Category Archives: Railroad

Ridin’ the train, part 2

Spent the day in Jamestown, CA town. Among other things, we paid a visit to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and took a ride behind Sierra Railway #3. I’ve got some good pictures, but it’s late and I’m tired so I’ll post them tomorrow.

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Google Earth find

For anyone interested in western railroads, one of the members of the Google Earth Community has posted a file showing both the original and present day routes of the famous Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Once you’ve downloaded the file, you can install it by firing up Google Earth and selecting Add/Network Link from the menu bar.

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Railroad history

A valuable reference for archaeologists, historians, modelers, and anyone else interested in early trains, a compilation of bulletins 1-10 of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society is available for free online. (At 617 pages it’s a rather large download, so people with slow connections be warned.)

Although published in the 1920s, most of the articles deal with 19th century railroading. The bulletins are weighted toward Eastern U.S. railroads, which is not surprising to anybody who has seen a railroad map of North America. There are, however, a number of articles on western railroads as well, especially on the Central Pacific. There are also a few dealing with lines in the U.K. and Canada.

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Obscure technologies, part 4

I just found this Wired story about a futuristic train, made out of aluminum and driven by a airplane style propeller at the rear. The Schienenzeppelin was actually a railcar rather than a train (i.e. it was a single unit, not a set of cars propelled by a locomotive), and made it’s first test run in 1930. In 1931 it set a railway speed record of 230.2 km/hr. That record was not beaten until 1954 and, according to Wikipedia, still has not been beaten by any gasoline-powered rail vehicle.

There were a number of issues with the Schienenzepplin that stopped it from ever going into production, one of the most important of which was the safety of an open propeller at passenger stations. The one prototype was scrapped just before World War II.

Incidently, the Schienenzeppelin was not the first attempt to use aircraft propulsion on a rail vehicle: the Soviet Aerowagon was built as early as 1921, but it crashed on it’s second trip, killing all aboard.

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Did you ever wonder…

when a railroad locomotive goes off the track, how do you get it back on? The thing weighs about 170 tons, but if you thought that it required a big crane, you were wrong.

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Riding the train

I plan to comment on the recent paper by Paul A. LaViolette proposing that the Pleistocene mass extinction was caused by a solar flare, but I haven’t had a chance to read and digest it yet.

So in the meantime, I’ll offer some more train porn. Over the weekend we rode the restored Virginia & Truckee from Carson City to Virginia City and back. I took quite a few pictures, a few of which I am posting. (Click to embiggen)

Here’s the locomotive used on this run. It’s of a type known as a Mikado (wheel arrangement 2-8-2), and was built in 1914 for the McCloud River Railroad, a logging road operating near Mt. Shasta in California. This locomotive was also featured in the film Water for Elephants.


The modern V&T has an authentic 1870s era TSA agent on duty at the Eastgate station.


Another view of the locomotive, this time at Virginia City. It burns fuel oil, like the original V&T did for most of its existence.


The two passenger coaches were acquired from the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. It would have been nice to ride in original V&T cars pulled by an original V&T locomotive, but that’s not possible. The equipment that still survives in operable condition is all in the hands of museums, who understandably don’t want to subject it to the wear and tear of regular service.

Overall, it was a very fun trip through some wonderful scenery. We even met a herd of wild horses on the way back. I don’t think this was the last time I’m going to be riding this train.

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Obscure technologies, part 2

I give you Joe V. Meigs’ elevated railway. It’s sort the way the Disneyland monorail might have appeared, if it had been built in 1886. And this wasn’t just a proposal; a prototype was apparently actually built.

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The Big Boy can do what???

The Union Pacific Class 4000 Big Boy is widely considered to be the most powerful class of steam locomotive ever built. Starting in 1941, 25 Big Boys were built for the Union Pacific Railroad by the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, New York. The Big Boys were articulated, meaning they could bend in the middle to go around curves, and had two sets of driving wheels, with eight drivers (four pairs) per set. Four smaller wheels made up the pilot truck in the front, to help ease the huge locomotive around curves. A trailing truck at the rear had another four wheels to carry the weight of the firebox. This gave the Big Boy a wheel arrangement of 4-8-8-4*.

The Big Boys were designed to pull heavy freight trains over the Wasatch Mountains. Prior to their delivery, long trains needed extra helper locomotives to get over the mountains. This meant delays while the helpers were put on and taken off, as well as paying for extra crews to operate them. Using Big Boys, each capable of pulling more than 4,400 tons up the 1.55% grade, resulted in significant savings of time and money.

Technology marches on, however, and even the most powerful steam locomotives in the world could not stay in service forever. The Big Boy’s last run came in 1959. The diesels that replaced them were individually far less powerful, but could be connected such that multiple units were all operated by a single crew. Today eight Big Boys still survive in museums, although none of them are in operating condition.

One thing about the Big Boy locomotives that I did not know until recently is that they can also operate in outer space, at least according to this anime. Yep, that’s right. Trains traveling through space, pulled by steam locomotives. Complete with steam whistle, and a big plume of smoke (The Big Boy first appears at around 2:10. If you freeze it at 2:18, the overhead view clearly shows coal in the tender.). And on top of everything else, this English language version of a Japanese cartoon also features space panzergrenadiers.

Every time I think that anime just can’t get any stranger…


* Steam locomotives are classified by wheel arrangement, read in order from front to rear.

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HO scale V&T rant

I have been trying to model the Virginia & Truckee Railroad ca. 1873-78 in HO scale. This is the period of the Big Bonanza, when Virginia City was booming and the railroad ran as many as 40 trains a day over a steep, twisting, single track line with no signals. I say I’m trying to, because there’s one little problem: locomotives. Rio Grande Models makes kits of most of the freight cars I need, as well as a few of the passenger cars. The main thing they lack is ore cars, which are available from Comstock Carshops, along with several Virginia City buildings.

So why doesn’t anybody make HO scale V&T locomotives? There are a few old locos that occasionally show up on Ebay, but nothing that even remotely resembles state of the art. Can’t somebody make a high quality HO scale V&T locomotive, preferably equipped with DCC and sound? I’m not terribly picky; I’d happily take any locomotive that would have been seen in Virginia City before 1880. (If I’m remembering correctly, there were 19 of them.)

On a happier note, I picked up Mallory Hope Ferrell’s new book on the Nevada Central this afternoon. On first leaf-through, it looks like an excellent reference on a railroad that, until now, has not received nearly enough attention.

Now he just needs to produce a book about the Eureka & Palisade.


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Train porn

I took my camera down to Virginia City a couple of weeks ago. There was a lot of snow on the ground, which is not unusual for this time of year, but I was still able to get a few good pictures. (Click on any picture to embiggen.)


This is Virginia & Truckee locomotive no. 18, the Dayton. She was built in the Central Pacific shops in Sacramento and delivered in 1873. From 1879 until 1938 Dayton was fitted with a snowplow. In 1939 Dayton appeared in the Cecil B. DeMille epic Union Pacific, and thirty years later she taken to Promontory Point, Utah for the Gold Spike Centennial. Her current home is at the Comstock History Center in Virginia City.


A close up of the Central Pacific builder’s plate on the Dayton.


A plaque listing the rules of the V&T railroad shops in Carson City. I notice that in 1874 this was a no smoking shop, and that employees who were more than five minutes late were docked two hours pay.


The Virginia City passenger depot is long gone, but the freight depot remains. I don’t know who owns the building, but it is badly in need of restoration.

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