One Gauge: How Hundreds Of Incompatible Railroads Became A National System
As early as 1847 Daniel Webster could say without sounding ludicrous that the railroad “towers above all other inventions of this or the preceding age.” Indeed, by the 1860s American railroads had triumphed over competing forms of transport for most long-distance travel. Shippers welcomed the dependability of year-round rail service. It was cheaper than the turnpike, more flexible and direct than the canal packet or the steamboat, and much faster than any of these.
During the 1850s and 1860s rail mileage expanded so rapidly that it seemed every little valley could afford a branch line. In 1869, with the Golden Spike hammered home at Promontory, Utah, coast-to-coast rail travel became possible for the first time. But American railways still had big problems to correct before they could form a unified national transportation network, and the most urgent of these was the fact that the hundreds of lines proliferating across the country had no common gauge.
A railroad’s gauge is simply the distance between the rails. It is the most basic of specifications, and the lack of a standard for it bedeviled American railroaders for decades. A train built for one gauge cannot run on tracks of another one, so wherever lines of different gauges met, every pound of freight going through had to be unloaded and transferred by hand. In the 1860s there were five gauges with at least a thousand miles of track, each predominant in a different region of the country. Long-distance shipping might require several loadings and unloadings, and the cost in time and labor could nullify the savings that rail transport promised. Only after achieving a uniform track gauge would our railroads be able to provide a truly integrated service.
The earliest American lines were planned and built to serve a particular city and its back country only. None of their builders dreamed of a national system, so each line chose its own gauge with little thought of matching it to any other.
The engineers of the pioneering Baltimore & Ohio, for example, were sent to England in 1828 to study railroad construction methods and returned home to recommend use of the English gauge, 4 feet 8.5 inches. This gauge had been chosen by George Stephenson, who had built the first successful steam railroad; he had based it upon English tramways and wagons, which in turn were very near the wheel gauge of the ancient Roman chariots.
The first railroad in New York State, the 17-mile Mohawk & Hudson, opened in 1831, also used the English gauge; so did three short lines heading out of Boston in the mid-1830s, as well as early construction in Pennsylvania. By the 1860s 4 feet 8.5 inches would be the standard for all new construction in America.
But many 1830s lines, especially those south of the Potomac and Ohio rivers, were not built in the English gauge. When the promoters of South Carolina’s Charleston & Hamburg were planning their road in the late 1820s , they hired a young engineer named Horatio Allen to handle the technical side. Allen, who had worked for the Delaware & Hudson and had studied English railways, was a firm believer in steam locomotives but did not favor the English track gauge, possibly because of his disappointment with the English-built locomotive Stourbridge Lion . The Delaware & Hudson had a 4-foot-3-inch gauge, to match that used in Pennsylvania coal-mine cars, but Allen insisted on 5 feet for the Charleston & Hamburg. This wider gauge was at once copied in nearby states, and by 1861 more than 7,000 miles of 5-foot track lay across the South. This set the pattern for the adoption of different gauges in different regions: One early line would start out with an odd measurement, and as it became successful, others nearby had to match it to allow for connecting service.
Exceptions to the English standard became common in the North too. In 1830 two brothers, Robert Livingston Stevens and Edwin Augustus Stevens, obtained a charter from the New Jersey legislature to build the Camden & Amboy Railroad. Robert, the elder brother, designed the world’s first successful T rail, and he was installing track that incorporated his innovation by 1831. Even though the Stevens brothers ordered an English locomotive, the John Bull , they built their line with a 4-foot-10-inch gauge. Since their charter granted the C&A exclusive rights to the New York-Philadelphia route, many later roads in the state that hoped to link up with the C&A naturally used the same gauge. Ohio copied this New Jersey gauge when the locomotive Sandusky , built in Paterson, New Jersey, was shipped to the Buckeye State in 1837, and in 1848 the Ohio legislature made the 4-foot-10-inch gauge the standard for the state.
In some cases promoters chose oddball gauges to keep business from being diverted to another line. The New York & Erie Railroad, chartered in 1832 to build a line from Piermont-on-Hudson, New York, to Lake Erie, chose a broad 6-foot gauge to prevent any rival connecting railroad from siphoning off traffic. When the road finally reached Lake Erie in 1851, a second 6-foot line, the Ohio & Mississippi, was being planned from Cincinnati to St. Louis.
Still other gauges took root in other areas. In the mid-1840s Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts, and were compeling to become the terminus of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence, an international road that would give Montreal a winter outlet for trade with Europe. John Alfred Poor, a 250-pound Yankee, made a five-day sleigh trip through a raging blizzard in February 1845 to convince Montreal’s city fathers that the railroad should go to Portland. Poor and the officials of the A&SL insisted that the new line be built in a 5-foot-6-inch gauge to prevent any through service from Canada on to Boston. So 5 feet 6 inches became normal for Canadian roads built in the 1850s and early 1860s . Missouri lines also adopted it, as did those of Arkansas, Texas, and western Louisiana.
The United States had 9,000 miles of track in operation by 1850, but still American railroads amounted to little more than a scattering of lines of modest length located mostly between Maine and Georgia. Without a national rail network, the existence of five different track gauges was of no real concern. As the decade progressed, though, railroads began to emerge as the country’s biggest business. During the 1850s the nation’s rail mileage more than tripled, to over 30,000 by 1860. The network grew to about 10,000 miles in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, 9,500 miles in the South, and more than 11,000 miles (9,800 of them newly built during the 1850s) in the West. Most new Northern and Western lines were built in the standard 4-foot-8.5-inch gauge, most Southern ones in the 5-foot.
By 1860 the iron network had reached the frontier, with several railheads well west of the Mississippi River. Chicago saw its first locomotive in 1848, had rail service to the East by 1852, and 8 years later was served by 11 railroads with a hundred daily trains.
With all this construction, the speed of travel increased greatly. When Abraham Lincoln returned to Springfield, Illinois, in March 1849, at the end of his single term in Congress, the trip via rail, stagecoach, and Ohio and Mississippi steamboats required some eleven days. In 1861 an all-rail trip between Springfield and Washington could be taken over any of several routes in less than two.
But breaks in gauge, and the resulting transfer of freight, were becoming a serious problem. The Civil War led to some integration and improvement of the rail system both North and South, as efficient transport became a military necessity as well as an economic one. When the Pacific Railroad Act of July 1, 1862, directed President Lincoln to select a gauge for the proposed Union Pacific-Central Pacific route to California, Lincoln initially decided on the 5-foot gauge favored by interests in California and Oregon. Supporters of standard gauge protested, and Sen. James Harlan of Iowa introduced a bill to establish the 4-foot-8.5-inch gauge for the Pacific railroad. With powerful Eastern political influences backing it, the Harlan bill won easy congressional approval in 1863. It seemed appropriate to build the line to the Pacific in the gauge that predominated in the North and Midwest.
Although the war led to some standardization on each side, after Appomattox the difficulty of connecting North and South remained. Several remedies were tried to adapt to the coexistence of different gauges. “Compromise cars” had been in use as early as 1860. Their wheels had treads five inches wide, at least an inch more than normal, which permitted them to operate on both standard gauge and the 4-foot-10-inch track prevalent in New Jersey and Ohio. In a few years thousands of compromise cars were traveling the trunk-line region between New York and the Mississippi River. But their broad-tread wheels caused a number of accidents, and many railroad officials opposed them.
Several lines experimented with sliding wheels, which could be moved along an axle to accommodate either standard or broader gauge. Late in 1863 a car so equipped successfully moved a shipment of flour over the Grand Trunk (5 feet 6 inches) and the Eastern Railroad (4 feet 8.5 inches) from Portland, Maine, to Boston. Soon the Grand Trunk was operating several hundred cars with sliding wheels, but wear and carelessness caused frequent accidents, and by 1874 the Grand Trunk had changed its entire line to standard gauge.
The early 1870s saw the advent of the car hoist, a steam-powered crane that could lift a freight or passenger car, allowing trucks (the wheeled supporting structures on which a car rests) of different gauges to be exchanged under it. The entire operation took only a few minutes; some car hoists could change eight or ten cars an hour. As soon as all the rolling stock on a train had gotten new trucks, a fresh locomotive of the proper gauge could hook onto it.
During the 1860s and 1870s another, simpler expedient was tried: the use of a third rail to accommodate cars of a different gauge. The arrangement allowed the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton to carry cars from the Atlantic & Great Western to the Ohio & Mississippi tracks at Cincinnati. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Canadians hoped their 5-foot-6-inch lines would impede American aggression should Great Britain enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. But by 1865 the Great Western of Canada was laying a third inside rail between Buffalo and Windsor, Ontario, to accommodate the standard-gauge cars of the Michigan Central and the New York Central. In the 1870s the 6-foot New York & Erie laid many miles of inside third rail to fit standard-gauge equipment. By 1880 more than 2,500 miles of line in the United States were listed as double-gauge.
Such ad hoc solutions eased the problem a bit, but a crazy quilt of gauges remained. Clearly the best way by far to achieve railroad integration would be with nationwide acceptance of a single gauge. A major step toward integration came in 1869, when the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired a 999-year lease on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago, a 4-foot-l 0-inch line mostly in Ohio and Indiana. During the next few months the Pennsylvania widened its own system to 4 feet 9 inches, while the 467-mile line west of Pittsburgh narrowed its track to 4 feet 9.5 inches (the half-inch difference was no real problem for car wheels having a normal tread of three to four inches). A decade later the Pittsburgh-to-Chicago line narrowed its track another half-inch to the Pennsylvania gauge. During the 1870s most 4-foot-l0-inch trackage shifted toward either the Pennsylvania gauge or the standard gauge of the New York Central and the Baltimore & Ohio. By 1880 not a single line of more than 60 miles was still using the earlier Ohio gauge of 4 feet 10 inches.
In 1871 the Pennsylvania acquired a long-term lease of the United New Jersey Railroads, a 400-mile system that gave the line its long-desired entrance into New York City. By 1873 the new acquisition had changed its gauge to that of the Pennsylvania, 4 feet 9 inches. During the 1870s nearly all the other New Jersey lines shifted from 4 feet 10 inches to either Pennsylvania gauge or standard gauge.
The three 6-foot lines also shifted to standard gauge during the 1870s . The 340-mile Ohio & Mississippi from Cincinnati to East St. Louis had been completed in 1857, but serving thinly populated southern Indiana and Illinois, the road had never prospered. The O&M shifted to standard gauge in 1871, and Poor’s Manual of Railroads for 1871–72 exulted: “This secured a uniform gauge from Baltimore & St. Louis and thence to the Pacific Ocean.”
At the other end of the broad-gauge route, the New York & Erie was slower to change, but at last an inner rail in standard gauge was completed from Jersey City to Buffalo late in 1878. The outside broad-gauge rail was removed in June 1880, and the unfortunate 6-foot Erie gauge was but a memory. In the same month the 6-foot track of the Atlantic & Great Western, which ran from Salamanca, New York, to Dayton, Ohio, and thus allowed connecting service between the Erie line and Cincinnati, also changed to standard gauge.
The third of the Northern broad gauges, the 5-foot-6-inch, also gave way to standard gauge after the Civil War. In 1874 the Atlantic & St. Lawrence adopted standard gauge, and by the end of the decade nearly all rail lines in Maine had done likewise. The Grand Trunk in Canada shifted to standard gauge in 1874, followed soon afterward by most other Canadian railroads. The Missouri Pacific had adopted standard gauge by 1870, and within a few years it was in general use throughout the Show Me State.
As the 1880s opened, the only important holdouts to standard gauge were in the Southern states, where about 80 percent of the region’s track remained in the 5-foot gauge. The Civil War and Reconstruction had kept the South isolated from the rest of the country; also, for a long time there were very few cities where Northern and Southern lines met in the same yard, so standardizing gauge would not have made transfer of freight any easier. Still, as the South recovered, a few of the 5-foot Southern lines shifted to standard gauge early in the 1880s. James C. Clarke, general manager and vice president of the Illinois Central, got the task of changing the gauge of the IC’s 547-mile Southern line, known as the Chicago, St. Louis & New Orleans, which ran from East Cairo, Kentucky, to New Orleans. Clarke used more than 3,000 men for the gauge change, about 600 more than the road’s normal total work force. Detailed orders and plans went out to officials, roadmasters, and section foremen in early July 1881. Shortly before the big day most of the inside spikes of the west rail were removed, and spikes for the new gauge were put in place. Starting at dawn on Friday, July 29, 1881, the workers—roughly a section crew (half a dozen men) for each mile of track—started to move the west rail 3.5 inches east. Each crewman either pulled spikes, moved the rail, or drove spikes home to fasten it in place. By three that afternoon the job was done. The Railroad Gazette called it one of the great events in the history of American railroading; the Chicago Tribune estimated that the total expense might reach $300,000.
The Mobile & Ohio Railroad, another north-south line and a competitor of the Illinois Central, changed its track to standard gauge on July 8,1885, in a similar one-day marathon. These two northsouth lines soon became increasingly competitive with the 5-foot Louisville & Nashville, which made Milton Hannibal Smith start worrying about track gauge. Smith was the chief executive and dominant personality of the L&N for nearly forty years until his death in 1921. Arbitrary and often impatient, he brooked little interference, whether from a railroad commission, the Kentucky legislature, or Hetty Green, the miserly millionaire investor who from her private car in the Louisville yards scolded him for the extravagant use of brass on his locomotives. Like many railroad executives, Smith hated passenger service. “You can’t make a goddamned cent out of it,” he declared. Smith wanted to expand his freight traffic, and he believed it would grow if the L&N adopted standard gauge. By the winter of 1885-86 he had persuaded many other Southern railroad presidents that it was time to shift.
On February 2 and 3, 1886, some 70 officials from 30 Southern lines met at the Kimball House in Atlanta to discuss the problem. Upon the advice of numerous heads of transportation, machinery, and maintenance-of-way departments, the Atlanta group decided to make the change on all main lines across the South over two days, Monday, May 31, and Tuesday, June 1. All roads were urged to withdraw some cars and engines early so that they could change wheel and truck gauges before June 1. Converting locomotives was easier for lines using Baldwin engines, since that manufacturer had for some years been building all its frames and fireboxes in a way that would permit an eventual change.
In the spring of 1886 the Railroad Gazette reprinted the detailed plans followed by the Mobile & Ohio the previous year. They called for work crews of 26 men, with each man given a specific job—rail mover, inside spiker, outside spiker, car shover, water carrier, and so on. The M&O had paid each worker $1.50 a day plus meals.
The shift on the Louisville & Nashville was typical. Smith gave the job of directing and planning to his general manager, James T. Harahan. In twenty-five years of railroading, Harahan had served as clerk, switchman, section boss, roadmaster, and superintendent, and he was always solicitous of his workers’ welfare. A few years later, when he was an Illinois Central vice president, his popularity alone kept IC workers on the job during the Pullman strike. Harahan mapped out the project as if it were a military campaign. Jumping the gun by a day, he decided that Sunday, May 30, was the best time for the shift, since few trains ran on Sunday. He hired extra help to bring his crew up to a total of 8,000—about 4 per mile of line—and announced that no trains would be running on the day of the shift.
When dawn broke on Sunday, the track crews started moving the west rail three inches to the east in sections of several hundred feet at a time. Company officials offered cash prizes to foremen whose men finished their task first, and the crew chiefs promised drinks and barbecue for efficient workers. By six in the evening the change was complete, and trains again started to roll over the L&N. During May and June the equipment shops kept busy shifting wheel gauges on cars and locomotives. One shop shifted the wheels on 1,700 freight cars, 18 passenger cars, and 19 locomotives in a single day. The immediate cost to the L&N for the gauge change was about $92,000 for track work and even more for converting the rolling stock.
Thus by early June 1886 the railroads of the entire nation had achieved a uniform track gauge.
The 1880s saw over 70,000 miles of railroad built, and the 164,000 miles in existence in 1890 were indeed a national network. During the decade the greater use of steel rails (instead of iron), the adoption of standard time, the utilization of more powerful locomotives pulling longer and heavier trains, and the introduction of better brakes, automatic couplers, and safer signaling all helped create a more efficient railroad service. But the standardization of gauge, climaxed by the Southern changeover of 1886, was most crucial of all. Texas cattle, Chicago packed meat, Pittsburgh steel, Moline plows, Twin Cities flour, and New England shoes all moved economically over greater and greater distances. In the half-century before World War I our rail traffic doubled every ten years. American railroads had entered their golden age.