In the glory days of the Linney brothers, the Lyon Mountain Miners dominated bobsledding
by Tom Anderson
In October of 1935, J. Hubert Stevens was seeking to re-establish himself and his brother Curtis at the top of international bob-sledding. The pair had won the two-man gold medal in the 1932 Olympics at Lake Placid but had been shut out in world events since. Stevens had ideas, but he did not know how to implement them.
Sixty miles north of Steven’s Lake Placid home lived Robert J. Linney. He had the knowledge, the materials, and the equipment Stevens was searching for.
Only 27 years old, Bob Linney was the superintendent of concentrating and sintering at the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co.’s mine in his home town of Lyon Mountain. He had been employed there since his graduation from Yale in 1929, as a mining engineer and as a foreman before becoming superintendent. When he met Stevens, Bob Linney had never seen a bobsled, much less driven one. But his ignorance probably proved to be an advantage, and he took to the task of re-designing the sled with zeal and dedication. By the time Robert Linney and his brother William finished competing in bobsledding more than a decade later, their design changes had revolutionized the sport, and they and their sleds had set record times at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg run.
Bob Linney remembered that old logging sleds moved much easier over snow and ice if shod with cast-iron runners, rather than with steel runners. So that was the first clue. But how should the runners be designed? With no background in bobsledding, Linney had no tradition with which to be encumbered. So instead of falling back on established ways, he re-designed not only the runners, but the entire sled.
He had three engineers from Lyon Mountain—Bernard Hart, Walter Crusberg, and Bill Blomstram—make numerous trips to Lake Placid to survey the bobrun. Using sextants, slide rules, quadrants, transits, and other tools of the surveyor’s trade, they scrutinized every turn and bend. They determined proper angles of approach and departure on the curves. They measured the number of radii in each curve to determine if the curve was simple or compound (Shady and Zig-Zag, for example, were found to be compound; Little S was simple). They determined how high a sled could go before tipping over.
Linney himself studied the bobsled. He saw that on traditional bobsleds the live-load was perched about four inches higher than necessary, which increased wind resistance, giving the wind an additional four inches of fulcrum to hold the sled back. He saw that the steel frame attached to the wood deck with bolts was not sufficiently rigid. It would spring with tremendous impact on the curves, and promptly backlash, causing skidding and hence retarding the sled’s progress.
To remedy this, he designed the sled on the so-called underslung principle, with the center of gravity as close to the ground as possible. To increase the rigidity of the sled, a steel deck was used, with the frame welded and riveted to it. To obtain sufficient toughness and strength, the runners were made of cast-iron extremely low in sulphur and phosphorous.
Christened “Iron Shoes,” Robert Linney’s sled was the first all-metal bobsled. It was made with materials mined solely at Lyon Mountain, and was worth about $1,500-or $1,000 more than the standard four-man bobsled of the day.
Linney had little difficulty obtaining the men and materials from the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co. to produce Iron Shoes. It would help America’s bobsled team, and was thus considered patriotic; it would be good publicity for the company; and the man who had to give his approval, the vice president of the company, was Joseph R. Linney, Bob’s father.
More than a century after a Vermont Yankee named Nathaniel Lyon trekked across the ice on Lake Champlain and came by oxcart to the southern slopes of the mountain that bears his name, J. R. Linney, his wife, and their three children moved north to Lyon Mountain from Old Forge, Pennsylvania. Until their arrival in 1919, what little history Lyon Mountain had was a history of mining.
Located in the town of Dannemora (which was named after an iron-rich district in Denmark), the Chateaugay ore bed, on which Lyon Mountain is located, was and is one of the world’s richest. In 1822, a Lloyd N. Rogers purchased a large parcel of land in the area, and for many years the village was called Rogers Field. A year after Rogers made his purchase, the first recorded discovery of ore was made. Myths, rumors, and tall tales hinted at the presence of ore in the area, but the initial discovery was reputed to have been made by an old trapper named Collins, who was famed for his ability to find anything in the wilderness. Because of the bed’s location far from any railroad or water route, the only activity until later in the century was the mental agonizing of ambitious men over how to remove the ore. Finally, in 1888 a mine was opened, and in 1890 the Chateaugay Iron Co. of Plattsburgh bought the land.
At about the time the first ore was being mined in Lyon Mountain, J. R. Linney was born, in Taylor, Pennsylvania. His father had left the iron mines of England to cross the Atlantic, and his mother’s family had been coal miners in Wales. At the age of 10, J. R. Linney began his mining career as a slate picker at a coal breaker near Scranton, Pennsylvania. By 1916 he was superintendent of the Hudson Coal Co. and in February, 1919, he accepted an offer from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which by that time owned the Chateuagay Ore and Iron Co., to become manager of its northern New York subsidiary.
When J. R. Linney arrived in Lyon Mountain, its residents had no running water and no electricity in their houses. As for law and order, they were just as likely to settle a disagreement with a six-shooter as with rational discussion. The town was lawless enough to have forced Mrs. William Hart, the widow of the local justice of the peace, to carry a gun to and from the pool room and barbershop she owned. It was a town of immigrants, of Poles and Lithuanians, of French-Canadians and Germans and Norwegians. Its young American boys were as likely to know the call for dinner in a foreign language as in English.
The environment was ripe for improvements, and J. R. Linney was prepared to make them. He advanced housing conditions. He made water and electricity available to all. He converted the shoot-’em-up mining town into a lawful and orderly village. For Robert, William, and Mildred Linney, J. R.’s children, Lyon Mountain became a prosperous, peaceful, and modern community in which to grow up.
Of the two Linney brothers, Robert, born in 1908, was the innovator, the perfectionist. William, born in 1912, was the better athlete, and was perhaps a bit more outgoing and easier to get to know. Like most boys growing up in Lyon Mountain at the time, their future was with the mining company. But their father’s position and their education (Robert went to Yale, William to the University of Vermont) guaranteed that they would not spend too many days laboring in the shafts.
If mining was their vocation, by the beginning of 1936 the avocation of the entire family was bobsledding. Iron Shoes, conceived by Hubert Stevens’s ambition and born of Robert Linney’s engineering knowledge, made its debut at Mt. Van Hoevenberg on Sunday, January 11, 1936. It was 11 feet, seven inches long, and two feet, 10 inches wide. Its front runners were just slightly longer than three feet, 11 inches and its rear runners were about four and a half feet. With Bob Linney at the controls, Iron Shoes made its first descent of the run. Long, silvery, and sleek, it attracted some attention that first day—but not nearly as much as it did one week later.
Linney returned the next weekend with his team, the Lyon Mountain Miners (including Savair Bosjolie, John Mohler and Bill Stacavich), and won the North American junior bobsled championship. In a sport where winners are often determined by hundredths of a second, the Miners’ four-heat time was eight seconds better than their closest challenger. In a classic bit of understatement, the New York Times of the following day reported that Linney “appears destined to go high in bobsledding.”
Eventually, four all-metal four-man sleds, all based on the same design, were built by Linney. Two were called Iron Shoes, one was Iron Clipper, and the fourth—which was never used—was Iron Miner. Linney also built a two-man sled, which was never used in competition but which local drivers practiced on. It was called Iron Shoes, Junior. Bob Linney’s success was so great that first winter that the United States Olympic Committee requested the use of Iron Shoes for the 1936 Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Iron Shoes was shipped over, but Hubert Stevens did not have sufficient practice time and finished fourth on a different sled.
Between the Games at Garmisch and the tryouts in 1939 for the 1940 Olympics, Bob Linney and his sleds kept improving. Those tryouts were his greatest triumph.
While Linney realized that a superior sled was vitally important to winning a race, he also realized that the most critical part of the race was the beginning. The first four or five seconds, when the driver and the third rider positioned themselves in the sled and the second rider and the brake-man used their teammates’ backs to push off, normally determined who would win. Linney again went to work. His innovation was simple and seemingly obvious. Four men can push harder and faster than two men. Consequently, he installed “Swiss pushers,” or metal stanchions rising from the sled and running its length, to give his men a better grip for the push-off and to let all four push simultaneously.
He also began serious workouts to improve his team’s strength, stamina, and speed. Wind sprints became part of the Lyon Mountain Miners’ routine. Once the “Swiss pushers” were installed, Linney conducted timed push-trials to determine if the innovation was an advantage. For two weeks before Olympic tryouts began, he had his crew run 100 feet, over and over, alternating between the “Swiss pushers” and the old-style sled. His discovery was critical to his success: the Miners could push Iron Shoes 100 feet in four and a half seconds with the “Swiss pushers,” but they needed over five seconds to do it without the pushers. During the Olympic trials, the Miners’ time into Cliffside, which then was the first major turn on the run, was two seconds faster for four heats than that of Francis Tyler, a Lake Placid policeman who represented the Lake Placid Club. Bob Linney’s four-heat time was 4:37.59—just .68 second better than Francis Tyler’s. (Tyler later used Linney’s innovation to help him win an Olympic gold medal. In 1948, his team practiced at St. Moritz with a conventional sled. Once the competition started, he unveiled a sled with pushers and the advantage gave him a first-place finish.)
The Olympic tryouts, however, were as far as his sleds would take Bob Linney. Before the 1940 Games could be held, World War II intervened, and the Games were cancelled. The resulting irony was not lost on Bob Linney. He wrote: “The story of the 1940 Olympic Games is history and instead of producing ore to build sleds with which to compete against other countries in friendly games, my brother and myself dug iron ore for the steel that produced the material that our boys used to fight against these same people.”
In 1939, the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co. was bought by Republic Steel, the nation’s third largest steel producer. J. R. Linney was appointed district manager, and had control over the mines in Mineville, Port Henry, and Lyon Mountain. In 1940, Bob Linney was appointed general superintendent of Republic’s operations at Port Henry. With the appointment came the announcement of his retirement from bobsledding. But instead of an era coming to an abrupt close, it was merely extended. For when Robert Linney exited, William Linney entered.
The Linney brothers never competed simultaneously, for two reasons. First, since bobsledding is a dangerous sport, their parents always frowned upon any ideas of competing together. Secondly, their duties at the mine allowed only one at a time to devote less than all his efforts to his job. So in 1940, when Bob turned his attention solely to mining, Bill took over protecting the family name in bob-sledding.
Although the ideas and innovations were Bob Linney’s, Bill wasted little time in equaling his brother’s athletic accomplishments. Bill had always been the better athlete of the two. He was the catcher on the Lyon Mountain baseball team; Bob was the manager. Bill was also an excellent swimmer and golfer. And at five feet, eight inches, and about 185 pounds, Bill was the same height yet 30 pounds heavier than Bob. By February 18, 1940, Bill and his team of Rufus Brickey, Tom Hicks, and Bill Stacavich had set a four-heat record, and then broken it, with a 4:26.46 time. The Miners also cruised down Mt. Van Hoevenberg once in 1:05.54, shaving nearly three seconds off the old record, held by Bob Linney.
Bill also competed in 1941, but with World War II now raging, Republic Steel was required to increase its output. Bob and Bill Linney were told that their abilities could best be utilized if they stayed at the mines, Bob at Port Henry, Bill at Lyon Mountain. With all of the village working on the production of iron ore, Lyon Mountain exceeded the asked-for output of 40,000 tons of concentrates per month.
When the war ended and the Mt. Van Hoevenberg run re-opened, the Lyon Mountain Miners were back. They won the North American Club Championship in 1946 and the National Amateur Athletic Union title in 1948. But it was to be the last hurrah in bobsledding for the Linney brothers.
In 1950, Bob was assigned by Republic Steel to the Reserve Mining Co.’s taconite operations in Babitt and Silvery Bay, Minnesota, a venture owned jointly by Republic and Armco Steel. Bill moved his family to Port Henry and filled the vacancy that Bob had left. Two years later, J. R. Linney, the patriarch and the man who brought iron mining in the Adirondacks to its peak, died in Lima, Peru, while inspecting that country’s mining projects. His legacy included two books (a history of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co., and a novel, The Touch of Human Hands), one Adirondack village which he almost single-handedly brought into the 20th century, and two sons who set North American bobsledding afire with their superior sleds and recond-breaking performances.
In early autumn, 1956, nearly a decade after the peak of his bobsledding career, William Linney died of a heart attack in his Port Henry home. He was 44.
Robert Linney continued with Republic Steel, moving to Cleveland following his tenure in Minnesota. Among his extra-bobsledding achievements were various patents used in mining, including the Linney Magnetic Separator. Robert died in 1971, while on vacation in Naples, Florida. He was 61.
But the tradition of innovation established by the Linneys did not end with their demise. It has had its moments of glory in the interim, and today is alive in at least two instances.
Arthur Tyler, an engineer for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, won a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympics and won the 1959 world championships at St. Moritz, Switzerland, with sleds that included his own design improvements. Tyler was the first to put a cowl on the sled; he introduced a new suspension system that made the sled wriggle down the run much like a high-speed worm, making it very difficult to turn over. Tyler was so successful that after the 1959 world championships, instead of his sled being shipped back immediately, it was mysteriously delayed. The delay lasted almost a year, and by the next season most European sleds had incorporated his innovations.
Currently, two other groups have revived interest in design improvements. A group based at Schenectady’s Union College made three runs with a new sled down Mt. Van Hoevenberg last March. Following those descents, and based on further research and development, David Ullman, the designer of the sled, said, “If we stay with it for a few years, we’ll hold most of the hill records in the world.” Ullman is a 35-year-old professor of mechanical engineering at Union. Worked on by various students at Union and by a group of engineers from General Electric who have independently volunteered their time, his sled has a flexible, one-piece chassis, and a full suspension system with each runner independent of the others.
Ullman is interested in his sled’s chances of winning a medal, not at Lake Placid in 1980, perhaps, but in 1984 at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The sled also interests him for more esoteric reasons, however—for, as he said, the “existentialist pleasure of designing something that works well.”
For the Excalibur Auto Corp. of Milwaukee, “existentialist pleasure” has nothing to do with its efforts. David Stevens, the president of Excalibur, has designed a sled which the Excalibur people flatly claim will win a medal. And while Union College’s Ullman admits that he would be flattered if the Europeans copied his sled, a la Arthur Tyler’s, Excalibur refuses to reveal any details about its sled. It made four runs down Mt. Van Hoevenberg last March and at the end of each run was immediately bundled aboard a truck to prevent any interested and perceptive eyes from seeing it. Excalibur wants a medal for the United States, and it feels it has the best sled to achieve that goal.
“I’m convinced that it will bring the United States a medal,” said Nancy Von Grossman of Excalibur. “We’re not looking to 1984, we’re looking to 1980. Our main goal is to win a medal for the United States. If we have the best sled, and someone else is the best driver, fine. Let him drive our sled. We want to win a medal.”
The current design changes should be viewed with caution, however, according to Gary Sheffield, the U.S. bobsled coach. He was a member of Tyler’s 1959 team, and he knows about well-designed bobsleds. But, Sheffield said, bobsled drivers become used to one type of sled and it is difficult for them to change. If the drivers that Excalibur and Ullman have (Bob Said and Christopher Cross, respectively) do not qualify for the U.S. team, there is a good chance no one else will be capable of driving their sleds. Practice time in bobsledding is precious, and not many drivers will be willing to sacrifice their time to a sled they may not be able to master.
A sled with no driver could be an insurmountable problem for Excalibur and for David Ullman. But it was not a problem for Robert and William Linney. All-metal sleds, cast-iron runners, a low center of gravity, and four men using “Swiss pushers” to propel the sled were innovations for which they were responsible. And for their sleds, the Linney brothers had the best possible drivers: themselves.