Rail wood burners light Americana


The history of railroading began with the wood burning era.

The large funnel shaped smoke stack often termed “cabbage stack” at the front, the bright red paint and polished brass adornment will always be remembered by generations of railway buffs.

The large clouds of heavy black smoke belching from Hollywood’s iron horses are quite unreal.

Need fuel. Actually not one piece of wood has ever passed the gates of the firebox. The black smoke is generated from an oil burner.

Anyone familiar with wood burners knows wood smoke is light gray due to water vapor and organic fuel and in a locomotive’s exhaust many sparks accompany the gray smoke.

Those wood burning locomotives, like a wood stove, consumed large amounts of fuel.

By mid-1800 rail systems were consuming more than four to five million cords of wood per year.

The short (76 miles) railroad Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls line burned over 210,000 cords per year.

Provided wages. Of course this quantity may have decimated many wood lots, but paid the labor to cut, haul, split, stack and load this mountain of cord wood. Imagine the families that those wages aided in existence.

An example of wage earners was recorded in Massachusetts. More than 5,300 men earned a living supplying the local railroads with cords of wood.

During that era, wood was the most available fuel and material for most of life’s requirements although coal was used as fuel for other industries but only expensive and uncommon anthracite was available.

This type of coal was difficult to burn in narrow fire boxes.

Natural elements. There are natural elements concerning wood burning.

Although wood is quite readily ignited and burns quite readily, unless governed it can burn too rapidly.

The caloric value is low and proves rather bulky. Large quantities have to be handled and stored and refueling is almost constant, so frequent stops by the trains were required to resupply the stock.

Those that employed wood as a burning material are aware of the volatile properties of wood. Too much draft will cause too rapidly burning high heat conditions.

On locomotives the rapid burning fire often sent sparks along the tracks for miles into neighboring wood buildings, dry fields and wood lots.

Law suits and claims were quite common along the rail systems. Even passengers were commonly singed by sparks.

Dickens even referred to those sparks as “a storm of fiery snow.”

Inventions. The problem of spark emission was attempted to be controlled by thousands of amateur inventors, however most were ineffective and showers of sparks continued.

Coal was considered the answer to the problem, as coal production cost lowered this source of fuel was possible.

Naturally hewers of wood objected and the mechanic engineers acquainted with wood fuel joined in the rejection of coal.

Actually as to the mechanics, it enlarged their professional status, the hotter coal ash and flame quickly eroded the entire locomotives machinery and fire box, thereby repairs were quite common and repair shops were always behind demand.

As the rail system developed not only was the helpmate apprentice the fireman status replaced, the engineer that originally enjoyed a position of public respect authority and rail road prestige.

The engineer during that era controlled a large machine of power that seemed complex in operation to the unknowing public.

Attraction. The locomotive also was an attractive machine of red decoration, bright brass equipment and bright in cleanliness.

However, coal burners appeared with oily grime, belching heavy sticky black smoke which dusted both the men, machine and neighborhoods along the line.

Fanciful pipes and equipment previously bright shinning brass now were black either by soot or paint. Suits, ties and vests were also replaced by dingy soiled dungarees and overalls.

Just machinery. The engine finally became a black work a day piece of machinery.

The engineer had become just another employee and the fireman a soiled and sweaty helper, all at the end of a work day blended into the yard hands crowd unnoticed.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, active experiments into all coal burning locomotives began on many rail systems. Shortly most major lines abandoned all wood burners, and by 1880 the majority were employing coal burners.

The wood burners were dominate from around 1800 until the civil War on many railroad lines, a bright time in rail Americana.


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