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Steam Locomotive 1401

Built by the American Locomotive Company, the Southern Railway steam locomotive 1401 spent its working life on part of the Southern mainline between Greenville, South Carolina, and Spencer, North Carolina. Engines like the 1401 were the 747s of their age. Although not the largest, most powerful, or fastest steam locomotive ever built, the 1401 stands for the significance of steam railroading to American life in the first half of the 1900s. In April 1945, the 1401 was one of 10 locomotives chosen to pull President Franklin Roosevelt's funeral train in relays from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington, DC. Railroad managers retired the engine in 1952, and it joined a growing line of derelict locomotives in the Southern yard in Alexandria, Virginia, until it was transferred to NMAH's Railway Transportation Hall in 1961.


American Railroad Expansion (1870-1950)

It is hard, today, to understand the importance of the railroad in the everyday lives of Americans who came of age between 1870 and 1950. By 1870, a year after the driving of the golden spike that marked the completion of the nation's first transcontinental railroad, railroads had blanketed the East and Midwest and were extending multiple lines westward. By 1950, railroads were in rapid decline, as a growing network of highways carried more and more automobiles and trucks. But between those years, railroads carried nearly everything everywhere--up to 90 percent of all the travelers and cargoes that moved intercity.

Americans depended on the railroad for their long-distance travel, for everyday commuting from suburbs, for daily mail and express packages, and for most of the food and goods stocked on store shelves. Railroads moved the raw materials, the foodstuffs, and the manufactured products of a continental economy. Railroads employed up to two million people and affected the jobs of millions more in agriculture, manufacturing, or distribution. Because of their dependence on railroads, Americans had a love-hate relationship with them. Some people stood in awe; other citizens despised the railroads for their often monopolistic ways.

Passengers and cargoes reached peak levels in the 1920s, but already, autos and trucks were competing in the transportation marketplace. Because of past abuses, railroads had become heavily regulated, but these factors were not major threats to the railroads' primacy. Some 50,000 steam locomotives of all types and sizes hauled long-distance and local freight trains, switched railroad yards in every city and town, handled the two- and three-car passenger trains up the branch lines, and--like the 1401--sped the heaviest passenger "limiteds."


Working on the Railroad (1870-1950)

Steam locomotives were crewed by two men: an engineer, sitting on the right, and fireman, sitting on the left. If they crewed the 1401, their vehicles weighed more than 280 tons (engine and loaded tender), plus trailing tonnage of 1,000 tons or better. Controlling such a vehicle was no simple matter.

The fireman (often an African American on railroads in the American South) managed a sophisticated coal-burning steam power plant--in 1401's case, of about 3,000 horsepower. This power plant operated under ever-changing power demand as the train accelerated, climbed grades, changed speeds at signals, and stopped at stations; the changing nature of power output greatly complicated boiler management. Whether a locomotive was hand-fired or, as in the 1401's case, was fired with the assistance of a steam-driven auger and stoking system, the fireman was far more than a mere "shoveler." Coal had be distributed evenly and regulated precisely to a roaring 2,000-degree F furnace, boiler steam pressure maintained at a constant level despite changing boiler demand, and water had to be fed in proportion to boiler output. The work was hot and physical, but it was also cerebral.

The engineer's main job, as summed up in the name of a well-known railroad text, was "managing momentum." The mass of a heavy train moving at a mile-a-minute or more demanded that the engineer know the railroad ahead exactly, including all curves, locations of signals, and starting points of speed limits so that all of these factors could be anticipated well in advance. Of critical importance was knowing the location and degree of each grade, so momentum could be carried on the grade increases and kept under strict control on grade descents. Steam locomotives were high in horsepower yet poor in keeping traction; controlling speed in proportion to mass was the essential trick.

Tools for this job that were available to the steam-locomotive engineer included the throttle, the "reverse" or "cut-off" lever, and two braking systems. The throttle regulated steam flow from boiler to cylinders, the cut-off lever adjusted valve timing at the cylinders, one airbrake system (the train brake) controlled brakes on the locomotive and all the cars together, and the other airbrake (the "independent") controlled only the locomotive and tender brakes. Orchestrating these four controls to achieve safe and timely progress down the railroad, to eliminate any slack action in the train during speed changes, and to make smooth stops at stations at the precise stopping points took years of experience. No engineer could run a locomotive without intimate understanding of the road, and thus engineers spent their working lives on one division at a time. (A division was an operating unit of a railroad about 100 miles in length.)

Both engineer and fireman cooperated in several ways. The successful regulation of changing boiler output required the fireman to know the road and its changing grades nearly as well as the engineer, and a good engineer did not make great changes to any of his controls without a nod or other informative gesture to the fireman. Also, it was vital on a speeding train that both the engineer and fireman cooperate in watching ahead. The engineer could not see the track ahead on curves to the left, since the long boiler blocked his view. Both crew members knew the lineside signals, which conveyed not just "stop" and "go," but other explicit indications to give advance warning of differing speed restrictions ahead. "Calling signals" to each other is a necessary tradition for crew members in an engine cab to this day.

Other crew members on a steam-era freight train or passenger train were the conductor--the "captain" and chief officer of the train--and two or more brakemen. The engineer was in charge of the locomotive, but no movement of the train could occur without authorization from the conductor. On passenger trains, porters, attendants, dining car stewards, chefs, and waiters were needed. If a Railway Post Office (RPO) car was included, U.S. postal department employees staffed the car and sorted the mail aboard.

Maintaining and repairing steam locomotives took an army of hostlers, ash handlers, roundhouse mechanics, machinists, boilermakers, riveters, steamfitters, foundrymen, welders, electricians, and numerous other trades. Common repairs involved replacing firebox staybolts, repairing water injectors or pumps, repairing air brake pumps and brake valves, repairing steam and air pipes, and making electrical repairs to headlights and cab lights.

Every day in service, a steamer need its rod bearings greased, its ashes dumped and disposed of, its sand-dome refilled, its axle cellars checked, its lubricator refilled with oil, and minor repairs made. On average, a steam locomotive needed its tender refilled with water every 50 miles or less, and its tender resupplied with coal every 100 miles.

Major repairs in the backshops involved replacing whole sections of firebox walls, remachining cylinders and axle boxes, realigning frames, re-trueing axles, reseating throttles, setting valves, and replacing steel tires on driving wheels. Shop tools included lathes, planers, milling machines, and vertical boring mills. Railroad foundries cast bronze axle- and rod-bearing blocks and forged new side rods from white-hot steel billets under banging steam hammers.

And no railroad could run without dispatchers, telegraphers, station agents, track crews, yardmasters, switchmen, tower operators, signal maintainers, bridge repairers, ticket sellers, freight agents, baggage men, express handlers, billing clerks, accountants, payroll agents, and dozens more occupations.


"New Market Wreck," From Tipple, Loom, & Rail

"New Market Wreck" from the recording entitled Tipple, Loom, & Rail, Folkways FH 5273, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1966. Used by permission.

On September 24th, 1904, two Southern Railway passenger trains collided head-on between Hodge's Station and New Market (east of Knoxville). Tennessee newspapers carried dramatic features on the calamity. More than 62 persons were killed, including both engineers. Soon afterwards, Charles O. Oaks, a blind wandering musician from Richmond, Kentucky, composed and printed a long, rather stilted ballad "The Southern Railroad Wreck." About 1930 a Charlie Oaks appeared on Hillbilly records; it is likely that this performer is the author of "The Southern" broadside, but the relationship is not verified. However, it was another itinerant balladeer who first recorded (1924) "The New Market Wreck," in a form shorter than Oaks' version. George Reneau (The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains) was the pioneer hillbilly artist on the Vocalion label. He may have heard Oaks' ballad as a child and recomposed it drastically, or he may have heard a different song based on the same wreck.

Partial Lyrics:
The Trains were going east and west and speeding on their way,
They ran together on a curve and what a wreck that day.
The cars were bursted, torn and split, and spread across the track,
You'll see a picture of the wreck just over on the backā€¦"


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