article Fall 2022

Blast From the Past: Revisiting “A Hot Trail”

By Kristy Wendt

Tasked with investigating the intentions of rival engineers, UW-Madison civil engineering alumnus John Lane (J. L.) Van Ornum set off on a clandestine reconnaissance mission for the chief engineer of a Virginia railroad, posing as a bird hunter. He describes his escapade in a roman à clef titled “A Hot Trail” for the very first issue of Wisconsin Engineer, published in 1896.

After graduating from UW-Madison in 1888, civil engineer J. L. Van Ornum began a two-year foray into railroad engineering (1). Recounted as fiction in 1896 and told from the relative safety of his new position as a professor of civil engineering at Washington University, Van Ornum describes surveying a rival railroad for the chief engineer of Little Kanawha River Rail and Valley Railroad (shortened in the story to L.K.R. and V.R.R., respectively) under the auspices of bird hunting.

At the time of publication, a notoriously bitter turf rivalry existed between the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O)-backed Valley Railroad (which connected Staunton to Lexington, Virginia) and the Pennsylvania Railroad-backed Shenandoah Valley Railroad (2). Preserved in spirit and namesake in the popular boardgame Monopoly, the corporate owners of Virginia’s railroads did not build transportation infrastructure for the overall benefit of the state. Instead, local officials discouraged rail lines from connecting with each other and carrying people directly through the city, as the inefficiency created economic benefits for local businesses (3).  

Though Van Ornum preserves the anonymity of the rival railroads at the center of A Hot Trail by referring to them only by their acronyms, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and Valley Railroad do match the geographical descriptions of the railroads he describes. But numerous competing railroads crisscrossed the terrain of Virginia and often serviced the same communities, so Van Ornum’s story would nevertheless have applied to many of them. Nineteenth-century maps of American railroad tracks evoke civic disaster: each railroad often built a separate station in the same community, and there were frequently no connections between the tracks of each railroad.

J. L. Van Ornum (right)

A Hot Trail begins with the Chief Engineer of “L.K.R.” and “V.R.R.” approaching Van Ornum with an unusual request: 

‘Before you organize your party for the location survey, I have an investigation I would like you to undertake, concerning the intentions of a rival road in the mining region.’ He proceeded to state that the general manager had learned of an apparent intention of the X⎯R.R. to extend their line into the newly developing fields and so destroy the supremacy of our road in that region.  It was reported that a party of X⎯ surveyors was recently at work in the field, and it was the desire of the general manager to learn of their intentions as fully as possible, without disclosing the fact of the investigation to them.

When our plans were perfected, I asked the Chief if he could loan me his shot gun. ‘What do you want of that?’ said he. ‘You are going on serious business, not for pleasure.’ I explained that my idea was to pass as a hunter if I found my investigation about to be discovered by the rival engineers, and so cover the real purpose of my presence near their lines.

Armed with a shot gun and dressed as a hunter, Van Ornum arrives in the office of the division engineer at “H⎯” inquiring about any new developments in the case, as nothing had occurred for two weeks. From the undisclosed city, “A⎯,” Van Ornum describes traveling eastward into uncharted woods, using his training as a civil engineer to recognize the marks of the rival survey: “the distinctive narrow line cut through the brush, the stakes being most obscure in size and height.”  

Staying overnight in a nearby hotel, and observing “the universal custom of small towns,” Van Ornum waits at a local depot for the evening train to come in. To his consternation, Van Ornum recognizes a fellow Badger in the group of rival engineers who would also likely recognize him. The following morning, he quickly pays his hotel bill and resumes reconnaissance, sneaking along the hill line where the rival track approaches his employer’s railroad. Here, he is discovered by the chief of the rival party:

He stopped for a moment opposite my hiding place and then started directly toward me.  Discovery was only the matter of a moment and so I discharged the gun in the air, and springing up, gazed into a tree with rapt attention. Some muttered exclamation appeared to be followed by a close scrutiny of the unexpected hunter, who continued to appear oblivious to his presence. After a minute or two he remarked on the fruitless shot which was reluctantly admitted. Then, to shift his attention from myself, I asked him the purpose of a slope-board he carried in his hand. ‘It’s for use in measuring land,’ he said, ‘you could not understand it if I should explain all-day.’ 

Van Ornum escapes undetected and continues carefully surveying the rival line, finally determining that “their plan, as disclosed by their work, was to parallel our line to its end and a little beyond, and then construct a switchback around the end, thus enclosing it in a cul de sac.”  Tellingly, Van Ornum proposes evading the rival by always advancing his employer’s tracks ahead of the rival and concludes his story with the assertion that his employer’s tracks are “still supreme at the mines.”  

Long after the publication of A Hot Trail, planning and construction of railroads in Virginia continued to progress rapidly and haphazardly, without direction or supervision from the states that granted charters to construct them. Today, all that remains of the Valley Railroad south of Staunton are a few viaducts, weathered embankments, stone arch bridges and bridge abutments: fossils of a mode of transportation not engineered for the common good.


Page 67 – A Hot Trail / Van Ornum, J. L. – The Wisconsin Engineer Vol. 1, No. 1 June 1896

1 Year Book. (1914). United States: Banner Publishing Company.



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