I guarantee that you won’t read Classic American Locomotives at one sitting, chances are, you’ll put it on the shelf and walk away for a month or two or more. To give you some idea of the style in which it’s written, Charles McShane’s other runaway best seller was titled; One Thousand Pointers for Machinist and Apprentice Boys. All that having been said, if you have an interest in steam locomotives, you will find yourself going back. There’s just too much information packed into the 695 pages of this book not to.
As McShane states in the Preface to the 1899 edition, the book was written for “the railway public”. It was intended to serve as a shop manual and introduction to the trade for the upcoming apprentice, not to entertain the casual reader. What the twenty first century reader will get, is a glimpse out the window of a railroad shop superintendent’s office at the work in progress on the floor below. I suspect that the window belongs to Mr. McShane but that’s just conjecture. He seems to be a man who left no biographical information behind. That he was an accomplished machinist is not in question. An early edition of One Thousand Pointers that I found at books.google.com carries an endorsement from the “Progressive Lodge No. 126, International Association of Machinist. Chicago, Ill.” of which, he was a member. Beyond that testimonial, I’ve not found anything about him, not even which railroad he worked for. I believe he must have occupied some management level position because his general knowledge of railroad operations seems too broad for someone occupied with operating a lathe or milling machine all day.
A quick look at the Table of Contents gives a sampling of subjects covered in this book. After a very brief history of the locomotive, he jumps into the heart of the steam engine, the slide valve. Topics covered include; how the valve works, it’s construction, the various types of slide valves, lead, lap, cut-off and how to set the locomotive’s valves. Next up, link motion followed by steam injectors, lubricators, steam and air gauges, metallic packing and the ever popular, locating blows and pounds. There’s more: compound engines are covered in detail from the bewildering array of compound engine design to how they work. A section titled Combustion covers the elements that control the production of heat from the fire box until the exhaust exits the smokestack. Devices and methods for cleaning the boiler are explained in a section titled Incrustation. If you have a question about the operation or maintenance of a steam locomotive from the late 19th century it’s probably addressed in this book.
I could go on with the list of subjects he covers but I’ll leave that for you to discover. Few people today realize how labor intensive the operation of a railroad was in the age of steam. If you read this book you will have a better appreciation for what went on inside the round houses and shops that dotted the countryside every few hundred miles. You will also appreciate why railroad management so eagerly embraced diesel technology when it became available.
This reissue of Classic American Locomotives is presented by Skyhorse Publishing www.skyhorsepublishing.com . It can be ordered at a number of places online including my personal favorite source for such items, Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller Company, where at a catalog price of $5.95 plus shipping that I paid for it, I think it really is a bargain history book.