Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Question: British RR Iron

From: "chris graves"

I am forwarding this on the Group, as with your combined knowledge, you may be able to help this fellow. Thanks, G J Graves, NewCastle, Cal.


I know this is a long-shot, but...

I am from Britain, which you would think has a load of information about the history of iron and so on, wouldn't you? Well, if it's there, I can't seem to find it so I am hoping you might be able to set me on the right track ('scuse the pun - you'll see).

I'm an author currently piecing together the story of an iron steamship which went down in the Bay of Biscay in 1866. It was carrying a load of railway iron and for the book I am trying to find out about (a) what they would have meant by 'railway iron' (specifications, types, etc), (b) how much railway iron cost in 1866 and (c) construction methods for iron auxiliary screw steamers.

Told you it was a long-shot! If you can help or point me to someone who can, I would be very grateful.


Tony Cornish, Director
Timescape ER Ltd


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

"Railway iron" has got to mean rail–iron rail–probably in lengths between 20 and 30 feet. Couldn't begin to guess price. Someone connected with the museum at York might know more.

"Iron auxilary screw steamer" seems to me to be a reference to a more-or-less standard (for the era) sailing ship or barque with an auxilary steam engine driven screw. I'm not quite sure what is meant by the question about "construction methods for iron auxiliary screw steamers", but rivet construction was common well into WWII. I would think that by the 1860s all iron bottoms were afloat, as opposed to iron-clad wood bottoms.


4/06/2005 5:46 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly"

Here is a little piece I wrote on the topic of rail in the Far West, but it relates to a decade after the incident in the Bay of Biscay. The ideas expressed may however add some flavor to the topic and show that the rails were most likely not intended for an American railroad favored with a federal land grant. My general impression is that British rail was less expensive, and perhaps of higher quality than rail or American manufacture. Good luck on your research — and your book!

Larry Mullaly


Early Southern Pacific Trackage (1870-1880)

"There are 1,000 tons of 60-lb. steel rails on the way [by clipper ship] via Cape Horn. It was bought for the Central, but I think the Central can get on without it this winter, and I am inclined to think that on the heavy grades and curves between Caliente and Tehachapi Summit we should use a 60 lb. rail. A 50 lb. rail would do very well so far as concerns any vertical strain that would come on to it , but with the heavy engines, necessary (or thought to be necessary) to work those heavy grades and curves, I should be fearful of the lateral strain. Please think of this. I will send 2,000 tons more of 60-lb. steel at once if you think best."
Letter of Collis P. Huntington to Mark Hopkins, October 28, 1875.[1]

Rail weight was modest by modern standards, with the more readily available iron rail seeing widespread use until the mid 1870’s when the lighter, but more durable – and expensive – steel rail became available on the American market.[2] All the rail “bars” on land grant railroads such as the Southern Pacific were required by law to be of American manufacture. C.P. Huntington’s suppliers included the Albany and Rensselaer Iron and Steel Co. located in Troy, New York, the Bethlehem Iron Company, and the Pennsylvania Steel Company as well as other small firms.[3]

In 1871 approval for a section of Southern Pacific’s Northern Division had been delayed by the department of Interior for several months, when it was discovered that a predecessor construction company, the Santa Clara and Pajaro Valley Railroad, had constructed it of 50 rather than 60 pound iron rail as required by the Department of Interior specifications for the Southern Pacific line.[4] The mistake was not repeated again. As the following table shows, 56 pound iron and 50 pound steel were the minimum track weights used on the Southern Pacific’s southern divisions (Goshen in California’s San Joaquin Valley to Fort Yuma on the lower Colorado River).[5] Pieces of track were normally 30 feet in length, a size corresponding to the length of the standard flat cars used on the railroad at this time.

[1] Found in Collections III, pp. 400-401, reprinted in Ramirez, The Octopus Letters, p. 279.

[2] Some 60 pound steel rails, purchased from the Terre Noire mills southeast of Paris, France, had been purchased as early as the late 1860’s for the Central Pacific. [I don’t know what my source is for this. LM]

[3] David F. Myrick, Railroads of Arizona, Vol. 1, The Southern Roads (Howell-North, Berkeley, CA, 1975), p. 30.

[4] I have not been able to locate these specifications, but they are referred to in US Railroad Commissioners' correspondence.

[5] In letters sent by C.P. Huntington to David Colton of June 16, 1876 and June 24, 1876, Huntington indicated that he was purchasing 60 pound steel rail either for the line over the San Gorgonio Pass (Mound City to Indian Wells) or for the San Fernando Tunnel route. Either Huntington was in error of the order was cancelled, for there is no evidence that 60 pound steel rail of this weight was ever received.

4/07/2005 3:01 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


A colleague of mine passed on the following information.

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum

Note my work address has changed to:
My personal address remains:


In a message dated 4/7/2005 12:58:22 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, writes:

There are two books by Holley, 1858 and 1863 (?), quite rare, but on "permanent way," with a lot of different rail sections used at that time, both in England, and in the U.S., with some cost info.

Colburn, Zerah and Alexander L. Holley. 1858. The Permanent Way, and Coal Burning Locomotive Boilers of European Railways; with a comparison of the working economy of European and American Lines, and the Principles upon which improvement must proceed. New York: Holley and Colburn. 168 pp., 51 plates.

The later work has a similar title, but Holley is the author, and the work is more aimed at the U.S.

The California State Railroad Museum library has both.
[Likely the National Railway Museum in York does, too. KKW]

There are many other contemporaneous works upon "permanent way," which would include the required info, but most are uncommon.


4/07/2005 3:03 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


An "iron auxiliary screw steamer" suggests one of several things.

"Sail Assist" — In the 1860s, all forms of steamships were fully rigged with sail in a variety of rigs, normally using sail to take advantage of wind in reducing fuel consumption, adding efficiency in running. This was essential as compound engines (which used steam two or three times) were not yet in common use and fuel consumption was a critical factor. A vessel using both steam and sail for propulsion, but with steam as the primary means, is known as "sail assist."

"Lifting Frame" — At the same time, some vessels employed a form of screw contained in a "lifting frame" which could be detached and moved up into the hull, when under way by sail alone. One of these was fitted onto the SS Great Britain in 1857, and the HMS Warrior of 1861 had a similar arrangement. This was fitted into a number of vessels, usually on long runs where fuel consumption would exceed the practical and economic capacity of hull space.

The primary element on a vessel using both sail, steam but without a lifting frame may be the means by which it is classified, which indicates purpose. A vessel built for short haul runs where fuel is regularly supplied (transatlantic, or coastal, for example) would be a sail assist. A vessel intended for long haul business, where fuel was to be conserved by shutting down the engines and sailing alone, would be auxiliary. The same vessel, structurally, could be used in both capacities.

Screw propulsion was used from the 1830s, at first experimentally on small vessels, and after 1850 on a growing number of smaller ships in many trades. By 1860 it was the standard form of propulsion for all new ships, except for Admiralty regulations concerning transatlantic mail steamers, which required side paddle wheels as late as 1862. Screws were found to be hard on wooden ships, but practical and ideal in iron ships.

Steam freighters became practical in the 1860s, primarily by the Harland-built Bibby liners beginning in 1861, using a central superstructure with cargo space fore and aft. The evolution of compound engines by 1870 made the steam freighter economical for long runs, and refinements to the engines allowed sail assist to decline in value by 1890.

By 1860 problems associated with iron construction had been long solved and iron ships were acknowledged as the superior form of vessel. The construction of iron ships in the 1860s followed conservative forms established earlier by wooden shipbuilders – "rib first" to provide the frame, and a skin to cover it. Iron ribs were also used on composite wooden ships (the wooden hull planks riveted to the iron rib, normally sailing vessels). Decks and interiors were made of traditional wood, but deckhouses, superstructure, hollow iron masts, yards, and standing rigging (made of cable) was common, adding strength and lightness to the form.

Hope this helps,

Jim Wilke

4/08/2005 6:20 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Tony Cornish"

Thank you – it's a big help!


4/09/2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


... Do you know what ship name was? I might be able to track it down by type.

Also, most iron vessels of this era had a single skin plating – that is, from inside the hull, the ribs and skin would be visable in unfinished spaces such as the cargo holds, boiler and engine rooms, and so on. This form again copies the traditional manner of building wooden ships, and creates a situation where a puncture or damage to the hull plating can rapidly deteriorate a vessel's ability to remain afloat. Watertight bulkheads, which confined the entry of water to a limited space, were a feature of some iron steamships in the 1850s and 60s, but I do not believe iron sailing vessels, or at least to the same degree. How the vessel you describe sank would be affected by its internal construction to some way, and I would be interested in this process.

I have seen the traditional rib and plate form, without watertight bulkheads, while inside the British built iron-hulled sailing merchantmen "Balclutha" "Falls of Clyde" and "Euterpe," the latter built in 1862 and presently known by a later historic name, "Star of India." I regret that I have not yet seen the interior of SS Great Britain, and missed examining HMS Warrior while at Portsmouth.

Jim Wilke

4/09/2005 9:54 AM  

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