NEB&W Guide to the Downtown Century

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Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

Modelers toss around the term "steam-era". As the gap widens between today and back then, we have come to realize the vast changes that have swept the whole of society since steam locomotives last chugged, more than just a change of motive power. But the term can be misunderstood.

Within the hobby, the label has come to imply the late steam era after WWII, essentially a shorthand way to refer to the steam-to-diesel transition. While steam loco models on par with the quality and variety of diesels are just appearing on the horizon, modelers that might have wanted to recreate the war years or the billboard reefer time have been forced to model "steam-era" with a full first-generation diesel roster, and only a token steamer or two.

On the NEB&W layout at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we have come to realize how radically different the world was back then. Five to 10 years after the last whistle echoed across many of the actual sites we are modeling, they remained relatively the same. It is possible to refer to Troy, NY of 1955 being switched by a diesel as "steam-era".

But "steam-era" could refer as far back as Stephenson's Rocket of the 1820's. The term also raises hackles and polarizes the hobby in the on-going debate over steam vs. diesel (and even electric), making it seem we are talking only about motive power matters.

The general public is not privy to modelers' lingo. They might experience railroads only via a tourist line fan trip, period movies, or even Thomas the Tank Engine. Some aren't even aware steam has vanished from regular service.

I am proposing another term, the "Downtown-Era". While Petula Clark sang in 1964 about going downtown, the center of life was shifting to malls and strips. The bustling connotation of "downtown" has become the neglected desolate "inner city". (Yes, there are still viable downtowns, and city planners work to revitalize all of them, but we are talking in general terms and perceptions here.)

In the mid-1800's, the new forms of mass transportation, railroads, horse cars and then trolleys, made the modern downtown possible by bringing in enough people to support its functions. Theaters date from before Shakespeare's time, but plays and concerts had been special occasions. Vaudeville houses (which became movie theaters) arose after the Civil War as routine, every day, entertainment. Edison lit the nightlife, most notably Broadway's Great White Way.

Restaurants that served a la carte throughout the day and then all-night diners were a change from the inns that served complete meals only at mealtimes. Even places that specialized in snacks and desserts (soda fountains) became possible. Individual retail outlets were consolidated into giant department stores. Clerks abandoned quill pens for typewriters, and the front office expanded into office buildings and skyscrapers. (Elevators, essentially vertical cable cars, are another form of mass transport making the downtown possible.) Streets were strung with telephone and electric lines. Coal replaced water power and wood, and with it, the diamond stack. Steel replaced lumber and cast-iron. The whole fabric of society, its cities, its neighborhoods, its industries, took another generation to change as a result, not until the late 1800's at best. Thus we are talking mainly of the concrete and neon world.

Horseless carriages made a sputtering appearance, and quickly swelled in numbers. Suburban housing arose for stockbrokers and Wall Street tycoons. Lindbergh took to the air. The Model T and the stock market crash were the death knell for most trolleys and interurbans. Again, it took a generation for the response to be felt, so the transportation system shakeup of the 1930's had its biggest implications after 1960.

After WWII, the government pushed the interstate system to help evacuate the cities in case of nuclear attack. Suburban sprawl was spurred as a way to disperse the population and make the country less vulnerable to air attack. The GI Bill funded new homes being built in housing developments, not fixing up existing urban row houses. Ever increasingly, people and goods moved by air and road rather than rail. The railroads responded by massive downsizing of their system and concentrating on the one thing they do best, the cheapest way to move bulk commodities. They eliminated less-than-carload and sought unit trains. Way freights are being replaced by straddle-cranes and flatbed trucks. Amtrak struggles to survive. Global production shifted basic industries overseas to cheaper third world locations. Fuel went from coal (shipped in rail cars) to oil (which could be piped).

Naming something is the first step in identifying, studying, and understanding it. Whether you are excited about tomorrow's promise or yesteryear's rosy nostalgia, it is important to realize how different things have become, how the role of railroads has shifted, more than just a motive power transformation.