The New Haven in its salad days

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 12, 2019

An EP-4 electric approaches Stamford, Conn., with the New England section of the Gulf Coast Limited. Classic Trains collection
There are plenty of railroads from the classic era I wish I’d known, but near the top of my list would be the New York, New Haven & Hartford. What a wonderful contradiction, a small Class I outfit in terms of route miles (1,547 in 1967) but major league when it came to its high-speed main line, its electrification, its 4-6-4s and electrics, its society page clientele, and its terminals in Manhattan and Boston. The New Haven packed an impressive punch.

My regrets over not witnessing the NH in full flower were confirmed this week when a friend, writer and photographer Ben Bachman, tipped me off to a fascinating old promotional movie on YouTube called A Great Railroad At Work, a 40-minute black-and-white film from 1942.

YouTube is full of railroad public relations movies from the classic era, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time looking at some of them, especially if they cover such personal favorites as New York Central or Santa Fe. This one is as good as any of them, offering a stirring view of the New Haven doing its thing at the height of World War II.

The New Haven went top drawer here, hiring the Jam Handy Organization, a proficient producer of industrial and promotional movies. Named for its colorful owner, Jam Handy is credited with creating approximately 7,000 films before it folded in 1983. Its founder — yes, there really was a Jam Handy, short for Henry Jamison Handy — was quite a character, having made a name as an Olympic swimmer and getting kicked out of the University of Michigan before he got into commercial filmmaking. He died in Detroit in 1983 at age 97.

There are lots of wonderful moments in this film, and they start from the opening scene, a pastoral vignette in which a stout Ten-Wheeler pulls into a picturesque little country depot, alas unidentified. You immediately know you’re in good company when you hear the omniscient voice of narrator Lowell Thomas. In 1942, you couldn’t find better voice talent. 

Locomotives in various stages of repair cover the interior of the New Haven’s Readville Shops. New Haven Railroad photo
Several moments in this film grabbed me:

• In a sequence in a large, unidentified interlocking tower, the operator, speaking with a Boston accent right out of Cheers, leans into the telephone and O.S.’s the “Clippah.” That would be the Yankee Clipper, which, along with the Merchants Limited and the Gilt Edge, came to define crack Boston-New York service in the steam era. 

• In a dining-car scene, a young woman is perusing the menu when the waiter tells here “the scrod is very nice today.” The opening shot is definitely in a diner, but the next shot isn’t: a studio kitchen way too large to be a railroad galley. The next thing you hear is the cook being told to broil up another Boston scrod. The magic of film editing.

• How about these prices on a menu posted in the diner? Clam chowder for 10 cents a bowl, Boston baked beans with brown bread for 40 cents, and broiled fresh fish for 45 cents. The perfect things to order as you settle in at the lunch counter to read the Red Sox box score in the Globe.

• There are terrific scenes inside what must be the New Haven’s Readville Shops outside of Boston, showing driver tires being sweated on wheels, great boilers of 4-8-2s being lifted by the traveling crane, and the cavernous expanse of the erecting hall. At a place like Readville, NH looked as imposing as the PRR in Altoona.

New Haven 4-6-4 No. 1400 on the westbound Yankee Clipper leans into a curve on Niantic Hill on the Shore Line. Kent W. Cochrane photo
My favorite segments focused on two locomotives. One was I-5 4-6-4 No. 1400, the class engine of a set of 10 comparable to any Hudson on any railroad. These Baldwin-built engines definitely got New Haven into the “steam’s finest hour” club.

The black-and-silver 4-6-4s were big — 80-inch drivers, boiler pressure of 285 psi, engine weight 365,300 pounds — and they were fast. In Guide to North American Steam Locomotives, author George H. Drury says the railroad used 8 of them every day to make 12 trips over the 157 miles between Boston and New Haven, with two set aside as spares. Delivered in 1937, all 10 were retired in 1951. 

I’m also a fan of the electric motor featured in the movie, No. 0366, one of six EP-4 units built by General Electric in 1938 and ordered to supplant earlier EP-3 box cabs with nearly identical innards. The first to feature streamlining, the graceful green-and-gold EP-4s weighed 216 tons and could deliver a whopping 3,600 h.p. In the streamlining department — I’ll get an argument here — they came close to rivaling the PRR GG1 and EMD E unit. 

The movie is heroic in tone, as you’d expect in something created to support morale during the war effort. On this New Haven, there’s no hint of what’s to come: the turbulence of the Patrick B. McGinnis era, the bankruptcy of July 1961, the ultimate surrender to the clutches of Penn Central.

Better to remember the railroad the way it’s portrayed in A Great Railroad At Work, where, as Lowell Thomas intones, the New York, New Haven & Hartford symbolized “New England at work! New England on the move!”

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