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My father either claimed to have thrown rocks at the 200 inch cast Pyrex mirror blank destined for the Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar being shipped by train from Corning, NY (or at least he joked that he would have if he could have.)

He was born somewhere around 1925 so that would have put him at the age where someone like my father might do something like that thinking it was funny. (He wouldn't have known then that he would become an engineer working on optical systems later in life).

I'm pretty certain that he would have been living in Elmira NY at the time, which is East of Corning NY, so if the mirror really went through Elmira it would have been going at least a short distance in the wrong direction to get to Pasadena CA. But that's possible - it could have been the safest or easiest way to get to a main trunk line in 1936.

Either way, I'd like to know:

Question: What train route did the 200 inch (Mt. Palomar) Hale telescope mirror blank take from Corning NY to Pasedina CA in 1936? Did it go through or near Elmira NY?

"bonus points": The block quoted caption below says "always traveling slower than 25 miles per hour" - did that cause a lot problems or interruption of regularly scheduled trains?


enter image description here

1936: Mirror transport

The mirror blank, with only a rough flat front surface, is shipped across the country on a special train from New York to Pasadena, always traveling slower than 25 miles per hour. The telescope project has captured the public imagination, and thousands of people line the train tracks to watch this special cargo. Guards are posted around the mirror during overnight stops to prevent any damage to the disk. The trip takes fourteen days.

Source: Archived Caltech history webpage

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    I can provide one point in its journey. An article on 3 apar shows it had to be rerouted in Kansas city as it wouldn't fit under a bridge.
    – justCal
    Oct 25, 2023 at 14:32
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    @JonCuster it sounds like you have the makings of an answer!
    – uhoh
    Oct 25, 2023 at 20:18

2 Answers 2

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Details of the transportation of the mirror blank can be found in several other places. The first is also at CalTech, with a nice 35-slide show of various stages of the transit. These include slide 2 showing the crated mirror being picked up by a New York Central railroad crane, and slides 4, 5, and 6 clearly showing it mounted on a New York Central flatbed rail car. While not 100% definitive that the New York Central would be the first railroad for the routing across the country, it is suggestive.

Slide 17 there has a map of the routing:

enter image description here

This clearly shows the train heading due north out of Corning, along the Corning - Geneva branch of the New York Central, to meet the main line to Buffalo in Geneva. (Another option would have been the Delaware and Lackawanna from Corning to Buffalo which trends more northwest, but that does not seem to be the routing shown.)

Finally, Time magazine coverage has:

This week the mirror starts its journey west on a special train carrying a freight-car with equipment for unloading, and a caboose. The train will travel no faster than 30 m.p.h. Since it was impossible to provide a lateral clearance of 18 ft., the mirror had to be shipped standing upright. This raised the problem of overhead clearances. After much study a route was worked out with the tightest squeeze a three-inch bridge clearance at Buffalo. The big disk goes by New York Central to Cleveland; by Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis to St. Louis; by Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to Kansas City; by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to Pasadena, Calif.

So, yes, the first step was New York Central, to Geneva, then onwards.

Bottom line: no routing through Elmira is substantiated.

The discrepancy between your 25 mph and Time's 30 mph should not be taken too literally - it was going to be slow freight, not a fast passenger train. Lots of freight trains moved slowly over the entire railroad network, quite different from these days where "hot" trains are all freight and Amtrak is a second-class renter of main lines. Given the publicity, this train would have been given priority over other freight so would have moved with minimal delays, and any short interruptions to "normal" freight schedules were tolerated for publicity. Note that most freight trains were unscheduled "extras" over the rails, so bumping trains around a bit today doesn't really impact overall freight movement.

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Part One)

Possibly the father's story was a lie or a false memory.

Part Two)

Possibly the father actually didn't live in Elmira in 1936 but lived somewhere else that was on the route from Corning to Pasadena, possibly for only a short period of time.

Part Three)

Elmira, New York and Corning, New York are only about 10 miles apart on a straight line. Possibly your father was in Corning, New York or somewhere else on the route of the train with the mirror and so had a chance to throw stones on it.

Part Four:

Railroads in Elmira, New York.

At one time, like most towns, there were four railroads that used to come thru Elmira:

  1. The Northern Central, later the Pennsylvania RR,

  2. The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western RR,

  3. The Lehigh Valley RR, and

  4. The Erie RR.

https://www.railfanguides.us/ny/elmira/

So this claims that the four railroads that went through Elmira at various times included the Delaware and Lackawana at one time.

The Elmira and Williamsport Railroad (earlier the Williamsport and Elmira Railroad) is a historic railroad that operated in Pennsylvania. The W&E was organized in 1832 and ran between Williamsport PA and Elmira. It was reorganized as the E&W in 1860, and operated its own property until 1863.

https://www.railfanguides.us/ny/elmira/

That site also lists other resources:

https://www.chemunghistory.com/railroads-in-chemung-county

https://www.abandonedrails.com/cortland-branch

http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/rspicture.aspx?id=809012

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    Since this was a story that I heard 50 years ago, another possibility is that I'm slightly misremembering - perhaps he heard stories of others throwing rocks at it and was just telling me about those. Then again, perhaps he was just pulling my leg because he knew he'd get a reaction out of me. :-)
    – uhoh
    Oct 25, 2023 at 20:53

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