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"Railroad Gauge"

The Evolution of Railroad Standard Gauge
Roman Chariots + Railroad Standards = Horse Poop


By D. Gabe Gabriel -
Copyright 2000, all rights reserved
Reprinted here with permission

Now, ... information is only a click away thanks to the wonders of the internet. And often, mis-information is more common than fact...and why not? It can be more interesting, with little twists to suit the presentation.

Over 2,000 websites now present the story of how the most common railroad standard, the track gauge (the distance between the two rails), evolved. Whichever version you stumble across, it sounds interesting, worth a laugh, and you may even feel that urge to shake your head that such a standard could survive for over 2,000 years. The legend's original claim was merely that chariot wheel spacing had such an influence on the British that 1400 years after the Roman legions were gone, it was still used to build the first railways. However, this story grew to include the width of horses, and even the spacing of wheels for Conestoga wagons made it to some versions of the story.

However, there is no truth to this interesting legend, which only began after World War II. The story began to appeal to people's curiosity, and benefit the British for the historic Roman sites, such as Hadrian's Wall. Some of the most significant Roman remains in Great Britain are at Housesteads, where the chariot ruts are quite visible at the East Gate. Noted authors, such as Farrington and Ottley, aided in spreading mis-information by failing to research what could have gone unnoticed, as minor items at the time. Although the post-WWII notion was initially ridiculed, as more people read the mis-information, the facts became more obscure.

Roman archeology is not a new science that produced revelations immediately after WWII. Roman roads have existed in Britain, and elsewhere around the world, since they were built roughly 2,000 years ago. The ruts that were intentionally placed on the cambered roads were placed for narrow, hand drawn carts, not for chariots. Without the rut, it would be difficult to pull a cart along the cambered road, designed to provide drainage, without the cart continually pulling down to the road edge. The unintentional ruts show wear of varying sizes. Although roads were built initially for the the use of troops, they were also adapted for common travel, even 2,000 years ago. As for the width of horses having any connection with the spacing of chariot wheels, the statue by Franzoni, in the Vatican Museum, is the most accurate known replica of a Roman chariot. This statue accurately represents the two horses side-by-side, and they are wider than the chariot and its wheels that are behind the horses. This is sufficient to dispell the quaintest part of the legend, that claims that the wheels had to be placed wider than the rear ends of the two horses.

So, ignoring the legend, why did Great Britain and the United States settle on 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches for "Standard Gauge"?

It was a result of strange twists of fate, money, and politics - and one man was ultimately responsible for the standard - George Stephenson. George grew up in the mining regions of Great Britain, and was the epitome of a self-made man. He was well respected for his knowledge of the mine, the railways used in the mines, and the engines used there as a young man of about 21. And only then did he teach himself to read, yearning for more of the knowledge that the educated men of the world possessed. Railways existed within mines since at least the mid-1500's, so it is not strange that British mines had railways in 1800. Many different gauges were used, as the railway was not a part of any road or regular transportation system. The railway was meant to make it easier for pulling heavy wagons of ore and coal, and the gauge was placed to fit the mine - some narrow, some wide, some wider still. No standard was necessary. These railways were later extended to the nearby ship dock, allowing more ore to be transported by a single horse.

Steam engines were in use to pump water and to pull carts along using cable, but George decided to try putting one on a wagon. Not a new idea, as the Frenchman Cugnot had done this many years before, with the Englishman Trevithick, the American Stevens, and others experimenting with steam engines for self-propelled vehicles - but, George started his own experiments. George had a few mines that he worked on, with railways of at least three different gauges. He chose to place his first "locomotive" on his railway with a 4 foot 8 inch gauge. It worked, but he learned that moving the rails another half inch apart on his short railway made the travel easier.

The rest is history - at least in Great Britain. Providing a railway as a public road was proposed, and George had already earned the respect of many, so he was consulted for many of the early railways. He did discuss the potential for other gauges, and his "standard gauge" was typically used only as a matter of convenience. But, as the introduction of new railways continued, the educated engineers generally agreed that no railway should be built with less than a 5 foot gauge. Unfortunately, as the politics and arguments began, one thing was certain above all else - George had been the basis for over 1,200 miles of railways! Many times that of any other single gauge in use - and when the fact that it is relatively cheap to "kick in" the rail from a wider gauge to the Stephenson gauge and very costly do to the opposite... the Stephenson gauge was decided upon. Although a "Gauge War" ensued, the outcome was obvious before the arguments began, for economic reasons. "Standard Gauge" became the Stephenson gauge. But, sound engineering for the future was the driving factor behind the "other" standard gauges. Having learned a valuable lesson, the later railroads of the United Kingdom settled on the "more practical" standard gauge of 5 feet 3 inches.

And what about North America? Well, the first railways had no intention of using a "locomotive". Gravity and horses were the first proposals. And the first US railways were not for public transportation, and not a part of public roads, just as in Great Britain. Because of the wealth of trees in the US, mining was almost non-existent, but quarries surfaced. The first railway in the US was for a Massachusetts granite quarry, to move the granite used to build the Bunker Hill Monument. This Granite Railway, or Quincy Railway, was built to a 5 foot gauge in 1826. The US railway evolution would certainly have been different if coal had been more important during the 1700's. But, a few railways were started, of varying gauges - each serving a mine or quarry and to a dock, as in Great Britain. The second railway in the US was a mining railway, planned in the mid-1700's, a gravity railway for the mining at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, and built in 1827. More energetic ideas for railways were moving along though, with innovative thinkers in Maryland, South Carolina, and Massachusetts moving forward with railways. The first locomotive planned for use in the US was ordered from George, and was for the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. George sent along his "standard gauge" locomotive, along with sufficient parts to get a second one constructed in the US - this was the start of the first US locomotive production, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Rapid growth is an understatement. Within only two years, the US was in the railroad business at a tremendous rate. Within a few more years, railroads were scattered thoughout the US, and of varying gauges, of course. The southern states and California generally used 5 feet as "standard gauge". Massachusetts had taken its 4 feet 8 1/2 inch "standard gauge" to Connecticut, and New York and other northern states generally followed suit.

As the growth continued, the potential for a major east-west railroad was being discussed. Several routes were planned, and many arguments were heard, and tensions grew between the North and the South. By the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed in 1862, it was obvious that the North exerted more pressure. Although President Lincoln first decreed that the railroad "standard gauge" was to be 5 feet (the California standard gauge), this was quickly over-ridden by Congress. The more common Union standard gauge of 4 foot, 8 1/2 inches was used, rather than the Southern states 5 foot gauge. Had the Pacific Railway been started many years before, the US would very likely have 5 feet as "standard gauge". Many years prior, the corruption in Congress and the "Wall Street Railroad", a consortium of wealthy investors, attempted to force the Northen standards and choices, but the Civil War may be accepted as what settled the issue.

The success of the Stephenson gauge at becoming the US and British Standard Gauge began as the result of the enthusiasm of George Stephenson, and the tremendous respect he earned from a few early railway builders. This, coupled with the success of this relatively narrow gauge, resulted in the economic decision to make existing lines of narrower gauge rather than going to a larger gauge. This change was made very quickly on some railroads, and at a very low cost.

The chariot stories will certainly be told for many years to come, but, the facts can be even more interesting to some of us.

By D. Gabe Gabriel -



Legal Stuff - Copying and/or printing all or parts of this document for other than personal use is forbidden. It shall not be placed on any website or any document except with explicit permission in writing from the author. You can request permission via email to the author at

General Bibliography

Nearly all of the following documents are in my personal library, gathered in the course of research on this topic, and apply directly to this abridged, essay version of my research. Many other documents were used, both to disseminate fact from fiction, and to attempt to determine the source of the legend. Most of these other documents, not listed herein, are also in my personal library. And thank you to Peter Kay, who personally measured the chariot ruts at the legend's source, Houseteads, and provided pictures of the ruts.

TRUE, the Man's Magazine. August 1948 - A letter to the editor wherein the chariot connection is purported to be the source of standard gauge.

American Railroads: Their Growth and Development. AAR. 1958.

A Chronology of American Railroads. AAR. 1957.

Journey to Mauch Chunk, a collections of essays within The American Journal of Science and Arts, 1830.

Reports of Select Committees on Railways and Canals to the House of Commons. London, 1839.

Compilation of the Laws of Pennsylvania Relative to the Internal Improvements Together with the Canal and Railway Regulations as Established by the Board of Canal Commissioners. London, 1840.

Agricol, Georgius. De Re Metallica. Originally published in 1556. 1950 edition, translated by Herbert Hoover.

Anonymous. The First Railroad in America. Walton Avertising & Printing Company. 1926. History of the Granite Railway written by the company on its hundredth anniversary, and includes early AMerican railway developments.

Ashton, T. S. and Joseph Sykes. The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century. Manchester University Press. Second printing, 1964 (first printing 1929).

Describes first iron railroads for mining, and how they resulted in introducing children to pull mine wagons rather than the horse used previously; describes development of steam engines and their use in mining regions, including railways; describes the first steam engines used along a railway, developed by John Curr.

Bonney, Charles C. Bonney on Railway Carriers, Rules of Law for the Carriage and Delivery of Persons and Property by Railway. ??, 1864.

Brown, William H. The History of the First Locomotives in America. ??, 1871.

Codrington, T. Roman Roads in Britain - 1903 - includes excavation, measurements, and discussion of the use of the intentional ruts in a Roman road at Abbet Dore.

Collingwood, R. G. - The Archaeology of Roman Britain - 1930

Curr, J. - The Coal Viewer and the Engine Builders Practical Companion - 1797 - 1970 reprint - Detailed descriptions & drawings for constructing wagons and plate ways

Cushing, Raymond & Jeffrey Moreau. America's First Trans-Continental Railway. 1994.

Day, Jas. A Practical Treatise on the Construction and Formation of Railways. John Weale, Architectural Library, and Simpkin & Marshall. London. Second edition (but apparently the first printing), 1839. Describes Roman roads, early British travel as virtually all by horse except where the existing Roman roads were in use; describes the three foot wide carriages of the Romans; describes wear of horses being more significant than that of wheels on roads, of railway construction, etc.

Ellis, Hamilton. British Railway History: 1830-1876. 1954.

Ellis, C. Hamilton. Railways. Peebles Press, 1974. p. 6 - the "rutway" described as the first railway... Romans had a "standard gauge" Apparently flanged wheels used in Transylvania in 16th century - Term "platelayer" given for a MOW worker Surrey Iron Railway, a tramway between London & Portsmouth, horsedrawn

Farrington, S. Kip. Railroading from the Rear End. PUBLISHER - 1946

The first document by an acredited author that places a connection between Roman chariots and railroad gauge.

Galloway, R. L. - A History of Coal Mining in Great Britain - 1882 - includes the origin & use of early mining railways.

Hall, C. - The Early History of the Railway - 1914

Haney, Lewis H. A Congressional History of Railways in the United States - Volume 1, to 1850. 1908.

Hayward, Richard. British Footpath Guide - Hadrian's Wall Walk: A Journey Through Time. British Footpaths. Bellingham, Washington. Second edition. 2000.

Holbrook, Stewart H. The Story of American Railroads. Crown Publishers. New York. 1947, second printing October 1947.

A good introduction to ideas of early railroads, but, not to be trusted for facts - written as personal commentary in most instances; has the most complete discourse first published to describe the "troglodytes" of England using Roman chariots spacing for railways.

Jervis, John P. Railway Property: A Treatise on the Construction and Management of Railways. ??, 1866.

Lardner, Dionysius. Railway Economy: A Treatise on the New Art of Transport. ??, 1850

Ottley, George. A Bibliography of British Railway History. 1965.

Shumway, George and Howard C. Frey. Conestoga Wagon, 1750-1850. 1967.

Sidney, Samuel. Gauge Evidence: The History and Prospects of the Railway System, Illustrated by the Evidence Given Before the Gauge Commision. London, 1846.

Smiles, Samuel. The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer. Fourth London edition, London, 1859.

Stone, A. P. A History of England. Thompson, Brown & Company. Boston, Massachusetts. 1886. Original copyright 1872.

Strahan, W. A Six Months Tour Through the North of England. 1770.

Westcott, G. F. The British Railway Locomotive: 1803-1853. 1958.

Williams, Frederick - Our Iron Roads: Their History, Construction, and Social Influences - 1852;

Young, A. - A Tour to Shropshire - 1785 - Documentation on a cast iron railway (rather than wood rails) of Coalbrookdale wagonway (13 June 1776)

the end


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Copyright 2000, all rights reserved Reprinted here with permission


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