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March 3: The Origin of the Railroad Gauge

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The DeWitt Clinton railroad with carriages as railroad cars
The DeWitt Clinton railroad (1831) with carriages as railroad cars.

The early white settlers in North Dakota tended to cluster around the Army forts located along the Red, James, Sheyenne, and Missouri Rivers. The rivers allowed for easier delivery of supplies, since overland transportation was slow and difficult. That changed for Dakota Territory when the railroads arrived in the early 1870s. New settlers, and supplies to support the growing economy, could now arrive quickly and conveniently.

The development of the railroad was a haphazard process that did not happen overnight. England pioneered the railroad starting in the seventeenth century. The United States began to catch up when an English engineer designed a system at Lewiston, New York in 1764. In 1853, an Army expedition reported that a northern transcontinental railroad route was feasible.

There were, however, some significant obstacles to the development of an effective national railroad. There was no standardized railroad gauge. The width of the tracks varied between localities. The tracks for narrow gauge, standard gauge, and broad gauge railroads ranged in width from three-and-a-half feet to six feet. This meant that trains belonging to one railroad could not connect to tracks of another.

On this date in 1863, Congress, in anticipation of the transcontinental railroad, authorized a standard railroad gauge of four feet eight-and-a-half inches for the Union Pacific.

It made sense to standardize, and there is a logical reason for what at first seems like a random measurement. It began in England. The first railway there also used a gauge of four feet eight-and-a-half inches. It was a logical choice, because it approximated the width of horse drawn wagons, and the first locomotive pulled a train using such wagons.

But why were wagons and carriages that wide? They were designed for roads that were originally built by the Romans, designed to accommodate Roman chariots. Deep ruts were worn into those roads over the years, so wagons were designed to stay in those ruts so they wouldn’t be shaken apart.

The railroads played an important role in the development of North Dakota. In an odd quirk of history, they run on rails that could accommodate a Roman chariot.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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