The Crooked Lake Review

April 2008

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The Day They Changed the Gauge

on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad


Richard Palmer

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:

“The proposed change would reduce the present standard of the gauge from 6 ft. to 4 ft. 8 1/2 inches, causing a reduction of 15 1/2 inches.

“Such a change would necessitate some very important alterations in all the rolling stock, make matters busy all along the line, and cause an increased activity at the company’s car shops in this city.

“The passenger coaches, some 100 in number on all the lines, would have to undergo no change save a shortening of axles and taking apart of trucks, they having been constructed in the main so as to ply over a broad or narrow gauge, but the company’s coal cars, 12,000 in number, would have to be taken to pieces.

“The reduction in question would take place from Binghamton to New York, on the Syracuse, Binghamton & New York road, and the Utica division. The Lackawanna & Bloomsburg division is already supplied with narrow-gauge. The aggregate extends along 386 miles of road, distributed as follows: Scranton to New York, 150 miles: Scranton to Binghamton, 62 miles; Binghamton to Syracuse, 84 miles; Binghamton to Utica, 90 miles; total, 386 miles.”

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 president called the attention of the Board of Managers to the question of adopting the narrow gauge, and of altering the rolling stock to comform thereto:—and after full discussion, Mr. Dodge offered the following resolution, which was seconded by Mr. Taylor:

“Resolved—That the President be authorized to change the gauge of all the railroads owned and leased by this company to four feet, eight and one half inches (4-8 1/2), and to alter the rolling stock to conform thereto;—such changes to begun at once, and finished as soon as practical. And that the President be empowered to do all other acts necesaary to carry out the fulfillment of this resolution.”

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:

“We have decided to narrow the gauge immediately. This will give the men work art once in the shops.” The projected cost of this conversion was $1,250,000. Sloan said:

“We choose this time for several reasons. In the first place, the traffic over the road is light at this season; then many of our shops are idle; and, finally, we give work to many of our old hands who need it sorely. Much of the car and engine altering will be in our own shops, but a part of it will be given to contract.”

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:

“There are two reasons why the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western should at last make this change. One is the better opportunity of finding a market for its coal at New York and points distant from its line and from New England points not far from tide-water. The latter especially, can get their coal so cheaply by sea that it is not possible to supply them advantageously by an all-rail route without eliminating all unnecessary expenses from the latter, among which must be reckoned the transfer from car to car.

“Another is the approaching completion of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg’s Lake Ontario Shore road. When this has made a connection with the Canada roads west of the Niagara River, it will be able to compete for a share of the through freight between New York City and the Northwest outlet.

“The outlet would not be worth much if it were of exceptional gauge; but the change to standard will complete a line 473 miles long from New York to Lewiston, on which the freight car coming from Canadian roads may pass without obstruction. This line, too, can be easily shortened, making a cut-off past Oswego, so as to be put about 440 miles long, or about the same distance as the New York Central.”

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

Each Engine to have new cylinders, steam chests, and driving wheels, some to have an entire new boiler, others that have cylinders part good, will require only new back end, and fire box, to be made of shape and dimensions of drawings and according to specifications to be furnished by this Company.

If the main axles are sound, without flaws or cracks and not worn smaller than 6 3/8,” the same of the front and back axles if not smaller than 6/4.” If smaller than above, or unsound, make new axles of best hammered iron.

Crank pins, if of good shape, not worn out of round, and no cracks or flaws, can be used—all new crank pins to be made of steel.

Old driving box brasses may be used if not less than 3/4” thick.

Eccentrics if worn out of round, to be turned and straps bored to fit—unless worn too much sideways, in which case new ones must be put on.

Turn all tires that require it.

Valve gear, all parts to be thoroughly repaired and lost motion taken out, and link pins &c. case hardened in usual manner—Rocker shafts turned and lost motion reduced in boxes.

True up pedestals of frames and wedges if necessary—The domes of the boilers can be made the same diameter as that on the old boiler, so that the cast top with safety valves and dome casings can be used.

Piston rods can be used if after turning they will not be less than 2 13/16” diameter.

Valve spindles can be used if they will not be less 1/4” after turning.

Cabs, in good condition can be used—also such as can be made good by repairs, otherwise furnish new cabs.

Tender tanks and frames can be repaired if necessary, if the timber in frame is rotten and not worth repairing, make a new frame of oak. It is not necessary to change width of tank or frame.

Drawings will be furnished of boiler, cylinder, steam chests, slide valves and driving wheels.

Gauges will be furnished for lengths of axles, width of engine frames and truck frames.

Engines and tenders to be painted, according to designs furnished by this Company.

All parts of he engines to be put in good order, all materials to be of the best quality and the workmanship done in the best manner.

Walter Dawson, Master Mechanic

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:

“The workmen along the line are already leveling and smoothing the ties where the rail will be placed when moved, and everything that is possible will be done in advance to facilitate the final operation. Some time before the day fixed for moving the rail its position will be accurately lined out on the ties, and the spikes on the inner side driven down.

“A day or two before the ‘moving’ as many of the spikes will be driven from their present position on the inner side of the rail to be moved, as can be done with safety. (It will be remembered that the pressure of the wheels is nostly on the outer spikes). On the day fixed for changing the gauge it will only be necessary to drive the remaining spikes on the inner side; move the rail against the spikes already driven in the new position, tighten them, and spike the outer side of the rail.

“As every minute will be valuable, the present outer spikes will be left until a more convenient season. The ‘section hands’ on the road at present number six to the section (of about five or six miles).

“On the day fixed for making the change each of those men will be a ‘boss’ for the occasion, with six men under him. It is thought the gang of seven men will be able to change a mile of track in a day. If all works as well as anticipated, there will be no serious obstacle to completing the job in the prescribed time.”

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

Name Original Gauge Changed to Standard Mileage
Albany & Susquehanna
(Delaware & Hudson)
6’ Third rail 1876 142
Atlantic & Great Western (Erie)6’188056
Avon, Genesee & Mt. Morris (Erie)6’188015
Bath & Hammondsport 3'188412
Blossburg & Corning6’187613
Buffalo & Erie
(Lake Shore & Michigan Southern)
4’10” 1878 88
Buffalo & New York City (Erie)6’188061
Buffalo, Bradford& Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)6’188026
Buffalo, Corning& New York6’188090
Buffalo, Corry & Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)4’ 9 1/4”187643
Canandaigua & Niagara Falls (Erie, later New York Central “Peanut” branch)6’185898
Cayuga & Susquehanna (Standard prior to 1849, later D.L.& W.) 6’ 1878 34
Chemung (Northern Central, later Pennsylvania)6’, Third rail186617
Cherry Valley, Sharon Springs & Albany (Delaware & Hudson)6’187623
Elmira, Jefferson & Canandaigua (Erie controlled, later Northern Central, then Pennsylvania)6’186646
Erie 6’, Third rail Jersey City - Buffalo, completed on June 22, 1880, Dec. 29, 1878. all lines standard gauged
Middletown, Unionville & Water Gap (New York, Ontario & Western)6’187213
Montgomery & Erie (Erie) 6’188010
Oswego & Syracuse   Originally standard, 3rd railed 1867, standard gauged 1878 36
Rochester & Genesee Valley (Erie)6’188018
Sterling Mountain (Southfield Branch)6’18827
Syracuse, Binghamton & New York (DL&W)6’187681
Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Valley Included Richfield Springs branch, 18 miles.   Originally standard gauge, to wide gauge in 1874, back to standard gauge, 1876 after taken over by DL&W 53
Valley (Binghamton to Hallstead, Pa., D.L.& W.)6’187611
Walkill Valley (Erie)6’187520
Warwick Valley (Erie)6’188010

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
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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