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Danbury Railway Museum

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I had a chance to spend an afternoon at the Railway museum in Danbury, CT, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in trains or in American history. Trains have played a huge role in the building of America, and this museum is a great place to see some of how that happened. Of course the museum has its own web site, which you should check out:
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There is a lot to see on the inside part of the museum. Some historically accurate model train layouts for one, and an interlocking lever machine from 1905. Many other historic items as well as the flavor of an old station. I didn't spend as much time in the inside museum as i should have because I was eager to get outside and see the rolling stock. Click on either photo to enlarge
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The old Danbury station was restored in recent years and now serves as the museum and the gateway to the train yard where you can see the rolling stock close up. Start early. There is a lot to see. There is a classic 1950's American diner right across the street where you can have a great lunch. You can then return to the museum (on the same ticket) for the rest of the afternoon. One day is really not long enough to take it all in. I was there on a Saturday in May and was fortunate to be able to speak with the retired engineers who volunteer to explain things to visitors, and I learned a lot about the train history from them.
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old caboose
Above: The door and wooden floor of an early 20th Century caboose.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
Caboose brake
Old Caboose obersavation station

The Caboose

Danbury ha a number of caboose cars with three (might be four) open to visitors. The caboose is the railroad version of a motor home. Each caboose has benches that double as bunks for sleeping, a small kitchen, lockers, first aid kit, tool kit, water tank, space heater, and bathroom. This is where the conductor and others would hang out while the train was underway. The conductor's role on a train is similar to a captain's role abroad a ship, and the caboose is his office as well as observation station. The conductor would maintain a manifest or documentation of the freight being hauled. So the caboose has a desk for the conductor. The caboose cars are fascinating and would be well worth the trip even if the museum had no other exhibits. One of the restored cabooses (there is actually a debate as to what the plural of the word should be. Some say it should be "caboose" as in the plural for "moose," which is "moose.") … anyway, one of the restored caboose is from the early 1900's, and its accommodations are quite crude, including a pot belly stove for both space heat and heating a kettle for coffee.

A more modern caboose (photo at right) might have nice kitchen counter and sink with water tank above.

Every caboose has a small deck at each end with a door leading to the inside. In winter, you would want to keep the door closed to keep warm. On each deck is a wheel that controls the brake on the caboose wheels

At the center of the caboose on both sides is an observation deck about 5 ft. above floor level and typically placed over lockers. This is why a caboose has a raised section in the roof. It gives the conductor a perch on the left or right facing in either direction from which he can see the cars ahead. From this perch he can spot a possible problem such has a car with a loose wheel. In an older caboose (photo at left) the seat is a crude (perhaps padded) bench. In a more modern caboose (example at right) the seat may be a cushioned swivel chair, similar to a desk chair.
Above: The conductor's desk in a 1970 era caboose.
Below: the galley in the 1970 caboose
Click on any photo to enlarge.
caboose kitchenette
caboose observation
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Above: The main sorting area of the restored mail car at the Danbury Railway Museum. At right: a sorting station at one end of the car. Click on either photo to enlarge.

The Mail Car

A must-see and another exhibit, which by itself, would be more than worth the price of admission, is a beautifully restored 1930's U.S. Mail car. For about a century the bulk of U.S. mail moved across the country by rail. Specially designed mail cars where where the sorting took place. Large canvas bags of outbound mail would be picked up at one stop and get sorted into various destinations while the train was underway.
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Above: Postal workers in 1930's. Note the bars on the windows and the side arm on one guy's belt. In the days of bearer bonds and stock certificates, mail cars could be targets for robbery. Click on photo to enlarge.
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Above: Postal workers in 1965. Zip codes were not introduced until 1963. Even then this looks like an impossible job, especially with the train underway. In 1965 the price of a first class stamp was 5 cents… up from its 2-cent price which was in effect from 1883 until 1932. Click on photo to enlarge.
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Above: Mail cars had special doors designed for picking up and dropping off large bags of mail. In many cases the bags of mail would be on special hangers next the the track from which bags could be snagged from slowly moving mail cars as they passed by. Click on photo to enlarge.
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Steam Locomotive

A classic of a bygone era is on hand for close-up viewing. There is a staircase set up so visitors can climb in and see the locomotive from the engineer's point of view. The massive back end of the boiler with its mouth open as if demanding more coal and all the pipes and valves that control the works make you feel close to what it must have been like to drive a train in the early 20th Century. One thing that is striking is how limited the engineer's view is looking forward as he steams ahead along the track. Click on either image to enlarge.
Inside a steam locomotive
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A typical truck. Click on image to enlarge

The Railroad Truck

If you are curious at all about how trains work and how they are built, there is a lot to learn as you walk through the yard. And retired engineers are on hand to answer questions. The construction of a car, for example, is based on the "truck," which is the wheel assembly. They are not all exactly the same, but they are all based on the same concept. The axels are mounted into the side structure. The car rests on the cross beam, which in turn rests upon heavy springs to cushion what would otherwise be very a bumpy ride. Note the pin at the center of the cross beam. The chassis of the car sits on the pins of two trucks. The trucks are not otherwise attached to the car. This allows the trucks swivel as a train goes around a curve. Without this scheme, the train would derail on a curve. I was told that if you lifted the car with a crane, the trucks would still be sitting on the track. It is only the weight of the car that holds car structure and truck together.
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© 2019 Phil Dickinson
Middletown, RI 401-847-2020

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