The Day They Changed the Gauge
on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad
In the 1870s the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, under the capable leadership of its president, Samuel Sloan, was one of the richest and most powerful and influential corporations in America. It consisted of more than 400 miles of trackage stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It owned or controlled thousands of acres in the vicinity of Scranton which, in 1870, produced 2.5 million tons of anthracite coal.
An idea of the extent of the the coal business in the Scranton area is gleaned from the Scranton Weekly Republican, Feb. 23, 1876 which states the D.L.& W. mined 1,173,169 tons of anthracite from the Wyoming coal fields the previous year.
The D.L.& W. also served a burgeoning iron and steel industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Its major on-line customers included the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co. and the Dickson Locomotive Works, both in Scranton. Its vast traffic base also included transporting coal from other producers, transportation of iron rails, lumber, hides and leather. It also had an extensive passenger business.
As time went on it became increasingly apparent that the six foot gauge that originated with the Erie would have to go. Increased traffic and the fact most major railroads in the U.S. were standard gauge expedited this change-over. Interchanging between the two gauges was becoming increasingly cumbersome, time consuming and expensive.
Initially, the problem of interchange was temporarily relieved by laboriously transferring freight from one car to another between railroads of different gauges, which in some instances entailed changing the wheel sets of freight and passenger cars from wide to standard. Even special patented equipment was devised for this process.
The first hint that the D.L. & W. was considering changing the gauge appeared in the Scranton Weekly Republican of Wednesday Dec. 22, 1875 noted:
Anticipating the gauge change, the work day at the car shops in Scranton were reduced from eight to six hours per day, namely, from 8 a.m. to 12 noon, and 1 to 3 p.m. It was noted that the railroad company did not wish to turn out any more broad gauge cars.
The subsidiary Lackwanna & Bloomsburg, Morris & Essex and Oswego & Syracuse railroads were originally standard gauge. When they were absorbed by the D.L.& W. a third rail was layed to accommodate broad gauge equipment. The gauge change on these lines would only be a matter of removing the outside third rail.
The gauge change finally became official at a meeting of the Board of Managers in New York on Feb. 25, 1876. The minutes state:
The resolution was passed unanimously by the directors present, including President Samuel Sloan, William E. Dodge, Moses Taylor, George Buckley, James J. Blair, George Bliss, Percy R. Payne, William G. Hunt, Marcellus Massey and A.L. Dennis.
This came as great news all along the D.L.& W., as the country was in an economic recession. Sloan noted in a telegram to the newspapers:
After hearing this news excitement ran high along the D.L.& W., especially in Scranton, where hundreds of railroad employees had been layed off due to the lull in business, both at the various shops and at the company-owned mines. They were anxious to get back to work—if only for a few months. As Sloan promised, long-idled machine and car shops were re-opened and contracts made with locomotive and car manufacturers for equipment alterations.
On Feb. 26, the machine shops of the D.L.& W. Scranton, which had been idle since the first of the month, and more than half idle for many a months past, resumed work on a full time basis.
Shortly, work commenced on altering 200 locomotives and 12,500 coal jimmies. An additional 4,000 new coal and freight cars were being built to standard gauge specifications. The intent was to have enough operational rolling stock ready by the time the actual track narrowing was completed in May. Railroad officials estimated that standard gauge would reduce operating costs by at least 30 percent.
Railroad officials said the complete task of building new cars, altering old ones and renovating locomotives would take at least 18 months, during which time the employees at the various car and machine shops would find plenty to do. The scene in Scranton on Feb. 26 was a busy one, and it looked like old times to pass through the several departments and hear the hum of industry—the song of the shafting, the click of the chisel, the sound of the saw, the stroke of the hammer, and to witness the vigorous rush of labor in every room as it was stimulated into life and activity once again.
Workmen were scurrying to and fro, preparing and piling up wood, tearing old cars to pieces, laying tracks, and shortening axles, all indicating the gigantic preparation for the work of reconstruction. Shortening the axles of the old coal cars was one of the first steps taken, and was rapidly pushed forward. The axles were shortened by 7 and 3/4 inches on each car to suit the new gauge. In and around the coal car shops workmen were busy laying standard gauge tracks, that being the first work of importance for the accommodation of the remodeled cars. The machine shops initially employed near 1,000 men. The master mechanics had received their instructions and quickly implemented them.
Further analyzing the gauge change, the Railroad Gazette reported on March 3, 1876:
Only three major railroads—the D.L. & W., Erie, and its subsidiary, the Atlantic & Great Western—remained six foot gauge. The latter two roads, although wishing they could change over, did not have the financial resources at the time to do it. Procrastinating on their part for several years only made the financial burden worse as in the end it is said the entire change over the Erie cost upwards of $22 million.
In anticipation that considerable new rail would have to be laid, the D.L.& W. erected a steel mill of its own in Scranton at a cost of $1.2 million. The first 200 tons of rail produced were laid on the Oswego & Syracuse line from Stiles, just north of Syracuse, to Oswego. This replaced worn-out iron rail that had been in place for years.
The early spring of 1876 was a busy time for mechanics and trackmen. Master Mechanic Walter Dawson drew up specifications for altering the locomotive fleet to standard gauge. Essentially, the work involved replacement of boilers, drivers, cylinders and steam chests.
Dickson Locomotive Works in Scranton estimated the conversion work on 117 locomotives would range from $3,700 to $5,500 per unit.
Although Dickson and other locomotive manufacturers did much of the work, some was also done in the company’s shops in Scranton, as well as Syracuse, Oswego and Utica. The Ithaca branch would remain standard gauge until 1878 when the Erie laid a third rail between Binghamton and Owego.
By mid March, workmen at the Scranton car shops were converting about 40 cars per day.
An interesting document relating to this work was found in the D.L.& W. corporate records:
Specifications for Work Required to Change Gauge of Locomotives from 6 ft. to 4 ft. 8 1/2 inch track for D.L. & W. R.R. Co., March 1st, 1876
By mid-March, section gangs were adzing the ties and driving new inside spikes, preparatory to reducing the gauge. One rail would be moved 15 1/2 inches closer to the other. This work went on day and light. Everything possible was done to be in readiness for the changeover, which was set for Saturday, May 27, 1876 . The entire project was to be accomplished in 24 hours. One newspaper editor commented that the changing of the gauge was a “stupendous operation and would severely tax the resources of a company less great than that which has undertaken the work.”
New steel rails were placed inside the tracks. Section hands from neighboring railroads were temporarily employed at $2.00 a day. One of the first locomotives to roll out of the shops standard gauged was the Syracuse, Binghamton & New York Railroad’s No. 16, the “P. Elmendorf Sloan.” This was a 4-4-0 built in 1871 by Danforth-Cooke (Construction No. 727), 17x24” cylinders, 69” drivers and a total weight of 92,500 pounds.
An excellent description of what was about to transpire was published in the Syracuse Journal on April 6, 1876:
All went well. Although the “main” conversion was to occur on May 27th, the double-tracked mainline between Binghamton and Washington Junction was standard gauged a bit earlier. The Syracuse Standard of May 13, 1876 reported that between Binghamton and Scranton the work of changing the gauge had already begun and “...where one track is abandoned, and trains run only on the other, the time card is being temporarily changed to meet the emergency.”
Lines in New Jersey and Pennsylvania
Conversion of the 78 miles of mainline between Scranton and Washington Junction was accomplished in seven hours and a half, on May 15, 1876. The men reported to work at 6 a.m. at each end of the road, and by 1:30 p.m. the work was completed.
The Morris & Essex Railroad, later a division of the D.L.& W., was originally built to a gauge of four feet, 10 inches. It was standard gauged in July, 1866 for the convenience of interchange with other railroads. But a little more than a year later, a connection was built with the D.L.& W. mainline at Washington. The line was third railed for 66 miles from Washington eastward to Hoboken in 1869 and 1870 after being taken over by the D.L.& W. When the time came for conversion on May 27, 1876, the wide gauge outside track, or third rail, was merely taken up.
Lackawanna & Bloomsburg
The 80-mile Lackawanna & Bloomsburg was initially built as a standard gauge line between 1856 and 1860. This, too, was third railed, which was taken up in 1876.
Broad Gauge Railroads in New York State
Sources: Based on Moody’s Railroad Manual, annual reports of the New York State Engineer & Surveyor and later New York State Railroad Commissioners; contemporary newspaper accounts.
© 2008, Richard Palmer