You Can Always Learn Something New

Steve Tarrant (left) and Vern Mesler (right) at the Richmond Virginia Railroad Museum

Railroad museums are often housed in historic buildings built of riveted columns and trusses. We rarely miss an opportunity to tour these museums in the cities we visit. We were in Richmond, Virginia, earlier this year and scheduled a Saturday morning trip to the Richmond Railroad Museum. The museum is located in a station built in 1914 by the Southern Railway, a one-storey brick building with a hipped roof, clean simple lines, and well maintained.

We arrived early, signed the guest book in the station lobby, and purchased our museum tickets at the little gift shop. Sitting near the cashier counter was docent Steve Tarrant, ready to perform his role as guide and historian. I listened respectfully as Steve began his well-prepared script of railroading history, most of which I am familiar with. I was disappointed that there were no riveted columns or trusses, and no steam locomotive on display. This could have been a short museum visit, but I have found though experience that you can always learn something, and I was determined to learn.

Most of the museum’s railroad artifacts are in a large room that was previously the station’s freight room. Eventually we came to a display of tools. At this time our docent transformed into an experienced railroad craftsman whose love and knowledge of the tools of his trade was evident by his expression and enthusiasm. Claw bar, spike gauge, spike maul, these and more were tools Steve worked with during his railroading years.

A feature on a hammer that is least known is the thinning of the handle toward the hammer head. As stated in the 1926 Blacksmithing and Forging textbook, “The handle should be well formed, elliptic or oval in section, and a little thinner toward the head; this is done to give it spring, in order to avoid stinging the hand.” Steve Tarrant not only knew about this feature but also during his railroading days he had improved the effectiveness of his spike maul hammer by thinning even more of the hammer handle to give it a greater spring which allowed him to drive more spikes. As Steve explained it: “The worker who uses the tool or equipment is the one who is most likely to figure out how best to use the tool or how to modify the tool to make it work most efficiently, in the least energy intensive way.” 

I did not see riveted columns or trusses or a large steam locomotive when I visited the Richmond Railroad Museum, but I did learn from a knowledgeable craftsman who understood the tools he worked with and the  slight modifications that make them more efficient.

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