A History of Railroads at Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center

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Bird Library

12-01-2003 to 12-31-2003

From their beginnings in the second third of the 19th century, railroads symbolized the rapid growth of this nation. They accelerated the westward expansion, moving ever increasing volumes of raw materials and finished goods to markets, transporting passengers, and in times of war playing a critical role in the mobilization of forces. Railroads have been characters in film and literature, providing speed, danger, adventure, opportunities for romance, crime, as well as damsels in distress for bold heroes to rescue. They have fascinated generations of young and old. Children dream of finding a toy train under the Christmas tree or of becoming an engineer.

The Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Libraries are home to the papers of a number of railroad companies — among them the New York Central, Erie Railroad, Baltimore and Ohio, and Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley — as well as the papers of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). These records include photographs, journals, financial records, and annual reports allowing researchers to develop an insight into the inner workings of America's first true "big business."

With this exhibition we present "snapshots" of railroading from its beginnings through the end of the steam era in the ‘30s and ‘40s, shown in historical texts and images, sound recordings, popular literature, corporate publications, and advertising.

The exhibit was curated by Peter Verheyen and Donia Conn.

  • History of the First Locomotives in America, Together With Other Interesting Information from Original Documents and testimony of Living Witnesses. William H. Brown. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.
  • Die Praxis des Modernen Maschinenbaues: Modellatlas. Berlin: Weller, ca. 1900 The models depicted in this work are examples of extraordinary paper engineering. Each plate consists of numbered die-cut layers that can be folded back to many depths, revealing the inner mechanics of the item. An explanatory key accompanies each plate.
  • Engineer Ralph, or Working His Way Upward. Frank H. MacDougal. Round the World Library, no. 87. New York: Street & Smith, ca. 1903.
  • Jack Lightfoot's Headwork. Maxwell Stevens. Round the World Library, no. 107. New York: Street & Smith, ca.1906. Railroads were a common theme in popular American literature, providing a backdrop for adventure, danger, crime, and damsels in distress for bold heroes to rescue.
  • Watts Flats Station. A-180. Erie Railroad Glass Plate Negative Collection, 1909. Among the papers and financial records of the Erie Railroad held by the Special Collections Research Center are a collection of 738, 8" x 10," glass plate negatives depicting the stations and other railroad structures along the Erie's railroad tracks. Watts Flats is at milepost 459, west of Jamestown, in Chautauqua County, New York. The glass plate negatives in this collection were digitized and made available online as part of a Central New York Library Resource Council grant award in 2000. Digitization increases access to the collection while at the same time preserving the original. A digital print of the negative can also be seen.
  • The Japanese Viewpoint. Carey Orr Collection. 1923 This cartoon, one of over 4000 in the Carey Orr Collection held by the Special Collections Research Center, confronts the issue of Japanese immigration to the United States. Railroads are often used as a metaphor in editorial cartoons.
  • O. & W.: The Long Life and Slow Death of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway. William F. Hellmer. Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North, 1959. A history of the O. & W. Railroad,which served rural markets from Weehawken, New Jersey to Oswego, New York — markets not reached by the larger railroads. Also shown is an unused one-way ticket from Cornwall to Middletown, both in Orange County, New York.
  • I've Been Working on the Railroad. Art Mooney and his Orchestra. Vogue Records, 1946. Example of a 78 rpm picture disc. The recording is held in the Belfer Audio Archive, Syracuse University Libraries.
  • The Little Train. Lois Lenski. New York: Oxford University Press, 1940. This popular children's book describes the fundamental workings of locomotives and railroads in language a five-year-old would understand. Illustrated by the other. This page depicts the change in motive power from steam to streamlined diesel motor units.
  • Fortune Magazine. New York: Time, Inc., January 1935. This advertisement for the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) depicts two of the Union Pacific Railroad's M10000 — nicknamed "Little Zip" — all-aluminum diesel railcars. They were among the first internal combustion engine-powered trains. Their sleek design reinvigorated the ailing passenger train business, hailing the demise of steam power.
  • The Locomotive. Raymond Lowey. London: The Studio; New York: The Studio Publications, 1937. Raymond Lowey, noted American industrial designer, was responsible for some of the most innovative designs in locomotive streamlining. Among these were the S-1, T-1, GG-1, and the K-4, depicted here. While the first three were essentially new engines, the latter was an earlier design to which a streamlined shell was applied.
  • Annual Report to Stockholders. American Locomotive Company. New York City: DeVinne Press, 1937. The cover of the Annual Report "illustrates one of the fifty new and improved Hudson type J3a locomotives recently built by the American Locomotive Company at Schenectady for use on the Twentieth Century Limited and other famous trains of the New York Central (NYC) System." The Twentieth Century Limited was the NYC's signature train, running from New York to Chicago.
  • Annual Report to Stockholders. American Locomotive Company. (ALCO) New York City: DeVinne Press, 1939. The cover of the 1939 Annual Report illustrates a 2000 H.P. diesel passenger locomotive capable of running at 120 mph. The locomotive was built to pull the Denver - Chicago Rocky Mountain Rocket for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad.
    Schenectady, New York-based ALCO was one of the premier locomotive builders in the U.S. and Canada before being absorbed by General Electric. During its 97-year history, ALCO was responsible for building some of the best- known engines, such as the Union Pacific's Big Boy, the streamlined Milwaukee Road Hiawathas, and the New York Central Hudson J3a- type locomotives. It also built the first commercially successful diesel electric engine, a form of motive power still in use today, and was a leader in locomotive exports. ALCO was absorbed by GE which continues to build locomotives in the late 1960s.
  • Annual Report to Stockholders. American Locomotive Company (ALCO). New York City : DeVinne Press, 1940. This spread depicts the range of diesel locomotives produced by ALCO, helping speed the transition in motive power away from steam, a business in which ALCO was also a leader.
  • The Water Level Route. Charles M. Knoll. Rochester: National Railway Historical Society, 1984. This spread depicts the New York Central's Empire State Express, described as the "finest daytime train in the world," which ran from New York City to Buffalo. The distance was covered in 7 hours and 50 minutes with 7 stops for an average of 56 miles an hour. The engines and cars were covered in fluted stainless steel, finished in silver and black. Rivarossi modeled the Empire State Express in H0 scale.
  • Railroads in the Streets of Syracuse. Marcellus, N.Y.: National Railway Historical Society, 1979. Many people may not know or remember that the main lines of the New York Central and Lackawanna railroads used to run through the streets of downtown Syracuse. Maximum speed was limited to 15 miles -per -hour. This situation was not remedied until the completion of the new New York Central Station (now Time Warner cable channel 10) on Erie Boulevard with its accompanying elevated tracks (now I-690) in 1936 type onto the wax. This is copy number one of only nine.