Monday, May 26, 2008

A little Memorial Day history lesson

Ever wonder how Memorial Day got its start?

Originally observed as Decoration Day every May 30 by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) following the Civil War, it was later renamed Memorial Day. Decoration Day was originally intended for soldiers to decorate the graves of their comrades who had died during "the Great Rebellion".

For more on the history of this holiday, see the United States Department of Veteran Affairs' webpage entitled Memorial Day Background or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Office of History's webpage on the origins of Memorial Day, which includes some vintage photographs.

You might also enjoy reading Janice Brown's little history lesson on Decoration Day over at Cow Hampshire.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two weeks left for you to ponder "Irishness"

As of today you had only one week left to make your submission to the "What does it mean to be Irish?" edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture. Now, make that two weeks!

Something has come up that will make it very difficult for Small-leaved Shamrock to publish the carnival on the date originally intended, so the new deadline is Friday, June 6. The 6th edition of the carnival will now be published on Monday, June 9, a week later than originally scheduled.

That gives you one extra week to ponder the question "What does it mean to be Irish?". So pull out your green, fly your tricolour, and make room for the bard in you as you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and tell us your feelings about the Emerald Isle and its heritage and culture. Submit your article here. Looking forward to hearing your story!

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Twenty-thousand letters by the men who wore the blue"

Bell Irvin Wiley wrote in the introduction to his book Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, that:

Twenty-eight years ago, when I had completed research for The Life of Billy Yank, I estimated that I had read twenty thousand letters by the men who wore the blue. These personal documents, along with the ten thousand Confederate letters that I had examined while preparing The Life of Johnny Reb (plus several hundred diaries of participants on both sides), while admittedly a small sampling, afford a more intimate and revealing insight into the mind and character of the American masses than any body of material treating of any other period in the nation's history.
Wiley's book, a departure from many written treatments of the Civil War detailing battle after battle and focusing on generals and strategies, instead looks at the experience of the common Union soldier: his purpose, his struggles and his day to day life in the field.

I am looking forward to reading more of Wiley's insights into the life of the Union soldier. And who knows, maybe I can start working my way through some of those twenty-thousand letters in my spare time...

Thanks to Jennifer of Rainy Day Genealogy Readings for suggesting Wiley's Life of Billy Yank in her post How Did That Civil War Soldier Really Die?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A modern poet looks back at the Civil War

Daniel Nathan Terry recently took a trip back into the world of the Civil War with soldiers and photographers, both real and imagined. His resulting book of poetry, entitled Capturing the Dead, has won the 2007 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition amidst high praise from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.

The organization's April 2008 issue of Strophes announced Terry's win and described the nature of his work of poetry focusing on the Civil War:

[Capturing the Dead] is a sequence of dramatic lyrics in the imagined voices of Civil War soldiers and photographers, primarily that of a fictional war photographer named Noah Williams...

[Contest judge Jeff] Gundy has high praise for the manuscript he selected as winner of the 2007 Stevens Competition: “Among a very strong set of manuscripts, Capturing the Dead stood out for the clarity of its focus, the precision of its language, and the depth and subtlety of its emotional resonance.” He expresses great admiration for Terry’s “ability to create individual characters,” noting that figures both historical and invented, both obscure and famous, “take on weight and solidity, captured in words that emulate the precision of film.” Even more than this vividness, he admires the poems’ avoidance of claims of absolute truth, their “acute recognition of human subjectivity.” He sees Terry’s Capturing the Dead as belonging in the company of “other great sets of war poems from the last two centuries”: From Whitman’s Drum-Taps to Andrew Hudgins’ After the Lost War. Terry’s poems, he sums up, “offer both fidelity to history and relevance to our own predicament. They have much to teach us.”

Terry's poetry manuscript was chosen out of 201 submissions from both the U.S. and abroad. He is currently enrolled in the M.F.A. program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His book will be published by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies' Press and will be available for purchase in June 2008.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The 1892 Pottsville train explosion: How & why?

After reading about the work of steam engine firemen and engineers, I really enjoyed my recent ride as a passenger on a vintage train and my discussion with its engineer. One thing that I don't want to come close to experiencing, however, is the type of steam engine explosion that took the life of my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey. In fact, just reading about it is difficult enough. The newspaper accounts of the accident show what a sudden and extremely powerful explosion it was. I can't help but wonder about just what would cause an accident of this magnitude.

Now thanks to Ronald Bailey I have an insight into what might have caused that accident on the railroad back in 1892. Ronald Bailey is the President of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania Advisory Council, an avid railroad historian, and a licensed steam locomotive engineer. He was able to provide me with an understanding of the technicalities of an explosion such as the one that Engine No. 563 experienced.

Here is his technical explanation of the workings of a pre-1900 steam engine and the possible causes of the type of explosion that killed William Cowhey and the rest of the crew and passengers of Engine No. 563:

A locomotive boiler explosion is usually caused by one of two factors - a defect in the boiler shell or the crew allowing the level of the water in the boiler to drop below the crown sheet of the firebox. In the 19th-century locomotive boilers were commonly made of cast iron rather than steel because steel was far more brittle. Cast iron was stronger than steel and more pliable without tearing. Unfortunately, cast iron could contain unseen inclusions and defects that could cause a failure. As metallurgical techniques improved better types of steel were developed and by the 1890’s almost all locomotive boilers were constructed using steel. Boiler defects were rarely the cause of a boiler explosion in locomotives built after 1900.

A locomotive boiler consists of a cylindrical boiler shell, fabricated of thick cast iron or steel. The boiler shell is thick enough to be able to resist the force of the steam, which, depending upon the locomotive, varied from 125 to 300 pounds per square inch. In 1892 a common boiler pressure was 160 to 180 pounds per square inch, and shell of the boiler was built to safely contain at least twice that pressure.

The steam in a boiler is produced by boiling water. The water is boiled by heat from a fire of wood, coal or oil. The fire is contained in a rectangular box that is placed inside the boiler at the back of the locomotive. To create additional heating surfaces a series of tubes or flues extend from the front of the firebox through the cylinder of the boiler to the front. The hot gasses from the fire are carried through the flues to be exhausted up the stack. The heat of the fire is conducted through the sheets that form the firebox and through the flues into the water, boiling the water and making steam. Most of the heat from the fire passes through the firebox sheets into the water.

This, however, created a problem. To be an effective conductor of the heat, which was necessary to boil the water, the firebox sheets needed to be as thin as possible. This made the sheets of the firebox too thin to be able to able resist being crushed by the tremendous pressure of the steam in the boiler. The solution was to use the strength of the much thicker outside sheets of the boiler shell to support the firebox. This was done by connecting the firebox sheets and the boiler shell with steel bolts, called staybolts. The staybolts conveyed the strength of the boiler shell to the firebox, preventing it from being crushed by the steam pressure. A space was left between the boiler shell and the firebox sheets, through which the staybolts passed, that was filled with water.

The added problem, however, is that the fire in a firebox burns at a temperature between 1,800 and 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to melt steel. In fact the only thing that keeps the fire from destroying the firebox of a steam locomotive is that the firebox is surrounded on all sides, except the bottom, by water, which absorbs the heat in the process of boiling and making steam.

Boilers were fitted with “try cocks” (three valves stack one on top of the other) that an engineer could use to check the level of the water. Most locomotives were also fitted with water glasses that displayed the water level.

As long as the water in the boiler was kept at a level that completely covered the firebox, everything worked fine. If, however, the water level was allowed to drop below the top of the firebox, which was called the crown sheet, the metal of the crown sheet would be subjected to the intense heat of the fire without any water to absorb the heat. This could cause the metal of the crown sheet to soften and begin to melt. As the metal softened the steam pressure could force the crown sheet to pull out of the thread of the staybolts. Without the support of the boiler shell through the staybolts, the crown sheet would deform and at some point of stress would crack or tear. This would suddenly create an opening that would allow all the steam and boiling water in the boiler to exhaust to the atmosphere. The almost instantaneous expansion of the steam from 150 to 180 pounds per square inch of atmospheric pressure produced a terrific force, which was usually violent enough to rip the firebox sheets and tear the entire locomotive boiler off of the locomotive frames. The effect was pretty much like a rocket taking off and exploding. Boilers were sometimes hurled hundreds of feet away.

Ronald Bailey goes on to extrapolate possible specific causes for the explosion of Engine No. 563 on November 14, 1892:

So what caused low water condition that created the boiler explosion that killed your great-grandfather?

The article from the New York Times says that Engineer Allison had just brought in a heavy train. It is possible that Allison had engaged in a dangerous practice used by some engineers of deliberately allowing the water level to drop to the bottom of the water glass (which was still a couple of inches above the crown sheet) in order to have more space in the boiler to generate steam to supply the engine when it was working hard. It may be that he miscalculated and allowed the crown sheet to become exposed to the fire without a covering of water.

It may also be that the locomotive boiler was foaming without the crew knowing it. The steam that is produced by a locomotive boiler is not recycled but is exhausted up the stack in order to produce a partial vacuum that would draw the hot gasses from the firebox through the boiler flues. Unfortunately, water is never pure, and it contains solids and sediments that are left behind as the water turns to steam. These materials can concentrate over time as more water is added to the boiler and then boiled away. The solids can collect on top of the water forming a film. As the water boils, the steam bubbles are trapped by the film, creating foam that can make it appear that the water level is higher than it really is. If the boiler was foaming, the crew might not have had any warning that the water level was dangerously low.

The article suggests that the steam pressure was low and that they stopped to build up the pressure. When the throttle was closed, the water level dropped, either because Engineer Allison had allowed it to be low or because the water was foaming, exposing the crown sheet, and setting off an explosion.

The article notes that the “blower” had been turned on. The blower on a steam locomotive is a valve that controls a jet of steam that is piped on the side of the steam nozzle directly under the stack. When the locomotive is not moving and there is no exhaust from the cylinders to create a partial vacuum, the blower can be opened to produce an artificial draft, thus drawing oxygen into the fire. The blower had no connection to the boiler exploding.

The following image shows the remains of a locomotive boiler that exploded on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1947—a larger and much more modern locomotive than the locomotive from 1892. You can see in the photograph the curved boiler shell, the flat sheets of the firebox, the staybolts that connected the firebox sheets to the boiler shell, and how the steel plates had been ripped apart by the force of the explosion.


A boiler explosion can be powerful enough to rip through steel plates, half an inch thick or more. An explosion can be so violent and so powerful as to rip a boiler off of a locomotive frame, and literally hurl the wreckage of the boiler through the air like a missile.

In the accompanying photograph, the remains of a locomotive after a boiler explosion are visible. The boiler has been torn from the locomotive frame, thrown through the air, and has landed upside down in a nearby field. The rear of the boiler, with the remains of the firebox, is on the left. The smoke box has been deformed and flattened. Strips of lagging are visible where the sheet metal jacketing has been torn loose.


Ronald Bailey currently works a couple of days a month as a steam engineer and fireman. As he states, his "top priority is always to keep the water level up".

After reading his thorough explanation of the ins and outs of steam engine operation and the risk of explosions, I can certainly see why. It may have been an oversight of this type that took the lives of William Cowhey and the other railroaders that night back in 1892.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"Along the iron veins..."

Along the iron veins that traverse the frame of our country, beat and flow the fiery pulses of its exertion, hotter and faster every hour. All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries into the central cities; the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds on the city gates.

~ John Ruskin, 1819-1900

Recently my family and I took an enjoyable trip on one of America's many tourist railroads. We boarded the train and immediately felt as if we'd stepped back in time to the days when the railroad was king. The passenger cars were vintage and had such a nostalgic feel to them. Although we didn't walk into it, we enjoyed a peek into the caboose which trailed behind us on our daylong trip. Our conductor was a gentleman who loved to tell stories. He shared many of them as he spoke about the flora, fauna and history of the areas that we were passing by on our rail journey. He also told us about the history of the railroad, and the very train that we were riding that day.


It was a special treat for me when the engineer took the time to stop and speak with us. With many years of experience as both fireman and engineer on a steam engine, he was able to tell me firsthand about the type of work that many of my ancestors had done for a living on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

What a comfortable feeling to be carried along as a passenger on a train and watch the world go by out your window. It may be because of the fond memories that I have of childhood rail trips, or because of the knowledge that I have about my family's history with the railroads, but trains have always had a special place in my heart.

You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you.

~ T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Tell your own Irish-American story!

Got a family story to tell, but not sure you can handle keeping up with a blog? Brian Reynolds has begun a website for people just like you. It is a place where you can share your family's stories and memories, or anything of interest related to Irish-American heritage.

The Irish American Story Project can be browsed by date of submission via the archives, or by category. Want to read "coming home" stories? Browse the articles written by a variety of submitters that fit into that theme, or browse through death, education, family, humour, love, travel and more...

Better yet, submit your own! Only one thing I ask: if your story relates to Small-leaved Shamrock families, please allow me to post it here also!

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