For many 19th-century railroaders, holidays were workdays like any other. / THF286590
As we gather with family and friends to celebrate the holidays this year, many of us will enjoy a day (or several days) away from the job. But for our essential workers, time off may not be an option. For those who do the daily work that makes modern life possible, a holiday is just another day. In the mid-19th century, the railroader was America’s preeminent essential worker. (Don’t get me wrong—railroaders are still essential workers in the early 21st century, but their industry isn’t as prominent in today’s culture.) Trains had to roll, tracks had to be kept clear, and freight had to move—no matter what the calendar said.
The railroad’s timetable was gospel, holiday or not. / THF203346
Mainline railroading was a 24/7 operation. It was possible to shutter most operations at a roundhouse for a day, and railroads could cancel the local trains that served nearby industries, but longer-distance through freight and passenger trains had to keep moving. Stop a train somewhere and you block that track—and all the other trains that need to use it. Before long, the whole system grinds to a halt. (Today’s passenger airlines experience the same problem when bad weather shuts down a hub airport. Delays cascade throughout the entire network. But airlines can “reset” each night when far fewer flights operate. That’s an advantage railroads have never enjoyed.)
Conductors, engineers, fireman, brakemen, and others often spent their holidays either out on the line or bunking in a railroad dormitory far from home, waiting for their next run. And there might be miserable weather to contend with too. In northern states, December meant cold and snow. Consider the plight of a mid-19th-century brakeman. In the days before George Westinghouse’s air brake, the only way to stop a train was to manually set the individual handbrakes on each car. When the engineer gave the signal, brakemen had to scramble along the roofs of the railcars and spin the iron wheels that applied those brakes. It was a dangerous job in fair weather, but it could be deadly when ice and snow made everything slippery. On a windy night, a brakeman might be blown off into a snowbank below—where he hoped his crewmates noticed his absence before the train went too far.
The firebox kept a locomotive’s cab warm throughout the year—a decided advantage in winter. / THF286564
For the engineer and fireman in the locomotive cab, life was somewhat better. They stayed warm even through the coldest winter days due to the heat from the locomotive’s firebox. (There were surely more than a few enginemen who preferred the cold to sweltering summer days, when cab temperatures were hellish.) But there were still challenges. Snow and ice on the rails required extra skill to keep the locomotive’s wheels from spinning when climbing a long grade. Falling snow obscured the track ahead, making it difficult to see signal lights and lanterns—or an unexpected stopped train.
Polished passenger cars were aesthetically pleasing. They were also highly combustible, should the coal stove (at lower left) tip over in an accident. / THF176785
Riders on passenger trains also stayed out of the weather, but even they had their struggles. Wooden passenger cars were drafty. In the mid-19th century, heat came from a single coal stove in each car. Inevitably, those seated far from the stove shivered, while those seated nearest to it sweated. Given that cars of this period were heavily varnished and trimmed with any number of flammable fabrics and surfaces, coal stoves also posed a serious fire hazard.
Two of America’s worst railroad disasters involved December fires. On December 18, 1867, an eastbound express train derailed while crossing a bridge near Angola, New York. The last car plummeted off the bridge and its stove came apart, scattering hot coals over the wreckage. Forty-nine people are believed to have died in the wreck—most of them burned in the resulting inferno. Newspapers referred to the carnage as the “Angola Horror.”
Nine years later, another bridge-fire accident occurred at Ashtabula, Ohio. On December 29, 1876, a faulty bridge collapsed under the Pacific Express as the train headed west. This time, 11 passenger cars fell into the chasm and an estimated 92 people lost their lives. Some were killed in the crash itself, but others succumbed to the fire ignited by spilled coals and fueled by wooden wreckage. The “Ashtabula Horror” exceeded that of Angola and would remain America’s deadliest railroad accident for more than 40 years.
Clearing snow was the most backbreaking task on the railroad in winter. / THF120726
Trains didn’t go anywhere if the track was blocked, so in snowstorms track crews battled fiercely against falling and drifting snow to keep the way clear. Brute force and backbreaking effort were their best tools. Large plows, pushed by powerful locomotives, threw snow clear of the right-of-way. When the crew encountered a particularly deep or stubborn blockage, there was little choice but to back the plow up for some distance, then open the throttle and hit the drift hard and fast. With luck, the plow pushed through and continued on its way, or at least made a sizeable dent before another try. The worst-case scenario had the plow stuck so deep into a drift that it couldn’t be extracted. When that happened, crew members simply had to shovel it, however long it took. Powerful rotary plows—essentially, snowblowers for railroad track—made the job easier when they arrived in the 1880s, but these expensive machines were generally only used on mountain railroads in the American West.
Artist (and automotive designer) Virgil Exner captured a more romantic vision of winter railroading in this painting from about 1970. / THF36304
Later in the 20th century, as working conditions and passenger safety improved, and as steel coaches and steam heat replaced wooden cars with coal stoves, the railroad found a happier place in our holiday culture. Trains became synonymous with trips back home to visit loved ones, and electric train sets became staples under the Christmas tree—whether as gifts or as decorations. More recently, popular movies like The Polar Express have continued the trend. It may be that there were no holidays on the railroad, but it’s equally true that our holidays wouldn’t be what they are today without it.
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.
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 weather means winter sports and activities: skiing, ice racing, ice boating, sledding, ice hockey, and even snowball fights. Throughout the archival collections in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, images, brochures, pamphlets, and books shed light on the various activities people participate in during the cold months of the year. Below are some of the highlights from January’s virtual History Outside the Box, which was featured on The Henry Ford’s Instagram and Facebook Stories.
Winter morning at the corner of Canfield Avenue and Second Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF110432
Grayling, Michigan, became a winter sports destination in the 1920s and 1930s, with toboggan runs, a hockey rink, and a ski jump dotting the landscape. A yearly carnival was held, with the crowning of a winter Sports Queen. This image shows the 1939 Winter Sports Queen, holding snowshoes, standing next to a Mercury V-8.
Grayling Winter Sports Queen with Mercury V-8, January 1939 / THF271673
Skiing, and ski jumping, have been popular in Iron Mountain, Michigan, for over 100 years.
8th Annual Kiwanis Ski Club Tournament, Iron Mountain, Michigan, February 1941 / THF272300
Ice skating has been a popular wintertime activity for over 150 years. And yes, even Henry Ford would get in on the fun.
THF213753 / George Washington Carver at Dedication of George Washington Carver Cabin, Greenfield Village, 1942.
On this day in 1946, George Washington Carver Recognition Day was designated by a joint act of the U.S. Congress and proclaimed by President Harry S. Truman. Carver died just three years earlier on this day in 1943.
Immediately, public officials and the news media began to celebrate his life and create lasting reminders of his work in education, agricultural science, and art. Carver, mindful of his own legacy, had already established the Carver Foundation during the 15th annual Negro History Week, on February 14, 1940, to carry on his research at Tuskegee. It seems fitting to pay respects to Carver on his death day by taking a closer look at the floral beautis that Carver so loved, and that we see around us, even during winter.
Carver recalled that, “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis” [Kremer, ed., pg. 20]. He believed that studying nature encouraged investigation and stimulated originality. Experimentation with plants “rounded out” originality, freedom of thought and action. THF213747 / George Washington Carver Holding Queen Anne's Lace Flowers, Greenfield Village, 1942.
Carver wanted children to learn how to study nature at an early age. He explained that it is “entertaining and instructive, and is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the great natural principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage” (Progressive Nature Studies, 1897, pg. 4). He encouraged teachers to provide each student a slip of plain white or manila paper so they could make sketches. Neatness mattered. As Carver explained, the grading scale “only applies to neatness, as some will naturally draw better than others.”
Neatness equated to accuracy, and with accuracy came knowledge. Farm families could vary their diet by identifying additional plants they could eat, and identify challenges that plants faced so they could correct them and grow more for market.
Carver understood how the landscape changed between the seasons, and exploring during winter was just as important as exploring during summer. Thus, it is appropriate to apply Carver’s directions about observing nature to the winter landscape around us, and to draw the winter botanicals that we see, based on directions excerpted from Carver’s Progressive Nature Studies (1897). (Items in parentheses added to prompt winter-time nature study - DAR and DE, 3 Jan 2018.)
Leaves – Are they all alike? What plants retain their leaves in winter? Draw as many different shaped leaves as you can.
Stems – Are stems all round? Draw the shapes of as many different stems as you can find. Of what use are stems? Do any have commercial value?
Flowers (greenhouses/florists) – Of what value to the plant are the flowers?
Trees – Note the different shapes of several different trees. How do they differ? (Branching? Bark?) Which trees do you consider have the greatest value?
Shrubs – What is the difference between a shrub and a tree?
Fruit (winter berries) – What is fruit? Are they all of value?
Carver worked in greenhouses and encouraged others to use greenhouses and hot beds to start vegetables earlier in the planting system. The sooner farm families had fresh vegetables, the more quickly they could reduce the amount they had to purchase from grocery stores, and the healthier the farm families would be.
THF213726 / George Washington Carver in a Greenhouse, 1939.
In 1910, Carver included directions for work with nature studies and children’s gardens over twelve months. Selections from “January” suitable for nearly all southern states” included:
Begin in this month for spring gardening by breaking the ground very deeply and thoroughly
Clear off and destroy trash (plant debris) that might be a hiding place for noxious insects.
Cabbages can be put in hot beds, cold frames, or well-protected places.
Grape vines, fruit trees, hedges and ornamental trees should receive attention (pruning, fertilizing)
Both root and top grafting of trees should be done.
THF213314 / Pamphlet, "Nature Study and Children's Gardens," by George Washington Carver, circa 1910.
Carver illustrated his own publications, basing his botanical drawings on what he observed in his field work. He conveyed details that his readers needed to know, be they school children tending their gardens, or farm families trying to raise better crops.
THF213278 / Pamphlet, "Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama," by George Washington Carver, 1910 / page 12.
Edible wild botanicals, also known as weeds, appeared in late winter. Carver encouraged everyone from his students at Tuskegee to Henry Ford to consumer more wild greens year round, but especially in late winter when greens became a welcome respite from root crops and preserved meats which dominated winter fare. His pamphlet, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, prepared during World War II, featured numerous drawings of edible wild botanicals, also called weeds. Americans could contribute to the war effort by diversifying their diets with these greens that sprouted in the woods during the late winter and early spring. Carver illustrated each wild green, including dandelion, wild lettuce, curled dock, lamb’s quarter, and pokeweed. Following the protocol used in botanical drawing, he credited the source, as he did with several illustrations identified as “after C.M. King.” This referenced the work of Charlotte M. King, who taught botanical drawing at Iowa State University during the time of Carver’s residency there, and who likely influenced Carver’s approach to botanical drawing. King’s original of the “Small Pepper Grass” drawing appeared in The Weed Flora of Iowa (1913), written by Carver’s mentor, botanist Louis Hermann Pammel.
THF213586 / Pamphlet, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace," by George Washington Carver, March 1942. To learn more about Carver, consult these biographies:
Hersey, Mark D. My Work is that of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Greenwood, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
To read more about Carver and Nature Study, see:
Carver, G. W. Progressive Nature Studies. (Tuskegee Institute Print, 1897), Digital copy available at Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98621#page/132/mode/1up
Harbster, Jennifer. “George Washington Carver and Nature Study,” blog, March 2, 2015, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/03/george-washington-carver-and-nature-study/
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Deborah Evans is Master Presenter at The Henry Ford.
Although they are seldom seen in action, snowplows are an important part of the railroad scene.
This snowplow, operated in rural New England and Canada, is one of 36 built by Canadian Pacific's Angus shops in Montreal between 1920 and 1929. It is a 20-ton, wedge-type plow made for use on a single track - it throws snow on both sides of the unit. Built without a self-contained power source, the snowplow was pushed by one or two locomotives. Its ten-foot overall width can be increased to 16 feet by the extension of the large hinged wings on its sides. Moveable blades at the front, designed to clear the area between the rails, can be raised at crossings to avoid damage to equipment.
The snowplow's cab contains compressed air tanks that control the wings and blades, as well as providing air for a whistle used by the plow operator to signal the locomotive engineer. The cab also contains a heating stove. This plow was in service from 1923 until 1990.
Like it or not, winter is just around the corner, and here at The Henry Ford, we are preparing. Curator of Photographs and Prints Cynthia Miller already selected some holiday-themed Thomas Nast material for digitization last month, and now she has added a selection of winter-themed prints, including this early 19th century engraving of an 18th century snowstorm. If you’re sure you’re ready for winter, check out some of her other selections, depicting sleigh racing, moonlit ice skating, a snowed-in Boston street, and woodlands in winter, or visit our online collections to browse all of our digitized collections relating to winter. If you’re not quite ready for snow and cold weather, we suggest this photochrom of a California orange grove instead, where the only snow to be seen is on a distant mountaintop.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Ice harvesters guide rafts of cut ice through a channel, probably on Lake St. Clair, Michigan, circa 1905 (THF110292)
It’s been a cold winter at The Henry Ford. Record low temperatures have closed schools and businesses, lengthened commutes, and hardened lakes and ponds across southeast Michigan. Though some schoolchildren, ice skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen may rejoice, it’s difficult to imagine braving these frigid conditions daily as part of a job. But until the 1920s, the nation depended on men who did just that, year after year, to harvest the ice essential to the American way of life.
By 1830, foods that required refrigeration were staples of American diets. For decades, rural communities in colder regions of the country had harvested ice to keep certain foods from spoiling during the summer months. But as American cities swelled in the nineteenth century, so did the demand for fresh meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and even beer. Before long, the local, small-scale ice harvest grew into a major industry. Wherever ice on a pond, canal, lake, or reservoir was thick enough, companies deployed teams of men, horses, and machines to harvest it for distribution across the United States.
Some of the ice harvesters worked as farmers or fishermen in warmer months; some were imported from nearby cities to work the ice fields. Whatever their makeup, when ice harvesting crews gathered in January and February, they faced a complex and sometimes dangerous challenge. First, the ice had to be scraped clear of snow and, when the surface was too rough to be cut, planed smooth. Workers bored holes to measure the thickness of the ice, and then used a marker or groover to etch a grid of rectangles across the ice field. Next, an ice plow followed these lines, cutting about two-thirds of the way into the ice. If the ice was going to be used locally, the rectangular blocks of ice – called “cakes” – were chipped off and loaded onto wagons or sleighs for direct delivery. Otherwise, harvesters broke off large sections of the grooved ice field using saws and other hand tools. Workers guided these rafts of ice through a channel, where men broke the sheets into individual cakes and fed them up an elevator conveyor into an ice house. There, workers arranged the ice cakes into layers for storage and later delivery. If the ice house was located along the railway – and many were – blocks of ice could be loaded directly into refrigerated rail cars.
Tools of the harvest, illustrated in Joseph C. Jones, Jr.’s America’s Icemen (find this book and more at the Benson Ford Research Center).
Improved ice harvesting and storage techniques revolutionized American businesses and diets. For the first time, meatpackers, dairies, and produce growers could ship their products across great distances. Brewers could regulate the temperature of their facilities to produce beer year-round. And restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and home cooks could keep a variety of fresh ingredients on-hand.
This refrigerated rail car was built and operated by Fruit Growers Express, who maintained a nationwide network of icing stations to keep onboard produce fresh during long-distance shipping (THF68309)
Natural ice allowed brewers to keep their ingredients and breweries cool enough to produce beer throughout the summer (THF210591)
Ice in the top compartment of this home refrigerator helped preserve perishable food below (THF81022)
Natural ice harvesting, storage, and shipping processes become more efficient as innovative entrepreneurs and workers improvised new tools, machinery and systems. Eventually, the invention of the artificial ice machine would put ice harvesting companies out of business. Today, mechanical refrigeration has all but replaced natural ice—in our kitchens, at shops and restaurants, and on ships, trains, and trucks. We can expect fresh food and cool beverages year-round. But machines didn’t shape those expectations. Americans grew dependent on refrigeration because of the nationwide network of natural ice distribution made possible through the hard work of ice harvesters.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Every winter, Firestone farmers work hard preserving meats from our December butchering. Hams, bacon and fatback are all cured using a process that would have been very familiar to the Firestones in 1885.
Every day, Firestone farmers rub these cuts of meat with a mixture of salt, sugar and various spices. The salt dehydrates the meat, while sugar prevents it from getting too tough and the spices help to give the meat a nice flavor. It takes several weeks for larger cuts of meat like hams to finish curing. Once a week, old cure is removed from the meat and it is replaced with fresh cure.
Once the meat is cured, it is wrapped in cheesecloth sacks and hung in the cold room located in Firestone Farm’s cellar.
Near the meat are several other foods that were preserved last year, including dried chili peppers, pickles and crocks of sauerkraut as well as jars of tomatoes, pickled green beans, applesauce and more.
When you visit from April through November, make sure to check out the Firestone home's cellar and cold room - you'll be sure to notice our cured meat hanging from the ceiling in our cold room...and as the year progresses and the time for butchering once again approaches, there will be very little cured meat left hanging in cheesecloth.
Each year, Greenfield Village closes for the winter season - but that doesn't mean it lies dormant! This is the time for freshening up the homes, grounds and vehicles in preparation for the busy year ahead. Take a peek into what happens during winter in Greenfield Village - then join us in April to enjoy the results!
In 1800s Ohio, the harsh winters provided little opportunity for families like future tire magnate Harvey Firestone's to enjoy fresh foods. In order to keep the family fed until spring, the Firestones worked hard to preserve and enjoy the crops and animals they raised all year long on the farm, which included their hogs.
Very little of the pig went to waste, as the men of the family carefully cut pork chops, roasts, bacon and more from the animal. From there, the women rendered the fat for lard, soap and other uses.
Today, we continue this tradition, but with trained professionals slaughtering the hogs; our Firestone Farm presenters then butcher and preserve the meat in the farmhouse's root cellar.