Today, rails and snow. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I boarded a train in
Seattle, in early October, 1953. The army was
shipping me to basic training in Virginia. For two
days we crossed America's vast high plains under gray
skies. Winter wasn't there yet but it would be soon.
Winter would pile great drifts of snow around tracks
running through the middle of nowhere.
Winter plagued the early American railways.
Engineers felt their way across our great landmass
in the years before 1869, when Union Pacific
finally linked East and West. Snow blocked travel
in winter, and the spring melt washed track away.
By a sometimes grim process of trial and error the
railways learned to elevate tracks to protect them
from runoff and to anchor trestles so snow slides
wouldn't sweep them away. They also had to invent
new technologies of snow removal. Anyone raised in
the American North grows up knowing how vicious
snow can be.
America's first commercial railroad was built in
1827. We were seriously in the railroad business by
the mid-1830s. At first trains carried crews of men
armed with shovels during the winter. By 1840
railroad engines were equipped with V-shaped plows.
But tackling the implacable high plains and rocky
mountains would take more than simple plows. A
blizzard could fill a road cut higher than the
train itself. Annual temperature variations of 140
degrees warped track and derailed trains. Disasters
quickly taught the railroads new technologies of
track laying and routing. When monster plows,
driven by many engines, still weren't up to the
task of snow removal, they created snow sheds --
wooden tunnels built along the sides of mountains
to keep the snow off the tracks.
In 1884 a Canadian mill-owner with the odd name of
Orange Jull created the rotary snowplow. It looks
like a great electric fan mounted on the engine,
eating its way through snow, chewing it into powder
and blowing it out the side. Rotary fans are still
the best way to clear snow, but they're not the
whole answer -- not when a slide can deposit snow
inlaid with trees and boulders.
By now snow clearance is a pretty mature
technology. But it's also one without which America
could not've been linked together. The 19th century
is filled with stories about passengers stranded in
the middle of Wyoming or the Dakotas, burning the
engine's coal to keep from freezing. Stories abound
of walking across frozen rivers to get from one
rail head to the next. In 1876 Walt Whitman wrote a prophetic
poem, To a Locomotive in Winter:
... pulse of the continent,Whitman was oddly ahead of himself. It'd
be another forty years before railroads had that kind
of solidarity in winter. But they would. And he saw
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds