At her death, the Witch of Wall Street was worth more than J. P. Morgan, and nearly all of it was in cash. Yet Hetty Green had worn the same dress for thirty years and lived in squalor. The Witch’s son Ned was another matter, a six-foot, four-inch, 300-pound eccentric who tossed away $3 million a year on cars, coins, stamps, female “wards,” pornography, yachts, and Texas politics.
Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 21, 1835. She inherited about $1 million outright from her father in 1865 and a life interest in $5 million. She was tall, full-figured, and handsome, with “a bosom full and high,” large, bright blue, intelligent eyes, regular features, and a fine, delicate, peach-blossom complexion that she retained into old age. Edward H. Green, a wealthy Vermonter, fell in love with her as she walked into the dining room in Boston’s Parker House.
With a pre-nuptial agreement under which each remained independent of the other in financial matters, they married in 1867. After eight years in London, the couple returned to America to live in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Here Hetty began to show an obsessive parsimony, spending half the night looking for a two-cent stamp she had mislaid, wearing wildly outdated clothes that were never mended or replaced, and not washing to save money on soap. (In later years, Mrs. Green’s economy led guests in hotel dining-rooms to ask for Hetty to be seated as far away from them as possible.) She became notorious and a favorite target for reporters with a satirical eye.
Mr. Green found Mrs. Green embarrassing. Relocating the family to New York, he took a bachelor apartment in an expensive men’s residential hotel, while Hetty, though wealthier than ever, lived with her children in cheap flats in Brooklyn and Hoboken, frequently moving to evade state taxes. They rarely paid more than twenty-two dollars a month for rent or five dollars a week for food.
In 1886, her son Ned was knocked down and dragged by a cart at Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street, severely injuring his right leg. She refused to pay doctors’ fees, instead making the rounds of free medical clinics in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She was recognized and turned away because she refused to pay although she could afford to. Eventually she had to take Ned to a doctor who, by then, could do nothing but advise amputation. It was that or death by gangrene, but Hetty would not—perhaps could not—pay for a doctor. Finally, her husband paid for the procedure, and the youth’s leg was cut off about seven inches above the knee.
Yet the boy remained loyal to his mother, who had begun to recognize his flair for business. Within months, Ned had become Hetty’s agent, first in Chicago and then Texas. During his stay in the Windy City, his lodge brothers, realizing the lad was an innocent at twenty-two, arranged an appointment for him at a house of mirth, ensuring first that the madam understood the guest of honor was a shy one-legged virgin.
The voluptuous redhead who entertained him, Mabel Harlow, was a thorough professional, skillful, tolerant, and kindly, who had learned her trade in Dallas and Houston before hitting the big time. Ned fell immediately in love but Mabel, uninterested in commitment, left town on the next train.
One of Hetty’s lesser enterprises, the Texas Midland Railroad, was fifty-one miles of unprofitable rusty rail connecting no place with nowhere. She sent Ned to make it viable. He stumped into the American National Bank of Terrell, Texas, bearing a cashier’s check for $500,000. This was then twice the bank’s capital. The bankers wired Hetty for confirmation. She replied that Ned had a mole on his forehead and a cork leg. He showed both to the bankers. They took the check. Then they made him a vice president.
Of those days, he later said, “I felt wonderful. I was fancy free.” Looking down at his cork leg, he added, “You might also say I was footloose.” Shortly after Ned’s arrival in Texas, the Governor made him an honorary colonel. Ned ordered gold-braided uniforms from Brooks Brothers for the next inaugural ball and used the title for the rest of his life.
He also became interested in Republican politics, befriending an unlikely but powerful state boss, William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, a gangly black man with a bobbing Adam’s apple.
After working his way through Roger Williams College, Gooseneck Bill had returned to the Lone Star State as a teacher. This was no way to get rich, so he also sold insurance for fraternal orders and went into politics. Texas Democrats then banned blacks from membership. So McDonald joined the Republicans. While the GOP was then an electoral dead-end in a former Confederate state, the Texas Republicans sent delegates to their party’s national convention, where Presidential candidates wanted their votes.
McDonald was soon able to buy and sell jobs, do deals, get contracts, and begin making money. But no Negro could become State Republican chairman. He needed a white man to front for him, like the large, affable railroad president from Terrell. McDonald planted the seed of ambition: State Chairman, Governor, maybe…. In September, 1896, following McDonald’s advice (“Never bribe a man with a check. Always use cash.”), Ned overwhelmed the State convention in a tidal wave of babes, booze, and gold, winning the first of four terms as State party chairman.
In his private life, Colonel Green behaved as if he had just invented sex and couldn’t wait to spread the idea around. When the Texas Midland bought an opera house as its office building, Edward used its top floor as his apartment, where he received an ever-changing array of women, including occasional professional talent from Dallas. He and his friends enjoyed snapping photographs of each other flagrante delicto, perhaps foreshadowing his robust taste for pornography.
One day Ned and Mabel met by accident in the lobby of the town’s hotel. (She was in Terrell on business.) She said, “Hiya, Eddie,” and they fell into each other’s arms. This time, Mabel stuck around to become the Colonel’s “housekeeper.” As she was easily bored and her only friends were whores, Mabel occasionally bolted town after a few drinks to return to her trade. Gooseneck Bill repeatedly tracked her down, had her arrested, and ensured her return to Terrell on the next train.
In the meantime, Hetty, who referred to Miss Harlow as Miss Harlot, had been busy on the stock market. As Lucius Beebe observed in The Big Spenders, “The New York Stock Exchange had hitherto been a closely guarded present of purely masculine rapacity, but Hetty, in the guise of a sort of reverse Florence Nightingale, was soon stacking the maimed and dying like cordwood as a result of her ruthless operations, and bears and bulls alike were licking financial wounds that were pitiful to behold.”
But indulging the odd occasional bout of securities manipulation was merely a pastime. She made her real money as a loan shark, lending money to bankers and brokers at the highest possible rate of interest from her rent-free desk at the Seaboard National Bank’s Wall Street office, where she always had $40 to $50 million on deposit.
During the Panic of 1907, perhaps her finest hour, the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed for $52 million. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation then: the depositors lost their savings. Hetty was not among them. Several weeks before the crash, she had told a friend to get her money out of the Knickerbocker. Hetty had already done so. “The men in that bank are too good-looking,” she explained. “You mark my words.”
Meanwhile, she continued to live in obscure and shabby boarding houses, sometimes in unfurnished rooms where she did her own cooking on a single gas plate. In April, 1916, while staying with a friend, the old lady suffered a stroke after arguing with the housekeeper over extravagance. The cook, Hetty claimed, was bankrupting her employer by using whole milk where skimmed would do. She died two months later: the Colonel had paid for round-the-clock care, the nurses dressing as maids lest Hetty have another stroke at the thought of the expense. She left $100 million to her two children.
At the time of his mother’s death, Colonel Green usually wore rimless spectacles, wing collars and, except on the very saddest occasions, a bemused smile. Thereafter, some say, his way of life became a protest against the penury that had cost him a leg. He collected stamps, coins, and pornography without restraint.
Hetty had been dead for less than a month when Ned married Mabel. To celebrate his nuptials, the Colonel wanted the world’s largest private yacht. With World War I raging, the Colonel was unable to order a vessel to his design. He inquired whether J. P. Morgan’s Corsair or Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal were available. They were not. Instead, he purchased a Great Lakes excursion steamer, the S.S. United States. It was only 195 feet long, shorter than Corsair. Green solved the problem by having the United States lengthened by sixty-one feet. When finished, the main cabin was 28 by 32 feet, with an open fieldstone fireplace. Here, the Colonel’s imagination failed him and the boat’s interior was furnished by John Wanamaker’s department store
When the United States arrived at Round Hill, the Colonel’s residence in Buzzards Bay, he encountered an insurmountable obstacle. The steamer burned nearly two tons of coal a day just keeping up enough steam pressure to activate the showers and fire lines. In wartime, nothing like this was available for a single civilian’s use. Then, on August 21, 1919, the United States sank at its mooring in sixteen feet of water. Colonel Green’s pride took ten hours to go down in broad daylight. There were no casualties; the furnishings were recovered; and the boat was scrapped.
In any case, he was finding that the money now piled up without his help. Eventually, the only words he was uttering at directors’ meetings were the motion to adjourn. Respectable neighbors on the Cape only noticed him when the Goodyear blimp he loved to moor to a tree on his front lawn got loose and was pursued by its custodians over their immaculately groomed estates. But he was wildly popular as a prize spendthrift of the Miami winter season. He signaled his arrival by presenting a $20 gold piece to each traffic policeman and would repeat the gesture when he went back North.
Colonel Green usually carried sufficient pocket money for emergencies. Once, he was breakfasting at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas with Edward Harper, president of the Security National Bank. Just as the sausages were coming to the table, a shaken emissary rushed in to tell the banker of a run on his bank. Unwilling to see his guest inconvenienced, Green pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty $10,000 banknotes. As this might have been insufficient, Green sent a bellboy to his suite, instructing him to fetch a battered Gladstone lying on the bed. It proved to be almost entirely filled with $10,000 bills, from which the Colonel counted out another thirty and handed them to Harper, no receipt necessary. Half a million dollars proved sufficient to save the bank, and Green had the valise returned to his rooms instructing the bellboy to stow it safely in the closet.
Still, now and then his mother’s thrifty ways would surface in the Colonel too. When his estate foreman told him that fifty gallons of flat paint were needed for the outbuildings, the Colonel bought a carload, paying $1.00 a can instead of the retail price of twice that amount. Reportedly, the foreman never figured out what to do with the extra 3,000 gallons.
Ned’s right leg had been buried in the Green family plot of Immanuel Church, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. In 1936, the rest of him joined it. His last joke came during probate. Among the objets d’art that made up the appurtenances of the estate was one that resembled a crown: large, bejeweled, gilt and enamel. One lawyer finally picked it up and to inspect it. He suddenly wrinkled his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it’s a chamber pot. And it’s been used.”
New York Press, April 28, 1999
February 14, 2015 No Comments
Occasionally, we think about investments we could have made that might have made us rich. Armed with clairvoyance, who would not have sunk the farm into Microsoft, back when Bill Gates was a nebbish? But we probably would have put our money into AT&T, U.S. Steel or Western Union—sound investments that would become much riskier through technological change and management by mediocrity.
It’s easy to see why a century ago, an investor choosing between, on the one hand, an automobile factory promoted by an obscure Michigan mechanic named Henry Ford and, on the other, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, backed by J.P. Morgan & Company and controlled by the bluest of blue chips, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, might have opted for the known quantity.
The Westchester—“the Road of Ease”—ran its first train on May 29, 1912 and its last on December 31, 1937. It was safe, stylish, and efficient. Its trains ran on time. Though it never turned a profit, part of its main line survives as part of the IRT number 5 line, carrying passengers between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue in the Bronx.
The Westchester was an old idea. On March 20, 1872, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway was incorporated to build from New York through the Bronx to the Connecticut border beyond Portchester. The Panic of 1873 cut off new investment in the scheme as abruptly as the 2001 recession cut off the dotcoms, and so the Westchester slumbered as a paper railroad—a file of corporate papers, including its franchise to build through the Bronx to Westchester—in its lawyers’ office. In 1906 investors headed by J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller (John D.’s roguish brother) bought control of the Westchester for $11 million. This was a lot of money for an abstraction.
However, the corporate charter and the franchise justified the expense to Charles Sanger Mellen, the New Haven railroad’s arrogant, sharp-tongued, and audacious president. Throughout his presidency, from 1904 to 1913, Mellen enjoyed the confidence of J.P. Morgan, who was as much a financial statesman as an investment banker.
Morgan had dominated the New Haven through sheer force of personality since 1892. Mellen later testified that without Morgan the New Haven’s board of directors would have been “as lacking in interest as a herd of cows deprived of a bull.” Morgan’s policy was simple: eliminate competition. He saw the railroad as a route to a monopoly over southern New England’s surface transportation that would literally control “everything that moved.”
By 1912, Mellen had achieved this. Through new construction, stock control, or lease, the New Haven operated over 2,000 miles of track: nearly every inch of steam railroad and trolley in Connecticut and Rhode Island and most of southern Massachusetts. The New Haven even controlled the coastal shipping companies—like the great Fall River Line with its huge white wedding-cake four-decker steamers Commonwealth and Priscilla. (The heroine of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 ends her life aboard a thinly disguised Fall River Line steamer.)
The Westchester’s peculiarity was that, though controlled by the New Haven, it would directly compete with its parent for commuter passengers between New York City and its northern termini, White Plains and Portchester. Yet this wasn’t an absurdity. First, Mellen believed the Westchester would eventually save the New Haven money. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulated railroads, required the New Haven to operate commuter trains with cheap tickets between Westchester and Connecticut and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which was owned by a rival company, the New York Central. The New York Central charged the New Haven up to twenty-four cents for each New Haven passenger passing through Grand Central. This meant the New Haven lost money on every commuter it carried.
The Westchester’s planned southern terminus was at 132nd Street and Willis Avenue, where its riders could board the IRT subway at 129th Street or the el train at 133rd. This obviated Grand Central’s terminal charges. If the Westchester charged lower fares than the New Haven, New Haven commuters might shift to the Westchester, cutting Mellen’s losses.
Second, Mellen believed that New York City’s commercial center would continue expanding northward. Between 1800 and 1850, the commercial district had grown from the tip of Manhattan to Canal Street; by 1900, it had passed 42nd Street. Mellen expected that it would reach the South Bronx between the 1930s and 1950s. (The city fathers planned for this: look at a map of the roads, railroads, and subways that converge at 149th Street in the South Bronx neighborhood nicknamed “The Hub.”) The Westchester would be right there, waiting for it.
The Westchester drove its first spike in 1909. Mellen spared no expense: Roger Arcara described it in Westchester’s Forgotten Railway as “the culmination of railway development: the most modern and efficient design, the most solid and sturdy construction, the greatest capacity (for its amount of trackage), and the most attractive layout and appearance of any line in the world.” It cut through rocks and hills and filled gullies and bogs to keep a straight, level right of way. Its bridges, viaducts, embankments, and retaining walls were designed to last for the ages. Although most of its route was then rural, the line was solidly built as a four-track heavy-duty electric railroad using the finest technology of the day.
It opened on May 29, 1912. From the beginning to the end, it was a first-class operation. Its 72-foot-long olive-green steel cars, with upholstered double-seat benches and a toilet compartment, could reach 57 mph within a minute. At E. 180th Street, Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Gun Hill Road, Baychester Avenue, and Dyre Avenue the railroad built fabulously ornate stations of poured concrete and steel, designed in a kind of Spanish Renaissance style (“modified Mission” it was called), several of which still serve the MTA today. It carried 2.8 million passengers in 1913, 4.5 million in 1916, and 14 million in 1928.
Yet the Westchester never quite caught on. Its elegant trains were rarely more than five coaches long, in contrast to the fourteen-coach commuter trains run by the New York Central and the New Haven. Commuters preferred a one-seat ride to midtown over changing to the subway at the East 133rd Street terminal. Second, the city’s zoning laws, adopted four years after the Westchester opened, effectively set the northern limit of commercial development at 59th Street.
Third, the Westchester never developed much freight traffic: indeed, it operated only one freight locomotive throughout its existence. Some said it hauled a single load of coal up to White Plains in the fall and took out the ashes in the spring.
Fourth was the fall of Charles S. Mellen. The New Haven’s press bureau made the railroad seem a financial Rock of Gibraltar. Yet as early as 1907, Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, had shown that Mellen’s profits were largely bookkeeping magic. Few paid attention then. In May 1912, a few days before the Westchester accepted its first paying passenger, the ICC began a routine review of the New Haven’s services and freight rates. Their accountants found confusing transactions between the New Haven and its 336 identified subsidiaries. The review became a full-scale investigation.
The report, issued in early 1913, proved Brandeis correct. The New Haven was insolvent: it had lent money to its money-losing subsidiaries, which they used to pay dividends to the parent company, which the parent then classified as income. Worse, Mellen had constantly shuffled assets between subsidiaries to inflate profits. One relatively clear example, outlined in George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin’s Splendor Sailed the Sound, was the New Haven’s coastal steamship operations. The ships themselves were sold in 1907 by one subsidiary, New England Navigation, to another, Consolidated Railway. They were not paid for in cash but with Consolidated Railway stock, worth $20 million but only because Mellen said it was.
The New Haven’s accountants showed a paper profit on the sale for New England Navigation, which was reported as real income, and an increase in the assets of Consolidated Railway. It looked like the real thing. With each transfer, though, the corporate books became works of increasingly elaborate fiction, showing explosive growth without any real increase in value. The steamboats alone shuttled from subsidiary to subsidiary (Consolidated Railway to New England Steamship to New England Navigation and back) over the next five years, pumping up the asset values on one or another set of books, depending on which one needed to be made attractive to investors at any point in time.
An immediate result of the investigation was Mellen’s resignation in August 1913. Within the year, the ICC offered and Mellen accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He described the steamboat deals and numerous other secret transactions. The New Haven’s treasurer, Hiram Kochersperger, was taken ill; his doctors advised him to travel to Europe for a rest, rendering him regrettably unable to testify. Mellen, when asked how long Kochersperger had been ill, replied, “Since the Commission began to get after the New Haven’s accounts.”
On November 2, 1914, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-one New Haven directors; Mellen spent thirty-one days on the stand at their trial.
Meanwhile, the Westchester lost money on its day-to-day operations from 1912 until 1921 and from 1932 through 1937. Even in the good years, it never made enough to cover the bond interest, which was paid by the New Haven. Much as the dotcoms relied on infusions of fresh venture capital, so the Westchester relied on advances from its parent. In 1935, six years into the Great Depression, the New Haven went broke. The advances stopped. In its annual report for 1935, the New Haven wrote off the Westchester, stating that “The advances made to the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company amount to $21,460,494.87, but as the prospect of their being repaid is very remote, they have been reduced to a nominal value of $1.” The next day the Westchester defaulted on its bonds and filed for bankruptcy.
By April 15, 1937, the Westchester’s receiver determined the line was hopelessly insolvent. On December 31, 1937, the Westchester made its final run. In June 1939, scrappers began removing the tracks in Westchester County; a year later, the City of New York purchased the line between E. 174th Street and Dyre Avenue for $1.7 million—much less than it had cost to build—and began operating it on May 15, 1941.
Here and there, the Westchester survives. The East 180th Street and Morris Park stations still bear the initials “N.Y.W.B.” The overpass at Brady and Matthews Avenues bears the railroad’s symbol: the caduceus, a staff entwined with coiled snakes, symbol of Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods. According to Cox Rail, an online site for collectors of obsolescent railroad securities, one of the Westchester’s handsomely engraved bonds, meant to be redeemed in 1946 for $1,000 in gold, is worth about $50.
New York Press, February 19,2002
February 3, 2015 No Comments
Phoebe Snow started here. I mean the train, not the singer–although she started here too, come to think of it. Born in New York City, she borrowed her stage name from the premiere express train of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, “The Route of Phoebe Snow,” “The Road of Anthracite,” which passengers boarded by taking a ferry boat from the railroad’s lower West Side ferry terminal to the massive Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The ninety-two-year-old ramshackle bronze-green Beaux-Arts giant, now operated by New Jersey Transit, still crouches a mile upriver from Jersey City’s financial district, its ferry slips gaping toward Manhattan. There, the Lackawanna began its long run to Scranton, Elmira, Binghamton, and Buffalo, where it connected with the Wabash, the Erie, the Nickel Plate, and other trains serving all points west. It is the last working railroad-ferry terminal on the Hudson’s west shore.
Until the Hudson Tubes (now the PATH lines) linked New Jersey and New York in 1908, the Hudson had been untunneled and unbridged south of Poughkeepsie, ninety miles from the sea. Most regional railroads terminated at Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, or Edgewater. They built or shared vast terminal stations where trains met the Manhattan steam ferries. It was a magnificent, leisurely way to enter or leave the city.
At the turn of the century, the Lackawanna’s locomotives burned what they hauled, smokeless anthracite coal. The railroad’s advertising emphasized this cleanliness through Phoebe Snow, a fictional woman passenger whose flowing white dress remained spotless by using the Lackawanna. The line even named its premiere express train for her. Thus the jingles ran:
Says Phoebe Snow about to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo,
“My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.”
With dimpling face all full of grace
Fair Phoebe pictures in a daze
That journey bright when clad in white.
She used the Road of Anthracite.
The same copy writer probably later worked on Burma Shave.
In 1914, the Pennsylvania Railroad—The Standard Railroad of the World (their ads said so)—finished tunneling under the Hudson, through Manhattan, and under the East River to Long Island while completing Pennsylvania Station at 34th Street. The Pennsy spent some 400 million prewar dollars over two decades to create history’s greatest privately financed public works project. (Advocates of a new Yankee Stadium should note: not one cent was the taxpayers’ money.)
However, the Pennsy monopolized Penn Station. At Hoboken, the Lackawanna’s passengers still changed to either ferries or the Tubes. A new jingle made the best of it:
Now Phoebe Snow direct can go
From Thirty-Third to Buffalo.
From Broadway bright the “Tubes” run right
Into the Road of Anthracite.
For another two generations—until they went bankrupt one after another—The Lackawanna and the other railroads ran passenger trains into their Jersey terminals. The Lackawanna ran boats between Hoboken and Manhattan’s Barclay Street until November 25, 1967, when the old steam ferry Elmira made its last run. The Phoebe Snow was discontinued. The Lackawanna (which in its last years was nicknamed the “Lackamoney”), vanished into Conrail and New Jersey Transit. Most of the terminals were torn down. But Lackawanna Terminal endured to link New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains with PATH and New York Waterways.
In May 1998 New Jersey Transit held its annual Hoboken Transit Festival in the Terminal’s great train shed. NJT displayed its latest, brightest, and best equipment. Little railroads also showed off their toys. The Morristown & Erie (called the “Ben Central” after its late president, Ben Friedman) had a fire-engine red switcher and the New York, Susquehanna & Western (“The Susie-Q”) a stainless steel rail-diesel car.
I thought of the fallen flags, the railroads that run no more. Gone are Thomas Wolfe’s “names of the mighty rails that bind the nation,” those names “that roll richly from the tongue and fire the imagining with sonorous and heroic imagery, with the sweep and wonder of plains and deserts, great rivers of empire…” Most modern railroad names seem selected by the accounting department. The CSX Corporation is the anonymous successor to nearly a dozen famous lines: Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, Western Maryland, Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, whose Pan American express—“Old Reliable”—was so prompt that a radio station used its thunderous passage by an open mike to signal noon every day.
Some names live on in old songs. The Wabash Cannonball. The Rock Island Line. The City of New Orleans. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. And who would not be intrigued by the Memphis, Ultima Thule & Arkadelphia?
Amid all the cheery modern colors at the festival darkly loomed a massive steam locomotive. The legend CHESAPEAKE AND OHIO in gold lettering emblazoned its tender, while the number 614 decorated its cab. The engine is the last dual-service steam locomotive built in North America, and it used to haul passenger trains across the Appalachians to Chicago, as well as deliver half-mile long strings of coal-laden hopper cars from West Virginia to tidewater, no sweat.
As with any work of art, the 614 symbolizes things uncontemplated by her makers, particularly the speed of obsolescence. The machine is fifteen years younger than my father, who in 1948 was shooting hoops with Waterford High’s sophomore team as the 614 rolled new from the Lima Locomotive Works in Hamilton, Ohio. Only eight years later, the C&O put her in storage where she remained for a generation until a new owner restored her to service.The 614 is as complicated as its 28,000 parts and as simple as boiling water. The same force that makes your teapot whistle sounds the 614 steam chimes,which can be heard five miles away booming two octaves below middle A.
As recently as a decade ago, the United States government tested the 614 for fuel efficiency, putting her back to work hauling coal trains in the West Virginia mountains. The results were inconclusive. Diesels are much less expensive to operate and maintain. However, a steam locomotive as large as the 614 is more powerful than most individual diesel-electric units, and it burns domestic coal, not imported oil. Only recently have diesels rolled out of the shops with power approaching that of Union Pacific’s Big Boy steamers, which hauled freight trains of up to five miles long at 55 to 60 miles an hour across the Rockies.
Even forty years ago, steam locomotives had largely disappeared from American railroads. And yet, and yet…on July 8, 1998, an express freight train failed at a siding at Carr, Colorado. The ultra-modern diesel’s computer went down, poor thing. Oddly, the nearest locomotive was one of Union Pacific’s two working steamers—the 844, a fifty-six-year old similar to the 614. Union Pacific had never retired the 844 (the railroad proudly claims it never totally dieselized), which now hauls fan trips and employee specials.
Now UP put the 844 to work. She passed and backed into the siding. The crews coupled her to the dead diesel, hooked up the air hoses, and tested the brakes. Waves of heat rippled off the firebox as gray oil smoke drifted from the stack.
The whistle sounded twice. The engineer released the brakes. The 844 sighed and eight brake shoes relaxed their grip on the drivers. He set the valve gear forward. Then, the engineer’s gloved hand opened the throttle, one notch, releasing steam into the cylinders, slowly forcing back the pistons, moving the main rods, turning the drivers.
A puff of exhaust burst from the stack. Steam hissed from the cylinder cock and the pistons returned. She crept forward. The engineer opened the throttle, notch by notch, and she slowly accelerated.
At five miles an hour, the exhaust began barking up the stack in rhythm with the moving pistons. She gained speed, effortlessly rolling into the Colorado hills, the stack talk faster and louder until the blasts blended into continuous roar that lasted all the way to Denver.
New York Press, September 1, 1998
January 31, 2015 No Comments