photos and surveys of surviving physical plant, artifacts and oral history.

For analysis, we would be relying on computers and brainstorming with interested participants.

For output, we would continue work on the modeling and interpretation of the layout, development of new hobby products, (both our own and by working with other manufacturers), publishing books and data packs, and public seminars.

What Is Meant by "Steam-Era?"

The history of humans can be broadly divided into several epochs:


This period began with the evolution of humans, and still persists in isolated pockets. People lived in tribes and lived off the land. Hunting provided about 20% of the caloric total of the diet, and gathering of berries, roots, leaves, insects, eggs, etc. provide the rest. The average "workweek" was about twenty hours a week, leaving time for making weapons, painting, making baskets and clothing, telling stories, and other recreational pursuits.

The one limitation to this way of life was that it required a low population density.


About 5,000 years ago, humans began domesticating plants and animals. Land was cleared for raising of crops, and the value of land itself became all-important. Land put into cultivation therefore was taken away from hunting-gathering, so became the point of conflict between the old and new way of life. Since the allowable population density was much greater, invariably the agricultural way of life spread at the expense of hunting-gathering. The conflict between the two is most familiar to us as the story to the settlement of the new world and the displacement of the indigenous people.

The rise of agriculture lead to feudal and slave societies, where peasants/serfs/slaves toiled on the land belonging to the landowner. Agricultural often resulted in a one crop diet, poor nutrition and people of smaller statue. Division of labor arose, with some members of society specializing in production of hand-crafted items. Industrial Revolution

Some historians trace the beginnings of the industrial revolution to the replacement of human and animal labor by wind and water power. While this was a major advance, the amount of kinetic energy gathered depended on what and where this power was naturally produced. James Watt made practical the Newcommen steam-engine around 1750. This was the first time that humans could call up kinetic energy on demand, and the limits were only how much could be used, not how much could be produced.

Other inventions resulted in mechanical manufacturing replacing human craftsmanship. Such production required high capitalization to make it practical, replacing hundreds of one-person cottage industries with large factories employing hundreds. This lead to urbanization and labor unions. Smoke-belching stacks were a welcome sign of factory production and overall prosperity.

Such large factories also required large enough markets, which implies a similar scale up in distribution. Cheaply produced goods would not have been able to compete long distance if the cost of getting them to market was dependent on wagons and boats.

Society began to be transformed by the revolution in transportation. Natural waterways, long ruled by wind-powered crafts, gave way to paddle-wheeled steamboats. Man-made canal systems brought low-friction motion inland, allowing animal power a greater magnitude of effectiveness, but canal systems were extremely costly to build. They had to stay close to water-level, with grades conquered by steps of locks, so only a handful of canals were built. Canal boats traveled at the walking speed of the mules pulling them, with hours of delays added at each set of locks. Canals were put out of use every winter.

Steam locomotives converted chemical energy into the kinetic energy of motion far beyond that provided by horses. Lower friction was made possible by iron wheels running on iron rails. Railroads could be built over modest grades, and little affected by winter conditions. The upper limits of speed were far beyond what could be conceived of at that time. The actual cost of moving a ton of goods was so small as to be immeasurable, so that the rates charged reflected mainly the total capital costs spread out over the whole range of goods being shipped.

Railroads allowed regional and then national production of goods, allowing the scale up in factory production necessary to make the industrial revolution reach its potential. The resulting urbanization necessary for the factory system was in turn supported by the volumes of foodstuffs brought in by rail from outlying areas, in sufficient time to prevent spoilage. The greatest extent of the rail system was reached around 1916, and was ten to a hundred times more widespread than is suggested by the vestige in existence today.


Although several of the factors leading to the post-industrial world were developed in the later part of the 19th century (such as electric power and internal combustion engines) and early part of the 20th (airplanes), the full impact did not take place until after WWII.

Suburbanization started in the 1920's, but the wholesale mass migration out of the cities did not occur until the post-War baby boom. Automobiles and trucks did not really overtake railroad transportation until the federal government's funding of the interstate highway system. Jet plane development was the final kingpin in air travel.

The world has become a global village, thanks to jet travel and satellite communication. Low-tech jobs, such as steel production, moved to third world countries, as smokestack industries were not wanted in the developed world's backyards. Computers replace one-purpose machines for manufacturing and office work. Concerns about pollution, acid rain, global warming and the ozone hole demonstrate to what degree humans can now manipulate the natural environment, even if unwittingly.


While steam-era means something to modelers, it doesn't really mean anything to the general public as an era. I have struggled - in vain - to find a better term. "Steel and coal age" is the best as steel didn't replace cast-iron until sometime around 1900, give or take a decade, and the use of coal as the fuel for transportation, i.e., steam engines, and for home heating fell off in the 1950's. However, I feel the term has to be explained to everyone. At least modelers understand "steam-era".

When we use the term steam-era, it refers to steam-era railroading of course, and it also conjures up the steam-powered factories and mills, steam rollers and shovels, and even steam boats. Steam-era could refer to all of railroading up until the last tourist line someday drops its fires, but in model railroad usage, the term steam-era, short-hand for "late steam-era," refers to the second quarter of the twentieth century. While the industrial revolution was in full swing at this time, it was starting to come under attack by the forces that would eventually replace it during the next quarter of the century.

The changes in railroading that occurred about the same time as the switch to diesel locomotives are a mirror to what was happening to the whole of the industrial world. The collapse of the Northeast's industrial base led to wholesale down-sizing of the rail industry. The revolution in travel brought about by interstate highways and jet planes (and the switching of mail contracts to planes) wiped out all rail passenger traffic except for that supported by the federal government as Amtrak. Railroads survive today as a vital part of our national freight transportation system, but only as a conveyor of low-cost time-independent bulk commodities. Steam-era should thus be taken to mean the final phase of the industrial revolution on the eve of transition.

The industrial revolution never existed as a stable way of life. Victorians were the first society to not only have to handle changes that occurred with stunning rapidity, but to continue to expect technological change as a constant. Science fiction developed as a new form of literature in this period as a way to anticipate cultural changes that might follow on the heels of scientific advances.

Thus the industrial revolution never reached an equilibrium state. The Depression formed an economic no-man's land that set off the WWII boom that the country to its final and most complex stage of the industrial revolution while also forcing the move to the post-industrial world.

Why Railroading?

A railroad is of course an industry in and of itself. However, it was the railroads that linked together the rest of the industrial base. Studying the rail shipment of goods is analogous to using blood samples to get an overall idea of the interaction of the various organs inside a human body.

There is another reason. Railroads were spawned in the age of Victorian technology, labor practices, architecture and culture. They remained bound to these traditions, a living fossil, until the pressures brought on by the movement into the post-industrial world. Studying railroads of the 1940's is a glimpse into the last century.

(P.S. - Studying freight cars is in my mind like studying the components of blood, and doing blood cell counts to see if everything is in proportion. That is one reason I have tried to emphasize the statistical proportion of freight cars, to judge specific traffic patterns against the "normal background count.")

Why Model Railroading?

There are two reasons. First, there is a community of individuals who already have a developed interest in this era. Probably no other industry has such a devoted fan club, particularly those who either try to recreate it in miniature or preserve it as artifacts. This is a significant group to draw upon for support and shared knowledge.

The second reason is more far-reaching.

Much of human culture was directly molded by the above technological developments, with much more indirectly affected. For the first two periods, the start-up phase is inconsequential to the full-development stage. The anthropologist can still study the isolated communities of hunter-gatherers and the more widespread agricultural communities still remaining, because these two ways of life were marked by little (relative) input outside the community. These ways of life remain much the same for the peoples who cling to them today even though the rest of the world has passed them by.

The industrial revolution was unique in that it was the first networked way-of-life; it was orders of magnitude more complex than ever seen before. Pockets of communities still practicing this way of life don't really exist because the network into which they would fit would be so small as to be nonexistent. The preservation of artifacts allows detailed studies, but much is lost by taking them out of context. A tourist railroad may operate a steam locomotive and vintage equipment, but it operates under today's FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) and OSHA guidelines, and under today's insurance and liability regulations.

A model has long been a valuable means to study a complex system. A model railroad is more than just a railroad, as it is a model of the whole world threaded by twin ribbons of steel. While there are means to animate individual automobiles and airplanes, such as by radio control, only rails provide the guided pathways and means to animate a system. Thus of the four great epochs, only the industrial revolution can be animated and operated to the extent necessary to study and learn from.

Why This Area?

The Hudson-Mohawk was one of the pioneering communities of the industrial revolution. Its early development thus lead to smaller scale manifestations, of a size that can be duplicated on a model railroad. At the same time modeling it duplicates both industry's state in the steam-era and its beginnings. Troy's iron and steel industry was at an early period of national prominence, yet not so large, such as Buffalo's or Pittsburgh's, as to defy modeling. Due to the smaller scale of development in this area, there was room for more varied development, duplicating the national network to be demonstrated in this smaller yet complete scale.

Why Now?

The importance of trying to study and preserve the steam era now can not be over emphasized. While pockets of hunter-gatherers and agricultures may continue to exist well into the next century, and the post-industry world is likely to be with us for some time to come, the industrial revolution is retreating into the gloom of history. While it still exists in living memory, there is the opportunity to check any re-creation against actual life-experiences. However, this opportunity continues to recede with time.

At this time, we are just far enough removed from the steam-era world to see it in its overall context, yet not so far removed as to put it out of living human memory.

Why At Rensselaer?

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute began in the dawn of the industrial revolution, and the technological education it provide played a significant role, as well as being a role model for the other technological schools needed to support the blossoming of the industrial revolution.

Rensselaer has already given its support for a center for studying the steam-era through the facilities and financial support of the Rensselaer Model Railroad's layout. In doing so, Rensselaer has made a significant outreach to the local community, as the model railroad affords preservation of not just Rensselaer's role in our heritage but in preserving the heritage of immediate and outlying areas.

The layout of the Rensselaer Model Railroad is unique in its size, scope and historical accuracy. Under construction since 1972, it already is providing knowledge and interest to modelers all over the world.

The Future

I am basically the only person involved in these studies at the moment, and just keeping the layout open takes most of my time and energy. With better funding, we could move on from basic financial survival. Besides freeing up my time, we would like to be able to fund more student involvement. Better funding would allow us to contact the vast number of you on a more regular and organized manner, and tap the personal knowledge of our readers. (Besides your diverse modeling interests, many of you work or have worked in these industries, and would like to share your personal knowledge of this era.)

One of the goals of the Center would be to make the presentation, including the room environment and entrance, more accessible to the public. The more we can get the general public in, and to better explain what they are seeing, the more support we can hope to garner.

This book is a project that the Center could develop much further. Funds could be used to get a scanner and upgraded equipment at the Center rather than at an off-site location where access is limited to only a few hours when the office is closed. I would like to look at every type of industry represented in our D&H's 1951 Traffic Report, to analyze where these facilities are located, and the volume and type of traffic. Photographs would be sought and studied to determine the physical design, and to find common and unique features of each industry. Further refinement of the detailing on the layout would lead to further analyze these aspects. Each element studied continues to weave together the fabric of the steam-era world.

In this edition, there is some material about iron making, but I have ignored paper manufacturing, one of the major traffic bases of the D&H. Also, what about meat packers? Marble and limestone? Match manufacturing? Folding furniture?

And consider that in 1931, there were at least two silk mills, one at Whitehall, NY, and one at Scranton, PA. How did they operate? Were there other products of importance beyond stockings. What were the consequences of the switch to nylon? Did nylon lead to new products not possible with silk? How did silk and then nylon production affect fashions, parachutes, hot-air balloons? If nylon had been invented earlier, would blimps have competed better and longer with airplanes? How did silk production vary from other cloth manufacturing? How does nylon tie into the whole plastic industry, and to the chemical industry in general? And so on, and so on.

We have the layout. We have significant archives and research material. We have students who know how to do the research. All we lack is sufficient funding.

(In Guide II, I further discuss suitable terminology as an alternative to "Steam-Era".)