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Black rail car on railroad tracks

Ingersoll-Rand Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, 1926 / THF67890

Despite its virtually complete lack of visual charm (not a shred of rugged elegance here; this is the classic “box on wheels”), the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is actually one of the most significant items in our railroad collections. This engine was part of a calculated and savvy business move by Ingersoll-Rand (partnering with General Electric and American Locomotive) to produce a new locomotive type to challenge the steam locomotive—a deliberate attempt to break into the massive railroad market using internal combustion technology. While Ingersoll-Rand never really gained a foothold in the field, its venture played a successful part in the practical demonstration of this new form of motive power.

Hindsight suggests certain inevitability in the demise of the steam locomotive—an inflexible and inefficient mechanism compared with the modular, easily deployed workhorse diesel. From a 1920s perspective, however, the diesel had little going for it. Overly complex and unproven, it seemed a minor interloper in an industry with so much invested—both monetarily and intellectually—in what was then a mature and refined technology. Even then, however, there were factors starting to work against the all-pervasive steam locomotive, specifically the mid-1920s moves by New York City and Chicago to ban the use of steam locomotives within their city limits on account of pollution concerns—fertile soil for the growth of alternative technologies.

Black-and-white photo of a boxy railcar on railroad tracks
Ingersoll-Rand's Diesel-Electric Locomotive #90 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1926. Ingersoll-Rand used the locomotive in the railyard at its Phillipsburg plant for some 40 years. Donated to The Henry Ford in 1970, the locomotive received a cosmetic restoration in 1983. / THF271022

There is a touch of David and Goliath about this artifact when viewed in the context of the sheer numbers of steam locomotives then in service. This and other units like it were the unassuming thin end of a wedge that was to revolutionize the railroad scene. In 1925, there was just one diesel to 63,612 steam locomotives in mainline service in the United States; by 1945, there were 3,816 diesels to 38,853 steam locomotives; and by 1960, the final year for steam on Class I railroads here, there were 28,278 diesels to 261 steam locomotives.

Explore our Ingersoll-Rand locomotive and the transition from steam to internal combustion power further here.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

technology, railroads, power, Henry Ford Museum

Red caboose with text on it sitting on railroad tracks

Detroit Toledo & Ironton (DT&I) Railroad Caboose, 1925 / THF80594

Most people imagine the engineer ensconced high in the cab of the powerful locomotive to be the person in charge of the train. But while the engineer might be the most visible of railroad employees, whether at the controls of a lowly freight train or a glamorous express, it was the conductor that the engineer answered to.

The conductor made sure that the train was complete and protected. If in charge of a freight train, the conductor tracked all the material on that train and ensured that each car was securely fastened. If in charge of a passenger train, the conductor made sure that passengers had tickets and that they were in the proper cars. In both instances, the conductors and their staff (brakemen on freight trains; assistant conductors on passenger trains) ensured that the brake systems were functioning correctly and the cars and all hookups were properly coupled. It was the engineer’s job to ensure that the movement of the train was trouble-free, but it was the conductor’s job to ensure the safety and integrity of the train.

On a freight train, the caboose provided conductors with a base to undertake all their duties. It is ironic that both the lowly caboose and the well-appointed private car should find themselves at the end of the train, because, despite the dissimilarity in their appointments, their function was rather similar: They were both homes away from home and mobile offices. The caboose provided the conductor with a place to do the books, to cook, and, on long stopovers in rail yards, to allow some catch-up on sleep. Along with a stove, bunks, and a desk, the caboose was outfitted with a combination of bay windows and cupola to allow the conductor and brakemen to observe both their own train and others on the line. A huge proportion of the work undertaken on railroads was based on constant and well-informed vigilance—looking for evidence of damage or overheating, making sure that loads hadn’t shifted, and ensuring equipment hadn’t loosened. Something as simple as an untethered chain or unlocked door could escalate into a life-threatening situation. The caboose was also equipped with a large complement of tools to effect in-service repairs.

Interior of railcar, with stove, desk and chair, and shelving visible
Interior of a Railroad Caboose, Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad, February 1926 / THF286542

The “little red caboose” still looms large in the public’s imagination, but the caboose was not always red. It all depended on the policy of the owning railroad. Today, the caboose—and the freight conductor—are largely things of the past, superseded by computer monitoring and bookkeeping.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum

Black railcar with scooped-out front painted red, sitting on tracks in a large room
Canadian Pacific Snowplow, 1923 / THF442


Whether they instantly recognize it as a snowplow or simply admire it for its immense curvaceous sculptural presence, visitors of all ages connect readily with The Henry Ford’s Canadian Pacific Snowplow, on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Brute force seems to play a large role in many areas of railroading—in sheer pulling power, in machine aesthetics (or lack thereof), or in a variety of equipment assembly operations—but it is the battle with snow that offers the purest example of the use of unmediated force in the world of railroading. Pushed by as many as eight locomotives, hitting drifts at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour, and supported by “pull-out” locomotives, commissary cars, and bunk cars for maybe hundreds of shovel-duty men, snowplows were crucial to railroads whose routes extended into the high passes of the Rocky Mountains or Sierra Nevadas.

Wooden seats painted green, sitting on wooden platform with equipment and three small windows in front of them
Crew seats in the cupola of the Canadian Pacific Snowplow / THF158327

The operation of these heavy but rakish-looking machines was actually quite complex: Crews stationed in the cupola deployed pneumatically powered wings and rail-clearing forward edges according to changing conditions and the proximity of grade crossing timbers or signals; judgment was called for when attacking major drifts. Derailments, loss of life, and damage to equipment could result if crews diverged from tried-and-true strategy.

The snowplow provides evidence of our continuing battle with natural forces and offers a glimpse into one of the most arduous tasks associated with railroading. “Bucking” snow was—and remains—dangerous work, taking place in areas where this struggle could swiftly turn from straightforward railroad difficulties (very few tasks associated with railroading are pleasant) to a life-and-death struggle.

Find out even more about our Canadian Pacific Snowplow here.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

winter, travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum

Army green railroad car on railroad tracks

Detroit & Mackinac Railway Combination Car, 1901-1905 / THF80600

Combination cars were designed to carry passengers and baggage/freight. Although many were built for mainline express trains, they were particularly attractive on branch lines or other areas where passenger traffic was light and the need for flexibility was high.

There was no standardized layout for combines—they were made for railroads in many configurations according to specific needs. Many combines were cars that had been modified from earlier cars by their owners—an approach that carries over to virtually all railroad equipment, subject as it was to constant modification, improvement, and improvisation according to the changing needs of the railroad business.

The Detroit & Mackinac Railway combination car pictured above, which you can also see in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, has baggage, parlor, and smoking areas, and might have been converted from a plain baggage/parlor combine.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

travel, railroads, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum

Locomotive on railroad tracksBaldwin "Consolidation" Steam Locomotive, 1909 / THF91583

Locomotives like the 1909 Baldwin “Consolidation” Steam Locomotive, currently on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, were designed to haul heavy freight trains at relatively slow speeds: a perfect example of the kind of anonymous motive power designed to haul apparently unremarkable material. This example was built for the Bessemer and Lake Erie (B&LE), an Andrew Carnegie–owned railroad connecting the port of Conneaut, Ohio, on Lake Erie with Bessemer on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Traffic on the B&LE consisted almost exclusively of southbound iron ore trains and northbound coal trains—a great example of an apparently modest connector railroad playing a limited but utterly crucial role in a nationally important heavy industry.

The B&LE locomotive used a 2-8-0 wheel arrangement—two pilot wheels and eight driving wheels, but no trailing wheels under the cab. One of the first locomotives of this type was ordered in 1866 by Pennsylvania’s Lehigh and Mahony Railroad and named Consolidation. In time, that engine’s formal name came to describe any steam locomotive of the 2-8-0 design.

Visually, the B&LE locomotive stands in stark contrast to the “Sam Hill,” just 50 years its senior: no pinstriping to refresh, no bright paintwork to keep clean, no brass to keep polished—in fact, no superfluous details whatsoever. This is practical, brute technology designed for a single purpose, maintenance kept to fundamentals, and aesthetics of no account whatsoever. While its technological origins lie in the confident improvisations of the 19th century, the overall design of locomotives in this period was increasingly informed by a better understanding of scientific principles.


This post is adapted (with additional new material by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford) from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

 

railroads, Henry Ford Museum, by Matt Anderson

Locomotive on train tracks
Steam Locomotive "Sam Hill," 1858 / THF91565


The “Sam Hill,” on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, is, in many people’s eyes, an example of the quintessential American locomotive. No argument here—in fact, for this writer it is certainly, along with the Mississippi riverboat, one of the utterly and absolutely quintessential American mechanisms.

Why?

Well, first, it captures a fundamental sense of youthful abandon hardwired into the American character. Locomotives like this were in their day the fastest and most glamorous ways to travel on Earth. The nature of their flamboyance captures a characteristically American engagement with technology’s possibilities—a machine as a canvas for the celebration of ambition, achievement, and a brighter, faster future. The liberal application of gold pinstriping and polished brass—even in some instances the incorporation of landscape scenes and further personalization with antlers and weathervane-like figures—all capture a uniquely American manner of celebrating and owning what was in fact a highly advanced technology.

And second, from a mechanical standpoint, the Sam Hill represents a supremely innovative technology. Its combination of flexibility, light weight, and high power output were the result of a distinctly American set of circumstances. The twisting, grade-heavy nature of our railroads—a situation that arose from the clash between low-investment/fast-return attitudes and American topography and distances—ensured that imported British locomotive technology would end up being transmuted into something entirely new. Locomotives such as the Sam Hill are the direct result of that process.

Two locomotives face each other on a track, with women in period clothing on the platform in front of them
The “Sam Hill” poses with a New York Central diesel locomotive, nearly a century its junior, in Greenfield Village in May 1953. / THF133489

The development of these locomotives did not come about through what we would now consider “rational” research methods; instead, they grew out of hands-on, seat-of-the-pants engineering knowledge. This homespun advanced engineering and humanized high tech is characteristic of, and crucial to, the American industrial experience.

Learn more about the history and innovative engineering of the “Sam Hill” here.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

travel, technology, railroads, Henry Ford Museum, engineering

Yellow railcar with decorative elements inside large building
Bangor & Aroostook Railroad Passenger Coach Replica / THF176772


The Bangor & Aroostook car—a very fine reproduction of an 1860s passenger coach—captures the character and physical nature of the first generation of American passenger cars. Its finish and level of decoration suggest both the ambitions of early railroad enterprises and the expectations of early railroad patrons.

Historian Wolfgang Schivelbush has convincingly claimed that open cars such as this were “economically, politically, psychologically and culturally the appropriate travel container for a democratic pioneer society”—contrasting such vehicles with the European compartment cars that reflected the stratified social conditions there. While it is generally acknowledged that Mississippi riverboat accommodation provided the prototype for the open cars developed by American railroads, there can be no doubt that the increasing spread of the American railroad network, using open cars as the standard passenger vehicle, helped promote this democratic, all-in-it-together approach to travel.

Interior of rail car with floral-upholstered bench seats, wood paneling, and decorative ceiling
The open interior of our Bangor & Aroostook railroad passenger coach. / THF176785

The open layout might appear to us practical, rational, and straightforward, but in many ways it was radical and socially innovative. And even if its layout simply reflects the social norms or attitudes of its era, it absolutely offers evidence of a social leveling largely unknown in other developed nations. Not until the era of the cheap automobile did enclosed personal compartments become the transportation situation of choice for the general public.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum

Drab green railcar sitting on railroad tracks

Fair Lane, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car. / THF80274

Fair Lane, the private Pullman railroad car built for and used by Henry and Clara Ford, turns 100 years old in 2021. It provides a fascinating window into business and pleasure travel for the wealthy in the early 20th century.

By 1920, the Fords found it increasingly difficult to travel with any degree of privacy. Henry, in particular, was widely recognized by the public. He’d been generating major headlines for a decade, whether for his victory against the Selden Patent, his achievements with mass production and worker compensation via the Five Dollar Day, or his misguided attempt to end World War I with the Peace Ship. The Fords could travel privately for shorter distances by automobile, and their yacht, Sialia, provided seclusion when traveling by water. But anytime they entered a railroad station, the couple was sure to be pestered by the public and hounded by reporters. Their solution was to commission a private railroad car for longer overland trips.

Private railroad cars are nearly as old as the railroad itself. America’s first common-carrier railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, opened in 1830. Little more than ten years later, President John Tyler traveled by private railcar over the Camden & Amboy Railroad to dedicate Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument in 1843. Not surprisingly, railroad executives and officials were also early users of private railroad cars. Cornelius Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central Railroad, used a private car when traveling over his line, both for business and for pleasure. For a busy railroad manager, the private railcar served as a mobile workspace where business could be conducted at distant points on the railroad line, far from company headquarters.

Print of train mounted on white matboard; also contains text
Pullman cars on the First Transcontinental Railroad, circa 1870. / THF291330

Following the Civil War, the Pullman Palace Car Company earned a reputation for its opulent public passenger cars with comfortable sleeping accommodations. Company founder George Pullman designed a private railcar to similar high standards. Pullman named the car P.P.C.—his company’s initials—and used it when traveling with his family. Pullman enjoyed lending the car to other dignitaries, by which he could simultaneously impress VIP passengers and advertise his company. Eventually, Pullman began renting the car out to patrons who could afford the daily rate of $85 (more than $2,000 today).

Clara and Henry Ford ordered their private railroad car from the Pullman Company on February 18, 1920. They hoped to have it delivered by that September, for a planned trip to inspect properties Henry had recently purchased in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But delays pushed the car’s actual delivery date back by about nine months. Some of those delays were due to changes to the car’s interior. Clara designed the interior spaces, working with Sidney Houghton of London, who had earlier provided the same service for the Fords’ yacht.

The finished railroad car was delivered on June 23, 1921. The Fords named it Fair Lane—the same name they’d given to their estate in Dearborn, Michigan. (Fair Lane was the area in County Cork, Ireland, where Mr. Ford’s grandfather was born.) The final bill for the railcar came to $159,000 (about $2.3 million today). The Fords paid 25 percent of that cost upon placing their order, a further 25 percent during construction, and the final 50 percent on delivery.

Surely the finished Fair Lane was worth the wait and expense. The car included accommodations for six passengers and sleeping quarters for two additional staff members. When traveling, Fair Lane typically was staffed by a porter to attend to the passengers’ needs and a cook to prepare meals.

Interior of room with wooden paneling, blue upholstered seating, and an arched ceiling
Fair Lane’s lounge offered the best views of passing scenery. / THF186264

At the rear of the car, a comfortable lounge provided a spot to read, relax, or simply watch the passing scenery through the large windows. An open porch-like platform at the very rear of the car was particularly enjoyable at moderate train speeds. Typically, Fair Lane was coupled to the end of a train, meaning that the view from the platform would not be obstructed.

Room with wooden paneling, bed with shelf over it, and arched celing
Bedrooms in Fair Lane were cozy but comfortable. / THF186273

From the lounge, a narrow hallway ran most of the car’s length. Four bedrooms were located along the corridor. These rooms were cozy but comfortable. Each room had a bed, but berths could be unfolded from above to provide additional sleeping space if needed. Dressers and small desks rounded out the furnishings. Likewise, the bathrooms in Fair Lane were small but serviceable. Each one had hot and cold running water and a toilet. The master bath also included a shower.

Interior of room with wooden paneling and carpet, containing wooden dining table and chairs
Fair Lane’s passengers dined in this area. An on-board cook prepared meals to order. / THF186285

The dining area, near the front of the car, featured an extension table that comfortably seated six adults at one time. The chandelier, which hung directly above the table, was secured with guys that kept it from swaying as the car rolled down the railroad track. Built-in cabinets housed the car’s glassware and china. Clara Ford stocked Fair Lane with 144 various glasses, 169 pieces of silverware, and 230 crockery items. Wood posts and rails kept things from sliding around or falling out of the cabinets.

Small stainless steel galley kitchen
The car’s kitchen was small but sufficient for elaborate meals. / THF186289

Logically, the kitchen was located just in front of the dining room. Finished in stainless steel, the kitchen included an oven, a stovetop, a sink, and numerous additional cabinets. Food and supplies were loaded through the door at the car’s front end, so as not to disturb the riders farther back in the car. Staff quarters were located in the front of the car too. Compared with the other bedrooms, the staff room was sparse and utilitarian.

Using Fair Lane was not like driving a limousine or flying a private airplane. The railcar’s travels had to be coordinated with the various host railroads that operated America’s 250,000-mile rail network. Usually, Fair Lane was coupled to a regularly scheduled passenger train. The fee for pulling the private car was equivalent to 25 standard passenger tickets. One standard ticket on a train from Detroit to New York City in the early 1920s cost around $30, meaning the Fair Lane fee worked out to about $750 (around $10,000 today). If Fair Lane required a special movement—that is, if it was moved with a dedicated locomotive and not as a part of a regular train—then the fee jumped to the equivalent of 125 standard tickets.

The fee structure was different when Fair Lane moved over the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad. Henry Ford personally owned DT&I from 1920 to 1929. It was considered official railroad business when Mr. Ford used his private car on DT&I, so he did not need to pay a fare for himself. But he did pay fares for Fair Lane passengers who weren’t directly employed by DT&I.

Several people stand on the back platform of a railcar, some waving
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966

The Fords made more than 400 trips with Fair Lane in the two decades that they owned the car. Annual excursions took Henry and Clara Ford to their winter homes in Fort Myers, Florida, or Richmond Hill, Georgia. Likewise, Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara’s son and daughter-in-law, occasionally used Fair Lane to visit their own vacation home in Seal Harbor, Maine. The Fords hosted several special guests on the car too. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge both spent time on the car, as did entertainer and humorist Will Rogers. Not surprisingly, Thomas and Mina Edison—among Henry and Clara Ford’s closest friends—also traveled aboard Fair Lane.

Clara Ford enjoyed trips to New York City, where she could visit friends or patronize specialty boutiques and department stores. Fair Lane could be coupled to direct Detroit–New York trains like New York Central’s Wolverine or Detroiter. Both trains arrived at the famous Grand Central Terminal in the heart of Manhattan. In 1922, an overnight run from the Motor City to the Big Apple on the Wolverine took 16 hours.

Both Henry Ford and Edsel Ford used Fair Lane when traveling on Ford Motor Company business. Chicago, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., were all frequent destinations on these trips. Of course, they’d travel to distant Ford Motor Company properties too, including those previously mentioned holdings in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Aerial view of large building with railroad lines and trains behind and to one side of it; lawn and driveways in front and other buildings behind
Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, where most of Fair Lane’s journeys began and ended. / THF137923

Most of the car’s trips started and ended at Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, ten miles east of Dearborn. The large station had facilities to clean and stock Fair Lane, and crews to switch the car onto regular passenger trains. Michigan Central was a New York Central subsidiary, and New York Central trains provided direct service from Detroit to Chicago, New York, Boston, and many places in between. For longer trips, New York Central coordinated with additional railroad lines to transfer Fair Lane to other trains at connecting points, making the trip as seamless as possible for the Fords.

When Fair Lane wasn’t traveling out on a railroad, the car was stored in a shed built for it near Henry Ford’s flour mill on Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn. The shed was just west of Dearborn’s present John D. Dingell Transit Center, where Amtrak trains stop today.

The Fords considered updating or replacing Fair Lane at different times. As early as March 1923, Ernest Liebold, Henry Ford’s personal secretary, wrote to the Pullman Company to inquire about building a larger car surpassing Fair Lane’s 82-foot length. Whatever Pullman’s reply, Ford did not place a new order. Twelve years later, Edsel Ford wrote to Pullman to ask about adding air conditioning to Fair Lane. The company responded with an estimate of $12,000 for the upgrade. Apparently, the cost was high enough for the Fords to once again consider building an entirely new, larger private railcar. The Pullman Company prepared a set of drawings for review but, once again, no order was placed.

Black-and-white image of train car
Fair Lane in November 1942, at the end of its time with the Fords. / THF148020

By the early 1940s, Fair Lane was aging and in need of either significant repairs or outright replacement. Henry and Clara Ford were aging too, and weren’t traveling quite as much as they had in earlier years. On top of this, the United States joined World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Wartime brought with it restrictions on materials, manufacturing, and travel—each on its own enough to sidetrack further work on Fair Lane. Somewhat reluctantly, Henry and Clara Ford sold their private railroad car in November 1942.

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway purchased Fair Lane from the Fords for $25,000. The company used the car for railroad business, carrying executives on its lines concentrated in Arkansas and Texas. In 1972, St. Louis Southwestern donated Fair Lane to the Cherokee National Historical Society. The organization used the car as an office space for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Richard and Linda Kughn purchased Fair Lane in 1982. They moved it to Tucson, Arizona, and began a four-year project to restore the car to its original Ford-era appearance. At the same time, they updated Fair Lane with modern mechanical, electrical, and climate-control systems. The Kughns enjoyed the refurbished railcar for several years before gifting it to The Henry Ford in 1996. Today Fair Lane is back in Dearborn—a testament to the golden age of railroad travel, as experienced by those with gilded budgets.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Fair Lane railcar, travel, railroads, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum, Henry Ford, Detroit, Dearborn, Clara Ford, by Matt Anderson

The Henry Ford has two tollbooths—both from New England, but from different eras and circumstances. The Rocks Village toll house was built in the early 19th century, when horse-drawn carriages and wagons filled America’s roads. The Merritt Parkway tollbooth dates from the mid-20th century, when Americans traveled these roads in automobile, often for recreation.

Why are these buildings, both made to collect a toll for the use of a road or bridge, so completely different in their appearance and history? Their stories tell us much about our changing attitudes toward roads and road construction, and of our expanding expectations of governmental responsibility for transportation networks.

Small white wooden building with several windows
Rocks Village Toll House, 1828, near the Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. / THF2033

The Rocks Village Toll House


Today, the Rocks Village toll house sits adjacent to the Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. The simple, functional building formerly served a much larger covered bridge and drawbridge that spanned the Merrimack River, connecting the towns of Haverhill and West Newbury, Massachusetts. The bridge and toll house were built in 1828 to replace an earlier bridge that had been destroyed by a flood. Their construction was not the responsibility of the towns where they were located, nor the state or federal government, but of the Proprietors of the Merrimack Bridge, a group of Haverhill and West Newbury investors who had built the first Merrimack Bridge in 1795. The building housed a toll keeper, who was responsible for collecting the tolls and for opening the drawbridge when necessary. In his considerable spare time, the toll keeper also worked as a cobbler, making shoes. Tolls were collected until 1868, and the toll house remained in use for the drawbridge until 1912.

Body of water with buildings on either side and a bridge across
This worn image of the Merrimack Bridge from about 1910 shows the Rocks Village toll house (marked #2) along the approach to the right of the covered bridge. / THF125139

When the first Merrimack Bridge was built at Rocks Village in 1795, there was a need for good routes from the farmlands of northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire to the growing urban markets of Boston. Neither the new federal or state governments had the resources to build and maintain many roads. As a result, privately-owned turnpike and bridge companies, like the Proprietors of the Merrimack Bridge, were encouraged to fill that need with toll roads and bridges, which proliferated around the new nation.

The era of turnpikes and toll bridges was beginning to draw to a close when the second Merrimack Bridge was built in 1828. By mid-century, canals and then railroads had replaced roads as the primary means of traveling across distances, so roads and bridges were generally used more for local travel. This change can be seen in the decline in weekly receipts at the Rocks Village toll house, from a high of $58.00 in 1857, to $29.00 in 1868, when the Merrimack Bridge became a free bridge. At that time, Essex County assumed authority over the bridge, and the towns it served—Haverhill, West Newbury, and Amesbury—shared the costs of its upkeep. With only local support, upkeep was sporadic at best, and by 1912, most of the bridge had to be replaced.

The Rocks Village toll house had witnessed the decline of the American road during the mid-19th century. It would not be until the advent of the bicycle in the late 19th century, followed by the automobile in the early 20th century, that this decline would be reversed.

The Merritt Parkway Tollbooth

 

Very narrow brown and green wooden building with stoplight and "STOP TOLL 20 CENTS" sign
Merritt Parkway Tollbooth, circa 1950, in the Driving America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF79064

The rustic design of the Merritt Parkway tollbooth celebrated the pleasures of driving to experience the outdoors, part of a larger effort to promote tourism in Connecticut. It was built in Greenwich around 1950 as an expansion to the existing toll plaza. The Merritt Parkway runs 37 ½ miles from the New York state line at Greenwich to Milford, Connecticut. It was built in 1938 by the State of Connecticut to relieve the congestion on US 1 (the Boston Post Road), the main route from New York to Boston. Tolls were collected on the Merritt Parkway until 1988.

Black-and-white photo of tollbooths with cars stopped at them on wide roadway
The Henry Ford’s Merritt Parkway tollbooth is one of the two at the outer edges of the original rustic toll plaza, built in 1940. / THF126470

The Merritt Parkway is, in many ways, a celebration of the revival of the American road. And, as a state response to local problems, it reflects the change in the responsibility for roads from the local to the regional and state levels. Heavy New York-to-Boston through-traffic, in addition to commuter traffic in and out of New York City, had turned US 1 into a permanent traffic jam. This created tremendous problems for the local communities along that route. However, the citizens of those communities were not inclined to bear the financial burden of road improvement, especially since would mostly serve people from out-of-state. The debate about how to solve this problem lasted from the early 1920s into the 1930s.

The eventual solution, the Merritt Parkway, contained the main elements of the modern highway. First, it bypassed population centers, pulling traffic away from busy downtown areas. Second, since it passed through the rapidly gentrifying farm- and woodlands of southwest Connecticut, the design of the parkway—the graceful layout of the road itself through rolling hills, as well as the bridges, service buildings, and tollbooths—emphasized the rustic beauty of the region. The beautiful design helped to promote Connecticut as a tourist destination for out-of-state visitors. Third, it was built during the economic depression of the 1930s, so its construction was touted as a job-creating project. Finally, its construction and maintenance were funded by the state and paid for out of the general treasury. Added after a couple of years, the tollbooths raised money for an extension of the highway to Hartford, Connecticut—the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

With the Merritt Parkway and similar roads, good public roads had returned and—for better or worse—had come to be viewed as an entitlement, subsidized through the public treasury rather than private investment.


Jim McCabe is former curator and collections manager at The Henry Ford. This article was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from the July 2007 entry in our previous “Pic of the Month” online series.

roads and road trips, cars, by Jim McCabe, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Driving America, Henry Ford Museum

Man in cowboy hat bends down to hand large trophy to man in helmet in race car
Art Arfons and Wally Parks with the Trophy for Top Speed, NHRA Nationals, Detroit Dragway, 1959 / THF122663

 

Flat-Out Fast


Loud, fast, intense. On the surface, drag racing looks fairly simple, but it’s much more complex than it appears. Especially in the professional classes of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)—Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock—the cars are technologically ultrasophisticated, with truly awesome capabilities. A Top Fuel dragster—today’s ultimate—has a supercharged, 500-cubic-inch V-8 engine that can produce 11,000 horsepower burning nitromethane fuel. It propels that car and driver to well over 300 mph in a 1,000-foot charge that can take as little as 3.7 seconds.

Drag racing’s roots come from the 1930s on California’s dry lakes and the country’s back roads, where people raced each other in a straight line to see which car was fastest. Especially after World War II, speeds were getting up over 100 mph, and Wally Parks, who himself was a performance enthusiast, decided it was time to “create order from chaos.” Parks formed the NHRA in 1951, with the goal of getting hotrodders off the streets and into safer, more controllable, and legal venues. The NHRA legitimized the sport with safety rules, as well as performance and performance regulations, and today it is America’s largest, most important drag racing organization, with a multitude of classes for professional and amateur racers.

Read on to learn more about what you’ll see in the Drag Racing section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors.

1933 Willys Drag Racer


Baby blue race car with shark fin on hood, fifth wheel in back, and logos on side
THF90711

In the 1950s and 1960s, drag racing fans loved the “gasser wars”—duels between gasoline-burning coupes and sedans. "Ohio George" Montgomery was among the most famous, and most frequent, winners. He owned, built, and drove this Willys gasser, and scored class wins in NHRA national championship events six times. It is based on the Willys coupe—a small economy car from the 1930s, favored by drag racers for its light weight.

Montgomery called his car the "World's Wildest Willys," and frequently used his considerable talents as a mechanic and machinist to modify the car to make it even wilder. He kept it winning races and championships from 1959 through 1967.

This is its final version, with the top chopped four inches; fiberglass hood, fenders, and doors; and a supercharged, single-overhead-cam Ford V-8 engine.

1960 Buck & Thompson Slingshot Dragster


Stripped-down, minimal car chassis
THF90089

Dragsters are designed for a single purpose: cover a quarter-mile from a standing start as quickly as possible. Builders throw out anything that does not contribute to that goal, and they concentrate weight as close to the rear wheels as possible to maximize traction.

Slingshot dragsters were popular from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, so named because the driver sat behind the rear wheels "like a rock in a slingshot." This design was the ancestor of today’s Top Fuel dragsters.

Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, from Lockport, Illinois, built and drove this car and were very successful in the Midwest from 1960 to 1963. They bought the chassis as a kit and did extensive modifications to the 1948 Ford V-8 engine, with special cylinder heads, crank, pistons, magneto, camshaft, and fuel injectors.

2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE

On Loan from General Motors Heritage Center

Red sportscar with black hood
THF186653

Essentially a factory-built race car designed more for the track than the street, this next-generation, ultra-high-performance Camaro is designed and executed for “out-of-the-box” weekend racing.

In addition to a supercharged 6.2L V8 engine rated at 650 horsepower, the ZL1 carries a track cooling package with engine oil, differential, and transmission coolers. Additionally, an exposed weave carbon-fiber rear wing adds up to 300 lbs. of downforce, and integrated front dive planes contribute to ultimate downforce and grip.

Engineers also paid extra attention to ensure the Camaro ZL1’s immense power could be reined in just as effectively with a short stopping distance. The Camaro ZL1 can go from 60-0 mph in just 107 feet, ensuring both remarkable track time and safety, thanks to its specifically designed performance brakes.

Overall, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s incredible performance is the end result of carefully considered engineering decisions that have resulted in a vehicle that redefines what a sports car can do on-track, without compromising its on-road manners.

Additional Artifacts


Slightly bent metal rod topped with with maroon ball with number "4" in a gold circle
THF150074

Beyond the cars, you can see these artifacts related to drag racing and racing culture in Driven to Win.

 

Dig Deeper


Person holding a checkered flag in each hand in mid-jump in front of a race car on a track
Official Start of First NHRA Drag Racing Meet, Great Bend, Kansas, 1955 / THF122645

Learn more about drag racing with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.

race cars, racing, popular culture, making, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, cars