Monday, July 30, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Four

By August Hutchinson

Pioneer locomotive builder Phineas Davis, while on the B&O in 1835, was killed by one of the first fatal rail malfunctions in American railroading. His example shows that fatal rail problems have been around almost since the beginning of railroading in this country. But they became worse as time progressed, in part because locomotive weight generally increased faster than the heft of the rails did. Matthias Forney, an editor of the Railroad Gazette who had been a draftsman at the B&O, observed that “one prolific cause of accidents is the fact that the weight of rails is insufficient for...the rolling stock with which roads are now equipped.” Early in the Civil War, rails were rarely heavier than 56 pounds per yard (ppy). Much of that rail was still in use by the time Forney was writing, in 1872. Yet in that same time, the average locomotive’s weight had risen from about three tons per driving wheel to around five or six, and freight and passenger cars grew heavier as well. As late as 1885, after trains became even heavier, one survey showed that many southern and southwestern lines were still using the 56 pound rail. But thankfully, by the end of the century, significant progress had been made. Most southern companies laid rails that were 70 to 80 ppy. Even better, most eastern companies used ones that were 85 to 95 ppy.

Construction mistakes, like leaving a rail too loosely tied or spiked,
sometimes led to crashes, like this one on the B&O.
In many instances, track problems weren’t caused by rail quality but by the ballast (the road beds) on which the rails were laid and tied. In the words of historian Mark Aldrich, the best beds “ensured good drainage, diffused the weight of the train, acted like a shock absorber, and held the track in place. The best material was crushed stone, followed by furnace slag [stony waste matter] or gravel. Sand...hardly deserves the name of ballast although it was widely used, and dirt was worse.” By 1885, crushed stone and gravel were common in New England and the mid-Atlantic, but a huge number of southern and western railroads, many of which were the same ones that hadn’t bulked up their rails, used sand and dirt.

The combined effect of rail and road bed quality is made clear by these regional differences as detailed by the ICC’s regional statistics from 1890. Derailments accounted for 2.4% of employee deaths and ~1.2% of injuries in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. By contrast, in the region comprised mostly of former Confederate states, derailments accounted for ~10.5% of employee deaths and ~5.8% of injuries. Similarly, from Illinois westward, derailments accounted for ~10.1% of employee deaths and ~4.5% of injuries.

Common to the tracks of all three regions was the problem of sabotage. The railroads had plenty of enemies. Many farmers had been lured by railroad marketers into settling on arid land; many others believed that the railroads wrongly abused their monopoly on transportation costs, and still others were angry about their livestock being hit by trains. Injured railroad employees and passengers weren’t pleased when they didn’t get the compensation they believed they deserved - neither were family members of workers and passengers killed by railroad negligence. Fired workers weren’t the happiest workers - the list goes on.

Because of people seeking retribution, and because of other sordid individuals, trains would be derailed and innocent people would be killed. On 27 August 1891, a Richmond & Daneville passenger train plummeted eighty feet from a viaduct into the Catawba river. Twenty-two of the ~85 people on board died. Why? Someone had deliberately removed bolts and spikes from a rail at the edge of the viaduct.

To combat sabotage (and analyze track quality), the railroads would routinely examine track. Up until the Civil War, many performed only weekly inspections of their lines, but by the 1870s they made more serious efforts. More inspectors were hired, and by the 1880s, many major railroads were incentivizing good examination practices, usually by awarding prizes to inspectors responsible for the best-maintained section(s) of track.

Inspection Cars would be used in the late 1800s to examine track. In the early
1900s, many major railroads made inspection cars the size of passenger cars.
Most people didn’t turn to sabotage, seeking other ways to settle disputes. Angry farmers whose livestock had been maimed or killed by railroads could go to court. Unlike railroad laborers, farmers sometimes encountered sympathetic judges and juries. Sometimes, even state legislatures sided with them; though some placed responsibility on the farmer to keep his animals off the tracks, others required railroads to fence off their rails and made them liable for all livestock deaths.

The problem of hitting large animals was a prevalent one, and in the early years of railroading caused many derailments. As the years passed, trains grew more massive and a greater number acquired cattle catchers, so they were derailed less frequently. But now they were even more effective animal killing machines - in 1876 alone, the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas reported that it killed 1,948 animals in just three states.

Fencing was the best solution to this problem. The proliferation of barbed wire in the 1870s made it possible to block off large swaths of rail from animals in a fairly inexpensive manner. Many railroads embraced the opportunity, and for many years they were, by far, the largest buyers of the wire. The system wasn’t perfect - some farmers would ‘borrow’ the railroad’s barbed wire to fence in their own properties - but it was certainly successful.

In some places, the railroads intersected dirt and paved roads. Fences, of course, couldn’t be installed on the roads, but animals would still walk along them, which posed a problem. The standard railroad’s solution was to install cattle guards - large grates suspended over pits meant to dissuade an animals from walking over them. Many were installed on the track itself, which caused problems, since oblivious animals often got their hooves/legs stuck in the holes, becoming immobilized on the track. These imperfect guards would also be installed at measured intervals on some tracks, accompanied with long fences perpendicular to the railroad, in an attempt to dissuade animals from taking a journey down the tracks.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Five and learn about hobos and bridges.

Write to August at

1 comment:

Sally Johnson said...

This is a very nice site you have here. There is a lot of information about railroads. What kind of information do you have on railroad track bolts?