THROUGH FOLKSTON AT 85 M.P.H.
[Editor’ Note: The following article appeared in the February 12, 1967 issue of the Savannah Morning News – Evening Press Magazine concerning the Rhode Island Lady’s race for the record in 1901. Mr. Lodge is a great uncle of Mrs. Lois B. Mays and Mrs. Inez B. Southwell.]
Long before intercontinental missiles, Telstar and the nuclear submarine, a modest man and a freight engine established a new world record for speed that has never been topped by a steam locomotive.
It was the era of violent change – when one (the Spanish-American War) was over and the Boxer Rebellion was starting. Carrie Nation was hatcheting her way through the saloons of Kansas.
In this year of 1901 the United States was dickering with Colombia for Panama Canal construction rights and McKinley was serving a second term on the “full dinner pail” ticket.
In the midst of this, one of the most dramatic runs in railroad history was made by a substitute engineer with a stock engine pressed into service on a moment’s notice originating lucklessly in Savannah and terminating triumphantly in Jacksonville.
This was the saga of Albert Hinson Lodge, veteran freight engineer for the Savannah, Western & Florida Railway Co. and The Rhode Island Lady.
It was appropriate that the record run that won a mail transport contract should originate in Savannah. The first railroad in America was built in Chatham County in 1820 and used chiefly in the operation of brick kilns established by Scotsman Henry McAlpin on his Savannah River estate, established in 1805 and later known as The Hermitage.
Lodge was not one to seek the glare of worldwide acclaim. A family man, unionist, fraternal brother, Episcopalian and a 29-year freight engineer with a record for both speed and safety, he preferred the quiet life.
In 1901 Uncle Sam sought to improve mail service between Washington, D.C. and Cuba, West Indies, where many Americans had gone to live after the Spanish-American War. Both the Savannah, Florida and Western (SF&W) and its rival, the Florida Central & Peninsular (FC&P) bid on the contract for express hauling of mail expeditiously into Jacksonville on its way to Tampa and the Antilles.
The SF&W was known as the Plant System, for it had been bought from the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad by H.B. Plant in 1879 in Savannah, and reorganized with two other Plant-owned railroads under the new name.
Unable to decide which area railroad warranted the postal contract, the Post Office Department decided that the road able to render the quickest haul should get the job. As a momentous test, both SF&W and FC&P were given identical loads at Savannah and told to highball it to Jacksonville, first arrival to be contract winner.
Eight cars of mail had been hauled from Washington to Richmond and from there to Savannah over what was then the Atlantic Coast Line. In Savannah three cars of mail were shunted to each of the two contestants.
Handicapped at the outset of the contract race with FC&P by its circuitous route through Waycross – an extra 31.8 miles – the Plant System officials contrived to overcome some of the disadvantage by assigning to the special run, officially known as Mail Run No. 107, one of their newest high wheelers carefully stripped and groomed for the grueling marathon.
Locomotive No. 107, driven by Engineer Ned Leake, was a soft coal burning 10-wheeler. It was one of ten built for SF&W by the Rhode Island Locomotive Works the previous summer and numbered 107 through 116 consecutively. The engine weighed 146,000 lbs. of which 108,000 lbs. were on the drivers. The driving wheels were 73” in diameter.
The test trains were made up of five units; engine, three mail cars and a baggage car. The scheduled run had been made regularly for a week or two by SF&W to carry the mails to Jacksonville, pending a rearrangement of the timetable to meet the wishes of the Post Office or connecting railroads or both.
This run was found necessary because FC&P had changed their schedule on March 1st to get their mail train into Jacksonville ahead of SF&W train No. 23, in hopes of securing the handling of the Havana-Puerto Rico mail. To compete, SF&W had to operate the special train on short notice.
In the wee hours of Friday, March 3, 1901, both trains left Savannah in the first service-speed railroad competition sponsored by the U.S. Government.
The eyes and ears of the world were on the race, and betting ran high. For the two railroads there was a million-dollar mail hauling contract as the prize.
Within the first 15 miles, SF&W’s No. 107 developed a hot-box – a heat-frozen bearing – on the drive wheel at Burroughs, 12 miles out, and limped another 12 miles into Fleming, now one hour late. One chance remained to stay in the race – the frantic dispatcher noted that the disabled engine was due to meet a northbound freight there.
This freight was being pulled by No. 111, a companion engine of No. 107, and manned by solid but steadfast Engineer Lodge, who was unaware of the star role that awaited him.
Also aboard the Lodge engine were conductor Lindsey Kirkland, flagman Knight, fireman Charles Johnson, a Negro coal passer and a Negro train porter. James Ambrose, road foreman of engines, was assigned to ride the contending locomotive each trip, so he transferred to 111.
During the switch the competing FC&P train passed over the Burroughs crossing bound for Jacksonville, only 127 miles away. No. 111 train still had 161 miles to go. With a derisive wave from the crew, the FC&P contender roared away in the night, leaving a heart-stricken rival behind.
Leaving the freight cars unattended on a siding, 111 turned and watered in preparation for taking over the mail-run special, the desperate SF&W official coupled the train to No. 111 and gave the all-clear signal to Lodge.
Hoping that some of the lost time might be regained, all trains on that road had urgent train orders to clear the mail special 30 minutes in advance at an open telegraph office – “30” – the dit-dit-dah manual key – with specific instructions that conductors and engineers must personally examine switches to assure proper setting and secure locking to the main track.
Remembering the hotbox that had crippled the 107, Lodge nursed 111 during the 35 miles from Fleming to Jesup because she too was brand new. He worked her up to speed gradually and, with no sign of trouble was soon hitting 70 M.P.H.
Like a vengeful banshee, 111 screamed through the pre-dawn of the lower Georgia countryside.
Like other men who love their machines, railroad engineers give names of affection to their engines. This one – as much a thoroughbred as any racehorse – was “The Rhode Island Lady”.
And the lady gobbled the miles and came sliding into Jesup about daybreak – hot, soot-laden and cinder-gritty for her only planned stop of the famous race.
Three precious minutes were consumed by a special waiting crew in filling the engine with water and oil. Here a new passenger was taken on to share the fireman’s seat box with “Uncle Jimmy” Ambrose. He was Waycross dispatcher D.S. McClellan, who hitched the fastest ride of his life.
Lodge and Ambrose palmed their railroad watches and during the next three minutes were shocked into clocking every mile-post thereafter. The Rhode Island Lady flashed past Screven (mile-post 61) between 5:10 and 5:15 a.m. in record time.
On the downhill 5-mile stretch past Screven between mileposts 69 and 74 (now Satilla), the Lady was clocked at 2:30 minutes - 120 miles per hour! Two miles per minute!
Suddenly, fog on the 9-mile jump between Blackshear and Waycross. Foe of 1901 navigation as now. Black signals were masked, mileposts blotted out, crossings obscured, landmarks blurred.
What now, Lodge’s Lady? A veteran of the SF&W for 29 years, after four years of schooling in Texas, Lodge had a healthy respect for unsafe conditions and the welfare of his crew and equipment.
What factor was more important now – speed or safety? The steady hand on the engine throttle did not wait for an answer – out it came another notch to send it hurtling through the fog and into Waycross.
Further clocking revealed that the 40-mile run from Jesup to Waycross through heavy fog part of the way, was done in 27 minutes, and from Waycross to Folkston, 34 miles over scrub pine country was done in 24 minutes.
Another high spot was a treacherous curve at 120 milepost between Racepond and Uptonville, a few miles north of Folkston. Just before it was reached the bare-waisted Negro coal-passer, shiny with sweat from exertion on the bouncing tender and from watching the telephone poles race by like a picket fence, made a tentative inquiry.
“Hey, Charley!,” he shouted nervously to Fireman Johnson, “You a’pose he goin’ to shut off?”
“Naw!,” Charley shouted with exuberance as he swung another shovelfull into the roaring furnace, “he jus’ goin’ good now!”
Charley answered, Lodge closed the throttle about three notches, but immediately changed his mind and pulled it out about five notches. It was the only instance of indecision on his part during the entire run.
When the locomotive flung itself into the curve, the supervisor hugged the dispatcher who grabbed the hot iron pipes on the front of the boiler head for support. He did not notice that his hands were blistered.
No one aboard that train breathed until the rails straightened out and the screeching ended. Then there was a concerned sigh of relief; Lodge glanced at his cab guests and laughed in derision.
Once again the straining locomotive reached a 120 mile peak near Callahan, Fla., 128 miles away from the Fleming takeover. At this point the jittery crew, bathed in nervous perspiration, estimated that The Rhode Island Lady was back on schedule, having made up the time lost.
The remaining twenty miles into Jacksonville were anti-climatic, made without incident. The maze of tracks through the big yard at Jacksonville sharply reduced the trip average the last 40.0 miles below Folkston. The record read 59 minutes from Folkston to Jacksonville.
Smiling broadly, Lodge was perfectly composed as he stepped down from the cab into the Jacksonville terminal, but the others almost fell off in agitation.
“Uncle Jimmy” tore off his denim cap, whipped out a soiled bandanna to wipe off the coal dust, and remarked: “I’ve been running an engine a long time, but I‘ve never ridden that fast and never expect to again!”
Nor had anyone else – before or after the performance of Lodge and his Lady.
But where was the ACL-affiliate? No one had heard from it lately – it hadn’t shown up yet.
It pulled into Jacksonville quite some time after. 111 had been moved to the roundhouse for return trip servicing. Dispatcher McClellan was in the telegraph office filing a report when the rival conductor entered to register. He asked the operator: “Where’s that broken-down Plant engine we passed at Burroughs?” It was more than McClellan, still trembling violently from nervous exhaustion, could stand.
“Why, man,” he interrupted scornfully, “we’ve been in Jacksonville nearly an hour and the mail we carried is half way to Cuba now!”
Engine 111 had come through and final tabulations proved that it had established a new world record for speed, and had done so as an ordinary road engine, without normal, much less special, preparation.
In one of the most dramatic runs in the history of railroading, The Lady danced 158 miles through night and fog in 130 minutes, an average speed in excess of 80 miles per hour, and reeled in one five-mile stretch of slender steel rails at 120 miles and a shorter stretch at the same speed.
This captured the world’s record held by New York Central locomotive No. 999 from 1893 to 1901 for 112 ½ miles per hour. Incredible as this widely-publicized feat was, more startling is the fact that until 1934 it was never equaled, and despite the prevalence of Diesels, it has never been surpassed.
When the Atlantic Coast Line bought out the Plant system 13 months later, in April of 1902, the identification of No. 111 was changed to No. 274 and later to No. 210. She remained in fast passenger service between Savannah and Jacksonville for some years as “The Havana Special” over the same route, with Engineer Lodge and Fireman Johnson still aboard.
The Rhode Island Lady – a performer to the end and beyond – ended her two-star career on a local passenger run between Brunswick and Albany, with few other than old-timers aware of her identity. In 1942 when the nation was desperate for metals for wartime effort, old No. 111 – our Rhode Island Lady, was cut up for scrap at the Waycross shop and the bones of the 41-year old champion were flung at her country’s enemies.
In June of 1922, after anti-climaxing 50 years of faithful service, Albert Hinson Lodge died. At his death newspapers across the nation recalled the exciting, pace-setting “run of the 111” at the turn of the century.
Charlton County Herald
June 30, 1976