Depot Discoveries Part Six

brattleboro trolley at wells fountain

A vintage postcard shows the trolley passing the Wells Fountain at the north end of its route, after having looped past the Common. Vermont’s Windham County Superior Courthouse now stands behind the fountain, replacing the Victorian residence.

Today’s adventure involves railroad sleuthing of another stripe. Although not a depot, it is a discovery – and it’s about rails, so that makes it close enough for me. This time we find ourselves back in Brattleboro, Vermont amongst the possible remnants of the Brattleboro Street Railway Company (p.3), more commonly known, of course, as “the Trolley.” There’s a limited amount of information on this fascinating layer of Brattleboro’s history, both in print and on the web, and almost nothing of material substance, but I hope to be able to dig up and write about a few different aspects of the little road as I encounter them. The Brattleboro Street Railway Co. ran its first streetcars in 1895, opening for business after both strenuous opposition and staunch support; the last ticket was sold in 1923 and the rails torn up. For a brief time, a section of track remained on Main Street and then the trolley was gone completely, but in its heyday it carried an average of 2,500 passengers a day! More on this in subsequent posts, if I can muster up a few more clues to pursue…

brattleboro street railway under construction 1895

The Brattleboro Street Railway Company ran its first public trip on August 1, 1895. This photo shows the rails being laid on lower Main Street, approaching Whetstone Brook.

Brattleboro Lower Main Street trolley tracksBrattleboro’s lower Main Street some years later, showing the trolley tracks with one of the three turnouts on the line: this one to transfer passengers to Union Station, to the right of the frame at Bridge and Vernon Streets, for the Central Vermont and Boston and Maine.

I have a favorite morning spot on the backside (and trackside) of the Brattleboro’s wonderfully active brick-fronted Main Street. The east side of the downtown commercial area edges up to the Connecticut River and is shadowed by New Hampshire’s Mount Wantastiquet on the far bank; the mainline tracks of the New England Central lie below a steep embankment, following the watercourse and parallel to the downtown structures. There are a couple of alleys that penetrate the three- and four-story blocks and allow a quieter, albeit less polished, view of the river valley, away from the bustle of streetside facades and traffic. The vantage point under discussion is behind the Richardson (1924) and Devens (c. 1840-45) blocks: there, a stout railing tops a retaining wall for private parking and access to the humbler back doors of the commercial buildings. In this case, the railing is truly a railing.

Google Streetview 78 Main St. Brattleboro

Google Streetview shot of the alley; in one of those strangely serendipitous digital anomalies, the ghost of trolley tracks leads into the narrow side street.

The sturdy construction befits its precipitous perch; steel posts edge the paved terrace behind the buildings and broad planks span them, keeping everything from tumbling down on to the tracks: pedestrians, parked cars, dumpsters, backfill. I had noticed a long time ago that the posts were actually lengths of used rail; I didn’t think about it much at the time, since finding repurposed rail in a trackside situation is a rather common occurrence. Then my value perception shifted: I learned about mill marks on steel rail and realized there was some useful information to be gleaned from this bit of long-lasting industrial evidence. Perhaps if I went back and looked closely, I might find a clue as to their origin, now that I had an idea about where to search and what it might connote.

backside railing

The railing in situ, trackside on the NECRR mainline, but… we cannot asume the salvaged steel is related to the nearby track simply by proximity.

Most modern North American trains roll on T-rail, so-called from the profile of the rail in cross-section. When T-rail is rolled at a steel mill, it is labelled permanently on the web of the rail, which is the thin section between the top – the “head’ – and bottom – the “base” or “foot”) with several bits of information, historically with raised characters in relief and more recently with a stamped  legend. Usually these “mill marks” include the company’s name, mill location, date of manufacture, and the size of the rail, among other data possibilities. Rail comes in a plethora of sizes, most of them standardized by the industry’s overseeing organizations, so that sundry track installations can match each other cleanly as far as height and width, etc. Size is referred to in terms of weight per linear length – in the case of North America, in pounds per yard. Older installations tended to be lighter weight, since equipment was smaller and performance was less demanding; rail is sized by expectation, in other words, as well as the technology of the time. Mainlines are heavier; sidings are downsized. The Brattleboro Street Railway, to give an example, might be expected to have laid a rather light rail specification of, say, 50 lbs., due both to its era and its primary deployment of single streetcars. Today’s mainlines are much heavier: the New England Central Railroad mainline through Brattleboro, for instance, is continuously welded steel rail with a weight of 112 lbs/yard – and that’s not as heavy as other, much more heavily freighted lines.

full rail cross section

A cross-section of lightly-worn used rail allows measurements of the critical dimensions.

There are a couple different rail sizes incorporated into the railing in question, but most of them are the lightweight examples which had struck me as unusually small. A fact to keep in mind when measuring used rail is that the surfaces are worn, sometimes heavily, especially on the faces in contact with the rolling stock’s wheels, usually the top and one side of the head; curves will be worn even more heavily on the outer rail in the radius. Thus, it’s important to look for the least worn specimen at hand. Armed with a tape measure, I recorded the a few of the various dimensions needed to identify the rail size: width of head 1.75″, width of base 3.75″ , thickness of web .5″ , total height of rail (base to head) 3.25″ . Vintage rail tended to have a 1:1 ratio between total rail height and width of base, in other words, they should match. In this case, it was slightly off but this can be accounted for by several factors: wear, mill variation, or a non-standard specification. I consulted a rail size chart and could not find a perfect match; I narrowed the specification down to  the 35-45 lb. class.

worn rail cross-section

A heavily worn rail cross-section, probably from the outside member on a curved section.

Now, for the mill marks – I could only find one rail post that had a barely legible inscription; the posts have accumulated several coats of paint on them so that wasn’t helping matters. But most of the information was there, as best as I could make it out: —S Co. SCRANTON NW 12 94 – definitely enough legend to begin to zero in on the source. The steel company in Scranton (Pennsylvania) during that time period was the huge Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co., founded by the Scranton family itself; it was the second largest steel plant in the country and produced massive amounts of steel rail for the nation. LI&S Co. had two huge furnace and rolling mill installations in Scranton, known as the North and South Works (or NW and SW). The cryptic mill marks are starting to make sense…

rail mill marks

Beginning of the rail’s mill mark legend: —S Co. SCRAN(TON)…next frame>

rail mill marks

…(S)CRANTON N(W)…next frame>

rolling mill mark date

…(N)W 12 94 (end)

What this tells us is that this section of 35-45 lb. rail was most likely rolled in Scranton, PA by LI & S Co. in December (12) of 1894 (94). As a point of reference, when new trackage is laid the rails are usually taken directly from the gondola or flatcar on which they were shipped by the mill. Orders are filled as they are placed; newly laid rail may be only weeks old – generally, rail is not stockpiled but sent out as soon as it is rolled. Now, combine that with the fact that the Brattleboro Street Railway was laid in 1894-95 – officially opened in August, 1895 – and we have an interesting proposition before us. There is a pretty good chance that these recycled railing posts are one of the few vestiges of the Brattleboro trolley extant.  I have not yet been able to confirm from which company the original rails were procured just before the turn of the century; this would be an excellent clarification. The only booklet on the subject, Trolley Days in Brattleboro, by Donald Shaw (1948) has very little hard and fast information – it’s mostly assembled anecdotes from the town’s Vermont Phoenix newspaper articles of the time. I’ll keep digging… In the meantime, I have a couple other leads to pursue on the former trail of the Brattleboro Street Railway Company. Have your tickets ready, please!


5 thoughts on “Depot Discoveries Part Six

  1. Pingback: Windows on the Whetstone | quotidiously

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