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RR History Database


Last updated: 10/17/98


The purpose of this Website is to provide information, invite participation and seek comments about a project which its owner believes should be of lasting value to the railroad history community. This project is to record the history of the US railroad network in one comprehensive database. Briefly, such a database would aim at providing immediate access to the history, both operating and corporate, of any segment of the US railroad network. The owner of this site is engaged in a pilot project to develop the concept. This site will be updated frequently to reflect the status of the project.

NOTE: This is the first update to the site in over two years. Most of this period saw little tangible progress on the database itself, although a digital all-time RR map of the entire US was prepared. Other efforts went largely into the collection of research data. Then, in July, 1998, major impetus was given to the project by the acceptance of an offer to make a presention to the October meeting of the Lexington Group in Chicago. This presentation was given on October 8, made possible by the loan of a video projector provided by Dan Dawdy, our host on Intensive development effort was applied to developing a tie-in between the digital map and the southern New England database which had been earlier prepared, and the result, now named the DENRAH Project (DIgital Encyclopedia of RAilroad History) provides an illustration of the potential of computer graphics techniques for the presentation of railroad history. Below the DENRAH Project description is most of the material on the original website, with updating.

Research Questions:-

We've received a number of inquiries asking questiona about railroad history. While we have been responding to the best of our ability, a much more knowlegable source is the Railroad Historical Research Center., which makes no charge for its service. One outgrowth of this project has been the compilation of a Railroad Historical Society Index. For future location of sources of information about the major railroad systems, it was felt that it would be useful to be able to identify for each major railroad of the 1930-1950 era which society or societies, if any, exist.

The DENRAH Project:-

The following is a brief description, with a partial illustration of system features, which was used as a handout at the presentation demonstration the system to the Lexington Group in Chicago, IL, on Oct. 8, 1998. A detailed description is in DENRAH Detailed Description. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A Digital ENcyclopedia of RAilroad History

The DENRAH project is an effort to demonstrate the potential of computer technology for the portrayal of railroad history, with an emphasis on historical geography. Computer display techniques allow for composition of maps and display of text quickly on demand, providing a flexibility for presentation beyond that achievable in print media.

At DENRAH's present state of development, it contains a national map of all-time US railroad routes, backed up by a historical data file covering southern New England only. The map can be displayed at a wide range of scales. For the area covered by the historical file, the map can portray rail lines as of any year from 1834 to 1969, and a variety of features permit highlighting the routes of any railroad company, listing operating companies, showing the chronology of any route, and displaying narrative text pertaining to selected routes.

The design approach is intended to facilitate interchange of data with others who may have done work along similar lines, who would be interested in sharing data, or cooperating toward extending the geographic range of the data. DENRAH is not intended to become a proprietary product.

DENRAH Example

We would like to hear from anyone who wishes to keep in touch with further progress, would be interested in further details, knows of any similar efforts elsewhere, would be interested in affiliating with the project in any way, or has any advice to offer.

Write to: Adrian Ettlinger, 7 Lefurgy Ave., Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706 / 914-478-2020 />

or: Walter Joyce, Market St., PO Box 7, Chelsea, NY 12512-0007 / 914-831-4985 /

10/1/98 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For a further summary of DENRAH's features, see the DENRAH Detailed Description

Progress to date:-

The initial effort on the project was the history database, in which each record represents a span of time for a given point-to-point line of railroad during which that segment had constant attributes. This database is keyed to a second database which is a station index that serves as a geographic description of the railroad network, in which each station is identified by the major system which operated it in modern times, an arbitrary serial number identifying the route, and its mileage position on the route, plus its latitude and longitude coordinates. This database system has reached a state of virtual completeness for all the rail lines in southern New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island), and comprises over 1900 records.

The next major element completed was a full US map of rail lines, including all lines which have existed since the 1920's. More details under "Two Mapping Projects".

The DENRAH Project, begun in July, 1998, comprised a tie-in of the history database and the map file so that the map could be used as a selection tool to access the history of any route, and also for display of the status of the rail network at any point in time.

Magnitude of task:-

The reader may have an initial impression that the magnitude of the project will be monumental, and this was the author's apprehension before starting the pilot project. The work to date, however, has gone at an encouraging pace. The southern New England files compiled to date were done over the space of two months, part time, consuming no more that 50-80 hours of accumulated time.

Immediate further objectives:-

The project continues to accumulate research material to extend the geographic coverage of the database. It is hoped that railfans with access to the source information for the various railroad systems and regions of the country will be willing to contribute to this effort. The site owner foresees contributing to the effort by coordinating the assembly of the material and filling in data for areas not otherwise covered.

Once data entry was commenced for areas for which there was not available as efficient a data source as was available for southern New England, it was realized that a more efficient data entry process needed to be designed, and work is continuing in that direction.

The site owner's next immediate geographic area of interest will be southeastern New York state and New Jersey.

Personal note from the site owner:-

We'll shift style here to the first person singular, to describe the background and "where we're coming from". I retired about three years ago from my mainstream career as a software engineer. I'd been a casual railfan, as well as a general history and geography buff, for many years. I started a software hobby project whose intent initially was to create animated historical map presentations, at first creating a time-scale sequence of the development of US political boundaries. From there I went on, at first experimentally, to do the same for the county boundary history of each state, and found that the pace of the research and file composition got me through all 48 contiguous states in about a year's time. Along the way it developed that this kind of information is very helpful to some genealogists, and the hobby grew into a small business, in partnership with Art Lassagne, ("The Gold Bug"), who'd had a business for many years selling historic map reproductions in the genealogy market. The product name is AniMap. Art and I also developed another product called Sitefinder, which is a database of place names. Sitefinder has proven of help in the railroad database project, by providing a look-up source for geographic coordinates of railroad stations. We'd reached a point with the genealogy products now where I was able to carry on further enhancements and maintenance using only a fraction of my time, so I'm now focusing my attention on an earlier "true love", railroad history.

One of the last projects for AniMap was the construction of a set of overlay maps of railroad lines, which users can superimpose on the county boundary maps. To create these maps, I became acquainted with and learned how to manipulate the USGS "Digital LIne Graph" data, from which it is possible to plot the railroad network as it was ca. 1970. To fill in lines abandoned prior to that time, I recently went through all the states and drew in the otherwise missing lines from a 1930-era atlas.

From the time of starting work on AniMap, it had occurred to me that it would be fascinating to be able to see a time-scale animated sequence of the expansion of the US railroad network, and I constructed the overlay maps with the idea that they could be a foundation for state-by-state historical railroad development sequences. An essential aid to the composition of such sequences is a chronological listing of railroad line openings, which I started to compile experimentally for southern New England, and which led to a realization that the resulting database really ought to be pursued as an end in itself, and once perfected could eventually be used to generate the animated map sequences automatically.

Expansion of database:-

The initial pilot version of the database was compiled for southern New England because of the availability of a very useful reference for the purpose, Ronald Dale Karr's "The Rail Lines of Southern New England". This work provides complete coverage of the operating history of all lines in the region, but touches only lightly on corporate history. Since corporate history can be readily traced in Poor's manuals, a work such as Karr's in essence provides the part of the story most difficult to research.

The least time-consuming approach to extending the database will doubtless be to use secondary sources. Searching through Poor's and Official Guides is hardly likely to be as efficient. The most ideal form of secondary source is the state-wide compendium, which unfortunately have been done for only a few states. It is likely that much of the compilation will need to be done by working through histories of individual railroad systems, scanning for dates and recording events as they occur This will inevitably, for most states, leave behind a "mop-up" phase of tracking down independent short lines not otherwise documented.

The site owner's library happens to include system histories for the major systems in New York state, and he intends, if no better source turns up, to extend the coverage from such sources to that area. He is also seeking to add any state-wide surveys he finds to his library, but does not feel the investment in a full set of system histories is feasible. While he is in easy commuting distance of the New York Public Library, whose holdings are excellent for this purpose, he is not in a position to make more than an occasional trip there when needed to fill in selected areas.


Comments are much to be desired from any and all who find this project of interest, including the following:

1. First and foremost, anyone who may have had a similar notion and may have begun work in this direction. If there are any such, let's get together to coordinate our formats and exchange notes so as not to duplicate each other's efforts.

2. Next, anyone who can find the time to compile portions of the database for other regions or railroad systems.

3. Anyone who would have use for the database, either for its present limited region or when coverage is expanded.

4. Anyone with suggestions of any nature (data format, how best to proceed, etc.)

5. Anyone with knowledge of statewide compilations from obscure sources of which copies might be purchased, or in possession of unpublished compilations.

Reply to Adrian Ettlinger, E-mail:

Thoughts on limitations:-

The main thrust of the project is intended to cover all common carrier railroads that ever handled interchange freight. Beyond that, various categories on the fringes of the main base would be:

1. Lines chartered but never built. Could be included where listings are readily available from state-wide compilations.

2. Private logging and mining railroads. As with the above category, might be included where data is readily accessible.

3. Interurbans. Not necessarily part of the mainstream project, with the possible exception of lines that survived through the 1930's and became freight common carriers, usually later de-electrified (example, Illinois Terminal). here is, however, an excellent comprehensive source on this subject, Hilton & Due's "The Electric Interurban in America", and if a volunteer wishes to go through it and add to the database, this would certainly be welcome.

4. Time domain. The prime objective is to concentrate on the growth phase of the US railroad system, and avoid diluting the main effort by devoting time and energy to the declining phase, or toupdating continually to the present time. The earliest cut-off date might be on the order of 1950 or so. In the pilot file, it was arbitrarily decided to cut off New Haven and Boston & Albany lines at the Penn Central date of 1969, and Boston & Maine lines at the Guilford date of 1983. As an overview, it is considered that the 1930's and 1940's were a period of stability in the geography of the major systems, of which the first event that started the consolidation period was the absorption of the Pere Marquette by the Chesapeake & Ohio. This was followed not long afterward by the demise of the New York, Ontario & Western and the Rutland. Our interest is to concentrate primarily in recording the history through this period only.

The above restrictions represent the personal interests of the site owner, but no material which anyone may wish to prepare that is outside these boundaries will be excluded, even though it may generate an uneven pattern of completion in some categories. Such entries could serve as a foundation on which future contributors could build.


The site owner has no fixed ideas on how the database will ultimately be distributed, and does not intend it for commercial exploitation. Needless to say, anyone making a significant contribution will be entitled to copies. Eventually, it could be an objective to make it fully available via Internet, but some sort of subsidy for the cost would be needed, as the size of the map files alone approaches 40 mBytes, and historical data for the entire country is likely to at least double that.

Two Mapping Projects:-

As described above, one of our earlier goals had been to construct a presentation of animated maps showing historical railroad route development. It was a pleasant surprise to hear from Eric DeRivera of West Boylston, MA, that he'd had the same idea and had composed a complete set of graphics files showing year-by-year railroad development for New England up to 1930. Eric's files were prepared in an AutoCad vector-based format, which is not very suitable for animated presentation. He sent us his files, and we were able to devise an efficient conversion process to copy them into our AniMap format, and we now have AniMap files representing all of Eric's work. We then extended the sequence to show the declining phase of railroad mileage up to 1994, using information in Karr's LOST RAILROADS OF NEW ENGLAND, which presents a chronological list of all New England railroad abandonments up to that date, ideal for our purposes. Thus the complete history of New England's railroads from 1834 to 1994 can be viewed in three separate regions in an animated fashion. These files can be purchased for viewing on AniMap from The Gold Bug.

The second mapping project became part of the DENRAH Project. During the latter part of 1996 and into 1997, a full-US "nearly-all-time" map file was assembled. Most of the routes depicted were drawn from USGS-published "Digital Line Graph" data, which includes railroads in operation as of the early 1970's. This was supplemented by hand-drawn data copied from a atlas published in 1929, to add lines abandoned in the period from the 1920's to the 1970's. Thus, this map is "nearly" all-time in that it lacks any routes abandoned prior to the 1920's. This map is in a format so that it can be displayed at a wide range of scales and used to select a route whose history is to be displayed.


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