(A Nice Idea, But...)
by Robert Tomaine
Anyone moderately familiar with the Delaware & Hudson recognizes the name Ararat. It's been a few years since a train struggled its way up the grade, but the mountain is legendary in D&H lore, as are the photographs of coal trains crawling the 19 miles out of Carbondale.
The D&H was far from unique among anthracite railroads in facing a major grade. The New York Ontario & Western also climbed out of Carbondale, its tracks running parallel to the D&H on the opposite side of the Lackawanna River, diverging at a point near Stillwater Reservoir. The Delaware Lackawanna & Western fought to get out of Scranton not only heading for Binghamton, but also toward Hoboken. Even the Erie, whose Wyoming Division served Scranton and Wilkes-Barre (and whose Jefferson Division was the line the D&H used over Ararat) found it wasn't easy going.
The D&H's approach was to use lots of power to get its coal trains over the mountain, and there are numerous dramatic photos of kickers, pushers, and doubleheaded steam power up front, not to mention the later shots of strings of Centuries giving off clouds of black smoke.
Of course, the D&H was always willing to innovate. There were, for example, experimental steam locomotives such as the Horatio Allen, the L. F. Loree, the John B. Jervis, and the James Archbald, which followed in the tradition of the D&H Canal Company's first experiment with locomotives, the Stourbridge Lion. Innovation was, in fact, virtually routine on the D&H, right up into the 1970's, when a group of RS3's became "RS3u's", not to mention the fact that, by that time, it was the only railroad with a set of PA's and a set of RF16's.
But those are the better known experiments, and what's surprising is that, for a railroad as photographed and studied as the D&H, very little documentation exists on one of its more bizarre attempts at conquering the hill.
In late 1945, Thurmond Lacey, Jr. was recovering from injuries sustained when the B17 he was flying was shot down over Germany. Lacey had been a D&H engineer, and his convalescence gave him time to ponder the job he would return to. One part of that job, however, had always bothered him, and that was the difficulty of getting over Ararat. The use of doubleheaded steam was a pain, he felt, not to mention the pushers and kickers.
He knew diesels were going to displace steam, but even that didn't make a lot of difference, since diesels by comparison weren't all that powerful. In fact, he believed that the use of diesels might be even worse, since one heavy train would require quite a few of the units to cross the mountain.
Lacey was a thinker, and he couldn't help contemplating something he had seen in his missions over Germany, the Messerschmitt Me262. He had been astounded by the jet-engined Nazi fighter plane and its incredible, seemingly effortless power. Somehow, he reasoned, there was a lesson that could be applied to the D&H.
When Lacey recovered and returned to the railroad, he very cautiously discussed the idea with his superiors, who at first dismissed him but soon became interested. After all, here was something small (at least compared to railroad equipment) and powerful, and the company was quick to realize that maybe the idea could indeed be adapted for railroad use and made practical.
The first step was, to be polite, unsuccessful. Through circumstances which have never been fully explained, the D&H acquired two Me262's, and carefully hid them in the Carbondale roundhouse. The engines were removed and one was mounted on a caboose. Looking back now, it's easy to see that the mistake was the use of a wooden caboose.
Late on the evening of March 31, 1947, the caboose (numbered, amusingly, 262) was gently pulled out of the roundhouse and tied to the rear of an Oneonta-bound coal drag. Shortly after midnight, the train got underway with two locomotives on the head end and no pusher. As soon as it was on the main, the caboose booster was cut in, and the engine crew, with Lacey at the throttle, immediately felt the push. He was elated, but it wasn't to last.
Not long after the caboose passed the Forest City station, the train went into emergency. Assuming it had derailed somewhere within its 150 or so cars, Lacey and his fireman began to walk back toward the rear of the train. Unfortunately, they found that the exhaust from the jet engine had ignited the caboose, which was now little more than a pair of melted trucks. The brakeman and conductor had jumped off in Simpson.
Lacey, however, was not one to give up. His next concept was to mount one of the remaining jet engines on a steel caboose, taking the precaution of installing a heat shield. The design took months and, after careful installation, a year and a day later the second attempt was made.
This time, it was more successful, and the crew made Oneonta in record time, with just one slight problem. The weather was unseasonably warm and dry, and the jet had ignited a number of brush fires along the way. Nevertheless, Lacey's idea had worked, and management was pleased at the thought of not having to use pushers. Even the fact that the company had to acquire an Ahrens Fox fire truck equipped with hyrails to follow every coal drag didn't outweigh the advantages.
The Laceybooster, as it was now known, became the standard caboose on every coal drag. It also attracted the attention of other railroads. The Erie borrowed one to try it out on its Wyoming Division, but ran into a problem when it wouldn't clear a bridge at Kimbles. It was ignominiously shoved into a siding at the nearby Pennsylvania Power & Light Company hydroelectric plant and retrieved the following day for return to the D&H.
Even the O&W managed to get its hands on one, although by default. Since the O&W paralleled the D&H through the Lackawanna Valley and interchanged with it at Sidney, on rare occasions a train from one railroad ran over the other's
tracks. Following a 1951 derailment near Herrick Center, D&H traffic was temporarily routed over the O&W. At least two of those trains used Laceyboosters and the O&W liked them. Unfortunately, its financial condition precluded any purchases, although it did manage to borrow one from the D&H once in a while.
In 1955, however, tragedy struck. A young railfan was standing with his cocker spaniel on an overpass after having photographed the locomotives of a Laceybooster-equipped coal train, and was simply watching the rest of it go by. He felt the heat of the blast from the jet exhaust and moved to the side of the bridge, but the spaniel unaccountably remained. The spaniel's fur was severely singed, so much so the poor pup looked more like a chihuahua after the mishap. The incident generated a good amount of sympathy among the train crews who had frequently waved to "the friendly youngster with his dog". The crew of the coal drag noted the boy was not trespassing, but was on public property.
D&H management and labor alike were deeply saddened by the incident, even though the dog eventually recovered. However, the thought of much more serious consequences led to the decision to take the Laceyboosters out of service, although the D&H did retain some for use as snow-melters. While they were indeed put to that use -- and could easily clear a swath 90 to 100 feet wide -- maintenance became more and more difficult as Messerschmitt was unable to supply replacement parts for the aging jets, and they were quietly taken out of service and scrapped in 1966.
One final point that bears mentioning is that the New York Central also experimented with jet engine power. That occurred in July of that same year, when RDC M-497 was tested at speeds of more than 180 miles per hour in rural Ohio.
The test, like the regular day-to-day service of the Laceybooster,
was a success, but it really didn't prove anything. There was, it would seem,
no good reason for a jet-powered train.
[Ed. Note: After all, folks, it is April...]