The Ohio Broad Gauge and Other Fables

Railroad historians exploring the times before the Civil War still express astonishment over the odd track gauge of 4' 10" adopted by midwestern railroads, considering it as an exercise of individuality that resulted in great inconvenience, and perhaps an example of legislative bumbling, since the gauge was enshrined in a number of Ohio railroad charters. Here is the explanation of that weird legislation.

The gauges of industrial tramways varied around 4', but the variation did not matter much since all traffic was local, and the vehicles used on one tramway did not find their way onto another. Coal and stone tramways in the United States also had similar gauges. The Stephensons brought the 4' 8" gauge of Tyneside to the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester, and this became the most popular gauge for the steam railway. Though the wheel flanges were spaced 4' 8" apart, the rails were laid a half-inch wider, at 4' 8-1/2" for freer running. This became the standard gauge.

A wider gauge was thought preferable by some, from the extreme of 7' of Isambard Brunel, through the 6' of the Erie, the 5' 6" of Missouri and Texas,and the 5' gauge of the South Carolina Railroad. All these broad gauges offered mechanical and traffic advantages, which, however, were seldom exploited. Ireland and Spain still use broad gauges of this kind (5' 3" and 5' 6", respectively).

Some people chose a round 5', both in England and in the United States, and this gauge spread to Russia as well. This is hardly a broad gauge, since it gives a negligible advantage over the standard gauge, and offers the inconvenience of not permitting the interchange of vehicles with standard gauge railways. Some say this was just the reason for its adoption, but this cannot be true in most cases. Perhaps the reason was simply a love of round numbers. After the Civil War, the South standardized on the 5' gauge, even widening existing standard gauge lines. Louisville, Kentucky liked the situation, since it meant that things had to terminate there and be transshipped, instead of just moving through without leaving any money behind. Eventually, just the trucks on the cars were changed, so things actually did just move through, and the advantage of the break of gauge was lost.

Now we come to Ohio. When the first railways were being built there in the 30's and 40's, the popular method of construction was an essentially wooden track with a flat bar of wrought iron as a bearing surface. Such a railway was one-third the cost of one with a fully iron track on crossties. Since there was no money in the U.S., the flat bar track was the popular choice. It was satisfactory for the light 4-2-0 Jervis locomotives, and the 4- or 8-wheeled cars weighing no more than 10 or 12 tons, moving not to exceed 15 mph, at least in these years. It allowed railroads to be built into virgin territory where a heavier construction was prohibited by its cost. John B. Jervis at first promoted this track, recommending that it be of ample proportions. It was used on the Mohawk and Hudson, as well as on the string of small railways that later became the New York Central. In fact, it was generally used in the 1830's and 1840's.

Flat bar track had to be treated with tenderness. What it hated most was to be pried sideways, as from a long wheelbase vehicle negotiating a curve. This applied forces that would loosen the fastenings, or even spring the bars off. To reduce this action as far as possible, locomotive manufacturers recommended that the track gauge be widened to permit a freer motion, especially with the 0-4-0 locomotives that were still popular. The most popular widened gauge was 4' 10", which was about the maximum allowable with normal tread widths. If you look at any photograph of early rolling stock, you will note that the wheel treads overlap the rail head by a considerable amount. This gauge appears to have been recommended by the Baldwin Locomotive Words, for example. Such a gauge should be called a wide gauge, not a broad gauge.

Nothing was different on the 4' 10" gauge but the gauge of the track. Locomotives, cars and wheels were the same as on standard gauge. I have not seen any evidence that the back-to-back spacing of the wheels on the axles, a critical measurement, was any different. There were no standards at the time, so it was quite possible to come up with wheels with a tread that was too narrow, too close to slipping off on the 4' 10". On the other hand, wheels could be made with specially wide treads that would be extra secure. Any road with a 4' 10" gauge made sure its treads were wide enough, and its vehicles could move on 4' 8-1/2" gauge connections with no problems. The newspapers had fun attacking railways when accidents did happen on 4' 10" gauge flat bar track, but these were more usually due to general deterioration of the track at that date than to the eased gauge or interchange of vehicles. A gauge close to 4' 10" was also common in New Jersey, and was used by the Camden and Amboy, but was not enshrined in legislation. Since rail heads are about 2-1/2" wide, a 5" tread would allow the gauge to be widened by 2-1/2" without the tread leaving the rail. A 1-1/2" widening is well within this limit.

Angus Sinclair repeats the story that the first Rogers engine, the Sandusky, established the wide gauge when it came to the Mad River and Lake Erie around 1837 (p. 236). White points out that this cannot be true, since the charter was granted (1832) before the Sandusky was ordered. There was a number of engines named Sandusky; this one is the early Rogers 4-2-0. It would be very interesting to read the associated debate in the Legislature, since it would supply the exact motive.

The Pennsylvania Railroad specified a 4' 9" gauge for many years, which simply avoided the odd half inch, and was only a slightly eased standard gauge. Many other companies followed suit.

Anything from 4' 8-1/2" to 4' 10" is simply standard gauge, and should cause no amazment when the reason for wanting an eased gauge is understood. Lack of standards can certainly cause problems in view of the variations, but not insurmountable ones. If wheel spacing was modified for the wide gauge, then the advantage of a wide gauge was lost, and the wheel sets could not run on 4' 8-1/2" gauge.

John H. White has a good deal to say about the 4' 10" gauge, generally in peripheral comments. He blames the Pittsburgh congestion of 1863 on the different gauge to the west. However, congestion at Pittsburgh was not unusual, even when the gauges were the same, as in the First World War. I have not found any comments on a different gauge of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago, the principal western connection of the PRR, causing any trouble with running through, nor with the P. C. & St. L, which must have included parts that were still wide gauge. The gauges might not have been different after all; there is no mention of any enforcement. After laying track to wide gauge, it could easily be altered. Congestion at Pittsburgh was only solved in 1920 when it became the centre of an operating unit of the PRR, not a boundary point for several units.

Modern wheel sets could run as well on wide as on standard gauge, since the treads are 5" wide. On 5' gauge, however, they would fall off. There would be some wandering motion on wide gauge, that could be dangerous at high speed, but at low speeds it would be satisfactory. For economy, old wheels may have been made lighter by adopting narrow treads; a tread as narrow as 3" would begin to give trouble. White denigrates the "compromise wheels" that were offered at the time; if these were simply heavier wheels with wider treads, the calumny is unwarranted.

A related fable has to do with the dreaded "snakehead." The newspapers reported that "strap rail" came loose and penetrated the floors of passenger cars with great loss of life. B. B. Adams, editor of The Railway Gazette, looked into this around the turn of the century, and could only find two cases. In one, a woman was slightly injured when a piece of iron entered a car in New York around 1848, and in the other, a workman was killed on a construction train of the Jersey Central some years earlier. Not that track did not sometimes disintegrate under a train and cause a derailment, but there were apparently no "snakeheads" at all resembling the lurid newspaper and magazine cartoons. Even the term "strap rail" is a newspaper attempt to represent the track as made from the thin iron used for packaging, when in fact the rail bars were substantial pieces of iron. Flat-bar track was given up because (1) it could not sustain heavy loads, (2) maintenance costs were very high, and (3) the wood deteriorated rapidly, and not because it was a safety hazard in itself. Jervis himself had given it up by the time he engineered the Hudson River Railroad in 1851.

Another common misconception is that before air brakes, only the brakes on the locomotive and tender were available to control the train. Actually, the locomotive generally had no brakes at all; only the tender did, and they were operated by the fireman. It was also difficult to reverse a running engine before the adoption of link motion. Of course, as most of us know, the train was controlled by brakemen working hand brakes on the cars of the train. A brakeman could often control the brakes on the two adjacent cars from his position, and he was in place whenever the train was moving. Many unbraked European freight cars had small cabins for brakemen. Brake vans were made specially heavy and with effective brakes. For normal stops and gradients, the brakemen knew when and how strongly to apply the brakes without being told. The final stop was made with the tender brake. In emergencies, the engineman would call for brakes with his whistle, and he could also signal the brakemen to release brakes. Before descending a heavy grade, the train would stop and the brakemen would partially apply enough brakes to hold the train. It was possible for brakemen to walk on walkways on the roofs of cars so that they could operate more than two sets of brakes, but this was always dangerous if the train was in motion. Air brakes not only permitted emergency stops for the first time, but also allowed trains to be lengthened without adding additional brakemen. On open-platform passenger cars, passengers were not permitted to move between cars; the platforms were for the brakemen.


J. H. White, Jr., The American Railroad Freight Car (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993).

A. Sinclair, Development of the Locomotive Engine

(Cambridge MA: the M. I. T. Press, 1970; edited by J. H. White, Jr., a reprint of the 1907 edition).

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 15 July 2004
Last revised 6 February 2006