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Railroads America - The De Witt Clinton And Old Ironsides

( Originally Published 1927 )

THE Mohawk and Hudson Railroad had been running cars drawn by horses for some time on its line between Albany and Schenectady when in 1831 it ordered a locomotive built at the West Point Foundry. This engine, christened the "De Witt Clinton," was the third constructed for actual railway use in the United States and the first to draw a passenger train in the northern section of the country. It was delivered at Albany by river-boat from the foundry and the directors of the company planned a grand celebration to mark the opening of the steam line on August 9, 1831.

Crowds of spectators flocked to Lydius Street in Albany early that morning. On the track stood the "De Witt Clinton" in front of a tender containing water, fuel, three passenger cars, made of the bodies of stagecoaches fastened on railroad trucks, and several flat cars. All along the seventeen miles of the road to Schenectady farmers and their families had gathered to see this new, strange, iron steed put through its paces. If the locomotive was successful it would mean much to the dwellers along the Hudson.

Tickets for the ride had been sold at hotels and other public places, and the ticket-holders climbed into the carriages and took their seats. The conductor, standing on a platform outside each coach, collected the tickets, then mounted to a little seat on the tender and blew a horn. The engine gave a great jerk and the crowd burst into cheers. It was not a smooth start ; quite the contrary in fact ; the tender was fastened to the locomotive by a chain made of three large links, the chain was two to three feet slack, the first passenger carriage was attached in a similar manner to the tender and the second coach to the first and also the flat cars following the carriages; therefore when the engine started it took up the slack by jerks and bounced the unwary passengers out of their seats. The locomotive jumped for-ward so quickly that the engineer only kept from being flung backward by seizing a support and hanging on to it.

The passengers in the cars, sprawling across each other on the floor, untangled themselves, found that no bones were broken, and resumed their places. The engine, now pulling steadily, straightened out the train and drew it along smoothly. Soon, however, another misadventure befell. The locomotive used dry pitch-pine for fuel, and as there was no smoke or spark catcher in the chimney, or smokestack, a great cloud of black smoke, filled with cinders and burning sparks, rolled over the whole train. The passengers in the covered coaches had some protection and those on the flat cars at the rear who were provided with umbrellas raised them, but the flying sparks lighting on the umbrellas speedily burnt the covers from the frames. Then the travellers' clothing caught fire and soon the riders were beating each other with their hands, trying to extinguish the flames. For the first few miles the train presented the appearance of an amateur fire brigade hard at work.

The "De Witt Clinton" steamed along until it reached a point on the track where its supply of water was to be renewed. There, opposite the tank, the engineer pushed a lever that was designed to apply brakes to the wheels and slow the train. The contrivance worked admirably; the engine was abruptly checked, the tender bumped into the locomotive, the first passenger carriage crashed against the tender, the second coach rammed the first, and each of the flat cars catapulted into the one in front of it. The passengers, still fighting sparks, were again sent sprawling, now backward from their seats instead of forward as they had been jerked when the train started.

As soon as the train halted and the passengers could pick themselves up they climbed down from the cars and put out the fires that smouldered in some of their garments. Then they tore down a farmer's fence, and chopped the rails into lengths that would fit into the spaces between the various cars. The links that coupled the engine, tender, coaches and flat cars together were stretched to full tension, the fence-rails were extended horizontally between each pair of cars and fastened in place by packing-yarn used for the cylinders. In this way the train was given rigidity; satisfied that they would now be neither bumped nor jerked, the passengers got aboard again, the engineer took on his fresh supply of water, and the "De Witt Clinton" drew its load without further mishap to the welcoming throngs at Schenectady.

One of the passengers on the train says this of the journey: "Everybody, together with his wife and all his children, came in all kinds of conveyances, and, being as ignorant of what was coming as were their horses, drove up to the railroad as near as they could get, only looking for the best position to secure a view of the train. As it approached, the horses took fright and wheeled, upsetting buggies, carriages, and wagons, and leaving for parts unknown to the passengers, if not to their owners, and it is not now positively known if some of them have yet stopped."

The train made the return journey from Schenectady to Albany in thirty-eight minutes.

A clever silhouette-artist, William H. Brown, happened to be in Albany on that day and made a rough drawing of the locomotive, tender and first two passenger-coaches, and later, using that sketch as a model, he cut out of a sheet of black paper his pro-file picture of the train, which gave an accurate and extremely interesting representation of this famous engine and its carriages ready for the first trip. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad—which afterwards became part of the New York Central system—utilized the "De Witt Clinton" for fourteen years on its regular passenger service, and the little engine faith-fully did its work. In the season of 1832-33, when there were very heavy falls of snow all along the line, on only one day did the locomotive fail to complete its run.

The example of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad in establishing steam trains for passenger service was imitated in other parts of the east. The first passenger train in Pennsylvania made its trial trip in November, 1832. It was drawn by "Old Ironsides," a locomotive built by M. W. Baldwin, who founded the celebrated Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. This was the only engine used on the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Rail-way at that time and whenever repairs were needed they were made at night. The locomotive had wooden spokes and wrought iron tires, and sometimes the eccentrics stuck so that the train could move in neither direction. "Old Ironsides" weighed seven tons, and was considered so heavy by the directors that they almost rejected it but were persuaded by Baldwin to give it a trial. On its first run the wheels were found to be too light to keep the engine on the track, so the builder and two machinists pushed it until it had gained considerable speed and then all three jumped aboard to keep the wheels down by their joint weight. The boiler also proved too small for the engine and only generated steam sufficiently fast to keep it in motion a short distance, so that the engineer and his assistants had alternately to push and ride to make the journey from Philadelphia to Germantown. On the return trip the pipe that connected the tank and the boiler became frozen and had to be thawed out with a fire made of rails.

Experiments, however, rapidly taught American locomotive builders how to overcome the initial defects and the third decade of the century saw the little engines with their high smoke stacks drawing carloads of passengers in all the more thickly populated districts along the Atlantic coast.

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