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Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014 Train History Photos

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Right about now I am really looking forward to summer. I’m never a fan of the cold (despite sleeping in an ice hotel, and visiting Alaska in winter…) and this winter feels exceptionally so. The winter we’ve thus endured, however, pales in comparison to the winter of 1888. The Great Blizzard of 1888 is one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in the US, with 22 inches of snow in New York City and 48 inches of snow in Albany. It took the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad eight days to clear the snow from their main line to New Haven. The New York and Harlem Railroad’s attempts were less successful, recorded as a small blip in the annals of history.

Meet Old Eli. This comical looking contraption was one of the first snowplows built for the New York Central Railroad in 1864. The plow was mounted on a six-wheeled truck, and connected to an engine with an old-fashioned push bar. The plow usually required several steam locomotives to push it, and for the 1888 blizzard the plow was being pushed by a total of five. It is worth mentioning that this plow was hardly an ingenious innovation, instead of pushing snow to the side, it often pushed the snow up and above the engine – a grievous issue when traversing an extremely narrow rock cut.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Heading north from White Plains, Old Eli was to clear the snow from the Harlem all the way to Chatham, but instead met doom at Coleman’s. The narrow rock cut there was plugged with snow, and the aforementioned deficiency of the plow ensured that the lead locomotive was thoroughly buried in the snow. All five locomotives derailed, Old Eli was destroyed beyond repair, and five crew members lost their lives, three of which were boiled alive by the lead steam locomotive.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

Thankfully, most of our winters have been far less eventful, except maybe for the random guy running around wearing a horse mask. I’ve wandered around the Harlem Line during the past few snowstorms, capturing the trains and the people that make them run… so let’s take a little tour of the Harlem Line in the snow…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

The Keys to Grand Central Terminal – 3D Printing a railroad key fit for the centennial History Photos

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Just five days before the opening of Grand Central Terminal, Miles Bronson was appointed the General Manager of the New York Central’s greatest station. Born in India to missionary parents, Bronson returned to the United States for education and got his first railroad job at the tender age of fifteen. Appointed to the job of Grand Central’s General Manager at the 37, Bronson had worked for the New York Central for thirteen years, and he served as Grand Central’s general manager for 21 more years before retiring due to illness (he passed away a short time after).

As festivities kicked off celebrating the opening of the new Terminal, meals were served, music was played, and Mr. Bronson was presented with the keys to the Terminal in a ceremony next to the information booth. While we’ll probably never know exactly what those keys looked like, I’d like to think that they were embellished with the logo of Grand Central Terminal. Maybe something a little like this…

Key in polished brass

In my most recent endeavor with 3D printing (if you’ve been around a while, you may recall that my first 3D model ever was of Brewster station), I set about the task of making a Grand Central key as a gift for a friend who is a Metro-North conductor. 3D printing keys isn’t a unique concept – in fact Shapeways and KeyMe have joined up to print house keys. But what if you’re looking for a key for something different… like say, a train? Maybe a Metro-North train?

From sketchbook to reality
From sketchbook to reality…

The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad
The key was modeled in 3D using Tinkercad, and then 3D printed using Shapeways.

Metro-North’s trains usually have two different keys – one for operations, and the other for opening panels and doors, which all conductors have. I sketched and measured a panel key, and built it in 3D using Tinkercad. Instead of the standard key end, this key is customized with the Grand Central logo – a stylized version of the letters GCT. For testing purposes I made a few versions of the key in plastic (or as Shapeways would call it, Strong and Flexible – a laser sintered nylon)…

Key in Black Strong and Flexible

And then made a gift version in polished brass…

Key in polished brass

These days railroad keys aren’t made in brass, but historically they were made in that material, and I figured it would be perfect to create this key. Polished brass is still a trial material at Shapeways, but considering how awesome this key looks, you’d probably never know. With a red velvet ribbon and pouch, the key is ready for gifting. Though the key does work on trains, most likely it will only be used for decorative purposes so it doesn’t get lost.

Three keys - WSF, Polished Brass, Black SF

Because of the somewhat sensitive nature of this key, I’m not making this item available for sale (yes, I know, plenty of people that don’t work for Metro-North have these keys, but I’m not going to make it easy. An exception could potentially be made if you’re a railroad employee, or if you’d like a key that doesn’t actually work for decorative purposes only). However, a few of my other Grand Central themed 3D prints are available if you’re interested…

Grand Central Constellation Pegasus:
Constellation Pegasus
3D Printed in Colored Sandstone, this little item can be used as a pendant, keychain, or decoration. I’ve used it in the past as a fancy tag for a gift. It features the constellation Pegasus from Grand Central’s sky ceiling.
See it in 3D.

Grand Central Snowflake:
Grand Central snowflake
This snowflake ornament is modeled after the acorn motif found throughout Grand Central Terminal. Acorns are found throughout the Terminal as they were the adopted “crest” of the Vanderbilt family. This specific design can be found embellishing the ticket windows.
See it in 3D.

While 3D printing is already changing model railroading – Shapeways has a category devoted to it, and companies like Flexiscale are producing kits using parts fabricated on 3D printers – it is always fun to create something railroad related for the “real world.” Though 3D printing has immense promise in allowing the masses to fabricate things they could previously only imagine, and creating things that were previously impossible, it is also interesting to take an already functional object and make it more attractive. Suffice it to say, nobody was thinking about how pretty a railroad key would be when they were first designed. Now we can have both – a working key fit for Grand Central Terminal’s centennial.

Help me find my family! A lost bear on the Harlem Line Train Photos

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Help me find my family! Do you recognize me? I was riding the Harlem Line on Monday, December 16th and I got lost! I was taking the 5:19 train from Grand Central to Wassaic, but I guess I forgot to get off at the right stop, and I found myself in Wassaic yard! Don’t worry about me, I’m doing fine, some nice people brought me home and took care of me. I got to see a pretty Christmas tree and some really cool artifacts from railroad history. I even tried on a new hat, it was from the New York Central Railroad and was over 50 years old!

  
 

On Tuesday morning they were even going to let me operate the train down to Grand Central so I could find my family, but I thought it would be better to let the crew who know what they’re doing handle that! I sat in the back of the train and looked out the window as we went back to Grand Central, but I couldn’t really remember which stop was mine. I really miss my family, though. I hope they’ll come and find me – I’m in the Lost and Found in Grand Central now. You’d be surprised if you saw the place! So many coats and umbrellas in a huge room full of shelves! Please, if you recognize me, tell my family that I’m here, okay?

 
 

In all seriousness, a link was blowing up the interwebs the other day – a young girl had lost her stuffed lion on the train. By the power of the internet, and twitter, the two had become reunited. Scant hours later, I found myself on my nightly Harlem Line train, and as we approached our final stop in Wassaic, a little bear sat alone. While he could have gotten dropped into the lost and found bin in the yard, destined to spend at least one night in the damp cold, I opted to take him home for the evening and get him on the next morning train to Grand Central’s Lost and Found.

Though Metro-North’s Lost and Found has a remarkable knack for reuniting people with their lost property, I thought that perhaps the internet may again be able to help the process along. At minimum, when the bear gets reunited with its family, a young one may find their bear’s journeys in an engineer’s seat fun!

A visit to Whittier, and a ride through North America’s longest rail/highway tunnel History Photos Videos

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

In 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike just north of Nenana, completing the Alaska Railroad’s main line. The line extended 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, and is still the major backbone of the Alaska Railroad today. Over the years since there have been various additions and branches added, from the 28 mile Eilson Branch extending from Fairbanks to the Eilson Air Force Base, to the short Anchorage International Airport Branch which connects the railroad to the airport and is used occasionally for cruise ship passengers. Today, however, we turn our focus onto one of the railroad’s most important branches, the Whittier Branch.

Completed in 1943, the Whittier Branch connected the Alaska Railroad’s main line to the ice-free port of Whittier. Though a branch to Whittier had been considered for years prior, the project only came to fruition because of World War II. Whittier was not only a shortcut compared to the railroad’s other ice-free port in Seward, reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines, and was harder to bomb by plane because of the frequent bad weather.

 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
   
 
  
 
  
  
  
 
 
On the route of the Glacier Discovery – visiting Whittier and the flag stop at Spencer Glacier.

The most notable characteristic of the branch are the two tunnels used to pass through the mountains surrounding Whittier. A one mile tunnel was needed to get through Begich Peak, and a 2.5 mile tunnel passed through Maynard Mountain. While the shorter tunnel exists much as it did when it was first constructed, the longer tunnel has had extensive work to allow cars and trucks to pass through.

Construction of the Whittier Tunnel
Col. Benjamin B. Talley, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., commander of the Alaska Defense Command (third from right), enter the Whittier Tunnel during a holing through ceremony Nov. 20, 1942. Photo from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Gone are the days where Whittier was just a military port – today it is an attractive ingress to Alaska used by boaters, freight ships and cruise liners. But up until the late 1990s Whittier was not accessible by car. The Alaska Railroad operated a shuttle service where cars could be transported by flatcar to Whittier, but it was not the most ideal option. While constructing a new highway over the mountain, or constructing another tunnel were all considered, the most cost effective solution was to modify the Alaska Railroad’s existing tunnel to allow road vehicles to traverse the mountain into Whittier.

Converting the tunnel to multi use
Converting the tunnel to multi use
Construction work to convert the railroad tunnel into a dual rail/highway tunnel. Photos from Hatch Mott McDonald.

Completed in June of 2000, the modified tunnel is the longest dual purpose rail and highway tunnel in North America. Built to endure the harsh Alaskan climate, the tunnel is able to operate in temperatures down to -40°F, winds of 150 MPH, and the portal buildings are able to withstand avalanches. Trains are still an important part of the traffic using the tunnel, and it employs a computerized traffic control system to regulate both vehicular and rail traffic in both directions. Besides special cruise ship trains, Alaska Railroad passenger service along the branch and through the tunnels is on the Glacier Discovery train. Freight remains an integral part of the railroad’s operations on the branch, and it is from Whittier that the railroad is connected by barge to Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

While plenty of people on YouTube have recorded the journey through the tunnel by car, we get to take a unique journey through by train, thanks to my camera mounted on the front of one of the Alaska Railroad’s locomotives. In typical Whittier fashion, it is raining, but you get the general experience of leaving the port of Whittier, waiting for access into the tunnel, and traversing both tunnels on the branch. Enjoy!


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Back from Alaska, and the NRHS Convention Train Photos Videos

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

If you enjoyed our series on Alaska posted earlier this year, you will undoubtedly love our upcoming series on the Alaska Railroad. I’ve just returned from the absolutely awesome National Railway Historical Society convention, which was held in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, and have some great features lined up for the blog… many of which include video. My trusty GoPro camera was mounted on several locomotives throughout the trip, recording well over a hundred gigabytes of footage. So if you happened to miss the convention, or have always wanted to go to Alaska, you can pretend like you were there along with us!

 
  
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
 
Photos from the railroad route to Seward.

The Coastal Classic is likely one of the Alaska Railroad’s most scenic routes, traveling southward from Anchorage to the port of Seward, and passing glaciers and beautiful vistas. The line follows several horseshoe curves to gain altitude, and passes through several mountains by tunnel. Following the route of the Coastal Classic, our NHRS charter train took a leisurely ride through this gorgeous section of Alaska. Our video starts a little over fifty miles from Seward, and condenses two hours and twenty minutes of the ride into ten minutes. The video concludes over a bit of rare passenger mileage – bypassing Seward’s passenger station and heading into the Seward rail yard and docks.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some more stories, photos and videos from the convention, but for now enjoy a quick jaunt on the picturesque Alaska Railroad…

A special thanks goes out to the Alaska Railroad’s Kenny Smith, who was instrumental in getting my camera mounted on the various locomotives and trains throughout the trip! Thank you so much, Kenny!