On-line Opinion Magazine…OK, it's a blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Ever Wonder Why…

Rook found and posted an old file that deals with one of the oddities of the world, in this case the gauge, or distance between the tracks, of US railways, and why it is such an odd size.

It is like the Connections series of James Burke, which traces the path of inventions.

1 comment

1 Badtux { 07.29.09 at 11:12 pm }

Actually, that’s not exactly true. At the time of the American Civil War, there was no standard gauge anywhere in the United States. Not even Northern railroads were all “standard gauge,” meaning that the distance between rails was 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. The so-called “standard” gauge was most common in the Northeast. Ohio and Indiana railroads were generally of 4 foot, 10-inch gauge. Missouri railroads used a gauge of 5 feet, 6 inches. The Erie Railroad in New York State ran a gauge of 6 feet. A total of eleven different gauges could be found on Northern railroads. Southern railroads may actually have been more standardized than those on the North. The most widespread gauge in the South was 5 feet,which was common in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama,Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and some lines in Virginia. Other railroads in Virginia, and those in North Carolina, utilized 4 feet 8 1/2 inches.

Railroads really did not standardize on 4 feet 8 1/2 inches until 1886, when all the remaining 5-foot railroads in the South were switched to 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. And the main reason was because all the little feeder lines were being snarfed up by the robber barrons, who wanted them to generate traffic for their trunk lines, thus they had to be the same width as their trunk lines to ease switching rail cars. In a sense, 4 feet 8 1/2 inches “won” because the Northeastern railroad tycoons won — they used their direct access to the New York stock markets and Boston banks to drive their opponents who had other rail gauges out of business or buy them out, or at the very least arrive at an “understanding” with them such as with Leland Stanford’s Southern Pacific. It was the Betamax vs. VHS battle writ large, and as with Betamax vs. VHS, the inferior gauge won… if the lines with 5 foot spacing had won, it would be *much* easier to ship oversized loads today. Alas, that’s not how it happened…

– Badtux the Rail Fan Penguin
.-= ´s last blog ..I am becoming ordinary =-.