Prologue Magazine

Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain: Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives, Part 2

Spring 1997, Vol. 29, No. 1

By David A. Pfeiffer

Patent drawing: Traction Wheels [by] J. Ruggles The earliest extant railroad invention patent from July 28, 1836, was for traction wheels created by John Ruggles of Thomaston, Maine. Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, RG 24, Cartographic and Architectural Branch.

Patent Application Files

Those interested in the history of railroad technology should be aware of the existence of the invention patent application files. The National Archives currently has custody of these files dating from 1836 through 1918. The earlier patents and their models were destroyed in a fire at the Patent Office building in 1836. The National Archives also has custody of the reconstructed patent drawings from the period 1790-1836.

The early invention patent application files are jacketed. The outside cover gives such information as the patent application number; the name of the inventor and his or her place of residence; name of invention; dates of receipt of the petition; notation of the existence of affidavit, specifications, drawings, and model; cash fee; name of patent examiner; and date the invention was patented. The inside of the typical jacket contains the petition, affidavits, drawings, specifications, and related correspondence.

One of the foremost examples of invention patents relating to railroads is the Locomotive Steam Engine for Rail and Other Roads, patented by John Ruggles of Thomaston, Maine, dated July 28, 1836. This patent was Invention Patent #1, the first patent issued after the fire. This particular patent jacket contains printed specifications and drawings. In the specifications, Ruggles maintains that "I . . . have invented a new and useful improvement or improvements on locomotive-engines used on railroads and common roads by which inclined planes and hills may be ascended and heavy loads drawn up the same with more facility and economy than heretofore, and by which the evil effects of frost, ice, snows, and mud on the rail causing the wheels to slide are obviated." In order to prevent sliding, Ruggles used a check rail and retreating cogs operated by springs on the rims of the locomotive wheels.(12)

Another important invention patent in the history of railroads is the patent for railroad car couplings by Eli H. Janney of Alexandria, Virginia, issued on April 25, 1873 (Invention Patent #138,405). This jacket includes the petition, handwritten specifications, correspondence relating to the patent, and the printed drawings. The invention was a coupler that combined a rotary hook and catch mechanism with a guard-arm. Janney remarks that "the advantages of the described construction are numerous. It will couple readily under all circumstances if one of the hooks is open, but will not if both are closed. It is adapted for use upon cars of different heights. It has no lateral or longitudinal play, but moves freely vertically. It is impossible for it to become uncoupled unless the cars leave the track."(13)

Comic book cover: Captain Marvel and the Freedom Train The Freedom Train captured the imagination of all Americans. Marvel created a comic book entitled "Captain Marvel and the Freedom Train." National Archives American Heritage Foundation Collection, Textual Reference Division.

American Heritage Foundation Freedom Train

Railroad historians may also be interested in the records of the American Heritage Foundation (AHF) concerning the Freedom Train, one of the greatest patriotic campaigns in American history. The Freedom Train tour was designed as a traveling exhibit of historic documents highlighting the evolution of the American freedom. It consisted primarily of original landmark documents of American history, including Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, Washington's Farewell Address, the Mayflower Compact, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The thirty-seven-thousand-mile rail tour of the United States, taken during 1947-1949, covered every state in the Union and visited 322 communities. The tour ended in Washington during the January 1949 inauguration of President Truman. The train consisted of the "Spirit of 1776" locomotive, which pulled seven white cars with red, white, and blue stripes running the length of the train. The Freedom Train project was sponsored by the U.S. Attorney General and run by the American Heritage Foundation.(14) Entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin, and the Andrew Sisters donated their services for the campaign. In fact, Berlin's song "The Freedom Train" was sung and recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters.(15)

The Freedom Train files and other records of the American Heritage Foundation were donated to the National Archives and Records Administration. These records include Freedom Train activity and promotional reports and correspondence, progress reports, and the AHF records relating to the Freedom Train. There are newspaper and magazine articles, postcards, studies on the impact of the Freedom Train, photographs of the documents of freedom, and press releases in these files. There is also a volume entitled Heritage of Freedom: The History and Significance of the Basic Documents of Liberty, by Frank Monaghan, and a Captain Marvel comic book containing a "four-part action thriller" called "Captain Marvel and the Freedom Train."

United States Railway Mission to Mexico

The records of the United States Railway Mission to Mexico, located in the records of the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), are of great interest to World War II historians who study the role of the railroads during the war. The mission, sponsored by the Institute of Inter-American Transportation, a subsidiary of the OIAA and headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller, was sent to Mexico to assist the Mexican government in strengthening its railway system. The mission, though it existed for only four years (1942-1946), greatly increased the ability of the National Railways of Mexico to safely carry large amounts of supplies domestically and internationally, especially to and from the United States.(16)

Early in the war, the U.S. government realized that Mexico was in a position to furnish key minerals and materials, including lead, copper, zinc, mercury, mahogany, and other Mexican hardwoods that were greatly needed for airplane and P.T. boat construction. Through its newly completed connection with the railways of Guatemala, Mexico was also in a position to deliver bananas, coffee, pineapples, cattle, and other foodstuffs to the United States. The land route of supply through Mexico was vital during World War II since the long-established supply line by water had been interrupted by the menace of Axis submarines and the diversion of merchant ships to wartime activities.In all, this northbound traffic of essential materials reached an estimated 1,300,000 tons a year by 1942.(17)

Since it was imperative that the United States procure these materials in the interest of the war effort, and since the Mexican government was not prepared to supply the necessary transportation facilities, the two nations began negotiations to cooperatively rehabilitate the nineteen hundred miles of the badly rundown and unsafe Mexican railway system. The need for cooperation was even more vital because great quantities of machinery, equipment, and supplies had to be moved to Central America for use in the defense program for the Panama Canal. At the same time, this hard-pressed railway system also had to keep pace with the unrelenting needs of a rapidly developing Mexican domestic economy. The United States could propose such a cooperative program since, despite earlier difficulties, the Mexican government wholeheartedly supported the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The first members of the U.S. Railway Mission to Mexico consisted of fifty experienced railway technicians headed by Oliver Stevens, former president of American Refrigerator Company in St. Louis. When they reached Mexico City in November, they confirmed that the railways were on the verge of collapse and that demoralization was spreading rapidly to other industries. The mission first made a detailed mile-by-mile check of critical lines, shops, and terminals that came within the scope of its activities and prepared a program of rehabilitation.

By most accounts, the work of the U.S. Railway Mission to Mexico achieved at least a short-term success. The National Railways of Mexico were physically rehabilitated, and thousands of its employees were trained in U.S. railway practices and operations. The movement of strategic materials to and from the United States and Central America was speeded up, and the volume increased. The German submarine menace was circumvented, and the American war machine was able to move into higher gear. The mission personified the first massive American technical assistance program in a foreign country years before the Marshall Plan of 1948.(18)

The main sources for information relating to the U.S. Railway Mission to Mexico are located in the records of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, Railway Transportation Division, and in the records of the U.S. Railway Mission in Mexico. The Railway Transportation Division records include general records, correspondence, monthly progress reports, digests of progress reports, and reports of the departments of the U.S. Railway Mission in Mexico, 1942-1946. The records of the mission are kept separately and include general records, general correspondence, records and correspondence of the chief of the mission, annual reports of the National Railways of Mexico, reports relating to the activities of the mission departments, surveys and rehabilitation projects, inventories of railroad cars, and locomotive repair records.(19) Additional material relating to the mission is located in the Office of Inter-American Affairs central files and in the records of the U.S. embassy, Mexico City.(20)

Photo: Rail strengthening improvement, U.S. Mission to Mexico
To keep the land-supply route open through Mexico during World War II, the United States sent a mission to Mexico to improve the railways, which were in disrepair. Rail strengthening was one of many improvements made by the mission. Records of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, RG 229, Textual Reference Division.

U.S. Army Chief of Transportation "Historical Program Files"

World War II historians should also take note of the records of the U.S. Army's Office of the Chief of Transportation (OCT), "Historical Program Files, 1940 50," which contain documentation of the role of the U.S. Army in the rail transportation system in the United States and information concerning foreign railroads during World War II. These files include records relating to army operation of all or parts of the U.S. railroad system in 1943, 1946, and 1950. A long report entitled Plan for the Possession, Control, and Operation of the Railroads by the Army, dated December 27, 1943, describes the army plan, mandated by executive order, to seize control of the nation's railroads in response to the threat of rail union strikes set to commence on December 30, 1943. The purpose of the plan was to ensure uninterrupted rail service in moving troops, war material, and equipment for the war effort. Army control of the railroads, assumed on December 27, 1943, was terminated on January 18, 1944, as the threat of strikes ceased.(21)

Other records in this file include historical reports of the Military Railway Service and the Transportation Corps, Rail Division; army technical manuals, plans, and regulations on hospital railway cars, railway kitchen cars, other troop cars, locomotive repair shops, and locomotive inspections; army field manuals concerning the Military Railway Service and the Railway Operating Battalions; copies of The Yankee Boomer, a newsletter of the Military Railway Service; reports concerning wartime traffic control and the relationships between OCT and the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Office of Defense Transportation; records of the American Association of Railroads including the scripts of The Line Behind the Lines -- The Story of Railroads in War, a series of ten weekly radio programs; correspondence concerning civilian labor recruiting due to manpower shortages; and a report entitled American Rails in Eight Countries: The Story of 1st Military Railway Service, which tells the story of supply and service in Europe during the war.

The Southern Railway System wrote a report called Well Done, which describes the efforts of Southern to teach the fine art of railroading to American soldiers who would be operating military railroads overseas. Southern trained the 727th Railway Operating Battalion and other units a total of six thousand officers and men. Also included in these records are the annual reports of the Pullman Company for the years 1942-1945 and the Railroad Retirement Board, 1942-1945.(22)

The U.S. Army Military Railway Service prepared reports on foreign railroads in Europe and Africa, including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal. These reports include photographs, maps, charts, and general information concerning the status of foreign railroads in 1942-1943.(23)

Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain, Part 1
Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain, Part 3

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.