Little-known, But Interesting, Railroad Information

U.S. Standard Railroad Gauge

The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were designed by English expatriates. Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts. So, who built these old rutted roads?

The very first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for, or by, Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot. Specs and bureaucracies live forever. So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's back end came up with it, you may be exactly right - because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Now the twist to the story: When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol, at a factory in Utah (very near Promontory Point!). The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line to the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse's rump!
(Note: That was an intriguiging - and scary - fact about the longevity of bureaucrats and specifications!)

Where Did The U.P. Get Wood For The Railroad Across Nebraska?

When building the Transcontinental Railroad across the barren Nebraska plains, the Union Pacific Railroad had endless aggravation obtaining railroad ties. The only timber available was the pulpy cottonwood tree, which grew along the edges of Nebraska's rivers and streams. The U.P. made due with this poor choice by preserving the cottonwood tie with a solution of zinc chloride. These treated ties were interspersed with freighted-in oak and cedar ties on a ratio of four "junk" cottonwood ties to one good cedar or oak tie.

Getting lumber for the trestles was an even bigger problem. There was no room for junk lumber in a railroad trestle! Therefore, tress were felled in Minnesota, floated down the Mississippi to the confluence with the Missouri, than barged to Omaha, where they were milled cut to specific size for the specific trestle, then transported as far as possible by rail, then by horse drawn wagons to the location of the trestle, which was usually many miles ahead of the track laying crew. One historian claims that the wood for one specific trestle was cut and milled to fit in Michigan, then shipped to Omaha. Good wood jsut wasn't available in Nebraska!


Some of my favorite nicknames for various railroad jobs are:

  • "Baby Lifter" - Brakeman. Maybe he helped carry babies on the train for their mothers? Not sure how that nickname got started.
  • "Bakehead" Nickname for the Fireman, because his head was so close to the fire box while he was shoveling coal.
  • "Big C" - The Conductor.
  • "Big E" - The Engineer.
  • "Boomer" - Itenerent railroad workers, always moving from one location to another.
  • "The Brains" - The Conductor.
  • "Brass Hat" - A railway executive (usually a division manager or higher).
  • "Bull" - Railroad detective.
  • "Carman" - A person trained in the craft of inspecting and repairing railroad cars.
  • "Conductor" - Traditionally, the railroad employee who walked up and down the aisles of the passenger cars taking tickets, etc. This term was sometimes teasingly used on Brakemen who had pencils sticking out of their pockets.
  • "Dead Head" - A railroad employee traveling on a pass.
  • "Dinger" - A Yard Master.
  • "Door Slammer" - What freight trainmen called passenger trainmen.
  • "Flagman" - The rear brakeman. To be a Flagman, the brakeman had to know how to read, so he could understand trian orders, which from time to time would be changed enroute. Most Flagmen were proud of the fact that they were Flagmen, which set them above their fellow brakemen that could not read.
  • "Foamers" - name given by train crews for people who gathered along the railroad tracks to watch adn wayve at trains.
  • "Gandy Dancer" - Name give to a railroad track worker. The name came from the Gandy Manufacturing Company in the 1800's who made a lot of track tools.
  • "Guinea" - A new worker or a worker who is not familiar with job requirements.
  • "Hoghead or Hogger" - A railroad engineer (locomotives were nicknamed "Hogs").
  • "Iron Bender" - A switchman.
  • "Lighting Slinger" - A railroad telegraph operator.
  • "Number Dummies" - Clerks who worked as yard checkers.
  • "Old Head" - Someone who does his job well.
  • "Piglet" - A locomotive engineer trainee.
  • "Skipper" - The conductor.
  • "Spotter" - A company employee charged with spying on other employees, especially in the old days when a conductor would collect cash fairs from passengers and sometimes did not turn in all the receipts to the company at the end of the trip.

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