Jordan Spreaders are the earliest type of true maintenance equipment
employed by railroads. Extremely simple machines by design it was
developed by Oswald F. Jordan in the very early 20th century and
consists of almost no moving parts. Not only is the Jordan able to dig
and effectively clean ditches it can also properly regulate ballast and even plow snow if needed. Today, the Jordan Spreader
has mostly been replaced by newer, faster, specialized, and more efficient machines (such as tampers, regulators, and cleaners)
but it still finds work on some railroads usually in profiling or snowplowing. Interestingly, even after nearly 100 years since it was first developed the Jordan still finds use today on smaller railroads and other various applications.
Southern Pacific Jordan Spreader #4030 clears light snow over #1 track on Donner Pass at Yuba Gap, California with assistance from a pair of GP38-2s during January of 1989. Note the icicle breakers atop the Geeps.
Oswald Jordan was once a roadmaster employed by the New York Central Railroad. However, for years he had been working on a new piece of equipment to greatly enhance and improve the efficiency of railroad maintenance. So in 1905 he left the NYC and set out to develop what would become the Jordan Spreader.
Six years later in 1911 Mr. Jordan set up his factory in East Chicago
and his new machine quickly became very popular. The Jordan Spreader is quite simply an angled plow that is free-pivoting. Attached to this can be extended wings which slope to fit the contour
of each individual railroad's right-of-way (every winged attachment had
to be custom ordered by the railroad), thus giving the ballast a
uniformed, clean, and neat appearance along with the fact that it allows
for proper drainage of water.
And finally, these wings could also have a ditching attachment added. So, in one pass, or just a few, a railroad could properly contour its ballast and do ditching work all at once. Ballast (usually crushed stone), as it is known, is another important part of railroad infrastructure. Although it may just look like plain ole gravel this stone plays a vital role in acting as a support base for the ties and rails as well as allowing for proper drainage of water away from the rails (which is why the stone is always sloped downward and away from track). You may be wondering how such a term came to define the stone which supports the track structure. Interestingly, it has its roots dating back to early times when stone was used as ballasting for sailing ships.
Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Jordan Spreader #15 is seen here parked in Joliet, Illinois on August 23, 1964.
Of course, while crushed stone (often limestone or quartz) is the aggregate
of choice for today's railroads in years past everything from slag to
cinders has been used (always resourceful years ago railroads would use
whatever they could find). Some light density branch lines would appear
jet black as nothing but burnt coal cinders were used to ballast the route. The Jordan became a fixture of railroad maintenance because of its simplicity, flexibility, and ruggedness. The machine would eventually come in four different models the Standard discontinued in the 1960s, Roadmaster, Type A Jordan, and Type J Jordan.
Starting in the 1950s the Jordan would become equipped hydraulics
giving it extra strength and versatility. However, it's one inherent
setback was that it was never powered, requiring it to always be pushed
by a trailing locomotive.
This, of course, demanded constant communication between engineer
and operator although the fact that it was never powered would
eventually lead to its downfall. In the 1964 the O.F. Jordan Company
would be purchased by Jackson Vibrators, which is today part of the
Harsco Rail, a leading railroad maintenance company. Today, the Jordan Spreader still finds some uses on railroads, such as in snowplowing work but it is rarely used to dig ditches
because it is unpowered having been replaced by newer mechanized
machines available by companies such as Loram, Herzog, and Harsco.
Still, the fact that it still finds work today after nearly 100 years is
a testament to the Jordan's flexibility and redundancy.
Railroad ditch diggers are not the only machines used to keep right-of-ways properly maintained. Others include ballast cleaners, which as you might expect clean the ballast and undercutters. Once the crushed stone making up the ballast structure
has broken down too much to be effective any longer railroads must
replace it. To accomplish this task a another piece of equipment known
as an undercutter is called in. This hefty machine is somewhat similar
in appearance to a ballast cleaner. However, instead of cleaning the stone it scopes it up to be replaced.
It has apparently been a hard winter for Michigan as Soo Line Jordan Spreader #D816 has been hard at work judging by all of the snow. The machine and its power, GP9 #2550, roll through Houghton Yard clearing its tracks during March of 1976. The author noted that a few years later during the winter of 1978-79 this part of the state received a record 390.4 inches of snow when it normally receives only around 190 inches.
For more reading about Jordans you may want to consider the book Railway Maintenance Equipment: The Men and Machines That Keep the Railroads Running
from noted author Brian Solomon. Throughout the book's 128 pages
Solomon covers all types of maintenance equipment from tampers and
undercutters to Jordan Spreaders and rotary snow plows.
I own this book myself and have used it as reference material for this
site many times. It's a great read on an often little understood area
of railroading. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com.