Transportation LibraryTransportation_Library_Master.html

By Donal Hamilton Haines, '09

To the visiting alumnus—until such time as he begins to understand its full significance — the Transportation Library will probably appear a smaller and more highly specialized form of museum, full of diverting, old-fashioned pictures of antiquated locomotives and railway coaches, queer bridges over which it seems un-likely that any wheeled traffic ever passed, and advertisements in type, long since vanished from everyday use. describing events and conditions just as remote from present day notions of transportation.

But even while he regards it as no more than a repository of odd bits connected with the early and more recent science of moving people and things from place to place, he will find plenty to repay a lengthy visit, and if, during his loitering among its shelves, he is so fortunate as to encounter Professor Worley and to display an intelligent interest, drawers will be opened, locked doors flung wide and he will be shown many treasures which do not meet the eye of the casual visitor.

The opportunities for inspecting the library are far better today than they were a few years ago. During its first five years on the Campus, it led a strictly "unofficial" existence, and had to put up with the handicaps and inconveniences, which go with that state. Now it is adequately, if not commodiously, housed in the north-west corner of the East (new) Engineering Building,  opening off the main corridor on the main floor of that building. There has been provided shelf-room which gives space for a good deal of the present accumulation of books, pamphlets and so on, although this space is by no means sufficient to take care of the growth which it is hoped will take place in the collection during the next few years.

Thanks to its location, immediately adjoining the main corridor of the building, however, and to the highly decorative as well as historically interesting nature of many of the maps and pictures, which have been gathered, it has been possible to let some of this latter material overflow into the corridor.

Perhaps one of the first objects to catch the eye of the visitor is what appears to be a roughly – hewn chunk of weathered wood conspicuously displayed in one of the glass cases along the wall of the corridor. It appears so unassuming a "specimen" that the visitor is likely to peer more closely at the explanatory card pinned to its dingy surface, if only on the assumption that anything which looks so dull and uninteresting must have a history back of it to warrant its presence in such a place. The inference is justified, for the chunk of wood—which on closer inspection proves to have a strip of rusty iron on top of it—is nothing less than a piece of the original Michigan Central railroad, probably laid in 1839, exactly ninety years ago!

The fragment was found in the spring of last year by A. R. Bailey, county highway engineer, during the building of the new Huron River Drive, a road which now parallels the course of the Huron from a point on the Whitmore Lake Road just south of the bridge over the river and the Michigan Central tracks to the village of Dexter, passing all those points along the stream between Ann Arbor and the little up-river village which have been familiar to undergraduate canoeists for years.

Most former students will remember that along the west bank of the river between the Whitmore Lake bridge and the water-works there was a wooded path following the curve of the banks, much frequented by strolling students in the spring, and in an earlier and unregenerate day (alas!) the scene of numerous "keg-parties." There was about this path an air of having been built years ago and then, through misuse, allowed to become grass-grown. This was precisely the case, for the path ran along the top of what had been the original road-bed of the Michigan Central railroad, the line then following the sweep of the stream instead of taking the short-cut across the low land which it now follows.

When the work of making the new drive under Mr. Bailey's direction was begun, as the natural beauty of the road was to be preserved wherever possible, it was decided not merely to follow the line of the old railroad but to use the grass grown embankment as the base of the drive. To avoid too great destruction of the shrubbery along the sides of the road, the old embankment was flattened and the ballast for the new highway lay on top. In the course of these operations there was naturally a good deal of excavation, and Mr. Bailey,  who knew the possibilities, kept an open eye and instructed his workmen to do the same thing.

And yet the find, when it actually came, was almost accidental. Mr. Bailey had driven out one evening to inspect the progress of the work, and saw a queer looking billet of wood with a strip of metal attached to it sticking up in the loose dirt at the edge of the shrubbery along the road. Guessing what it might be, he left his car for a closer inspection and returned in triumph bearing the trophy with him.

The rail looks like a piece of thoroughly weathered "four-by-four" on which has been fastened a strip of strap-iron about half an inch in thickness and a little over an inch in width, running the whole length of the wood. This was the method of construction in the days of tiny, wood-burning locomotives and diminutive railway coaches not as large as a fair sized motor truck of the present day. The rails proper were simply long ribbons of the strap-iron set on the wooden runways.   There were no "ties" in the present sense of the word,  although of course there were cross-members at intervals for keeping the rails in place.

Laid alongside a section of modern "ninety-pound" rail, this relic looks so flimsy by comparison that it is hard to believe that even the lighter rolling stock of the last century could have run over it without reducing it to ruins in short order. Mr. Bailey is authority, however, for the statement that sturdy enough stuff went into the old rails. One end of the prize needed trimming when it was found, and he undertook the work with an ordinary saw, only to find that the stout oak which was set in place a hundred years ago was just as sound as far as resistance to the saw-teeth was concerned as when it was laid.

The exhibit is not quite complete, and the library authorities are now engaged in a search for a "find" of the old spikes and "plates," said to have been made by one of the laborers employed on the new road.

Another fragment of a somewhat different sort is not merely a further evidence of conditions in the world of transportation a hundred years ago (and a decidedly startling one into the bargain) but an answer to those scoffers who insist that highly specialized collections of any sort end by being accumulations of material of interest only to a very limited circle of cognoscenti and not to the general public. For Professor Worley unearthed from the musty pages of an old book in the library, evidence that one "B. G. N." said to be a native of Dexter, had actually drawn up in the year 1834 plans and working drawings of steam-driven airship. The significant fact is not so much that the story (of which more details presently) was found, but that had not such a collection existed as a focal point of interest, there would have been no organized curiosity to bring it to light! 

The item was found in the pages of a bound volume of "The American Railway Journal and Advocate of Internal Improvements" for 1834. The drawings and plans of the airship were submitted to the editor of the magazine and published by him in the August issue of that year. "B. G. N." proved upon investigation to have been B. G. Noble, a resident of Dexter. In his letter to the editor the inventor said:

"Herewith I send you a proposal for an Aeronautic Steam Car, which, if you deem worthy of your attention, you may record in your Register of Inventions and Improvements. Of the expediency of the project your readers and yourselves must be the judges. For my own part, I should not have thrust it upon your attention had I the slightest thought of its inexpediency. I am of the opinion that, if properly constructed, it will succeed beyond a doubt in calm weather. Of the effect that would be produced should Aeolus unpack his chariot during one of its aerial flights, I am unable to speak: but I presume the tempest tossed voyager would be able to conduct his frail bark with as much skill certainly as our modern aeronauts, who are limited in their operations to a discharge of gas and ballast. The plan herein proposed occurred to me some years since, but I have not availed myself of the advantages that arise from actual experiment because of the expense which must necessarily be incurred in the construction of such a machine."

After a somewhat detailed description of the working parts of the apparatus (which the reader may gather for himself by a study of the accompanying sketch) the inventor continues:

"In conclusion, Mr. Editor, I would beg you to overlook the many errors that must occur in this article. 'I am no orator as Brutus is, and am equally unskilled in chaining winged thoughts to the parchment.' In some future time I propose to furnish you with drawings of a newly-invented Portable Horse-Power, which I possess.   I have other objects in view besides a desire to contribute to the advancement of mechanic arts. I consider that yours is indeed a 'Register of inventions and Improvements and, therefore, a person unable to avail himself of the usual protection of patent may in a great measure secure to himself the credit, at least, of his invention by publication. The world may then judge of the originality of a project, and a fair copy be present for the accommodation of those who would avail themselves of the advantages of reinvention.

"Respectfully yours,


Dexter. Mich, Ter., August, 1834."

Subsequent investigation has revealed neither any evidence that one of Mr. Noble's airships was ever constructed and tested, or that his Portable Horse-Power and the other ideas he mentions ever came to anything.  But that this citizen of Dexter may have been one of the many luckless inventors whose wings were clipped by the lack of funds to prove the soundness of his ideas is more than suggested by Professor Worley's opinion that the Aeronautic Steam Car might very easily, with a few modifications, prove an entirely practicable aircraft. Had someone with a few thousand dollars and a zeal for progress come to the assistance of B. G. N. ninety-five years ago, the whole history of aviation might have been considerably changed.

These two examples are given at some length because each possesses a somewhat unexpected angle of purely local interest; but as far as their historical value,  compared to innumerable other items in the collection,  they are of trifling importance. But to plunge into an account of some of the other materials is to begin a catalogue which is limited only by the dimensions of the collection itself.

Two recent additions to the collection will serve to illustrate at once the extraordinary resemblance between some features of the history of transportation in periods many years apart and the fashion in which materials come to the collection from widely separated points.

A few weeks ago, during a trip to New York City,  Professor Worley picked up an English roadmap of the seventeenth century, probably the earliest map of the sort which has been preserved. It is an accurate representation of the highway between Kendal and Cocker-mouth, and, thanks to the English practice of leaving well enough alone, the map would serve the visiting motorist of 1929 just as well over this particular bit of highway as it did the carter of three centuries ago!

Only a few weeks after this valuable piece was secured, Professor Worley was given by the public library of Cold water, Michigan, the original survey map of the highway between Detroit and Chicago, drawn up in1825, and following almost exactly the course of the present paved highway, "U. S. 112," which is the main artery of motor traffic between these two cities. So old is the map that there appears on it at its western terminus a tiny collection of dots and squares, hardly larger than those appearing elsewhere on the road indicating villages which have remained villages or completely disappeared—and this collection of dots and squares is labeled "the village of Chicago!"

The map is drawn on a long roll of ordinary drawing paper, and, when unrolled, stretched almost across the floor of the main room of the library. Professor Worley exhibited his latest treasure to several visitors, but announced definitely at the end of the exhibition that he would not risk unrolling the map again, as the paper has become exceedingly fragile, and that it will go at once to the Printing and Binding Department of the University for proper preservation before it is returned to an honored place in the library.

It is entirely possible that m any alumni of the University will never find occasion to visit the Transportation Library,  but it is out of the question that any of them should remain unconscious of the value of the collection, or the tourist of the present day of the service which graduates of the University can render to the institution in doing anything in their power for one of the latest additions to the treasure-houses of the Campus. For, just as transportation ranks second only to agriculture in the list of the nation's industries, so do the history and records of American transportation contain for the student of Americana an enormous amount of peculiarly significant material which is to be found nowhere else.

Prof. Worley, Prof. Riggs and Mr. Bishop hope the Transportation Library may become the outstanding collection of its kind in the country. In the course of the past seven years they have gone far toward their goal. Their further progress depends almost as much upon the assistance of others as it does upon their own unflagging interest and activity. Many graduates are in positions that enable them to furnish books and other valuable material to the library (many have already done so) and others may be able to furnish the library authorities with information as to the present location of really priceless material, which may otherwise be lost.

The Michigan Alumnus

July 13, 1929, Page 764

History of the Transportation Library

Almost a Museum