American Wooden Track

J. B. Jervis's economical track was a heavy version in the Tyneside tradition


I found M. J. T. Lewis's Early Wooden Railways quite by accident. For some reason, it had escaped all the bibiliographies that I had seen, and I ran across it in the stacks of Exeter University Library. I had tried to understand the early development of the railway, before the Canal Age, for many years. Lewis's book is precisely what I had longed for, and his careful work and accurate analysis have finally satisfied me. Now the development of iron rails falls into a logical sequence, and the methods of operation are clear. Lewis limits himself to wooden railways, though telling about their eventual conversion to iron, and specifically excludes several special cases, one of them the largely wooden track of early American railways. The history of this development is very little known in the United States, represented by little more than fables and quaint stories, which Lewis seems to have accepted without further inquiry. I would like to present a brief outline of American wooden track here for the benefit of those who would like to know a little more.

The relation between British and American railway engineering in the first half of the 19th century was very close, much closer than British haughtiness and American chauvinism might have led you to believe. Marc Isambard Brunel was, among other things, an American citizen and engineer for the City of New York, where he greatly improved the public water supply. He met his later wife, Sophie Kingdom, in the United States embassy in New York, while arranging for asylum from French turmoil. His son, I. K. Brunel, visited the United States when preparing to design the Great Western Railway to check on what was happening there, as his comments to the Institution of Civil Engineers show. Robert Fulton, the canal engineer, spent most of his engineering career in Britain (1786 to 1806), and brought British technology back to establish the steam boat on American waters. John Loudon McAdam, the road engineer, grew up in New York. These examples, only a few of many, show how closely the engineering establishments were connected in those days.

Agitation for steam railways began during the 1820's in both the United States and England. America had neither the trained engineers nor the capital to bring the early schemes to fruition, and political uncertainties hindered any significant development. It was not determined whether federal, state, or private ownership was appropriate. By mid-decade, several plans were likely to go ahead, and in every case delegations were sent to England to determine the state of the art, and to order the necessary iron and machinery, following the successful example of the Erie Canal. Previous schemes had foundered as much on engineering incompetence as on lack of money, so pride was to be swallowed and English expertise sought.

The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company desired a railway to connect their anthracite mines with the head of their canal across a mountain barrier. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania planned a line of canals and railways from Philadelphia to the Ohio River across the wild Alleghenies. South Carolina wanted a railway to bring trade to Charleston, short-circuiting the river route to Savannah in Georgia. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad desired to connect the port of Baltimore with the Ohio, bypassing the projected Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which would take the trade to Washington instead. New Jersey capitalists wanted a steam railway across their state that would monopolize travel between Philadelphia and New York, the busiest route in the country. In every case, a delegation of engineers was sent to England to buy iron from South Wales, order locomotives from Stephenson, and to report on what was going on in the field.

These delegations mostly arrived after the Stockton and Darlington was opened, but before the Liverpool and Manchester was completed. The Delaware and Hudson Company brought back several pre-Rocket Stephenson locomotives in 1829, and built a wooden track on trestlework, inspired by Tyneside waggonways. A locomotive made a brief excursion at Honedale, but these were too heavy for the track, and rapidly became obsolete, so they never ran otherwise. The Baltimore and Ohio sponsored a locomotive trial on the model of Raintree, but it was a ludicrous failure, with no practical locomotive brought to light. The B. & O. started life with horse power.

The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, opened in 1834, and the Boston and Lowell of about the same date, were double-track, wrought-iron railways modelled very closely on the Liverpool and Manchester, and both used Planet-class Stephenson locomotives. The Camden and Amboy, the first rail link in the route from Philadelphia to New York, was also similar, except that Robert Stevens had obtained a flat-bottom rail to eliminate the necessity for rail chairs. Transverse timber sleepers were used at first when the Sing Sing quarries did not deliver stones on time, but were soon replaced, except on embankments and soggy places. As on the Liverpool and Manchester, this kind of permanent way was not a success. It was also much too expensive to justify investment in a railway built into virgin territory with unproved traffic resources. A satisfactory, cheap alternative was sought.

John Bloomfield Jervis had received his engineering apprenticeship on the Erie Canal, and was one of that group of men who constituted a knowledgeable, intelligent, and ingenious engineering corps quite in contrast to the swaggering popinjays of West Point graduates who had proved unequal to the challenges of the new, and rather poor, country. He was engineer for the Delaware and Hudson, then for the Mohawk and Hudson, a 16-mile line bypassing many locks at the eastern entrance of the Erie Canal, and his assistant Horatio Allen was engineer for the South Carolina railway on his own. All this was happening in a few years either side of 1830. Jervis recognized that the problem with the Stephenson permanent way was uneven resilience, and attacked this by supporting the running surface on a continuous longitudinal baulk. The one material America had in abundance was wood, good hardwood. The running surface could be a wrought-iron bar, which would give durability and low rolling resistance.

Jervis never claimed the least originality for this construction, for indeed it was well-known, used in Britain, Germany, France, and even slighly earlier in the United States, for industrial railways. The difference in his conception was the size. The baulks, or rails, were perhaps 8 inches broad and 12 inches deep, made from oak or yellow pine. A thin hardwood strip of maple or walnut was the base for the bar rail, which was perhaps 2-1/2 inches wide and 1 inch thick, and located centrally on the wooden rail, not at the gauge side. The tendency was always for an increase in these dimensions with time for any mainline railway. The rails were mortised into crossties, and the wooden frame was joined by trenails. The bar rails were spiked down using countersunk holes, and had scarfed ends. Screws would have been better, but much too fiddly for those times in America.

At first, it was thought that the best way to support the frames was on trestlework or piles, which was much cheaper than embankment. The embankment could be filled in later as convenient. This proved disastrous for the first attempt to build the New York and Erie Railroad, when fire and frost rendered the original structures useless. There was somewhat more success with piles on the South Carolina, which passed over a great deal of bog in less extreme weather. On the Mohawk and Hudson, the track frame was supported on mud sills and covered over with soil, which solved the fire problem. The Baltimore and Ohio thought the use of stone blocks would be superior, and began trenailing the track frames to them. A strike in the quarry cut off the supply, so timber crossties were used as a temporary expedient. They were astonished when this temporary track proved superior to that on stone blocks. Incidentally, it was standard to use transverse timber sleepers on new embankment and soft places where there might be settlement and adjustments to be made, even on the Liverpool and Manchester.

One frequent error in early American railway design was the use of sharp curves. Railways were laid in city streets, and went around corners there, as well as in the country. This was fine for horse carriages, but not for Stephenson locomotives. Railroads like the Philadelphia and Columbia, Baltimore and Ohio, and Baltimore and Susquehanna, which had such kinks, found British locomotives useless. Those who did not, found them excellent, and many lasted for years, latterly in company service. The Planet and Samson classes of 2-2-0 and 0-4-0, and similar Bury locomotives, were the only locomotives of British design ever used in the United States. The Patentees were too big and heavy. Jervis again made a critical advance; he replaced the front carrying axle of a Planet with a simple 4-wheel bogie. This not only gave a three-point suspension for rough track, but also permitted the locomotive to negotiate very sharp curves. The Jervis 4-2-0 then became the standard American locomotive until the 1850's. These were light and nimble locomotives, ideal for America's infrequent, short, slow trains, which seldom exceeded 15 mph for many years. They, too, lasted in company service long after they became too small for traffic. Interestingly, they could be very fast when used on new track. Jervis himself asserted he had really not invented anything, and did not even try for a patent. The first production lots of Jervis 4-2-0's were made by Stephenson, and later some were used on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. They gave good service, but were really too light for British traffic.

The Jervis engine was well suited to American wooden track. Since the track was very vulnerable to disruption of the bars by sideways forces, the gauge was eased to reduce them. In Ohio, the gauge was stated in one railway act as 4' 10" as recommended by the locomotive manufacturer. This later gave rise to the fable among historians that there was a unique Ohio gauge, which was not the case. Wheel treads had to be sufficiently wide, however, to run on this gauge as well as the nominal 4' 8-1/2". Since there were no uniform standards, a few accidents seem to have occurred because of the loose gauge, but this may be newspaper exaggeration. Incidentally, Stephenson's gauge was actually 4' 8", and the extra 1/2" was added in the 1830's to ease the running.

American railway engineers were quite pleased with their American System of track that made maximum use of a widespread resource, timber, and minimum use of a costly and imported one, rolled iron. When Austrian railway authorities invited tenders for railway construction, a line was built from Vienna to Baden with American wooden track, which quite impressed them. They noted that the Habsburg Empire also had great timber resources and modest amounts of capital, and the new track was smooth and even. Austria's first public railway, from Budweis to Linz, opened in 1827 and complete in 1832, had used wrought-iron bars (2" wide by 1/3" thick) on wood rails (6" x 7"), so the idea was not strange, though the American track was much heavier. In the end, however, the British contractor was selected to build the Südbahn from Vienna to Trieste, with bull-head rail in chairs.

Lewis shows a very similar track construction as used at Cherbourg in 1830 (page 346), a little lighter, but much the same except for the extraordinary placement of the flanges outside, instead of inside. This was also broached by some of the engineers for the Baltimore and Ohio, but it seems never to have gone beyond talk there. There may be some connection here, which would be quite possible. The Baltimore and Ohio was idiosyncratic in engineering, and was atypical in most respects.

By 1850, trains had become heavier and faster. The 4-4-0 had replaced the 4-2-0, and the rolling stock consisted of ever-heavier 8-wheeled bogie vehicles. Trains were not as heavy and as fast as in Britain, but were no longer flyweights. The wood in the track was beginning to rot; its position between earth and sky was a bad one for this, with alternate wetting and drying, freezing and melting. It was very difficult to keep the track in surface, which had to be done by shims and other artifices. Worst of all, the bars could be loosened when the spike holes rotted or the flanges lurched into them. A dislodged bar could be sent flying, into the bushes or up into the train, with danger of derailment. Trains moved slowly, and carried tools for emergency track repairs.

Everyone knew that the H-rail was better. This was the flat-bottomed wrought-iron rail with a bulbous head that was spiked to ballasted timber crossties, and joined by joint chairs. It was, however, expensive, and the newspapers attacked the railways, always good sport, as too stingy to provide a safe track for fast trains. Their story was that the bars would come loose and penetrate the cars to endanger the lives of passengers. To make this even better, they called the bars strap rails, as if the iron were barrel hoops or some other flimsy stuff, and the phenomenon was called a snakehead. These newspaper exaggerations entered the realm of folklore, and even reputable historians give them credence. One woman was injured in 1847 by a flying rail bar (and won damages), and an employee on a construction train appears to have died from his injuries when struck by a loose bar. That seems to be the limit of the carnage. Of course, there may be other unrecorded occurrences, since official records were not kept, but the fact remains that snakeheads were a fictional danger.

Engineers, such as Jervis, usually called the track flat-bar track; I have not found a single instance of the term strap rail used by any engineer, only by newspapers and historians. The flat bars were actually quite heavy pieces of iron, but much lighter than the H-rail that replaced them. H-rail is another contemporary term, since T-rail then meant the Blenkinsop rail without a base, supported in chairs. The modern term tee-rail is not very descriptive, since the cross-section is nothing like a T.

Edgar Thomson, the engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad and later its President, saw flat-bar track when he was a young assistant building railways in Georgia, and adamantly refused to use it on the Pennsylvania, whose construction began in 1846. The Erie Railroad also was once burned, twice shy. When it was revived and construction began, H-rail was the only choice. The Baltimore and Ohio would try anything rather than follow the crowd, so the line from Harper's Ferry to Cumberland was built after 1842 with bridge rail on longitudinal baulks (which I believe came directly from Brunel's Great Western. The bridge rail, the first rail rolled in the United States, at Savage Mills, Cumberland, in 1844 was an exact copy, and the promoter had the gall to claim it was original with him! English bridge rail had been imported earlier, and was mostly used. Anyway, Scranton was soon rolling H-rails in the Wyoming Valley for the Erie, but the preponderance of iron rail always came from England). The fact is, that by 1850, most flat-bar track was needing renewal, and it was obvious that it could not sustain even the current traffic. In that year, the railway being built towards Chicago around Lake Erie changed abruptly from wooden track on piles (by that time very sturdy indeed) to ballasted H-rail. Even Jervis started the Rock Island west from Chicago with H-rail not long after. New construction in flat-bar track largely ceased by 1850, and by 1860, with the outbreak of the Civil War, there was very little flat-bar track remaining north of the Ohio River and the Potomac.

An astonishing amount of flat-bar track remained in the rebel states, some of it in important railways like the Richmond and Danville and the Richmond and Norfolk. Lack of capital, and the drive for expansion rather than improvement, were responsible. It was quite common to improve flat-bar track by replacing the bars with bridge rail, a very satisfactory solution. The stresses and destruction of war resulted in the disappearance of the remaining flat-bar track, which was not restored after the war. After 1865, flat-bar track had effectively disappeared from the United States, and was, typically, rapidly forgotten. Lewis (p. 354) probably confuses logging railways with regular steam railways in mentioning wood track without bars, and its post-bellum survival. Steam tractors were made to haul logs over temporary ways made of logs where regular iron or steel railways would not repay the investment. These were essentially double-flange railways. No normal steam railway, even logging ones, ever ran on bare wood, and the locomotives of 1870 would have been much too heavy even for the earlier flat-bar track.

There were no flanged plateways in the United States; industrial development was too late. A stone base for track bars was used in New York City streets below 14th Street when trains still ran to the Old City Hall. The authorities did not allow regular track or steam engines in this district, so carriages were moved individually by horses and assembled into trains where the engines were attached. This track gave a great deal of trouble, as did the Baltimore and Ohio's similar brief experiment.

Lewis deplores the lack of information on pointwork for wooden railways. The few examples he gives would not have been suitable for the American flat-bar track. I have never seen any illustration of pointwork for such track. Photographs are very difficult to come by, of course. I can easily imagine several practical ways to construct pointwork, but I have no firm information if any of them were used. My best guess is that the end of a track panel would be left loose to slide from side to side, running up against stops in both directions to align with one or the other bars of the two routes, much like a later stub (slide) switch. There is no obvious way to make the bars themselves move like points. A second way would be to use a casting with a movable point, either one or two, but this would be a very abrupt change of direction requiring very slow speed. A crossing (frog) is easily fabricated from bars.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 13 February 2000
Last revised 13 February 2000