New York Central’s ‘Niagara’ & Political Power

Railroads, as I had proposed before, are not thought of by too many people in the United States today, except for ‘railfans.’  In Europe, Asia and Latin America, however, railroads still play an important role in society and governments view railroads as public services. In the US, automobiles and airlines have become the most important ways of mobility and travel.  Increasingly, though, some scholars and those interested in history and peace and healing, have also become interested in some aspects of railroads and what we can learn from its specific history in  larger contexts.  Railroads were once once of the foundational aspects of most of the richest nations in the world, especially the United States.  Railroads made goods available in far away places, allowed people to travel for pleasure and/or escape or to start new lives. To get to another destination that might have taken a week by wagon and/or horse, the trains were able to get there in twenty-four hours.  The boom of rail transport began in the late 19th century all over the world where colonization had taken global wealth-making and control across continents. Moving people and goods and weapons became important.  Steam locomotives propelled the trains and left their mark on people through the glory days of pleasure, wealth-making, and growth.  Steam locomotives symbolized energy, power, industry, and personality.  They personfied speed and power and gave many children new dreams to become an engineer or to work on the railroads.

Railroad companies owned most of the best hotels and resorts, taxi and bus companies, and other places where people traveled.  Many of the best chefs in the United States, worked for certain railroad companies and certain trains were the favorites of movie and sports stars, publishing house CEOs and government executives all the way up to the Presidents. Most of the leaders of the railroads were often called ‘sharks’ and ‘pirates’ by the rising middle-class and the poor.  They called each other these things when they were crushed by another’s strategies, lives being sent to oblivion in games of corporate take-overs.  Indeed, I feel that anything you and I see that are big and glorious in civilized societies, are made that way by violence and domination, not be nice-ness.  Exploitation must be a factor in capitalism.

In the 1940s, the United States began to re-think steam locomotives in new ways.  Around the world as well, diesel and electric power were seen as less costly, less noisy, and cleaner than steam.  However, when many of the steam engines had been converted to oil instead of coal, the political factors that brought battles to the superiority of oil companies over the millions who worked on coal mines and were the leaders of the coal industry have to be considered.  Another factor is that diesel locomotive companies had to prove that they were ‘better’ than steam.  So many trials were held.  In most cases, it seemed that steam would lose to diesel and this gave the green light for dieselization of the railroad.

However, all is not what it seems.  One of my favorite locomotives, as a steam train fan, is the famous New York Central locomotive named ‘Niagara.’

Photo courtesy of Ed Whittekind at

They were made when the New York Central wanted to make ‘the ultimate locomotive’ to haul the most amount of tons possible on express passenger trains, with speed and efficiency.  They lived up to that goal and were superb and magnificent in their assigned roles.  The first ones were rolled out to work in 1945 and 1946.   But by 1956, not one was left in operation and all were destroyed.  Usually, railroads companies did their best to save one or two examples for museums and memory.  The Niagara was completely disappeared. One has to look at several factors in how and why.

Time trials were held between steam and diesel, so that Diesels can prove.  Most of the diesel locomotives during these latter days, were running on cleaned tracks and the most modern sheds where the locomotives could be cared for mechanically.  The steam engines were relegated to delapidated, old sheds with not enough people and equipment.  They had to still prove to the propaganda machines of the diesel corporations, that steam could live up to the cost-effective mentality (as opposed to aesthetic, or diversity, or other goals that could be chased after) of the ldeaders and prove a need to keep steam going.  However, when looking at the time trial documents, one can see that most of the steam locmotives were old and indeed, slower than diesels and used more man-power.   Another aspect of progress in capitalism is the link between efficiency and cost-effectiveness.  However, if we are to do that, people lose jobs while machines take over.  Does this sound familiar?  Humans are increasingly left out of the equation.  But let us return to my original point here.

The Niagara and the diesels were very very close in efficiency, speed, and power.  The Niagara steam locomotive was a crowning achievement in human technology based on steam.  Steam engines require teamwork (whereas all we need for a diesel is a lone engineer – which makes things efficient and not needing teamwork).  So the workers who ran the Niagaras and loved their steam engines (which were most of the New York Central workers on the tracks,during these trials,  set-up very efficient sheds and acquired the best equipment and watering facilities.  so the Niagaras can show their stuff.

In the end, the corporate leaders didn’t much care. The tests were a waste of time, so we’re told. But even more so, I think the corporate leaders were enraged at the capability of the Niagara and needed them to go.  They were a reminder of how the diesel propaganda machine was largely a set-up.  The dieselization leaders worked closely with the automobile industry and the airline industry to make sure their jobs were maintained and deals were made beforehand.

Many steam fans and former New York Central workers today, still lament the disappearance of the Niagara, even as their more famous locomotive – the Hudson   is displayed in museums.  The Niagara, like other things in history, were care for by people and united communities and workers.  They did not wish to dominate, but to play their role and co-exist.  In corporate games, there is only one winner.  And so the violence of this thinking lives on in almost every facet of our lives.  I love the memory of the Niagara and its aesthetic. I am also continually reminded of power and folly and the loss of art and memory in the world.  And it is not natural and not pre-determined.  It is done by people and policies and strategies.

For readers interested in railroad history, steam train galleries and videos, stations and terminals, and railroad cultural histories, please visit my new blog, always in progress and updated frequently:

2 responses to “New York Central’s ‘Niagara’ & Political Power

  1. can you tell me if i can get a dvd that plays in the uk of the niagara and where i can get one from please ,thanks pam

    • Hi pamela,
      I do not know of any DVDs that can play in the UK with the Niagara featured. There may be, but in my research, I have not come across any. Even in the US, there is very little footage of the Niagara. Although historians and enthusiasts pay high tribute to my own favorite American locomotive– the
      Niagara, there is very little film footage. If you bought an “all-region” DVD player, perhaps you could enjoy the American DVDs. The following have the best footage and information I know of thus far: “Niagara’s Last Stand” by Herron Video. “Reflections of the New York Central” by Herron Rail (this is a DVD-R, not a commercial DVD); and “New York Central Collection Combo” by Pentrex Video. There are other videos that have one or two Niagara’s in them but the ones I’ve mentioned here have good amounts of footage and tribute. I hope this may help for now 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s