Rail-Concrete Masonry on the New York, Ontario, & Western Railway

by Ronald J. Stanulevich

This simple but elegant highway bridge, completed in 1902 over Hurley Cut in Hurley NY, was among the
 very first structures constructed by the NYO&W Railway using its innovative new rail-concrete masonry system.

Caption Update: The Richard TenEyck house on the left and the Crispell house which in my time has always been used as the parsonage, to the right with the Hurley Reformed Church right in the center and naturally, the rail bridge. Linda Peloquin

    The opening years of the 20th century found the New York, Ontario & Western Railway actively engaged in improving the physical plant along its Southern and Scranton Divisions, as it tried to keep pace with the increasing volume of its Anthracite coal traffic. The first decade of the 1900s would end with much of the busy Scranton Division converted to double track. In fact, the entire right-of-way of the O&W in general was receiving some serious beefing-up during this time, as the first of 20 new Class-P 2-8-0 camelback locomotives were just being received from Cooke. At over 100 tons ready-to-steam, the huge new “Orries,” as they came to be known, were at the time some of the heaviest railroad motive power in existence. Their ponderous weight far exceeded the safe load limits of many of the line’s older wood-and-iron composite truss bridges, all of which would eventually need to be reinforced or replaced.

    As part of the ongoing trackage upgrades during this period, the O&W Engineering Department perfected a new construction technique for inexpensively building poured reinforced concrete masonry structures. The key innovation pioneered by the O&W was successfully using sections of old, worn-out, or obsolete running rails for the main reinforcing members. In early 1903, Chief Engineer Curtis E. Knickerbocker submitted an illustrated article describing his new construction technique to the premier railroad trade publication of his day, the Railroad Age Gazette. That article, which appeared in the May 22nd 1903 issue, is reproduced below. The accompanying illustrations also appeared in the Gazette, and are included here as digital scans taken from the originals (resulting in the slightly fuzzy quality of reproduction, and some unavoidable shadows at the edges from the gutter at the Gazette volume’s binding):

“Rail-Concrete Masonry on the New York, Ontario, and Western Railway

    The New York, Ontario & Western is now making considerable use of concrete masonry built on a foundation of old rails. The accompanying illustrations show the method used at the Hurley bridge and also in a box culvert, 6ft. x 10ft., now a building in the old Delaware and Hudson Canal, at Summittville, N.Y. We are indebted to Mr. C. E. Knickerbocker, Engineer of Maintenance of Way, for the drawings and description.

    Ordinary highway bridges are narrow and have no special provision for sidewalks. At Hurley, N.Y., a bridge was required which would give a double roadway and also allow for a sidewalk. The Hurley Cut, which the bridge was to span, had proven of such a treacherous nature that heavy retaining walls had been built the entire length of the cut. It was desired that the bridge should be massive, in keeping with the cut, and a concrete bridge, re-inforced with steel rails, was decided upon.

    To bring the rails into the same plane, they were riveted in sets of four to old car channels, and the channels, when placed on the rough bridge seat, could be blocked to any position. Twenty-five foot rails offer a chance for vibration, so stiffness was assured by connecting the rails with inch rods, which also served to give some lateral stiffness.

    The lagging for the bridge floor was put in flush with the abutments, about three in. below the bottoms of the rails. This 3 in. space was filled with mortar (1:3), rather wet. A layer of wet concrete (1:3:5) was then “slushed” in, the layer standing a few inches above top of rail. The whole bed was then tamped until the concrete “quaked.” On the following day, an upper finishing layer was put on. The concrete was less wet and was tamped lightly, so as not to cause vibration of the rails, but thoroughly. The top of the roadbed was made convex by use of template, and roughly convex towards the sides. The sidewalk and wheelguard, of concrete, stood 6 in. higher.

    The parapet walls were cheaply but effectively re-inforced by two end upright angles and cross angles. The narrowness of the walls, together with bracing angles, would make efficient tamping impossible, so the concrete was put in wet, in 4 in. layers, and worked until in a quaking condition, the results proving very satisfactory. Any slipperiness of the bridge was obviated by allowing the top dressing of finished roadway to extend across the bridge.

    In the second tracking now in progress on the New York, Ontario & Western, rail-and-concrete construction has been made standard for all spans of 16 feet or less, the thickness of the concrete and the spacing depending on the length of the span. Ten miles of line have already been equipped in this manner, out of a total of 107. There are some places, however, where the clearance, either as a cattle pass or as a water way underneath the bridge, will not permit of sufficient depth of concrete. In this case, it will be necessary to use an open bridge of I-beams.”

    Mr. Knickerbocker’s contribution must have been well received, and the subject of favorable comment by the readers of the Gazette, for the June 5th 1903 issue soon carried a short follow-up article:

“A Rail-Concrete Culvert

    We printed, on May 22nd, a description of the concrete masonry made on a foundation of old rails, now being used by the New York, Ontario & Western. The culvert here shown was built in the same manner, and is considered as fine a piece of masonry as has yet been put in by the railroad. It serves as a small highway bridge, and is located at Summittville, N.Y.”

    The basic idea of using old rails to reinforce poured concrete railroad structures may seem obvious to us today, but back around 1900 someone had to initially work out the various kinks in the procedure, as described in the Gazette article by the O&W’s esteemed Mr. Knickerbocker. At that time, as the use of poured concrete was just becoming more commonplace, undoubtedly a number of railroads were experimenting to develop such rail reinforcement methods simultaneously – but the O&W was the road that published its successful techniques in the Gazette.

    Innovations addressed by Engineer Knickerbocker in the drawings that accompanied his article included both the use of large metal brackets (secured by broad-head rivets) to hold the rails in place on iron channels, and the use of short lengths of gas pipe as sleeves or bushings on the one-inch rebar employed to hold the rails the correct distance apart while the concrete was being poured. Remember, this work was done in an era before the wide availability of portable oxygen/acetylene gas torch rigs, back when welding was still an exotic practice not yet commonly done by ordinary work crews out in the field.

    And it was certainly trademark O&W frugality to utilize old scrap freightcar truck bolsters, instead of using stock iron channels, to which to rivet the reinforcing rails. Why waste company money buying something new, when the railway could just as easily make do by recycling waste pieces that it had already lying around its shops and yards?

    A subtle defect that frequently doomed early attempts at creating metal-reinforced poured concrete structures was the development of voids in the concrete at the wetted surface around the reinforcing members. This was caused by excessive vibration of the metal during too-enthusiastic tamping of the uncured cement, as the crews tried to work the material into the forms. This intense vibration of the concrete around the reinforcing rods, which today engineers would call “cavitation,” caused the concrete to fail to properly adhere to the metal, thus ruining the metal’s ability to adequately reinforce the finished concrete slab against cracking. But when the concrete was properly tamped as described by Mr. Knickerbocker, worn-out rails as used by the O&W had an excellent shape and surface texture to be gripped by the cement. They had plenty of nicks and cracks, and old spike notches, for the concrete to mechanically grab a hold of.

    In his written description provided to the Gazette, Chief Engineer Knickerbocker emphasized his successful techniques for each critical phase of construction: lateral stiffening of the reinforcing rails; the proper cement mixture, composition, and texture to be employed; use of multiple shallow “lifts” (layers) of cement; the gas pipe spacer bushings; and the gentle tamping that the O&W crews used to eliminate air bubbles and voids, while still preventing the occurrence of problems caused by cavitation. All of this hard-won information was no doubt of great interest to other railroads that were attempting similar work.

    Since steam railroads during this era were fiercely competitive with one another, it might seem odd at first that the O&W’s Chief Engineer would have so freely shared his valuable new construction techniques with other railroads, through such a public forum. However, railroad engineering was no different than any other disciplined field of technical study, in that publishing newly-developed railroad technology before one’s peers, thereby submitting it to outside review and criticism, was vital to pushing forward the overall state of the art. By participating in this public give-and-take with other railroads, the O&W undoubtedly got much more technology than it gave. The emergence of common standards, and commercially available tools and fittings built to fit those standards, were just some of the benefits to be derived from this sort of widespread publication of technology and ideas.

    Besides – there was also a spirited, ongoing rivalry between Mr. Knickerbocker and his peers in the engineering and maintenance-of-way departments of the various railroads during this era. Building a reputation as a leader and a technical innovator, cultivated through articles published in the prestigious railroad industry press of the day, was an important part of polishing the O&W’s image, and was an effective advertising strategy for attracting new customers and gaining more traffic for the road.

    The great success that the NYO&W Railway enjoyed with its new rail-and-concrete masonry construction, as practiced around Summitville, quickly spread over the entire line. Within a few years’ time, some truly unusual monolithic reinforced concrete railway bridges would be constructed on a certain rural branch line along the O&W’s Northern Division – but that is a subject for another time….