Strickland's Reports

William Strickland was sent to England in 1825 to report on canals and railways by a Pennsylvania group

The Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvements (PSPII) was organized in November of 1824, on the eve of the opening of New York State's magnificent Erie Canal, the first effective means of communication between the West and the Atlantic seaboard. The first, that is, that passed entirely through the United States. The St Lawrence River, which previously carried all the produce of the American side of the Lakes to the Atlantic, had the disadvantage of passing through Canadian territory, and enriching Canadian ports instead. Because of unwise American customs regulations, much traffic continued to pass this way, although the Erie Canal was about to allow the export of wheat from Ohio over a longer season, and the European trade was to make New York City America's largest city and most important seaport.

Philadelphia, the largest city in the United States, the capital under the Continental Congress, and the metropolis of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, saw its future clouded by the rise of New York on the shoulders of its great Canal. Internal Improvements, a catchword of the era, meant any means of improving the terrible state of internal communication. As in the colonial era, all effective transport in the United States was by water. Along the seaboard, this meant tidewater and the large rivers and estuaries that deeply indent the coast. In the West, it meant the Mississippi and its tributaries, or else the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence. These three systems were completely disjoint, and it was feared that the areas served by them would also become politically severed. New states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had settlements only along their great rivers or lakes; the interior was wild and dark, inhabited by squatters and the more tenacious of the Indians.

Except for water transport, recently rendered very effective by the steamboat, all land travel was on foot, either of man or animal. The Ohio was connected to the East only by rude paths through the rough Allegheny plateau. A few improved roads radiated from the larger cities, but the stopped before reaching any other centres of population. Wheeled vehicles were largely restricted to city streets. Philadelphia's hinterland was simply the banks of the Delaware. The great Susquehanna valley, which even contained the state capital of Harrisburg, more naturally was tributary to Baltimore, another rival, which commanded the Chesapeake Bay. One of the first long turnpike roads in the United States connected Philadelphia with the Susquehanna, and it was yet young. Another road, the National Road, connected the upper Potomac at Cumberland with the Ohio at Wheeling. The term turnpike road was equivalent to improved road in the United States. The Middlesex canal of 1794, in Massachusetts, was one of the very few satisfactory canals in the United States before the Erie Canal. Many attempts had been made, but failed due to engineering incompetence or lack of capital.

George Washington, and the Federalists, had originally conceived of internal improvements as a national enterprise, the engineering carried out by the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army, for the training of which the Military Academy at West Point was established. Unfortunately, its training was at first severely deficient. The National Road was perhaps the only successful transport project carried out under these precepts. By 1824, political winds blew in Democracy and States Rights, and soon the federal government was to eliminate all direct financial support for internal improvements, except for rivers and harbours matters that were considered naturally interstate. De Witt Clinton of New York, a leading Democrat, figured out how to finance his state's internal improvements with English capital, and saw that his engineers were trained in England.

England, at this time, was not only served by a network of hard roads that had allowed the pack horse to be replaced by the stage wagon and made stagecoach travel for the well-off a general reality, but also by a system of canals penetrating all inland parts, allowing the transport of coal and agricultural produce for long distances. This was known in the United States, and a desire for something similar had matured. Domestic resources had proved inadequate, but De Witt Clinton's appeal to English capital and expertise had met with brilliant success.

The PSPII, contemplating the threat of the Erie Canal, conceived of a system of canals that would complement the river system of the state, and connect the Ohio at Pittsburgh with the Delaware at Philadelphia. In contrast with those of New York, the major rivers of Pennsylvania ran transversely to the desired direction of travel, and their valleys were separated by stony backbones, of which the most formidable was the Allegheny Front, an almost unbroken ridge over 3500 ft above sea level. Designing such a canal system would be, it was realised, an engineering challenge of the first order.

Therefore, in January of 1825 they resolved to send an agent to England to discover the latest engineering practices that would help them solve their difficulty. The agent chosen was William Strickland (1787-1854), a native of Philadelphia, who described himself as 'Architect and Engineer,' and was also a skilled draughtsman and engraver. He was trained by Benjamin H. Latrobe, and with him was one of the principal exponents of Greek Revival architecture. Of his several works, the Custom House (1824), originally the Bank of the United States, still stands in Philadelphia. He made a reconnaisance of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal in 1824. In March 1825, he sailed from Philadelphia for Liverpool with his assistant, Samuel H. Kneass. Through that summer and autumn, he studied marine engineering in Liverpool, Manchester and Ireland, railways on Tyneside and County Durham, railways and ironmaking in Glasgow, and roads in Bristol. As he travelled, he returned illustrated reports to Philadelphia, everywhere meeting, as he said, with the 'liberal kindness of the engineers of Great Britain and Ireland.

Strickland returned to Philadelphia in December, and was quickly appointed engineer of the Pennsylvania State Canal. His reports and illustrations were collected in a subscription volume entitled Reports on Canals, Railways, Roads, and Other Subjects, published by H. C. Carey and I. Lea of Philadelphia in 1826. This oblong folio book contains 46 pages of reports, and 72 engraved plates of high quality. Among the subscribers were, notably: the Delaware and Hudson Canal Co. (3 copies); John Wurts, Jonathan Knight and Benjamin Wright, soon to be associated with the Baltimore and Ohio; Oliver Evans, the inventor; the young Joseph Henry, Major S. H. Long of the Topographical Engineers, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Co. (2 copies), soon to complete this long-desired canal after serious bungling in earlier attempts. This list of subscribers shows that the work was widely known over the whole field of railways and canals, and must have had a decisive influence on American practice. Strickland also surely brought back with him the treatises on railways of Wood and Tredgold when he returned. Strickland did not have leisure to edit the Reports, so they were published as they were received. Judge Kane altered a few paragraphs to moderate Strickland's view that railways were soon to render canals obsolescent, then a radical view and at variance with that of most members of the Society.

The matters treated are: canals and tunnelling, turnpike roads, railways, machines (horse gin, cranes, self-acting inclined plane), making of coke (open pile and beehive oven), iron manufacture (blast furnace, puddling), blister and cast steel, rollers (for iron rolling, and for calico printing), and gas lighting. The emphasis, however, is on the first three topics, though there are good plates on all, including a town gas retort. He remarks that one reason England is so advanced in such matters is 'an unlimited command of pecuniary means.' The deep poverty and lack of capital in the United States at this time must not be forgotten. The great drive for internal improvements soon became a mania, culminating in the fatuous state legislation of the mid-1830's, which precipitated the Panic of 1837 and near or actual bankruptcy of several states.

The information of most interest to me is in the section on Railways, Locomotive Engines, &c. (pp. 23-33). He mentions the 26-mile railway from Stockton to Auckland (the S&DR), which has malleable iron rails 12 ft to 15 ft long, shaped like cast-iron rails, pinned in cast-iron chairs. The supplies for building the railway were brought up in wagons on the completed part. The wagons weighed 3 tons gross, and had 3 ft. cast-iron wheels with case-hardened treads. Wheel treads, 2-1/2" wide, seem to be cylindrical, not conical. There is a plate of a Stephenson 4-wheeled engine, with steam springs, its tender, and a coal wagon. The wagon sides are made of sheet iron, no doubt so the coal would fall out more easily through the bottom hopper. On the Hetton to Sunderland railway in the same region, 7-1/2 miles long, trains of 24 'chalder wagons' weighing 90 tons are hauled by steam at 4 mph. Its rails are cast iron, from Walker's Foundry, 4 ft long, weighing 62 lb, supported in chairs weighing 9 lb. A 64-mile railway is being projected between Newcastle and Carlisle during his visit.

Strickland devotes considerable discussion to the matter of rails, comparing cast iron and malleable iron. He rather prefers cast iron, because of its superior hardness. The softness of malleable iron was even then well known. The balance is that cast iron is hard but brittle, malleable is tough but soft. Malleable iron, is, he says, cheaper than cast iron, and the greater length possible is another advantage. A composite rail, consisting of a cast iron head cast on a malleable iron bar, has been proposed, but manufacturing difficulties could not be overcome. He gives the effective choice as between two patent rails: the Losh and Stephenson cast-iron rail and chair, and the Birkenshaw malleable iron rail and cast-iron chair. At the time, it appears that most engineering opinion was behind the edge, round-top, or fish-backed rail, and deprecated the plateway. The heads of the rails are a flat mushroom shape, the webs of uniform thickness, except that some cast-iron rails have a little extra metal at the bottom. The rails are joined at scarf joints, one pin passing through both rails and the chair.

In June, he paid a visit to the Duke of Portland's 'tram railway,' the Kilmarnock and Troon. The double line is 4 ft gauge, between the outer sides of the vertical flanges of the plates, and there is 4 ft between the two lines. The 3 ft rails are supported on stone blocks. The space between the vertical flanges is filled in to form the horseway, while the attendant's way is between the two lines and outside them. The line rises 84 ft in 9 miles, connecting coal mines at Kilmarnock with the port of Troon. Common carts were also used on the line. Strickland says that dirt brought in on their wheels, and that straying from the horse path, collected on the track and caused excessive wear. The rails are weak although heavy. They are spiked to wooden plugs in the stone blocks.

In 1825, the price of iron castings was 14 per ton, twice what it was in 1824. Common wages for construction were 2/9 to 3/- per day. Several detailed estimates of the cost of railway construction are presented.

In planning a railway, Strickland advises that, after a reconnaissance, alternative routes be surveyed so that profiles can be drawn and the best selected. It is desirable that embankments and cuttings be balanced so that material removed in one can be used in the other. A single line requires about 12 ft width, with the horse and attendant paths, a double line 18 ft to 24 ft. The horse path is made between the rails, while the attendant's path is beside the track. The usual gauge appears to be 4 ft at that time, and double tracks are separated by no more than this. On the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad built by Strickland as a part of the Pennsylvania State Canal, the two tracks were so close together that special narrow rolling stock had to be used.

The method of constructing a railway is described as follows. The sod is removed, ditches are dug on both sides, and the surface levelled. Then 'foundation stones' or 'props' about 2 ft square and 1 ft deep are laid on the surface, spaced a rail length apart, which was often 4 ft at that time. The stones could be rough, but the centre of the top was chiselled off level and 3/8" deep, to receive the chair. The cast iron 'standards' or 'chairs' with base 4" by 6" are trenailed, with pins 3" to 4" long, to the stones through drilled holes. Hard oak blocks, as cut-up ship's timbers, 2 ft to 3 ft long placed transversely could also be used. In fresh embankments, such blocks long enough to project 1 ft beyond the rail on both sides help to prevent spreading [these are transverse wooden sleepers, of course]. Generally, there is no trouble with spreading when heavy stone blocks are used. Then, the track is filled in with broken stone and gravel to form the horse path and the attendant's path, which apparently solidifies the structure.

Although this was the way it was done in England, Strickland notes that such a construction would run into difficulty in a climate such as Pennsylvania's with its hard frosts. He suggests digging a hole, and filling it with broken rock that would drain well. Then stones laid on the broken rock would not be subject to frost heaving. Strickland was aware here of a problem that would bedevil American railway builders, and it was not really solved for over twenty years, with ballasted cross-sleeper track that gave adequate drainage. American engineers were very slow to give up the stone blocks, except in financial exigency. Eventually, they discovered that their makeshifts actually gave better service.


Strickland's report illustrates, astonishingly, what might be considered a railway fixed signal. This signal was placed at the foot of the self-acting, double track inclined plane of the Middleton Colliery railway. This plane rose 44 feet in its length of 350 yards. At the top was a large, horizontal 16 ft drum over which the rope ran, and which could be braked by an attendant to control the speed of the wagons. Four loaded wagons were attached to the rope at the top, and four empty wagons at the bottom. When the brake was released, the four loaded wagons pulled the four empties up the incline. The attendant at the bottom could rotate a black board pivoted to a vertical mast by means of ropes to tell the brakesman that the empty wagons had been hooked on. Strickland labels this a 'telegraph.' If one has to have a 'first' railway fixed signal, this is a good and documented candidate. Unfortunately, the shape of the board is not represented.

The Middleton railway had a 2-mile level at the top, a 1-mile level at the bottom where the wagons were unloaded through a drop bottom, connected by the plane. Locomotives moved the wagons on the levels, drawing 26 two-ton wagons at 4 mph. The rails were cast iron, 4 ft long. The incline was, apparently, the same one on which Blenkinsop had earlier used his cog engine in 1811.

'Passing or sideling places' are clearly illustrated, compensating for the obscurity of the text in this matter. What would now be called a crossing or frog was a double branch to Strickland. One type is of cast iron, and looks surprisingly modern, with outside guides for the wheels acting like modern guard rails. It is not too difficult to see the reason for the colloquial American term frog for a crossing. The other type has a rail supported on a timber beam that can rotate right or left to line up with the straight or diverging rails, an early movable crossing. Points or switches are called tongues or sidelings. One form, with a single tongue 3 ft long and a casting that would let the wheel go either way opposite it, is like the later single-point tramway turnout. A second type has two pivoted sidelings that can be moved (independently) to align with either the straight or diverging rails, like a later stub or slide switch.

William Jessop's report on the Peak Forest Railway is quoted at length, as support for the plan of levels and inclined planes. On the level, Jessop says that one pound will draw 200. The coefficient of friction with a wet rail is 4/32, with dry rail 5/32 [modern experience is closer to 8/32 on dry, clean rail]. Credit is clearly given to Richard Trevithick for proving that plain driving wheels are practical. 12 mph is presumed to be a possible speed of locomotive haulage.

The Main Line of Public Works of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, part of the canal system and designed by Strickland, consisted of a double-track railway, a canal, ten inclined planes operated by stationary engines, connected by levels worked by steam locomotives, and finally another canal, between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, accomplishing the desired result. It is easy to see the practical application of the information in the Reports. This system was opened in 1834, and served until about 1854, twenty years, carrying freight and passengers, among them Charles Dickens. It was successful, and although a great achievement, soon overshadowed by railways and rapidly forgotten. Some historians presume to depreciate both its design and operation, quite unfairly. The Philadelphia and Columbia was actually the first heavy-duty, steam-operated, long-distance railway in the United States, more considerable than any of the other claimants, on one or another ground, for priority. It was no slower than the Erie Canal. The worst feature of the Main Line was its corrupt political control, emanating from that notorious nest of corruption, Philadelphia.

Strickland applauds the excellence of English roads, contrasting their state with those in Pennsylvania. Strickland gives Macadam faint praise, saying 'Mr. Mac Adam is not an engineer,' obviously admiring Telford's roads with their heavy foundations much more than Macadam's lighter ones. The Howth-Dublin road, built on the Telford plan, was then just new. He observes that there is no legal restriction on the width of tires [earlier there had been much agitation in England for wide tires, of which he is apparently unaware], but says they are wider than was usual in Pennsylvania, except for the Lancaster wagons [the famous Conestogas, painted red and blue, whose drivers smoked stogies].

William Strickland's Reports are the starting point of American railway engineering, and represent the state of knowledge as the first railways were planned in that country. It should be noted that they make no reference to the typical American wooden rail protected by iron bars that was the original solution to the problem of railway track in the United States, as seen on J. B. Jervis' Mohawk and Hudson of 1830, and extensively developed by him. This construction was a heavier version of the original English wooden tramway, that apparently had completely vanished by the time of Strickland's visit, but was not forgotten. Strickland was the engineer for the Delaware Bay Breakwater, which was begun in 1829, and in 1835 made a reconnaisance for a railway from Wilmington, Delaware to the Susquehanna, that would bypass the difficult lower reaches of that river.

I thank the British Library for the opportunity to examine this volume (shelfmark, which is otherwise difficult to locate.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 27 November 1999
Last revised 27 November 1999