Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part II

ITM train 2
Alan E. Hunter on the last Indianapolis Street Car, Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Original publish date:  July 23, 2018

At 11:59 pm on Thursday July 12, 2018, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville, Indiana ceased to exist when the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office swarmed the grounds at Forest Park and sealed the property. The closing, although known by all parties involved, still came as a shock to the system for the dedicated volunteers working furiously to save the engines, railcars and equipment they have so lovingly cared for over the past half-century. Even though everyone knew it was coming, no one really expected it to happen.
As an intensely interested (but uninvested) observer of what happened that week after Independence Day, I immediately recognized the politics involved on both sides. There can be no doubt there were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Like all parties involved, I have my own opinion. However, I am neither a train-guy nor an investigative journalist. I have a background in historic preservation, particularly when it comes to my birth state of Indiana, and I write about Hoosier history. I don’t think it’s my place to take sides in this debate. What’s done is done, what’s right is right and in the words of Buffalo Springfield, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
From the moment that I walked into that chaotic scene one week before it’s closing, I was struck by the dedication of the people working on those trains. Whether talking about on-site volunteers from the ITM or those from neighboring rail museums, one thing was clear from the start, when it comes to trains, these people are passionate about preservation. The people I’m talking about don’t have PhD’s, don’t serve on boards of directors and don’t give a damn about self-promotion or the politics involved. They love trains, period. So when I heard the news of the ITM’s closing, I felt it would be best to honor these folks rather than add to the chatter of discontent.

Kris Branch streetcar photo 1
The last Indianapolis Street Car. Photo by Kris Branch.

In part one of this article, I detailed the quest that brought me to the ITM in the first place: the search for the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. I had been tipped off to the car’s presence at ITM by Meg Purnsley, friend and dedicated Indianapolis preservationist. My first inquiries about the fate of car # 153 were met with puzzled looks on the greased streaked faces of the first few people I encountered. Finally I was directed to the trolley barn just east of the Hobbs station depot where I found Craig Presler hovering over a couple wooden trolley cars located there. As it turned out, locating Craig was my first good find of the day, but certainly not my last.
When I asked Craig about the fate of Indy streetcar 1-5-3, he answered, “Well I can take you to where it was but it was crushed some time ago.” What? I was gobsmacked by the news and immediately sick to my stomach. Thank goodness my wife Rhonda was there to prop me up else I may have fainted dead away on the spot. Craig walked us a couple hundred yards past another trolley barn and pointed to a train car parked near the tree line. “The car you’re looking for was located right behind this one,” said Craig. “But it was crushed some time ago.” I’m no Indiana Jones, but as I looked into the trees several yards past the wood line, I saw the gleam of a window. “What’s that? Is that it?” I asked Craig. Then, time slowed down like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie as Craig said, “Maybe, I guess it didn’t get crushed after all.”
In a flash, Rhonda and I found ourselves blazing a trail through the thick overgrowth towards that window. With each step, the shadowy silhouette of car 153 emerged from the wilderness. It was in pretty bad shape, but it was there. Knowing that time was not on my side, my every thought went to getting this car out of these woods before it was too late. As I said before, I am not a train guy and have no idea what it would take to get this relic out of these woods. Craig assured me that it could be done and pledged to help in any way that he could. Meantime, the hour was getting late and I needed to try and find a home for this historic streetcar. I arranged to meet Craig the next day to talk more about saving the car.
Once home, I fired up the lines of communication to anyone I thought might be able to help save this car. I updated former Indiana National Road Association Presidents Meg Purnsley and Ron Sanders on the dire situation. Both assured me that INRA might be a suitable home. I contacted Stevi Stoesz Kersh, Executive Director of Indianapolis City Market, who enlisted her help and counsel. I even contacted Dale Harkins of the Irving theater for his advice. The Facebook community chimed in with concern and caring comments. The support was there, no doubt, but we were running out of time.
The next day Rhonda & I returned to the ITM. Once again I sought out Craig Presler. As detailed in part one of ths story, Craig directed me towards Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum and William Whitmer of the “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” who met us at the car in the woods. Both agreed that the car could (and should) be saved. The only question was, how could we do it?

shDSC08391
Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

We spent the rest of that second day walking and talking with Craig Presler. Although my focus was on the last surviving Indy streetcar and how to save it, I could plainly see that news of the museum’s closing was devastating Craig. Turns out Craig Presler’s history with the ITM is nearly as old as the museum itself. He came to Noblesville in the early 1970s and worked at Firestone for over three decades while volunteering his time to the ITM on nights and weekends. He lives within walking distance of the museum and when he retired last year he made plans to devote the lion’s share of his time guiding visitors through the train cars at the ITM. In particular the lavish railcar known as “The Flagler Car.”

kb20180707_125205
Craig Presler inside the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.

Craig Presler knows every square inch of Henry Flagler’s 1898 private railcar. The name Flagler is familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting St. Augustine Florida but really, Flagler is second only to Walt Disney when it comes to the state of Florida’s prominence as a tourist mecca. Henry Morrison Flagler (January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was a founder of Standard Oil and an early partner of John D Rockefeller in Ohio. He almost singlehandedly developed the Atlantic coast of Florida and he founded Florida’s East Coast Railway. Today, he is known as the father of Miami and Palm Beach, Florida.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Holman bought this car for his wife’s birthday in 1968 and in turn we got it several years ago,” says Craig. “The wood is all Canarium which is a blonde mahogany native to the Canary Islands. Henry Flagler pretty

shDSC08392
Tim Poynter inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

much owned the whole east coast of Florida and he told the builders of the car that he wanted it to look sunny like Florida. The rail line continued to operate the car until about 1951 – 52 when it was purchased by a man from Anderson named Ike Duffy who managed a meatpacking plant but who, more importantly, is remembered today as a founding father of the NBA. He started one of the inaugural franchises known as the Anderson Packers. Ike use the train to promote his business and rode it around to all his meatpacking plants in Noblesville, Lebanon, Anderson, Muncie and Brazil. He would serve his employees lunch that he actually cooked in the kitchen of this car. When Ike Duffy died in 1968, Tony Hulman bought it. I’m told that he took it to Chicago twice and that Mrs. Hulman never rode in it.”

tpIMG_8037
Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

Craig delighted showing visitors (like us) all of the secret compartments and high-end accouterments that were found all over the Flagler car. It had self-closing windows, drawers and beds all over the place. Zinc lined compartments to hold and chill champagne bottles and the finest blinds, carpeting, curtains and Persian rug styled monogrammed blankets money could buy. It was easy to see that this car was a large part of Craig Presler’s life. When I asked him what would become of the car after the museum closed, he said, “I’m told the car is being moved to our affiliate in Logansport and that I will be able to go up on the weekends and continue to give tours.”
As Rhonda and I exited the the railcar following Craig’s impromptu tour, two officials I had been talking to previously about the ITM’s closure pulled me aside and informed me that while we were touring the car, it had been sold. It was going to be moved to a museum in Monon Indiana some 90 miles away. They finished by saying, “Don’t tell Craig, he does not know yet.” Knowing how much Craig loved this car, I knew this was going to be devastating news. As we left that day we arranged to meet Craig the next morning.

tpIMG_8046
Craig Presler, Rhonda Hunter, Kris & Roger Branch & Alan E. Hunter  in the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter

We showed up on Saturday, but this time with reinforcements: Kris and Roger Branch, Tim Poynter and Steve Hunt. One way or another we were going to save this car. I noticed that Craig had a plastic bag hooked on his belt loop. It contained a spray can of adhesive and some specialty tools. Craig said he brought them to fix a small piece of woodwork in the Flagler car he had pointed out to us the day before. The damaged area was so small as to be indiscernible to anyone else but Craig. The sad part is that the sight of that bag made me realize instantly that no one had yet told Craig his beloved Flagler car had been sold. He insisted on showing the Flagler car to the new additions in our group. That was Craig’s last tour. (the Flagler car made it out at 11:45. It was the last train out before the gate were locked.)

shDSC08423
Tim Poynter in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

The realization was all the more ironic because the object of my quest, the dilapidated shell of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was moldering away in the woods not 20 yards away from that opulent Flagler car. Before I could ponder the dichotomy of the situation any further, I received a text message from William Whitmer telling me that the streetcar had been saved. We met at the streetcar and William delivered the good news.
William explained how he had stepped up and bought the car just in the nick of time. William had arrived at the streetcar, receipt in hand, just as the wrecker was creeping slowly towards it. “I couldn’t believe it,” William said, “I literally had to stand in front of the streetcar and wave my arms to get them to stop. They had been told the streetcar was scrap and that they were there to break it up. Five more minutes and the streetcar would have been crushed. The driver didn’t want to believe me until I showed him the receipt.”
William said that after our discussion the day before, “We did a very preliminary examination on the car body. The frame and car bolster (where the truck/wheels attach) is in solid shape. The actual structural steel is not too rotted. Side bracing is acceptable, and a lot of the upright steel frame is acceptable. The car is in overall better condition than we thought originally, making restoration far more likely.”
Then he shocked me by saying, “If it hadn’t been for you Al, this car would have been lost.” I was unprepared for that statement. Although humbled, I had to admit that it was not entirely my doing. First, I was there on a story for the Weekly View. Secondly, I was acting on a tip from Meg Purnsley. So without the paper and the heads up from Meg, this story would never have happened. And most importantly, without the quick action by William Whitmer and his Hoosier Heartland Trolley Group , the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar would have been lost forever. Will informs me that it may take up to 10 years to restore the car. He insists that he will keep us updated on the progress.
The streetcar has been saved but the museum is lost forever. While I no longer worry about the fate of the engines and cars, I do worry about the people. In particular my new friend Craig Presler. What is to become of him? His baby, the Flagler car, now resides nearly two hours away. The museum that was his passion is no more. The site will undoubtedly be plowed under and a swing set, waterpark or zip line will take its place in a year or so. All of the sabre rattling by the city of Noblesville about the ITM’s chemical hazards will be forgotten and no environmental cleanup will take place. Because none was needed. Another historical treasure lost to the temporal winds of political folly.
Luckily, William Whitmer assures me that his group has a place for Craig Presler and any other displaced ITM volunteer looking for a place to land. One thing can be sure, after the dust settles in the woods of Forest Park, much soul searching will be needed in the preservation community. In my opinion, it certainly smacks of just another backdoor “eminent domain” situation in Hamilton County. What I can say for sure is that I met many hardworking volunteers during the last days and hours of the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville. Their individual flames burned bright. Some were warmed by the flame. Others were burnt by it. And although the flame of the ITM has burned out, that of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar burns on.

 

kb20180707_122702
Back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
kb20180707_133015
The Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
shDSC08413
The washroom of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
shDSC08421
Bedroom in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
shDSC08427
Fireplace inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
tpIMG_8036
Interior of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.
tpshDSC08442
Hallway of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

 

Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part I

 

ITM train

Original publish date:  July 16, 2018

By the time you read this, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville will be gone. If you are a fan of trains, or a lover of history in general, no doubt you’ve been keeping tabs on the sad demise of this central Indiana institution. Reports of problems at the ITM have been circulating for quite some time now. Over two years ago, the port authority ordered the museum to halt one of its most popular excursions, the Indiana State Fair train from Noblesville to the fairgrounds, deeming the tracks unsound.
Before the issue could be addressed, Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced plans to remove a 9-mile section of the tracks and turn the rail bed into a walking trail. Soon after that, the port authority and the Noblesville Parks Board terminated its 50+ year lease agreement with the ITM at Forest Park. In early 2018, the City of Noblesville accused the ITM of contaminating the site. The city reportedly based their accusations on unfounded complaints about leaking oil drums, which turned out to be trash cans used by the Forest Park garage, not belonging to the ITM. By late June, the ITM had been given two weeks to vacate the property. The decision was signed off on by Mayor John Ditslear, who was the chief critic of the way the museum had maintained the property.
“The ITM has not shown good stewardship with the resources entrusted to them for more than fifty years,” Ditslear said in a statement. “The City of Noblesville is taking these proactive measures now to protect our residents and our heritage, to ensure Forest Park is cleaned up and to bring the trains back to our community with a new operator.” Former museum Chairman John McNichols claimed the move was part of a strategy by the city to bankrupt the museum and seize its equipment. It should be noted that McNichols resigned the day of my initial visit.

kb20180707_121717
Photo by Kris Branch.

I was contacted Friday morning July 6th by my former President Meg Purnsley, late of the Indiana National Road Association. I seved as Meg’s INRA Vice-President some time ago and we have kept in touch in the years since. Meg sent me a message informing me that the museum was closing and inventory was being liquidated, and in some cases, destroyed. A tragedy to be sure, but what made Meg’s message most disturbing was the revelation that the ITM was home to the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. Within minutes, I was in my car and on my way to the museum.
When I arrived at the ITM, located at the back of Forest Park, the site was a frenzy of activity. Paver bricks were being pried up in front of the Hobbs Station depot, the sign was being removed, massive cranes were crawling into position and workers in hardhats were scurrying about the grounds in a controlled panic. Workmen armed with acetylene torches and driving backhoes grimly stalked the yard. Everyone was doing something. The scene must have resembled a busy rail yard from the turn of the last century. Train cars of every type and era littered the rails like silent sentinels over last stand hill. In short, it was a sad sight. If there ever was a railroad triage, this was surely it.
Before we go any further, I think it is important to understand just what was lost here.The Indiana Transportation Museum dates back to 1960. It began as an all-volunteer effort to preserve the state’s history of railroads. The museum signed its first lease with the city of Noblesville on Jan.1,1965. The group operated over the former Nickel Plate Road line stretching over a distance of about 38-miles from Indianapolis and Tipton originally built for the Indianapolis and Peru Railroad. The rail line originally connected to the Norfolk Southern railroad in Tipton, the CSX railroad in Indianapolis, and the Belt Railroad owned by Eli Lilly and Company. The rail line operated as a freight railroad hauling coal to the Cicero power generating plant until 2003.

kb20180707_150414
Photo by Kris Branch.

Today it is the property of the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority which is owned by the cities of Fishers, Indianapolis, and Noblesville. Aside from the ITM’s excursion trips (State Fair train, corporate outings & the seasonal Polar Bear Express) they also ostensibly operated a working museum of engines, railcars and trolleys for interested tourists and school groups for decades. The ITM’s all-volunteer not-for-profit facility was dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the railroads of Indiana. The ITM’s charter was to inform and educate the public by operating trains to demonstrate how people traveled in the past. The ITM’s train yard stored around $3 million in equipment on site, tallying 100 pieces on it’s roles, including eight locomotives, innumerable box cars. historic tolleys and countless historical artifacts. About 30,000 people visit the museum each year.
The museum is home to many pieces of railroading history, with an emphasis on locomotives and equipment connected to the Nickel Plate Railroad. As of this date, the fate of many of those pieces remains uncertain. A number of pieces in the ITM collection have been cut up, as the museum struggles to obey a local circuit judge’s order to vacate the property by July 12. Technically, anything left on the site after that deadline is considered abandoned and, according to the court order, would become the property of the city of Noblesville.

kb20180707_134951
The last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods. Photo by Kris Branch.

Knowing this, it can be easy to understand the depth of my concern for the streetcar that brought me here, the last survivor: Indianapolis Street Railway car # 153. During my visit, I was fortunate to run into Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum who generously shared his wealth of streetcar knowledge with me. It should be noted that the old car is in pretty rough shape. The seats are gone, as are the wheels, doors, steering wheel, many of the windows and just about anything else that would make it track worthy. But the shell is there and it is easy to see the ghost of the old trolley hidden in the leafy environs of Forest Park.
Thankfully, the roof of the streetcar was tarped by some forward-thinking ITM volunteer, undoubtedly saving what was left of the old trolley. I noticed what appeared to be two gas tanks, one on each side. Laddie corrects me by saying, “Those aren’t gas tanks, they’re sand tanks. The conductor could release sand onto the rails for traction when needed. After all, it was an electric streetcar.” Did I mention I’m a preservation minded amateur historian, not a train guy? Laddie crawls under the trolley and slaps his hand on a massive steel plate. “Plate’s solid, the wheels could still attach here.” he says.
Laddie informs me that this was a Peter Witt design front entrance, center exit car made by the Brill Company out of Philadelphia in 1935. “This was a 600 roll PCC Dynamic Friction car, wooden tongue-in-groove and brass window sashes. Very sturdy and very restorable.” he explains. In laymen’s terms that means it ran on 600 volts of electricity, using a dynamic friction brake system and the ceiling was made of intricate wood parquet fitted tightly together. Brass window sashes, I understood. “It could be saved.” said Laddie.
It should be noted that while the fate of this particular car is still in limbo, a number of important cars and locomotives have been saved. While perusing car 153, I was joined by William Whitmer, a longtime museum volunteer and dedicated train enthusiast, who understood the importance of saving this car. He explained that he and his group, “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” are already in the process of saving three other historic trolley cars in the museum’s collection.
William reports, “Cars # 429 and # 437 are both cars built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1925. They are both considered to be standard coach interurban cars. # 437 is known as the Marion and car # 429 is known as the Noblesville. # 81 is a car built by Jewett for the Indianapolis & Martinsville in 1902. Also a coach interurban.” William is not sure whether the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was built in 1932 or 1935 but confirms that is was built by Brill for the Indianapolis Street Railway. “If we find out that it was built in 1932, that would make it even more important historically.” Regardless, the importance of saving this particular car cannot be understated.
However, the crown jewel of the museum is the 1898 private railcar of Henry Morrison Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) #90. Fortunately, I had the good fortune to have Craig Presler as my tour guide for the Flagler car that day. I met Craig in the trolley barn where he introduced himself kindly, “That’s Presler, like Elvis with an r instead of a y.” he said. Craig knows as much about the ITM and these rail cars as anyone else on the property. Most importantly, Craig knows more about the Flagler car than anyone else at the ITM. And fortunately for you, Craig will tell us all about that car and the current situation at the ITM next week, in part two of this article.

kb20180707_135910kb20180707_135915kb20180707_135927

Photos of the interior of the last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods.

Photos by Kris Branch.

Indianapolis

Snakehead at Arsenal Tech.

snakehead pic
Rebar “snakehead” on Oriental Avenue in front of Arsenal Technical High School.

Original publish date:  March 1, 2018

Last Thursday a young eastsider by the name of Trevor McCoy was driving south on Oriental Avenue when he was startled by a large piece of rebar as it came knifing through the floorboard of his car. The steel bar curled towards the sky as it traveled up and out the back window before McCoy’s car came to a halt, ripping off the muffler in the process. The incident happened around midnight in front of Arsenal Technical high school. The driver was shaken, but unhurt.

oriental pothole 1
Rebar “snakehead” on Oriental Avenue in front of Arsenal Technical High School.

The news story piqued my interest because it happened on Oriental Avenue. My dad, Robert E. Hunter, grew up on Oriental and graduated from Tech in 1954. He delighted in taking detours whenever possible to point out the stoop that was once his family home. “That’s my stoop, that’s all that’s left.” he would say. However, as I learned the details of the incident, one word popped into my mind: Snakehead!
As an imaginative, history-loving kid, snakeheads were fodder for my nightmares. A snakehead is the term used to describe iron rails which would curl up and come loose from their wooden rails. Often, snakeheads took center stage in ghoulish tales where rails would pierce the bottom of a car, crashing upwards into the wooden floorboards like a knife through butter, sometimes impaling some poor unsuspecting passenger.

636554867914949052-Screen-Shot-2018-03-01-at-7.06.52-AM
Close-up of Rebar “snakehead” n front of Arsenal Technical High School.

Traveling through the South in 1843-44, Minnesota clergyman Henry Benjamin Whipple wrote on page 76 of his diary: “The passengers are amused on this road by running off the track, sending rails up through the bottom of the cars and other amusements of the kind calculated to make one’s hair stand on end” Likewise, in his book “Southern Railroad Man: Conductor N. J. Bell’s Recollections of the Civil War Era (Railroads in America)”, Bell wrote: “It is said that one of these snakeheads stuck up so high that it ran over the top of a wheel of a coach and through the floor, and killed a lady passenger”
As anyone who has ever taken one of my tours knows, my Grreat-grandfather was a lifetime railroad man. He spoke of snakeheads often and always in the most terrifying terms. I searched every book, magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on looking for clarification on this dread phenomenon. Let me tell ya, researching in the years before the internet wasn’t for sissies. It took me years to discover the truth behind snakeheads and it turns out, they weren’t as scary as they were made out to be. Unless you were a first generation Hoosier.
Although the engine is the undisputed king of the rails, nothing is more important to a railroad as the track. After all, without rails, ties, and ballasting, freight and passengers do not move. Even though the image of the railroad is most closely tied to the American west, the railroad was born in France in the early 1700s. Or England in the mid 1700s. Depends on which version you believe. There are even those that say it was developed in Boston in the late 1700s. Regardless, that is an argument this article will not settle. The 4-feet width and 8 1/2-inch height were reportedly based upon ancient Roman chariot roads, that much is known.

strapnail2byjdhiteshew
Old flat iron rail snakehead.

In the United States, the Granite Railway of Massachusetts is credited as the very first, opening on October 7, 1826. It used early strap-iron rails atop a wooden base with thin strips of iron added for increased strength. During that first decade, virtually everything about railroading was an experiment learned on the fly. Early on, the strap-iron method worked best and engineers eventually learned that dense hardwoods, like oak, proved the most economical material for the supporting base. It was determined that cross-ties be at least 8-10 inches thick and about 8-10 feet in length.
Snakeheads reared their ugly heads, literally, as the straps holding the flat iron rails began to wear out after a decade or more of almost constant use. While crews of laborers were employed to inspect and replace any worn straps, the mass expansion of the railroad severely taxed the time and resources of railway inspectors. Strap failures caused the rails to become dislodged and the shock and bounce of the trains caused them to curl up. One train might pass over a dislodged rail without incident, while the next might encounter an entirely different rail situation as the loose end of the rail flew up violently under spring tension. One need only think of the last time they got a splinter, then magnify it, to imagine the result.
The prospect of an iron rail ripping through the bottom of a rail car is terrifying, but it seems to be confined solely to railroads is use before the Civil War. The reason snakeheads are so hard to research is the lack of comprehensive statistics for antebellum railroads. There was no federal agency collecting data and state interest was even less. Railroad companies sometimes self-reported accidents, but they had an obvious incentive to under-report.
To determine how prevalent and dangerous snakeheads actually were, the best way is to examine contemporary reports, if you can find them. The April 7, 1841 Newport Rhode Island Republican newspaper reported an accident near Bristol, PA: “As the train of cars were going from New York towards Philadelphia, near Bristol, one of the wheels struck the end of an iron rail, which was loose, and erected in the manner generally called a snake’s head.—The bar passed through the bottom of the car, and between the legs of a passenger, (Mr. Yates, of Albany) tearing his cloak in pieces, grazing his ear, and thence passed out the top of the car. An inch difference in his position on the seat, and he must have been killed.”

1200px-Destroying_CW_railroads
Bent rails from General Sherman’s March to the Sea. during the Civil War.

On June 22, 1841, the Boston Daily Atlas reported a similar accident in New Jersey, but later retracted the story after the president of the railroad wrote that the injury was caused by the passenger falling on a “fragment of the seat,” not from a rail springing through the floor. A careful (and exhausting) internet search reveals some 20 newspaper accounts of snakeheads in antebellum era newspapers. In one, a woman was slightly injured when a piece of iron entered a car in New York around 1848, and in another, a workman was killed on a construction train of the Jersey Central some years earlier. Most injuries usually stemmed from passengers being shook up from the jolt as the train left the tracks rather than being directly injured by the rail, but some of the injuries were frightening nonetheless.
In 1845, John F. Wallis of the Virginia legislature was injured on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. According to the Baltimore Sun on July 21: “It lifted Mr. W. completely off his seat, coursing up the surface of his leg and abdomen, lacerating him in several places and injuring his hand severely.” The New London, Connecticut, Morning News gave a more vivid description of the same accident: “One of the bars of iron becoming loosened from the rails, it shot up through the car at the seat where Mr. Wall was sitting, severely lacerating the back part of the hand, cutting his breast and pinning him up to the top of the car.”

120515072017-phineas-gage-rod-skull-model-story-top
The Staats injury. 

Only one fatality could be found and that was reported in the August 22, 1843 Baltimore Sun newspaper. It happened to a “young man named Staats” killed on a train in New Jersey on the way to New York City, “the bar entered under the chin of this young man, and came out at the back of his head. He was instantly killed, but no other person injured. The cars went back to Boundbrook, left the body, and then after an hour’s delay, started for the city.” As macabre as it may sound, a description this gruesome was exactly what I needed to justify those nightmares of my youth.
While 20 snakehead reportings in a 30-year period might not qualify as a catastrophic transportation epidemic, it does make the snakehead newsworthy. These numbers do not take into account unreported snakehead incidents where no injury resulted. The vagueness of most reports and the difficulty of finding them in newspapers must be viewed as a sign of the times. Obviously, snakeheads were bad for business. However, the railroad workers knew the stories and they were quick to spin their tales to unsuspecting, impressionable laymen. That’s how folklore starts in the first place; part fact, part fiction and all imagination.
By the time of the Civil War, strap-iron rails fell out of favor, deemed too costly to maintain (and too dangerous) by the railroads. In 1831 solid iron, “T”-rail had been introduced but were not yet widely in use. By 1839, American railroads ran on tracks of a wide variety of gauges and shapes: 101 railroads were still using strap iron on sleepers, forty-two were using some form of shaped rail, and twenty-nine were using an unspecified method.

IMG_1715
Modern T-Rail track.

That all changed when, on October 8, 1845, the Montour Iron Works of Danville, Pa. rolled the first iron T-rails in the United States and the age of standard gauge track was born. The rail looked like a capital “T,” only inverted; the top was placed on the ground, providing a solid base of support while the narrow end was the wheel’s guideway. Within a single generation, American railroads replaced every foot of iron rail track with stronger and more durable steel T-rails. Interestingly, even today, some lightly used branch lines can still be found carrying rail rolled during the late 19th century.

The Arsenal Building at Arsenal Tech High School
Arsenal Technical High School.

That brings us back to the Arsenal Tech snakehead that appeared last week. The piece of rebar that swept up and out of the pothole to pierce young Trevor McCoy’s car has been cut off and the pothole has been filled. No doubt some of you may be wondering what a piece of rebar was doing there in the first place. Rebar (short for reinforcing bar) is used in roads to make the concrete stay in place after it cracks, not really to make the road stronger. Rebar gives tensile strength, nothing more. Pot holes are caused by tiny cracks in the concrete that allow water to seep in. The water destroys the concrete from inside the crack during the freeze / thaw cycle.
Antebellum Americans viewed the “terror” of the snakehead as a risk they were willing to accept and in time, snakeheads faded into folklore. The winter of 2017-18 saw an estimated 10,000 potholes on over 8,000 miles of city streets. By most accounts, this season’s more radical than usual freeze / thaw cycle has contributed to the worst pothole season ever. These rebar reinforced concrete streets are reaching social security eligibility age. Rebar snakeheads may well be on their way to becoming the folktales of Uber and Lyft drivers in years to come.