NEB&W Guide to the Age of Railroads

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

"No One Knows How Different It Was"

In Walt Disney's Return To Oz, Princess Ozma has succeeded the Wizard after he floated away in his balloon at the end of The Wizard Of Oz. However, the Nome King has trapped Ozma in a mirror, turned the other Oz residents into stone, and given the Emerald City over to Mombi the witch. In one scene, Mombi is strumming her ukulele and says to Ozma's shimmering reflection in the mirror: "No one knows where you are. Soon, nobody will even know who you are" (and by extension, the whole world of Oz). Meanwhile, the only one who does is Dorothy. However, back in Kansas her Aunt Em has taken her to a shrink because Dorothy seems to be mentally disturbed - she keeps rattling on about talking scarecrows and cowardly lions.

Then I see yet another one of Hollywood's treatment of railroads (and the public's acceptance of these misconceptions) and I think "No one knows how different it was. Soon, nobody will be around who even remembers what it was like." And we modelers all are like Dorothy, consigned to our basements or other dark corners to "play with our trains", no one taking us seriously.

Trains, Trains, Everywhere Trains

Alvin Fickenwirth described in his book California Railroads (Golden West Books) how he happened to write the book. In 1951, as a knowledgeable railfan, he gave a talk at a local Kiwanis Club on local railroads. On question caught him off guard, which was how many railroads did California have?

(So how many would you guess? Think of an answer before you read any further.)

Fickenwirth said off-handily that there were probably up to 100. Then he went home and over the next few weeks, wrote down all the names he could think of, and came up with several hundred. But the question kept gnawing at him, so over the next half century he kept at his search. His book contains 1,672 lines! Okay, he included every cable system, incline, horse car line. (He did limit these to just lines that actually were incorporated and issued stock, even if never built.) But still! RAILROADS WERE EVERYWHERE, WENT EVERYWHERE!. "No one knows how different it was."

I have also come across a statistic (that I can't remember from where I got it). At the peak (c. WWI), the railroads and related industries employed 1/6th of the nation's labor force. (Back when another large portion were farmers.) That's compatible with today's government work forces.

Ghastly Primitive Roads

In Danielle Steel's fictitious No Greater Love, a wealthy family returns from England on the ill-fated Titanic. The children survive, after being rescued at sea. Steel describes the great hardships they had endured, hearing the anguished cries of drowning victims, and facing the emotional devastation of losing their parents. In her story, she has the family car dispatched from the family's Connecticut home to pick up the children, rather than make them take the train. Steel probably envisaged getting in a car today, jumping on the expressway and zipping down to the boat pier, with a compatible smooth trip home. All of Connecticut, today, is within a few hours comfortable drive from lower New York.

In 1912, the world was so radically different. I can't imagine a WORSE treatment than a car trip to inflict on these traumatized children, after their ordeal of bobbing around the middle of the ice-strewn Atlantic. The train would have been warm, with all the possible amenities, and with porters available to soothe them and fuss over them. (We are not talking about the rigors of taking Amtrak.) Back then, the train was also the fastest way to go.

In 1912, cars existed, but they were only used for a jaunt around town and then only during the best of weather. On the other hand, intercity roads at the time were often just strips of deep mud, impassable in April (the time of the ship sunk). Cars were generally put up on blocks during the winter. The family car of Steel's story would have been less comfortable than going out in a snowmobile, drafty (probably no heat, probably not enclosed, possibly not even a windshield), bone-rattling, and certainly slower. A trip from Connecticut to New York City would have been an adventure for the hardiest, a news-making event. Rather than think of the trip in today's terms, think of traveling via a dog sled, except the ground would not be uniformly frozen and hard.



Cars broke down frequently, so the real role of a chauffeur was to act as an on-board mechanic. James Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere) quotes an account of an early 30-mile day trip from Los Angeles to Palmdale - a similar distance of Manhatten to CT. The driver and passengers were amazed that the car only had four blowouts - they were expecting twice that number. (My mother also remembered the constant flat tires.) If you got stuck anywhere, you couldn't use your cell phone to call for a tow truck. You would have to walk to a farmhouse (who probably wouldn't have a phone either), hire the farmer and his horse, and get the auto dragged to town. There were no auto parts stores, so you would have to order them from the car manufacturer and then wait days for delivery.



There were no road maps (unless you could get a topographic map) and no route markings, so finding your way over unmarked dirt roads could mean you would get hopelessly lost. Gas stations did not exist, so when you needed to find gas, you had to hope there might be a gas pump in the next town (no guarantee of that), plus you would have to drive into town and ask around ("A gas what?") Considering all the hardships, such fictional children in Steel's story might have said "Please, put us back on the open water in the lifeboat!"

It's as if Steel, with the comfort and speed of today's plane travel in mind, placed the children in a hot-air balloon to get to Chicago rather than take the 20th Century Limited.

Horses Don't Equal All-Natural Autos

Worse than how we think of even the first autos as equivalent to today's transportation system is how society fondly reminisces the world of horse-drawn tranportation. In the Mel Gibson movie, Maverick, a Russian duke is vacationing out west. The duke is seen in a large "camper" parked next to a river, a Hollywood rendering of an RV motor-home, with Victorian stained glass and polished walnut. The viewers are not to ask "how did he get that thing there". This two-ton monstrosity would have sunk into the earth where it was parked, sitting on the narrow-rim wagon tires. Assuming even if you could hitch up enough horses to move it, it was so top heavy. Period photos show wealthy men camping out, still in suits and ties, but in living in tents, the most luxurious accommodations they could take out in the woods. The RV of the Wild West was the private railroad car.

In the aforementioned Return To Oz, Aunt Em and Dorothy hitch up their one horse to the buggy to travel to see the Doctor, located in the county seat maybe 25 miles away, and off they go at a brisk canter across the flat lands of Kansas. Dorothy has to stay overnight, so Aunt Em says she will come back the next day to pick her up. In other words, 25 miles there, 25 miles back home and another 50 mile round trip the next day.

My question is, why didn't they take the train? Oh, you say Dorothy lives in such a desolate area there is no train service. The problem is that in 1900, the towns out there were created when the tracks came through. A town without a railroad at that time would be like a town without roads today. (And such a town would not be big enough to have such a specialized medical professional.)

On the other hand, what was the reasonable range of a horse and buggy? I don't know, but the Pony Express, with a horse running at full gallop, with just a rider (no buggy, no Dorothy), had to change the horse every 10-15 miles, and the rider was expected to make 75 miles a day. Let's believe he was unionized, and let's say he was only expected to work 10 hours a day - that's 7.5 miles an hour. (A more realistic 15-hour day puts the speed down to five m.p.h. A racehorse at top speed maybe can get up to 30 or 40 miles an hour, but only for a short time, just like human runners have broken the three-minute mile (20 m.p.h.), but pedestrians don't travel at anything close to that.

Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia said that the maximum rate of travel with horseback, horse drawn carts or sleds was less than five m.p.h. If so, Aunt Em would be traveling 10 hours each day!

Jim Shaughnessy ( The Rutland Road) said that prior to the railroad, the 220 mile (round-trip) from Ogdensburg, NY to Rouses Point, NY was well over a week for oxen and wagons and even a two-day journey by fast stage. This would make the stage travel at about 10 m.p.h. (if they only traveled for 10 hours each day) and about three m.p.h. for the wagons. He put the trip from Cobleskill, NY to Albany ( Delaware & Hudson), a distance of 45 miles, three days by horse-drawn wagon. You know the cliched image of the wagon train, seen in dozens of movies. Half the people are walking alongside the wagons, having no problem keeping up. That's because the speed of a fully-loaded wagon, even with teams of horses, is so slow. (They often used oxen, which were stronger but even slower.)

In 1997, a group of Mormons retraced their ancestors' wagon trip out to Utah. It took them three months to go the 1,000 mile trip. Ninety days more or less means they went on average 11 miles a day. (Not 11 miles an hour, 11 miles a day.)

Our misconceptions as to horse-drawn vehicles is think of them as underpowered autos, that is, machines. Horses are animals, like us, bigger, more muscular but powered by the same biochemical reactions that we are. Slow muscle movements are powered by the "burning" of glucose to oxygen and carbon dioxide. Faster (running) or more powerful movement (weight lifting) is accomplished by an anaerobic process, which only breaks the glucose down to lactic acid. The lactic acid buildup causes muscle cramps, requiring a rest for the lactic acid to be metabolized. When we exercise enough to get into this range over a long-enough period, we build up the tolerance and efficiency of the whole process, allowing us to accomplish just a touch more the next time. But there are limits and we are talking just a few minutes, not hours, before we have to go back to the slower metabolism.

We know for ourselves that the longer the trip, the slower the average speed. Thus we may run for a few minutes, jog for an hour or so, but a trip of hours means we walk. Sure, there are marathon runners, but these are exceptional events of humankind. The most important point is that the runners take a day or two off afterwards to recover. The runners also don't carry backpacks, and even jockeys for racehorses are kept to the most minimal size. No one yet has breed an bionic horse that can gallop for hours, get recharged at an "oat-pump" and then off it goes again.

Reed Kinert (Early American Steam Locomotives) put the speed of all pre-steam conveyances, including canals, at four m.p.h. In the 1820's, George Featherstonhaugh, the promoter of the Mohawk & Hudson, the first railroad in New York, did extensive calculations on the practicality of a such a novel scheme, including determining each and every cost. He figured on using horses, and set their speed at three m.p.h. In actual practice, the 12 miles of the railroad were covered by horse-drawn cars in 75 minutes and return in 68 minutes (9.6 and 10.6 m.p.h.) This agrees with other accounts of up to 12 m.p.h. on rail. (One of the hidden benefits of rail was that it was the smoothest surface by far of what was possible before asphalt and bulldosers.)

In 1841, the stage from Saratoga Springs to Whitehall, NY, a distance of 53 miles, was scheduled for 8 hours, or just under 7 m.p.h. It should be noted that the stage coach was pulled by FOUR horses. According to What Happened When, Thomas Jefferson took five days to go from Philadelphia to Baltimore in 1783, a distance under 100 miles, or about 20 miles a day. And he probably was riding on a horse, not in a carriage.

So maybe I'm being too conservative, and Aunt Em raced along at 10 m.p.h. the entire way. However, in 1832, the Rensselaer & Saratoga was created to run the 25 miles between Troy and Saratoga Springs. Vacationers could take a steamboat to the head of navigation on the Hudson, at Troy, but those 25 miles over land were so arduous that even for a single one-way trip overland kept Saratoga from blossoming until trains went into service.

In fact, the Mohawk & Hudson was built to expedite travel on the Erie Canal system. Between Schenectady and Albany, there were so many locks to lower the boats from the Mohawk down to the Hudson, that it took 24 to 48 hours. The two rivers describe two-thirds of a triangle, and the railroad was built along the third side, along the portage route between the two cities. Now Schenectady is within walking distance of Albany, maybe 15 miles apart. (I know, I walked it once, although it took all day, and I returned, exhausted, by bus.) If travel was so easy by horse-drawn vehicles over the roads of the time, then why was it necessary to try out such an experimental, risky, and EXPENSIVE venture as a railroad? At the time, the promoters of the M&H didn't even think they could surmount the grade at each end. The passengers had to transfer to an incline-plane railroad at each end. Even so, the system was a great success, as it was so much better than the 24 hour delay by boat, which in turn was better than a horse-drawn system.

Rails & Locos

It should be noted that the "railroad" represented two very separate inventions that were tried somewhat simultaneously, and were found to complement each other. One was of course the steam engine, which went so much faster than a horse, besides pulling so much more. The M&H's first engine, the De Witt Clinton, averaged 15 m.p.h. but frequently got up to 30. One of their next engines, The Experiment, fitted with John Jervis' four-wheel lead truck, was claimed to have gone one mile in 45 seconds (on perfectly straight track), or 79 m.p.h. if I did my math right.

The other invention was the track. Railroads were tried with horses instead of steam, and steam was tried without rails (on steam-powered buses in England), but the two were needed together. Steam made the most of the possibilities of the rail, but the smooth ride of the rail was important to make use of the power and speed of steam.

But the point is that travel before the railroad was not just limited by the speed of the horses, but the ride itself. We might have seen dirt roads out in the country, but those are still built and maintained by today's power equipment. In the last century such a road would have seen as unbelievable, an Interstate by comparison. We should remember that they lined their city streets with bone-rattling cobblestones as an improvement over dirt. A big invention of the 1800's was the corduroy road, where logs were laid crosswise to form a continuous wood surface. Again, this was an improvement? YES! (It didn't take them long to realize that they could space the logs out, meaning fewer logs need, if they added a pair of iron rails. And they would get a smooth track, rather than a edge-to-edge speed bumps.)

Gideon Davison, who wrote a guidebook ob Saratoga in the 1830's said of the new railroad "a ride to the springs, which was formerly tardy and attended with clouds of dust and much fatigue and lassitude of body, now constitutes one of the greatest sources of novelty and pleasure". A traveler, William Stone, said "The cars with horses were a great novelty; but when steam was substituted for horsepower, the astonishment knew no bounds. . . the passengers are whirled along in commodious and elegant cars without jolting or any other annoyance". (And we know how primitive these early railroad journeys were compared to a century later.)

One of the great technological improvements in Victorian times was the horse car, yet often overlooked as to its significant by people today. (You've seen these at Disneyland in the main street area.) Within a short time, they were electrified, to become the trolley system, but even as horse-drawn, they revolutionized urban life. (Horse cars, along with trains and trolleys, increased the concentration of people in the center of the city in the evening and weekends, starting what I call the "Downtown Era" around mid to late 1800's.

Now why didn't the Romans use this system? Because even into the early 1800's, iron production was all but nil, limited to items like knives, axes, nails, and barrel hoops. (Settlers back then spent their winter evenings hand-making nails. When they moved further west, they pulled all the nails out of their house to take them with them.) The Romans would have needed blast furnaces with the hot air blast, and also needed powered rolling mills to make rails to bring the cost down. (The blast furnace was a medieval invention and the hot air blast developed c. 1830.)

(Not to mention that the horse collar was not invented until the Middle Ages - thus horses could barely pull anything back then without choking. And ox-cars would hardly seem practical. Still, it was really the limitations of iron.)

Imagine driving over a speed bump in a parking lot, even at a slow speed. Now imagine an endless series of speed bumps, the cobblestone street or corduroy road. Imagine seeking these surfaces out as BETTER than dirt roads. And you know the effect of riding in a car with poor shock absorbers. Horse-drawn vehicles had no shocks. Stage coaches were worse. Instead of leaf springs, they hung the body on leather straps, so the coach swayed with every jolt. (I get seasick thinking about it.)

I saw the filming of one of the scenes from the movie Ironweed, in Albany (with Jack Nickolson and Meryl Streep). The scene was set in 1910, so they spread a thin layer of dirt over the pavement. I would bet that's what they do in most Hollywood sets, so that we mistakenly feel a Victorian dirt road was merely a tan-colored paved one, instead of one of deep ruts and miniature Grand Canyons.

Think about it. If it rains, the soil gets soft, and those thin carriage or wagon wheels act like a disk harrow to cut into the soil, often deep enough until the vehicle got stuck. Then when the mud dried, it hardened with this deep rut cut into it. Each additional vehicle tended to cut up the surface, not pack it down, just like ice skates require a Zamboni machine to smooth the surface during halftime at a hockey game. If you remember your earth science, a crease in elevated terrain is self-deepening. Rain flows into it from the sides, eroding the sides into a "V". The bottom collects the greatest volume of water, so it erodes the fastest, cutting down and creating a greater difference between it and the surrounding.

In the large landscape taught in earth science, the lowest points are leveling. Lakes form, become swamps, then flat flood plains. In the microcosm of dirt road erosion, there is a factor that mitigates that. The miniature lakes, i. e. puddles, stay wetter than the rest of the road. The passage of subsequent carriage wheels churns up the surface. Also, the ruts themselves collect the most water, and a wheel will tend to ride in the rut, so the wheels are a major erosion force that aggravate the force of water.

If a tree fell a road out in the forest, there was no Public Works coming out to remove it. If a section of road washed out, there were no one assigned to fix it. And the primitiveness of the Colonial road system only got worse during most the Victorian period. Roads were essentially abandoned in favor of railroads after the Civil War.

There is the image of the Jingle Bells-type of sleigh ride that comes out of Victorian times. The snow is still falling and everyone runs outside to ride in an open one-horse sleigh instead of staying inside with a hot cup of cocoa. I think that a fresh snow smoothed out the road, so they got to glide along, a novel set of conditions from their usual travel. (This was a Victorian sport. Steel was not used for skates until 1850 - I think the Dutch skated on wood skates - and probably it was about then that steel was available for sleighs.)

When you read about the attack of railroad fever that hit the country in the 1840's, not only should it be viewed as how successful the railroads were, but also how absolutely dreadful road-travel was. Railroad fever had been preceded by canal fever, and this was not a matter of greater speed. If anything, water travel was slower. It was the smoothness of the ride that was the attraction.

We may laugh today at the skeptics in the 1830's who warned of express speeds of greater than say 12 m.p.h., but it really wasn't the speed itself they worried about. They only could have conceived of faster speeds in the context of the roads of their day, the type of ride one might associate with a runaway stagecoach (seen in many a western). We would be as skeptical of the speed of planes if we could only imagine such speeds in the context of a Hollywood car chase.

Peter Cooper took some of the officials of the B&O for a ride behind his Tom Thumb, and when the train reached 18 miles an hour, the officials pulled out their notebooks and wrote complete sentences just to show they were still coherent. They wouldn't have been if they had been going that speed on a road.

Thus it wouldn't have been just the travel time for Aunt Em that would keep her from going home and back again, it would have been the ordeal of the trip.

Next to most freight houses is a railroad track, called a "team track." This is where a wagon, pulled by a team of horses, could be loaded up directly from a box car. (The same source gives us "teamsters".) The point here is the use of multiple horses. We forget that a horse-drawn wagon with just one horse is essentially a one horsepower vehicle. There are lawn mowers more powerful! Twenty mule team borax meant it took 20 mules to haul one wagon. Even the famous Budweiser image is of 6 or 8 horses to pull a single wagon of beer. A single person today, even someone on welfare, is in control of more horsepower with just one auto than an entire village 200 years ago.

If you want a true account of the transportation system back then, read Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities. In the first chapter, he describes in great detail a stagecoach journey. (The account seems to indicate that most of his readers probably never traveled that way. Remember, a stage coach sat maybe 14 people, and most towns had a single daily stage. In his account, there were only three passengers. In other words, most people never traveled more than 5 or 10 miles from where they were born.) Once the coach was out in the boonies between the towns, all the travelers were terrified of their fellow travelers, suspicious of each of them of being highway men, set on robbing them, a common occurrence. This was all too possible as the roads were so utterly deserted. Often the travelers would have to get out and walk up a particularly steep hill when the horses couldn't pull a full coach.

So a single daily stagecoach-full of up to 14 people was the maximum of the public transportation system. A railroad coach, a single coach, could hold, what, 80 people, and a passenger train was made of coaches, plural. And despite what we might think, most stations saw at least several passenger trains a day. Thus in a single day more people might travel than a full year of stage coach service.

For instance, up until 1833, travel to Saratoga was 6,000 people a season, or less than 20 per day on average if spread out over the whole year. (Yes, I know it wasn't spread out, but it helps me comprehend this number.) The very wealthy came by their own carriages, but you can see the number was in the range of just one or two stage coaches a day. By the end of the 1830's, it was up to 12,000 and continued to grow at geometric progressions, up to 50,000, this upper limit set by the possible number of accommodations in the village. And this doesn't take into account those people traveling beyond.

Okay, maybe a Disney and/or Oz movie is not the place to expect historical accuracies. In the Acknowledgments section at the end of Sherlock Holmes Vs. Dracula, author Loren Estleman bragged about the extensive research he did to recreate the 1897 Victorian world. In general, I found his book the best of all the post-Doyle Holmes pastiches. However, when he got to anything to do with railroads, he only reflected today's misconceptions.

For instance, there is a woman Holmes needs to interview. Holmes hears an offhand remark that she will arrive in London by train at 6 AM the next morning. Not on the 6:17 or other specific time, but what could mean anytime within 30 minutes or so, right? So Holmes consults the schedules and is able to identify that train, as it, an express, is the only one due at that time!

Give me a break! Michael Crichton (The Great Train Robbery) said that London's railroads grew at such a phenomenal rate and so overwhelmed the city that a central station was never built. Each road built into the city as far as they could and then erected their own terminal. Despite a moratorium at one point while the debate raged about a central terminal, by 1899, there were 15 terminals. Such a big city could have addition stops besides the one at the end of the line (tiny Troy had four stops, Ironworks, Adams Street, Union Depot, and Lansingburgh), but let's overlook that possibility. Also, let's imagine the preposterous notion that each terminal was built for only two trains a day. Even so, that is some 30 trains a day, or more than one an hour, on average. Six AM would be at the very start of rush hour, so if anything there would likely be more than the average.

Now for Troy in 1910 there were 135 trains a day, and Albany saw 168 trains. Figure out the relative size of London to these, and the number of possibilities as to what train she was on, goes off the scale. It would be like saying someone is due to arrive in Manhattan by subway at 6 AM, and therefore you could pinpoint what subway train arriving on what station.

Then in this story, Watson's wife is kidnapped by Count Dracula. Dracula is seen buying tickets to some fictitious town, "a hard day's drive at least" (by horse). Holmes and Watson find there is only one train to this place and they couldn't wait until the next day. If the story was written in Doyle's time of such extensive railroad coverage, what Holmes and Watson would have done was take another train to the nearest town they could reach, and take off from that point.

However Holmes says "Somewhere in this city is a coachman who can out-drive the fastest train on the isle". WHAT! At the beginning of Railway Age, the 1.43 horse-powered Tom Thumb easily would have out-raced the horse-drawn car (on rails) if the machinery hadn't broken down. In 1854, a horse called Flora Temple was the first to run a mile in under 2 minutes and 20 seconds, and the news was telegraphed all over the country. (My calculation says 26 m.p.h. at ideal conditions.) In 1968, the horse named Dr. Fager set a new record of a mile in 1:32-1/5, which I think comes to 39 m.p.h. Trains at the end of the 19th century averaged about 50 m.p.h., including stops. You would be similarly astonished if in the year 2102, a story set in 1997 had a character say "Somewhere is a cabdriver who can out-drive the fastest plane on the continent".

So Holmes find this coachman, and he and Watson set out on a "harrowing journey" all through the night (without headlights) and though the next day, until midnight the next night, changing horses three times. Did Holmes forget a little invention called the telegraph? (Certainly author Estleman did.) Luckily the coachman was "familiar with the route". So even though the town was served by a single train, many a passenger came from London by carriage, frequent enough for this coachman to remember the way? Yeah, right!

What is so scary is not an author or a screenwriter making a mistake, it is that it raises so few hackles. How quickly society forgets. Soon nobody will comprehend the central role the railroads once played.

Life Back Then Would Be Like a Major Disaster Today

Imagine a late summer afternoon, as thunderheads gather on the horizon. A stiff wind comes up and the sky grows darker. Suddenly a bright flash, a clap of thunder, and the radio goes off. As you go around the house shutting windows, you notice all the electricity is out. At first there is the novelty of watching the storm past in all its fury, but now comes the steady monotone of rain drumming on the roof. You can't watch TV, so you go to settle down and read, but of course the light doesn't come on. Luckily you find some candles, but have ever tried to read by dim flickering candlelight? (Or try to model by candlelight?)

As the evening wears on, you keep thinking of activities to do (watch a video, play a computer game, do the laundry, vacuum) and quickly realize you can't. How about call a friend? Nope, the phones are out, too (in this scenario). Unfortunately, you have an electric stove, but you do have a fireplace, so you put the barbecue grill in there (since it's raining outside) and make a catch-as-catch-can dinner.

Now you are beginning to worry about the frozen foods, but luckily you intended to go shopping the next day, so you pack what little you have in the picnic cooler and pack it with ice cubes. Finally, you run out of things to do, so you turn in early, at 8:00.

The next day, you awake to find still no power, and have no idea what time it is, other than by the bright daylight pouring in the window. Breakfast is just cold cereal (no hot coffee), but you realize if this goes on the next day or so, the milk spoil. On the other hand, having to start a fire each morning just to cook something for breakfast is going to be a pain. You take an ice cold shower, shave with the old razor you happened to save when you bought an electric, but of course you have to lather up with cold water. If you think ahead, you realize you are running off a water system that will dry up without eventual use of electric pumps.

You go out to the garage, but the electric garage door doesn't work, or the car is out of gas, or a tree fell on your car because you left it in the driveway - any excuse in this scenario to take out the automobile, and your neighbor's autos, etc. (How about this - the lightening was so powerful it sent out an electromagnetic pulse like a nuclear explosion, shorting out all the autos' circuitry. Or the electric-powered gas pumps don't work, and everyone has run low on gas all at the same time.) You walk downtown, noticing how peaceful it is, stopping to talk to each cluster of people you pass, all discussing the lack of modern day conveniences. There are lots of rumors (the aliens have landed, the world is coming to an end, etc.), but no hard information.

Impatient as you are for things to return to normal, perhaps you realize this is what life was like less than a century ago. ALL those things you take for granted gone, but also you realize that nostalgia for "the good old days" overlooks the hardships. (As I look this chapter over, we are one week into the devastating ice storm up north. In real life, rather than return to a former way-of-life, they get portable generators. But then this scenario is not meant to be a Hollywood script for a disaster movie, but to try to make you realize how life was.)

You pass a McDonald's just down the street - dark. At the grocery store, the cash registers don't work, but the manager still remembers how to add up prices with pencil and paper. But you have a dilemma - it's a long walk back home, so you can't carry too much. Plus you can't carry enough ice and carry groceries, too, so you can only buy the perishables you will use today. This means you are going to have to shop just about every day. (I don't have a car. This is how one really shops under these conditions.)

As the days go on, you and the rest of the town begin to accommodate these problems. Many people are out of work, as offices without computers, faxes, photocopiers, even lights, aren't functional. And these modern office buildings are sweltering in hot weather, what with no air conditioning, and no windows that open for ventilation. The malls have no lights and no windows, so even if you could get there, they can't function.

It is a long way to walk into town to grab a meal at the one functioning restaurant, but it's also a pain to have to shop every day. So one of the unemployed finds a horse, and begins delivery of fresh milk. And another begins delivery of fresh bread. Pizza delivery is out, though, as with horse and wagon you can't deliver it while it's still hot. As time goes on, cooking reduces down to simpler fare, as many things are only in season for a short time.

In other ways, the town adjusts. Everyone collects grease drippings to burn at night for light, a dim, smoky, smelly light, but better than nothing. A few enterprising people gather beeswax to make candles, but in general, these are pretty precious and used sparingly. For every candle or two, you have to deal with getting the beeswax from a hive.

A wax candle emits 12.57 lumens. A 60 watt bulb emits about 520 lumens. A 100 watt light bulb, somewhere between 1,200 to 1,700 lumens. (A watt is a unit of measurement of power in, while a lumen measures the power of light being emitted. Some bulbs of equal wattage are more efficient in emitting light than others.) Therefore, a candle is about the equivalent of a one-watt light bulb, give or take a little. And by comparison, the dim light bulb in a refrigerator is often 15 to 40 watts, a night light bulb, five watts.

If you disagree, turn off all your lights some night and try to read by a single flickering candle. Then open the refrigerator door and see how it so much brighter than the candle. You can just barely read near a night light, but get too close to a candle and you can singe your eyebrows or set the page on fire.

(Hollywood often portrays romantic candle-lit scenes, but they also use lots of indirect lighting. This has given us a false impression of how bright candles are.)

So, activities after dark are mostly friends getting together and group-singing, or putting on plays and skits for each other. A few amateur musicians get together at times to put on a dance, but at other times a piano is the only music one hears. (And the same problem of reading a book by candlelight applies to reading music by candlelight.)

But a long term problem arises. The town hears nothing from the outside world. In fact, there is no way to get to the next town except to walk or use a horse. Sure, you can walk the five miles or so to the next town in about two hours, so a round-trip would take at least half a day, but how much could you carry to justify the time. On the other hand, imagine carrying a shopping bag full of goodies for two hours. But the main thing is that you know the next town is in the same shape, so they don't have much there that your town don't have, anyway.

Walking 10 miles isn't bad in nice weather, but not if it is freezing, raining, or roasting hot. (And how often isn't it one of those?) Again, some enterprising neighbor buys a horse and wagon and makes trips from one town to the next, making a small profit off the transport of these things. He also brings in news from the other towns, and they in turn get news from their neighboring towns, but it can take weeks and months to get national news.

So why don't you get a horse. A horse can go twice as fast as you can walk. But you have to feed it. In the winter time you are going to have to get hay constantly and bring it home. And what do you do with the manure? Riding a horse to the next town might get you there twice as fast, but so what? You still can't carry much, and caring for the horse takes up more time than you saved. So you buy a wagon and a harness. Do you know how heavy a harness is? That horse stands very tall, and it is quite a chore raising all that weight up onto the horse. Even so, riding a wagon, or a buggy, or even a bicycle in cold weather or a driving rain is not pleasant.

You have finally adjusted to this return to this state of affairs, when some people manager to get a steam engine into working condition. The tracks into town now get some use with this resumption of railroad service. Now you can ride to the county seat some 25 miles away in an hour's time, not a journey of several days. You are tired of the recirculating local gossip, but if you go down to the depot, you hear what all the latest. One freight train could bring in a year's worth of what Fred and Joe and the other horse-and-wagon transporters could.

And with a fully functional rail system, the depot would be your gateway to the entire outside world, your means of travel, your supplies, and your news. Everything. It doesn't get any more all-encompassing than that.

The point is that we forget what life must have been like without all the developments of just the last 100 years. And today the depots are gone, the tracks abandoned, and the memories of this period fading away. Our children still call a train a "choo-choo", so the details linger. But the totality of the system of yesterday is barely a shimmering reflection.

It is the enormity of the changes that have occurred since railroads were king, which makes it so hard to convey "what it was like". Writing these books is as much a journey for me as for some of you. And they provide an avenue to incorporate the memories and corrections of those of you who do remember. Let's not let society forgot how much they owe to railroads and the world they occupied.