Home  

A LITTLE JOURNEY THROUGH THE AIR
St. Nicholas Magazine—1902

By KATHARINE MORGAN CROOKS.

WHEN I was small I often heard my elders tell what a great invention a railway with wooden tracks, on which cars were drawn by horses, had seemed to them when they were young. Nowadays we are so used to the wonders of mechanics that the most extraordinary methods of journeying appear as matters of course to us. Those of you who have been in London have probably gone from one part to another on the "Tuppenny Tube," the electric railway deep in the earth, which winds its way like a long snake beneath London. It is built with two single-track tunnels; each tunnel, when you peer into it from an underground station, looks like a big tube, and is not much higher or wider than the train. From its shape and the fare, which is twopence (familiarly "tuppence"), comes the nickname Tuppenny Tube.

Many of you have looked down into the deep cuts in New York where men are digging and blasting for a railway under the city; and most of you are familiar with railways which, instead of burrowing in the ground, go on supports through the air. A railway through the air is now a prosaic, every-day affair. But there is one form of elevated-railway travel to which we have not yet accustomed ourselves and which does seem odd. This is an elevated railway where the car, instead of running on the track, hangs from it. I took a little trip one day last summer on the only railway of this kind in the world.

There flows in Germany, not far from the Rhine, a narrow winding river called the Wupper. On this river, about twenty-seven miles from the old city of Cologne, are two busy towns, Elberfeld and Barmen. About where Elberfeld ends Barmen begins, so that together they have a length of from six to eight miles. The factories and houses of both line the two sides of the little river, fill the narrow valley, and climb the hills which begin close beside the river's banks. I took a walk in Barmen up one of these hilly streets, and met an electric street car on its way down. The car ran on a cog wheel railway, so you may imagine how steep the road was. Although the odd kind of elevated railway of which we have spoken is called the Elberfeld - Barmen Suspension Railway, the Barmen end was not all finished at that time. It was, therefore, in Elberfeld that I mounted the steps to a station not quite fifteen feet above-ground, and paid five cents for a first-class trip to the end of the route.

In the station, as you may see by the picture, a stout iron netting is stretched for security between the two platforms, and apparently there are tracks. In reality what one sees are supports on which a car rests as the passengers get in and out, to prevent its tipping. Each car runs alone, like a street-car, and is much like a streetcar in appearance. The ends, however, instead of being square, taper slightly, something like a kite, and there is no open platform. Perhaps you would be interested to know something more of these cars. With all its belongings a car weighs about twelve tons; it is about thirty-eight feet long, over eight feet high, and nearly seven feet wide, is divided by a glass door into two compartments for first and second class passengers, and can seat fifty persons. The trucks for the wheels—and this is the curious part—are above the car, as you see, instead of below. There are two of them, one to the front and one to the back of the car; each has two wheels, one behind the other, so that the car seems to hang from the top edge of one side. The electricity is supplied to a motor for each truck by means of a contact-rail running beside the rail on which the wheels rest. When the railway is finished a car will run the whole route of eight and a quarter miles, including stops at many stations, in twenty-five minutes.

Now that we understand something about it, we enter by the door at the side of the car, first passing through the little gangway from the platform. The door is locked after us, and without noise or jar the car starts. The windows are large, and there is a glass door at each end besides those on the side of entry; a platform to the front, on which the motorman stands, is also inclosed in glass, so that one can see forward and backward as well as to the sides. The railway, which was opened March 1, 1901, has now been running sixteen months. In the beginning the townspeople, who get on and off every few minutes at a station, were curious about the railway; so many thousands scrambled to be among the first to ride through the air that the traffic had often to be suspended. Once, as a German newspaper solemnly announced, in the station shown in the first picture a car window was actually broken—whereupon the police were hurriedly called in, and they ordered the road closed for the day!

For a long way the car travels over the river between the rows of houses and factories. You can see how it looks from the picture of the structure as it straddles the stream. Here the supports look like big A's with very slanting sides and square tops; over dry land, as you see by the last picture, the supports to the railway are like big U's upside down. The Wupper is a narrow, dirty stream of many colors, like Joseph's coat, for the refuse of the dye and chemical works which line its sides give it more hues than has the rainbow. While passing above, you look down on a stream that is, by turns, yellow, brown, magenta, and many other shades, but never a natural water-color.

Standing in the car, it is necessary to steady one's self; altogether, though, there is very little jarring, and one feels like a bird looking down in this fashion on the world. This is especially the case when the car finally quits the river and travels over the road toward Vohwinkel, as the highway is lined on both sides by fine trees.

When I was a little girl and firmly believed every word of the "Arabian Nights," I used to sigh for a magic horse which would soar through the air without spilling me off. That horse, I feel, will never appear; but perhaps a substitute for him might be found in the magic coach in which one seems to float, during this part of the route, through a green bower. The illusion is heightened by the noiseless flitting-by of cars traveling the other way. There is nothing picturesque in the New York elevated railway, as all of you who live near that city know, excepting sometimes at sunset in the spring when a brightly lighted train, pictured against a glowing sky, flies past the opening of a cross-street, and the chance observer catches at the same time the shimmer of the river beyond. Novelty and nature, however, throw a charm over a large part of the route of the Suspension Railway. The scheme of building it as far as possible over the Wupper probably arose from the desire to have direct and speedy communication between the two ends of the sister towns without going uphill and down dale. Certainly the matter was long and carefully pondered before this form of an elevated road, the invention of an engineer in Cologne named Eugene Langen, was decided upon. So successful has the experiment proved that, as the conductor tells with much importance, there is talk of extending the railway to Cologne.

Now the German railway man is even less willing to answer questions than his American mate; and, just as local pride makes this one communicative, the magic coach comes to a sudden standstill. The Vohwinkel terminus has been reached in eighteen minutes after leaving the station in Elberfeld, which lies across the way from the ordinary railway station.

When, all aglow with the adventures of the day, I sought, on return to the pretty town from which I had gone, to narrate these experiences to the good Germans who had suggested the trip, they shook their heads and said: "So you really tried it, did you? Perhaps you don't realize what a dangerous river the Wupper is. Did you know that the refuse from the factories has made mud at the bottom twelve feet deep, and nothing that falls into it is ever found?"


Oddities & Curiousities | Contents Page

Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery