Mr. Whistler had many investigations to make concerning the plans and policy of railroad companies at a time when almost everything connected with them was comparatively new and untried. When he commenced, there was no passenger railroad in the country, and but very few miles of quarry and mining track. If at that time an ascent of more than 1 in 200 was required, it was thought necessary to have inclined planes and stationary power. It was supposed that by frequent relays it would be possible to obtain for passenger cars a speed of eight or nine miles an hour. Almost nothing was known of the best form for rails, of the construction of the track, or of the details for cars or engines. In all of these things Major Whistler's highly gifted and well balanced mind enabled him to judge wisely for his employers, and to practice for them the truest economy.
Major Whistler's employment upon the Western Railroad began while he was still engaged upon the Stonington line. In connection with his friend McNeill he acted as consulting engineer for the Western road from 1836 to 1840. From 1840 to 1842 he was its chief engineer, with his headquarters at Springfield. The steep grades west of the Connecticut presented not only a difficult problem in location and construction, but in locomotive engineering as well. At the present day we can order any equipment which may best meet the requirement upon any railroad, and the order will be promptly met by any one of our great manufactories. But in the early days of the Western Railroad it was far otherwise, and the locomotive which should successfully and economically operate the hitherto unheard of grade of over 80 feet to the mile was yet to be seen. The Messrs. Winans, of Baltimore, had built some nondescript machines, which had received the name of "crabs," and had tried to make them work upon the Western road.
But after many attempts they were given up as unfit for such service.
These "crabs" were eight wheeled engines, weighing about 20 tons, with a vertical boiler. The wheels were 3½ feet in diameter, but the engine worked on to an intermediate shaft, which was connected with the driving axle in such a way as to get the effect of a five foot wheel. These engines did not impress Major Whistler at all favorably. And it is related that one Sunday the watchman in charge of the building in which some of them were kept, hearing some one among the engines, went in quietly and overheard Major Whistler, apparently conversing with the "crab," and saying: "No; you miserable, top-heavy, lop-sided abortion of a grasshopper, you'll never do to haul the trains over this road." His experience in Lowell was here of great value to him, and he had become convinced that the engine of George Stephenson was in the main the coming machine, and needed but to be properly proportioned and of sufficient size to meet every demand.
With Major Whistler's work upon the Western Railroad his engineering service in this country concluded, and that by an occurrence which marked him as the foremost railroad engineer of his time. Patient, indefatigable, cautious, remarkable for exhaustless resource, admirable judgment, and the highest engineering skill, he had begun with the beginning of the railroad system, and had risen to the chief control of one of the greatest works in the world, the Western Railroad of Massachusetts. Not only had he shown the most far-sighted wisdom in fixing the general features of this undertaking, but no man surpassed him, if, indeed, any one equaled him, in an exact and thorough knowledge of technical details. To combine the various elements in such a manner as to produce the greatest commercial success, and to make the railroad in the widest sense of the word a public improvement, never forgetting the amount of money at his disposal, was the problem he had undertaken to solve. He had proved himself a great master in his profession, and had shown how well fitted he was to grapple with every difficulty. He was equally a man of science and a man of business. And to all this he added the most delicate sense of honor and the most spotless integrity.
He was in the prime of manhood, and was prepared to enter upon the great work of his life.
It was not long after the introduction of the railroad that intelligent persons saw very plainly that the new mode of transportation was not to be confined to the working of an already established traffic, in densely populated regions, but that it would be of equal service in awakening the energies of undeveloped countries, in bringing the vast interior regions of the continents into communication with the seaboard, in opening markets to lands which before were beyond the reach of commerce. And it was seen, too, that in event of war, a new and invaluable element had been introduced, viz., the power of transportation to an extent never before imagined.
Especially were these advantages foreseen in the vast empire of Russia, and an attempt was very early made to induce private capitalists to undertake the construction of the lines contemplated in that country. The Emperor, besides guaranteeing to the shareholders a minimum profit of four per cent., proposed to give them, gratuitously, all the lands of the state through which the lines should pass, and to place at their disposal, also gratuitously, the timber and raw materials necessary for the way and works which might be found upon the ground. It was further proposed, to permit the importation of rails and of the rolling stock free of duty. Russian proprietors also came forward, and not only agreed to grant such portions of their land as the railroads might pass through, gratuitously, but further to dispossess themselves temporarily of their serfs, and surrender them to the use of the companies, on the sole condition that they should be properly supported while thus employed.
With regard to the great line, however, which was to unite the two capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow, it was decreed that this should be made exclusively at the expense of the state, in order to retain in the hands of the government and in the general interest of the people a line of communication so important to the industry and the internal commerce of the country. The local proprietors agreed to surrender to the government, gratuitously, the lands necessary for this line.