Railroads & Locomotives Railroads and Industry

Railroads and Industry

By Kevin N. Tomasic | October 19, 2009

The marriage of the railroad and steel, coke, and other industries from past to present

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Aliquippa & Southern switcher
Freshly made coke still smokes in company hoppers as an Aliquippa & Southern switcher hustles empty slag pots back to the blast furnaces on May 10, 1981. The pots have been sprayed with a release agent at the slag dump to prevent the molten slag from sticking in them. Otherwise, it’s jackhammer time!
Kevin Tomasic
Pittsburgh& Lake Erie
Out of the dark industrial valley and into the last sun of the day comes the GN-2 train on the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. Two U28Bs are flanking switcher No. 1500 as they roll eastbound across the Monongahela River in Rankin, Pa., heading to a mill. It’s late in the afternoon of Sept. 18,1983, and the crew has a long night ahead of them. Within minutes they’ll be back into the dark valley.
Kevin Tomasic
Aliquippa & Southern switcher
The epitome of industrial America: blast furnaces rise above workers’ homes on Jan. 29, 1984, as an Aliquippa & Southern switcher brings a load of hot metal to the basic oxygen furnaces of J&L Steel in Aliquippa, Pa. The iron in these bottle cars will be converted to steel at the BOF shop and cast into ingots or billets.
Kevin Tomasic
Baldwin S-8 No. 9 at the blast furnaces of Sharon Steel
A happy crew stands on the front porch of radio controlled Baldwin S8 No. 9 at the blast furnaces of Sharon Steel. They’ve just spotted four empty bottle cars at the pouring spouts and are off to other duties in the plant. This photo was taken on Dec. 17,1985.
Kevin Tomasic
Heavy industry and railroads rely on each other. Railroads feed raw materials to hungry mills and industrial plants and in turn receive semi-finished and finished goods to fill gons, flats, and boxcars. Without the railroads, the goods can’t be produced let alone be moved out to the world.

The railroads may have been built in the 1800s, well before the Industrial Revolution took hold, but without their great capacity to move vast quantities of materials, we’d never have seen the rise of great industrial centers like Pittsburgh, Pa., New Castle, Pa., Youngstown, Ohio, Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Detroit, and a myriad of others.

The railroads followed the rivers, cut through the hills, established towns, provided the means for people to move about the land, and set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. In addition to the movement of goods, railroads transported the most important component of manufacturing: people. All of the machines in the world are of no use, if you can’t put workers at the controls, at the presses, or at the furnaces; you need hands to make goods.

Without heavy industry and its demand for capacity, railroads might still use two-axle freight cars pulled by little locomotives instead of the 286,000-pound capacity cars rolling behind computerized GE and EMD behemoths on 136 pound head-hardened rail.

Industry provides the means to make these great freight movers. From foundries, forges, machine shops, and fabrication plants come the parts to construct the specialized cars and locomotives for hauling freight. Indeed, many breakthroughs in railroad technology come from the needs of the suppliers.

In Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley, four railroads snaked along the Monongahela River all vying for traffic. Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, and the Union Railroad competed and cooperated to keep the mills of U.S. Steel, Jones & Laughlin Steel, Pittsburgh Steel, and others operating. The mills and the railroads grew up together to become large, strong, and good at what they did. Many mill workers had generations of family working in a particular industry, just like the tradition of railroading in families. In some families, two sons might have worked for J&L and two others might have worked for the P&LE, which served the J&L mill.

In the 21st century, the railroads have adapted to a new reality. Industry is shrinking and won’t be the force it once was. Heavy industry still needs the railroads, just not at the volume of the past. Now the trains you see are moving powerhouse coal, grain, and containers, the new staple. But the bond remains between the railroad and industry and long may it last. – Kevin N. Tomasic

KEVIN N. TOMASIC, 52, is a member of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art and an industrial furnace estimator living in Pittsburgh with his two sons and miniature schnauzer, Zinc. The author would like to thank KEVIN SCANLON for photo scanning.

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