Historic Structures

Railroad Machine Shop and Foundry, Grafton West Virginia

Date added: September 8, 2017 Categories: West Virginia Industrial Train Station

The Grafton Machine Shop walls are of rubble masonry construction two feet thick and were built of local sandstone from a nearby quarry. Overall, the structure measures 256 feet by 50 feet six inches (exterior dimensions) and is divided into three main sections. A central pavilion of two stories, (54 feet 9 inches x 59 feet 11 inches, external dimensions) five bays wide, projects slightly from both longitudinal walls. In typical Georgian fashion, its gable-end extends above the eaves to provide relief from the overall linearity of the structure. The upper floor of this section was used recently as office space and it is likely that that was its original function as well. An interior staircase - originally provided access to the offices, but this was later removed and replaced by an outside staircase added to the rear of the building.

The organization of the interior space at the ground level was typical of foundry and machine shop practice of the period and was designed to permit convenient movement through the stages of the process itself. The eastern portion of the building now serves as a welding shop and was probably the location of the original foundry. Nothing remains of the original machinery, and a concrete floor covers all traces of the original organization. Two small blacksmith's forges, a boom crane, a large pair of shears and the base of an old steam hammer are the only remnants of a later stage of development. Since the foundry originally produced castings, it probably contained at least one reverberatory furnace or a cupola furnace (perhaps both). The furnace was probably housed in the small wing (16 feet x 21 feet 4 inches in diameter) projecting from the rear of the foundry. The interior of this space is open to the roof joists and there is no indication of its having been subdivided in height. It was here in the foundry that all repairs and new heavy-metal construction began. Since Grafton was later a major repair center, this work would have included boiler work, wheel and axle forging, and the manufacture of other large parts. Once components were cast or forged, they would have been taken to the machine shop for finishing. The machine shop occupied the remaining ground floor space of the building and is separated from the foundry by a heavy masonry wall. The machine shop contained the lathes, shapers, screw-cutters, planers and grinders necessary for finishing work. The heavy-timber frame which supported a system of line-belts and shafts for power transmission still remains, supported by metal columns 6 inches in diameter. The columns are probably later in date and the frame itself is independent of the roof trusses. Nothing remains to indicate the location of the original power source for this system, but an old photo shows that by 1876 a steam engine was located in a shed adjacent to the rear of the main building.

One of the most significant engineering features of the Grafton machine shop and foundry is its roof trusses. Spanning the entire width of the structure (46 feet 7 inches, interior dimensions), these are tricomposite trusses of timber, wrought iron and cast iron (14 feet 4 inches on center). It is likely that these are the earliest surviving examples of this type of construction. The tri-composite truss, composed of a double-membered top chord of timber, a wrought-iron bottom chord and two cast-iron diagonals marks a transition from wood to metal structures 12. The development of the truss concept in bridge construction and the increased availability of iron led to its use in buildings as well. Wrought iron was employed particularly where use demanded a large open space free from intervening columns. Cast and wrought iron also resisted fire and were particularly appropriate for a building which contained a foundry. The experience of the B&O engineers with iron bridges made the decision to use iron in the machine shop trusses a logical and relatively easy one. Wendell Bollman and Albert Fink, both members of the B&O engineering staff, were two of the most prominent iron bridge builders of their day. In the Grafton machine shop, one or both of these men used this skill and experience to solve an architectural problem. The gradual accumulation of such experience had its ultimate ramifications after the Civil War in the metal-framing techniques of building construction (it was no accident that such buildings manifest themselves most obviously in Chicago, which was, by the turn of the century, the largest railroad junction in the world).

During the construction of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, the Grafton machine shop provided all the iron work and much of the wood work for the bridges, water stations, and station buildings along the route (it apparently included a sawmill). During this time, a frame haif-roundhouse was built to the west of the machine shop. Sufficient ground was acquired northwest of the roundhouse for the connection of the two roads and additional space east of the machine shop was set aside as a marshalling yard. In 1857, when the line to Parkersburg was complete, the B&O purchased the Grafton shops and moved its own shops from Fetterman, where a temporary quarters had been constructed in 1852. The Grafton shops subsequently became the major repair center for the engines and cars on the Parkersburg branch and the main line west of Piedmont. Additional motive power for the difficult Cheat River grade was also located here.

After the Civil War, the Grafton shop complex grew in importance as the western lines of the B&O were extended. In 1867, the timber half-roundhouse was razed and a larger brick roundhouse was built. One of several similar structures built in this period, it was sixteen sided with a radial roof surmounted by a circular ventilating monitor in the center. The old turntable which had been outdoors formed the interior center of the new structure. The central monitor over the turntable was beil-shaped and was probably supported by a frame of cast iron struts leaning inward at an angle. In the almost-identical roundhouses at Martinsburg (one of which still retains its original form) these struts were octagonal, rising at an angle of 48.2 degrees to a compression ring of 16 arched, cast-iron bracket beams. The sophisticated structure and the geographical distribution of this type illustrates the increasing importance of Grafton as a major repair center. In 1865, the company began a major repair program which included the repair and modernization of the machinery and the pattern shop and the construction of several new buildings. The original turntable in the roundhouse was replaced by a new wrought iron one in 1881 to accomodate larger locomotives. By 1911, the flat bottom land of Three Forks Creek had become so crowded that the construction of new car shops forced the company to extend the north bank of the creek with landfill. In that year, a quarter-roundhouse was built to supplement the existing facility, and just prior to World War I, the older roundhouse was demolished and the quarter-roundhouse extended to a semi-circle attached to the western end of the machine shop. Evidently, by this time, the increasing size of locomotives had made the smaller bays of the older structure obsolete.

The survival of the machine shop at Grafton suggests some interesting aspects in the history of railroad technology. Unlike the roundhouses, the machine shop retained its essential form. Through relatively minor modifications, the company was able to modernize it to keep pace with the rapidly developing technology of its rolling stock. Machine shop practices by 1860 had already assumed an efficient form which would remain unchanged for some time. Subsequent progress in such techniques required no large increases in space since new machines could be conveniently fit into that of their predecessors. In fact, developments such as the oxy-acetylene welding and cutting process and the standardization of parts eliminated some of the early machine shop functions. As a result, the Grafton machine shop remained useful well into the 20th century.

Grafton was only one of numerous examples of towns which owed their origins and prosperity to the railroad. In 1853, three years after it was settled, Grafton's population was only 153 persons. But the growth of the railroad and the necessity for increasing maintenance facilities provided more and more jobs until, by 1900, it was the seat of Taylor County with a population of 5,260.

Before the advent of the sleeping car, the town was a major overnight stop for passengers. Grafton House, the original station-hotel at the junction of the two lines, was completed by the Northwestern Virginia in 1857. A correspondent of the Cincinnati Sentinel described it as ". . -a hotel par excellence. . not to be surpassed upon any line of the country." Its dining room was gas-lighted and offered a gourmet menu; its rooms were "the acme of comfort." Large and stopped to spend a few hours or a few days. The surrounding scenery was some of the best the Allegheny Mountains had to offer. Less than a day's ride from Baltimore, Grafton had access to that city's commercial and financial resources. In short, the new town seemed to have tremendous potential to become a major population center.

Developments after the Civil War prevented Grafton from fulfilling the initial hopes of its projectors and consigned it to a more limited role. The industrial and economic diversity necessary for growth during this period never materialized and it remained primarily a railroad town. In 1871, the opening of the Pittsburgh and Connellsville branch decreased the importance of the Wheeling Branch and of Grafton's function as a junction. Thereafter, its growth was linked to that of the Parkersburg-Cincinnati-St. Louis link. In 1860, petroleum was discovered in the area of the Little Kanawha River, and from 1880, the coal seams of Fairmont and Clarksburg began to be developed. The resulting growth in the volume of traffic meant that Grafton's shop complex was greatly expanded. A stroll through contemporary Grafton reveals that the peak of this expansion was reached in the 1890s. Nearly all the major commercial and domestic buildings date from that period. By World War I, the development of the Grafton shops had reached a point of stasis. Period photographs show that, visually at least, the town had evolved into the form which it retains today.