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Museum Receives Third Rail

Do not be alarmed. The museum has no intention of installing third rail to power its elevated and subway car collection. We did, however, recently receive some rare artifacts pertaining to two forms of New Haven Railroad electrification.

The New Haven's pioneering 11,000 volt, 25-cycle A.C. electrification made headlines when it opened in 1907 from New York to Stamford. The unusual triangular catenary with its oscillating cross-section was a familiar sight along the right-of-way for ninety years. The railroad, now Metro-North, is undertaking to replace all remaining sections of this original catenary, which has difficulty in extremely hot or cold weather. The New Haven R.R. recognized this defect soon after opening and used a different design on the extension of electrification from Stamford to New Haven in 1914.
Section of original New Haven catenary. J. Hakner

Jack Swanberg, a historian of the New Haven R.R. and a member of the museum, arranged for the donation of a small segment of triangular catenary to the museum. Mr. Swanberg's commentary on catenary was featured in the Connecticut section of the Sunday May 20th edition of the New York Times.

A decade before the high-voltage A.C. main line electrification, The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had several low-voltage D.C. electrified lines featuring an unusual form of third rail. The railroad had a branch along Nantasket Beach, about 20 miles outside of Boston, with heavy summer riding. In 1895 the section from Nantasket Junction (where the line diverged from the Old Colony main line) to the northern terminus of the branch at Pemberton was electrified at 600 volts D.C. using trolley wire construction. The opening on June 30th was, by a day, the first electrification of a main line steam railroad (whereas lighter trolley lines had been using this form of power for nearly a decade). The railroad contracted with Colonel Nathan Heft, of the Bridgeport Traction Company, to perform the work.

The cars in use on the Nantasket Beach line were heavy open cars, having triple running boards, that pulled several trailers. They were equipped with heavy GE2000 motors (135 hp each) and type L ``coffee grinder'' series-parallel controllers. Because of the heavy current drawn, costs of the overhead transmission system were high.
Colonel Heft poses with railroad and General Electric officials at the controls of NY,NH&H RR open car 2510, during a trial of the 3rd rail in May 1895. President Charles Clark is behind him. General Electric photo, BERA Library, Charles Rufus Harte collection

In 1896, the electrification was extended along the main line towards Boston, from Nantasket Junction to Weymouth. This 3½ mile segment was the first American use of third rail on a main line railroad. The heavy third rail was better able to carry large currents than the much thinner overhead wire. Unlike third rail to which the reader may be accustomed, however, this installation placed the conductor rail in the center, much like a Lionel train. The rail was supported by blocks of wood which in turn rested on the ties. A gravity-type shoe suspended from the truck slid along the top of the A-shaped rail.

This low-lying, exposed third rail was surely dangerous. At stations, the third rail was discontinued. Overhead wire was provided to power the cars in the station and to allow them to pull out.

In 1898-1899, third-rail electrification of the main line continued from Weymouth to Braintree and on the southerly branch from Nantasket Junction to Cohasset.
Illustration from Scientific American shows the mounting of the third rail pickup shoe from the truck. J.W. Swanberg collection

Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, the main line from Hartford to New Britain and onward to Berlin, as well as the New Britain to Bristol branch, were electrified using the same A-shaped exposed third rail, between 1897 and 1898. Equipment was similar to that in use on the Nantasket Beach line, however, the third rail was continued through the stations and the cars were not equipped with poles.

Charles Mellen succeeded Charles Clark as president of the railroad in 1900. He did not share his predecessor's enthusiasm for D.C. electrification. Third rail on the Nantasket Beach branch was removed in 1902 because of technical difficulties. After the state legislature passed a law in 1905 banning third rail unless it could be properly protected (impossible with the center-running system), the railroad simply removed the third rail on the Hartford-New Britain-Berlin-Bristol lines and reverted to steam operation.

All of that fairly new third rail was not wasted, however. The New Haven R.R. bolted lengths of it head-to-head, creating an X-shaped structure known as an X-pole. These were used in various locations to support lights and overhead wires. Recently, Metro North donated to the museum a pair of these X-poles, thus finally bringing to a museum artifacts whose brief but pioneering careers over a hundred years ago might otherwise be lost to obscurity.
Two X-poles, each comprising two sections of A-shaped third rail bolted together, at the museum. J. Hakner

Thanks to member Jack W. Swanberg who provided most of the data for this article. Jack's book, New Haven Power 1838-1968, is a comprehensive look at all forms of locomotion on said railroad.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum
17 River Street
East Haven, CT 06512
(203) 467-6927

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Last Updated: /articles/ modified at Fri Jul 6 22:16:24 2001