Monday, August 6, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Five


By August Hutchinson

Railroad companies certainly didn’t want to dissuade paying passengers from taking journeys on the rails. Non-paying passengers, like hobos, were a different story. Not only were they stealing transportation, but railroad companies considered them hazardous - on more than one occasion, a hobo cut an automatic air brake hose to make an unscheduled stop for himself. Hostile railroad police sometimes pushed them off of the moving trains, and  many of them were crushed by shifting loads of freight or died from trying to jump onto or off of cars.
Illegal Travelers didn't all ride inside the cars. Many, like this man, rode on a car's underbelly framework.
Behaving, paying passengers didn’t usually worry about being pitched off a moving train by the railroad police, but they did run the risk of being pitched into a river because of inherent weaknesses in bridges. On 7 August 1904, Denver & Rio Grande No. 11 was chugging through Colorado. It approached a simple timber frame trestle bridge, 110-B, which was judged to be “weak and in bad condition.” Earlier that day, the raging water below had torn an even weaker bridge from its spot, parts of which rammed into 110-B and weakened it further. So when No. 11 tried to cross, 110-B collapsed and it plunged into the torrent below. Eighty-eight people died.

In many cases, bridges like 110-B were classified as weak because they hadn’t been restructured to accommodate the increasing size of trains. According to an 1885 report from Engineering News, one bridge on the Central New Jersey, with an allowable stress of 10,000 psi, was subjected to loads of 22,000 psi. Many other railroads suffered similar problems, the report said, because they used old trusses from mid-century. After all, they liked to economize. 

Bridge Calamities like this transpired when a hefty train crossed a
not-so-hefty bridge, and when bridges were poorly built or maintenanced.
Some bridge builders also had an economizing impulse, or simply lacked skill. Most bridges built before the Civil War were either constructed by the railroads themselves or unsupervised contractors. Sometimes, neither group boasted much skill or expertise, though the B&O’s Carrolton Viaduct proves that such traits did exist in the early days. During the Civil War, railroad repair crews gained lots of experience by frantically repairing/rebuilding bridges attacked by the enemy. The B&O’s financial records confirm this: in the last four full fiscal years of the 1850s, they their average annual bridge expenditure was $40,900, but in the four fiscal years during the war it was $135,775. Then during the sixties, large bridge-building companies, like Phoenix Iron, emerged. They were heavily contracted but rarely supervised, so there was, in the words of Mark Aldrich, “no incentive save reputation for the contractor to perform honestly or competently.” As a result, many low-quality bridges were produced. It wouldn’t be until the 1870s that many railroads would systematically supervise the companies.

Bad maintenance also plagued railroad bridges. Rotted wooden beams, assert a number of post-accident reports, often caused or contributed to bridge collapses. It turns out that railroad managers sometimes knew beforehand about the deteriorated condition of a bridge that collapsed. Some companies (particularly the Erie and the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh) responded to the problem of maintenance failures by requiring thorough and frequent bridge inspections, followed by detailed reports and, when necessary, action. But many railroads did not follow suit and/or procrastinated about fixing problems, at least according to one expert, who wrote in 1891 that all too many railroads waited until bridges were at the point of collapse before undertaking repairs.

In a few states, like New York, ‘soft regulation’ (the application of public pressure instead of laws and rules to urge compliance with certain standards) successfully improved bridges. In January 1884, the state’s railroad commission requested accurate drawings of and other information on every railroad bridge in the state. It then hired bridge inspector Charles Stowell to assess the bridges and report needed changes. A number of companies reinforced their bridges ahead of time to protect themselves from bad press, and many others took action after Stowell’s 1,600 page report displayed and disparaged the unsound conditions of most of the bridges. Vermont engaged in similar soft regulation and achieved similar results, but such a positive impact didn’t reverberate far beyond the borders of the few states that took action.

Railroads that didn’t heavily care for their routes weren’t even prepared to deal with wooden bridge fires, which could be caused by anything from lightning to locomotive sparks. At the very least, bridges would be equipped with some water pails upon construction; at most, railroads focus on building iron bridges in lieu of wooden ones. Thankfully, iron was growing in popularity. On a national level, by 1889, there were ~737,000 wooden bridges and only ~30,000 iron ones. But the vast majority (~722,000) of those wooden bridges were under twenty feet long; in the twenty feet and over category, iron bridges outnumbered wooden bridges by ~24,000 to ~15,000.

Small wooden bridges should not be discounted, though, for they could be just as deadly as much longer ones. Take the example of a fifteen-foot long wooden bridge over a culvert in Chatsworth, Illinois. Accounts differ on whether or not the bridge was still on fire when a Toledo, Peoria & Western train tried to cross it, but at the very least it had sustained serious fire damage and collapsed under the train; eighty people were killed.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Six. You’ll learn about fire hazards to passengers, the campaign against them, and the development of technologies that made passengers safer.

Write to August at write2hutchinson@aol.com

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