Before the Days of Steel Rails
(From the earliest days of railroading until after the Civil War, rails were made of iron. This story, by Watson B. Berry, appeared in Railroad Magazine in March, 1946, and is a graphic description of "the way things used to be." The O.& L.C. Railroad operated between Ogdensburg and Rouses Point and in 1901 was purchased by the Rutland Railroad. It was abandoned in 1961.)
Sherman's March to the Sea put the finishing touches on Bill Grant's training for a career as railroad blacksmith on the old Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain. Bill spent months tearing up Confederate railroads and and laying others, repairing vast quantities of "sick" iron so that supplies might roll southward following the army of the North. When he came home from the war, he found the O&LC building a blacksmith shop at Lawrence to relieve pressure on the overloaded shops at Malone, Ogdensburg and Rouse's Point. Bill them became the "village blacksmith."
Engines and cars were increasing in weight and numbers during those days. Section gangs were kept busy spotting defective rails, broken spikes, fish-plates and bad connections, for the iron took a beating then. Sick rails had to be pulled out and carted to shops some 20, 40 or 77 miles from Lawrence. This was one important reason why that town was selected for the new shop, convenience. Another advantage of Lawrence was the extensive property owned by the railroad there, including stockyards, its lumber yard with a capacity for two or three thousand cords, besides large piling grounds for the storage of such items (P. 89) as ties, telegraph poles and fence posts.
What Bill didn't know about fixing broken, bent and worn out rails - about throwing a lot of iron together as to make it look and work like a railroad - wasn't worth knowing. He was a giant of a man, a black-whiskered, blue-eyed Irishman, with the deepest bass voice I've ever heard. As he stood by his forge wearing a large leather apron and looked into his fire, he presented a picture never forgotten by the neighboring boys who gathered at his shop.
My recollections of the shop go back to the early 1880s. It was a grimy, weather-beaten, unpainted frame building about 30 by 75 feet, standing on a short siding off from the main spur at the west end of the road's property. Its earthen floor, when I knew it, had been packed hard with a fifteen years' accumulation of cinders from the forge and anvil. The place was a lodestone for the village boys and outshone the charms of the Lawrence station and yards: the stockyards with the drovers' and cattle train on Fridays; the busy congregation of farmers' wives on Mondays , when the weekly "butter (P.90) train" pulled in to carry the home-made butter to market in Boston; and the big lumber yards. But Bill's shop came first because it was open every day, and his helpers were natives of our town who were always friendly to us.
Two section gangs brought in their daily grist of damaged iron on man-powered "dumpies," a sort of miniature flatcar, that stood about 30 inches above the rails. Other sick iron was picked up by work trains and piled outside the shop. Four men, two at each end, would lift these with pincers, and allow them to slide down on greased rails into the shop; though sometimes they would remain outdoors until needed.
There was never a shortage of work. Husky young men, generally sons of nearby farmers, who had first served s section men and could recognize a bad rail, were drafted by Bill, and then taught the art of curing rails. these jobs were eagerly sought, not because they were easy but since they meant working indoors, sheltered from the bitter cold of the north country winters.
Many young fellow saved their wages for an education and became teachers, lawyers, doctors and priests, or bought farms. Others remained with the railroad as brakemen, conductors and firemen, or traveled westward as maintenance men. They were a hardy lot.
The Lawrence blacksmith shop was probably the last of its kind, for with the coming of steel rails and the disappearance of wood-burners, the reason for their existence ended. But the change did not come suddenly. It was foreshadowed right after the marriage of E.H. Harriman to the daughter of William J. Averell, an Ogdensburg banker. Averell was president of the O&LC in 1879 and made the young New York stock broker a director of the road along with Stuyvesant Fish, two men destined to become great figures in the railroad field.
Almost immediately, young Harriman proposed a reorganization of the O&LC, including provision for a bond issue to cover the cost of replacing the iron rails with steel. Yet somehow the plan was not adopted for a while. A gradual change was effected, so that by 1885 the iron rails had passed into history. However, in 1880, the time about which I am writing, Bill Grant's shop was going strong and it was our favorite hangout.
Section gangs, pretty tired after a day;s work out in the open, were quite willing to let us boys help in pushing the heavily-laden dumpies into the shop. We thought it fun and the workmen encouraged us to believe this. It was something like Tom Sawyer letting his friends whitewash the fence, or like carrying water for the elephant in the circus tent. It got is unto the show, safely past Bill's "No Loafing" sign and on into the upper circles of blacksmithing.
For the boss railroad blacksmith of those days cut quite figure in his town. He punched no time clock, opened shop himself and expected all his helpers to be on time and do a full day's work. Most of us are more or less harmless snobs at times, and railroad blacksmiths were no exception. They could ride free on passenger trains - though they seldom did - and they knew all the engineers and conductors by their first names. "Dolph" Daly, a popular engineer, would always hail Bill from his cab window as he stopped.
"Hey, Bill!" he might shout. "How do you like working for Averell instead of General Sherman?"
"Averell's better pay," was Bill's answer, "but he couldn't hold a candle to Sherman."
'When I was with Sherman on his march to the sea," Bill would say, and then followed a tale of his experiences, which the boys will retell to their folks when they got home late for supper. They put in a hard day's work, but it was something no one would miss. Bill knew Averell, too, and had shaken hands with young Harriman.
"There's a young fellow who knows hot to keep his mouth shut," Bill once remarked. "He's no blabber. Folks find (P. 91) out what you're going to do when you do it. Makes me think of General Sherman."
Bill was a natural for his job. Besides his physical strength, he was distinguished in town for being a rugged individualist. He was once of those rare birds in the north country at the time, both a Civil War veteran and a Democrat. He named his two sons Sherman and Dana, for his heron general and for Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun, Bill's political Bible. Bill was proud of his work, justly considering himself several notches above horseshoeing blacksmiths.
So while I grew up, Bill was the hero of Lawrence youngsters. inside the shop with the dumpy load of rails, on past the "No Loafing" sign, we stood in a boy's paradise. To be allowed to work the bellows when a fresh fire was starting gave a fellow a chance to see the bd of smithing coal flame and glow at close range to an almost blinding heat. When the right moment arrived, Bill's hairy arm would sweep you away; then, spitting on a horny finger and thumb, he would pick up a small coal and light his pipe. This act - which Bill staged regularly - delighted the Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns of Lawrence.
A few extra pulls at the bellow's lever made the fire ship-shape and Bill motioned his helpers to get busy. A bruised rail, already lifted at both ends by a chain pulley, was quickly swung round on its swivel support and the worn section lowered into the white-hot coals. At the right second, obeying Bill's silent command, the helpers raised and swung it to to the great anvil, which in no way resembled a farrier's anvil. It was a large square block of metal weighing probably a ton, its face indented with groves of varying shapes and sizes to receive hot iron in the stages of the repairing processes.
There was also a shaping tool that I have never seen elsewhere. it was a heavy metal block with indentations in its surface large enough to fit over a hot rail-end placed on the anvil. When the sick rail was thus set for further treatment, a two-man team of young huskies got busy with sledge hammers. Alternating treatments of heating, shaping, cooling and hand forging finally brought the rail back to a semblance of its former self. But it took a considerable amount of re-heating, shaping, welding and chiseling to reproduce the real thing.
Innumerable spikes had to be straightened, and new connecting irons fashioned out of broken ones. There were drills, hand-operated of course, for making new bolt-holes, and repairing brake irons and other parts of freight cars. The place left indelible memories that are pleasant to recall now.
Work began to fall off about 1882 due to the laying of more durable steel rails, and Bill operated with a skeleton crew. There was still a lot of action, but also plenty of time for Bill to philosophize. When boys asked how he knew when to pull the irons from the fire, he'd puff savagely at his pipe and say: "It takes a lot of know-how, and you don't learn it in school. You had to get it, and get it quick when you were with Sherman on his March to the Sea. If you didn't have a tool you just rigged one up on the double-quick."
Bill Grant's O&LC shop went up in smoke and flames one crisp October midnight in 1883. The Baptist church bell summoned the villagers from their sleep to see the old shop passing into the limbo of the iron-rail days.