Late 19th Century Railroad Resources

A collection assembled by David Emery with contributions from the EarlyRail group.

Here's a list of useful links, books, etc for anyone interested in railroading (prototype or modeling) the period from approximately 1880 to about 1900 or so.

Yahoo Groups

There are a couple of Yahoo groups that are essential sources for this period:

There's also a group for the American Civil War period, and another looking at 1914-1940 era And, of course, just about every railroad has its own historical discussion group. I find the V&T Modelers 1869 (Original V&T) and Colorado Midland groups particularly useful. There are also groups for a lot of railroad industries. Yahoo provides a relevant collection of railroad related groups.

Kit Makers

Books (reprints, Google books, historical volumes etc)

New books or reprints

Note: Links to Amazon are provided for bibliographic information. You can find a lot of these books, if they're out of print, on eBay. Shop around! John H. White is the authoritative author on this period. His books are required reading.

The next set of must-have books are the Car Builders Dictionary. Various editions have been reprinted and you can find them on eBay or used book stores. Some are also available for download from Google Books. There are editions from 1879, 1888 and 1906 (covers both brand new cars and older cars.)

There are also locomotive books in the same general series, again some have been reprinted. Recent Locomotives of 1888 has been reprinted twice, the second time in an 'expanded edition' that includes the ads. There's also an 1883 version that I do not believe has been reprinted. The Locomotive Dictionary of 1906 was reprinted and can be found on eBay and used book dealers. Other books worth considering that are relatively easy to find:

Newton K. Gregg did a series of reprints under the name of "Train Shed Cyclopedia". There were about 100 of these, mostly on 20th century topics. However, over 5 volumes they reprinted Buildings & Structures of American Railroads from 1893. (I have an original of that volume, and the Gregg reprints are quite nice copies...) It's hard to find all 5 volumes, but worth it.

Most railroad histories cover the 19th century (of course, a history of the Penn Central would be an exception :-). There are specific 19th century volumes for the DL&W (Taber), the Reading (Holton), Central Vermont (Jones).

Al Westerfield provides reprints of the ORER (Official Railway Equipment Register). These were published periodically to provide information to railroads, shippers, car auditors, etc (and usually tossed when the next copy came out). ORER and related CDs

Historical Books (not reprinted)

One of the most interesting sets of books that you can find on eBay are the series of volumes associated with correspondence schools used by railroad men to get promoted. In particular, Marshall Kirkman had a series called "The Science of Railways" that was put out about every 2 or 3 years in a new edition. A set ran about 10-15 volumes, and you can look for individual volumes or complete sets on eBay.

In the 19th century most states had Railroad Commissioners that issued annual reports with information on railroads charted in their states. These usually include accident reports (scary reading!), reports on new construction, condition of roadbed, and often information on rolling stock. They show up on eBay at usually a reasonable price.

One of the best historical books I have is George Vose' Manual for Railroad Engineers of 1879. Apparently this has been reprinted by Kissinger Press, but I don't know if this reprint includes the pull-out pages of bridge trusses, locomotive cross-sections, etc, that make this book such a treasure.

Another source of great info are the 19th century professional societies, such as Master Car Builders I have some volumes of their Proceedings, and a lot of these are available on Google Books.

Google Books

Google books is turning into an amazing resource as libraries contribute their reference materials. Other sources include and I need help collecting Google Book and other on-line links, please send contributions to David Emery or add them to the Links section of the EarlyRail Yahoo Group

Photo and other Archives

Searchable Photo Archives

A lot of state/county/city historical societies have on-line/searchable photo collections. There's a great collection of railroad history archive links on the UCONN site:

Other Photo Sources

Another great source are the Arcadia Publishing "Images of America" historical photo collection books. Now these are mostly focused on locations (but there are some interesting volumes on railroads, including one on the Boston & Maine in the 19th century.) It's worth checking out books for the area you are interested in modeling.

Museum collections

The NMRA's Kalmbach Library and major railroad museums (Pennsylvania Railroad Museum Library and Archives, Colorado Railroad Museum Richardson Library and California State Railroad Museum Library & Collections) have extensive collections with varying degrees of on-line access. However, a visit to one of these collections would be invaluable. Best to contact them for hours, and enquire about photocopying or photographing rules. (The state of digital cameras these days means that often the best thing to do is take photos of the books/pages you're interested in, but practice this at home first.)

Civil Engineering (bridges and structures)

The Sanborn Map collection provided by ProQuest is a real treasure trove. The on-line collection has black-and-white scans of many of the maps, and you can usually find the username/password through a Google search. A couple of things to note about Sanborn maps:
  1. They were actually done in color, so you lose some information viewing them in black-and-white.
  2. Track plans, in particular, are not guaranteed to be accurate, since Sanborn was interested in structures and not track. Furthermore, Sanborn inspectors might update structure information but not trackplan information, so there's no guarantee that a well-detailed track plan on a given map with a given date is correct for that date.
Still, they're the best things going to get a sense of how 19th century towns were laid out, and often the only resource for a given area. Some universities, and of course the Library of Congress/National Archives, have originals or color copies of Sanborn books, so keep that in mind if you need information you can't find on the on-line versions.

Last, but most certainly not least from a modeler's perspective, is the treasure trove of the "HAER", the Historic American Engineering Record. This is a division of the Library of Congress that contains photographs, drawings/blueprints and narrative sheets for a huge number of historic buildings across the USA. These vary in quality from a single photograph and caption, to 50 or more photographs, 10 drawings and 20 page descriptions of a single structure.

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Copyright (c) 2009 by David Emery. This page provided under the a Creative Commons License, allowing others to share and adapt this information for non-commmercial use.
Last modified: Sat Dec 12 15:26:35 EST 2009