COBWEB CORNERS: Palmer’s early railroad days

By Mel McFarland

       As a boy fresh off the farm, William Palmer had served a surveyor's apprenticeship with the Hempfield Railroad in western Pennsylvania in 1853. He became acquainted with J. Edgar Thomson, general surveyor for the Pennsylvania Central. In 1855 he was sent to England and France studying railroads and coal mines. Upon his return to the United States in 1856, be went to work for Westmoreland Coal. In 1857 he joined Thomson at the Pennsylvania Railroad, as his personal secretary. He was assigned to a company-sponsored evaluation program. At the time, steam locomotives primarily used wood as fuel. With an abundance of coal available in the state, could steam locomotives use it? Palmer spent considerable time on the project. The development of coal as locomotive fuel in America centered around the results of his findings.
       On November 7, 1870, Palmer married Queen Mellen, and they sailed to England. Palmer had already seen various small railway lines in Wales and thought they might be workable in Colorado's mountains.
       Palmer and his friend, William Bell, sought out information on the Welsh narrow gauge railroads. George E. Spooner, enterprising owner of the Festiniog Railway, invited them to examine his operation. Palmer made extensive notes on the equipment and operation of the little line. He felt the Welsh gauge was too narrow, but perhaps something about twice the size would do better. Palmer and Bell sought a meeting with Robert F. Fairlie. He was one of England's most vocal proponents of the worldwide use of narrow gauge. Palmer and Bell were granted a meeting. He introduced them to a proposal he was about to send to India that was quite similar to what they had in mind. The two were convinced, largely by Fairlie's influence, that narrow gauge would be the most practical in Colorado's unpredictable terrain. The line would bring to America a novel railroading system: a slightly wider gauge than they were using that should be able to negotiate mountain curves and slopes. It would carry higher loading than the Welsh trains. It definitely would be less expensive, as well as quicker to build than the wider (standard) gauge.
       It would bring to the United States an idea as revolutionary as when Palmer wrote a book about using coal in steam engines! Next time a bit more on the subject.