Sunday, August 20, 2006

A grand 'anvil chorus'

Can anyone identify the name of the newspaper and/or the exact date of publication of the following famous words and/or supply a copy or transcription of the original article from which this came?
"A light car, drawn by a single horse, gallops up to the front with its load of rails.  Two men seize the end of a rail and start forward, the rest of the gang taking hold by twos, until it is clear of the car.  They come forward at a run.  At the word of command the rail is dropped in its place, right side up with care, while the same process goes on at the other side of the car.  Less than thirty seconds to a rail for each gang, and so four rails go down to the minute ... close behind the first gang come the gaugers, spikers, and bolters, and a lively time they make of it.  It is a grand 'anvil chorus' ... It is played in triple time, 3 strokes to the spike.  There are 10 spikes to a rail, 400 rails to a mile, 1,800 miles to San Francisco — 21,000,000 times those sledges to be swung: 21,000,000 times are they to come down with their sharp punctuation before the great work of modern America is complete."

—Dr. William Abraham Bell, Newspaper, 1866


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Per the following compilation by the National Park Service, your quote was originally in the San Francisco Alta in 1869, discussing the Central Pacific, but was lifted by Dodge in his much later book and applied to the Union Pacific.

Alta, California, San Francisco, May 1 and 3, 1869

Some details to note relevant to earlier discussions.

The CP crews are using rail tongs, not their hands, to grab the rails off
the rail cars.

A crew starts the spikes and bolts the fishplates, and another crew drive
the spikes home. It's not clear who is in the first crew, but the crew that
drive the spikes home are Chinese.


8/21/2006 5:43 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


A bit further amplification –

Dodge appears to have cobbled together parts of several articles, and added a bit of his own, in crafting his paragraph, which is pretty much what you have printed below.

It's not clear what all sources Dodge used, but it does appear to be several. At least he didn't take credit for himself for the words (as many of that era did), even if it appears Bell cannot claim credit for the whole thing either.


8/21/2006 5:44 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


At the bottom of the San Francisco News Letter – Supplement May 15, 1869, Vol. IX, No. XV, pg 4, it mentions that "Mr. Bell" of the San Francisco Bulletin was at the Promontory ceremony and provided information to the San Francisco Newsletter.  Perhaps it is the same Bell that Dodge cited as his source for the quote.  That does tend to reinforce the Central Pacific origins of the quote, and also suggests that a systematic survey of the San Francisco Bulletin may be in order.

8/21/2006 5:46 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The book referenced above is How We Built the Union Pacific Railway: And Other Railway Papers and Addresses by Grenville Mellen Dodge.

8/21/2006 5:56 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


I believe the quote is from Dr. William Bell's book New Tracks in North America; A Journal of Travel and Adventure Whilst Engaged in the Survey for a Southern Railroad to the Pacific Ocean during 1867-1868. His quote is from an unnamed newspaper and is on the Union Pacific, Eastern Division (later Kansas Pacific.) Bell was working with William Jackson Palmer and others and did a preliminary survey of the region later followed by the Southern Pacific, in part, and Santa Fe, in part, across the Southwest. He took some of the first photographs of these areas as well. The book, or a cheap reprint, can be found in most larger libraries.


Bob Spude – Historian – Cultural Resources Management – National Park Service – Intermountain Region – 505.988.6770 Voice – 505.988.6876 Fax

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

8/21/2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Which brings up the question whether San Francisco papers picked up and reused portions of Bell's writing when discussing the Central Pacific.


8/27/2006 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Subject: Casement method of track laying

“Despite the challenging terrain, Union Pacific workers were soon laying an astonishing 4.2 miles of track a day. Key to their staggering progress was a method devised by two brothers, Jack and Dan Casement. The Casements’ method involved creating an entire moving city. Locomotives pulled sleeping berths, dining cars, and kitchens, providing everything for thousands of workers. … A simple cart [rolling on the just previously laid rails] has lots of cool features. Each [wooden] cart has these two iron bars along the front and back [top edge] making it possible for iron rails to slide to the edge and rollers position the rail right into place so it could be slid on the tie, saving valuable seconds ... For the ingenious carts to be effective the workers split into two teams. The first team used a horse and wagon to deliver the railway ties to the front of the line, laying them in place with a pair of tongs. At the same time another crew would be in the back lifting the rails into position on this cart, two men at the front of the rail and two men at the back. And this cart could be pushed to the front of the line. As the cart moved into position, it was the responsibility of two workers at the front to grab the rail with their tongs and pull it off the cart. And then two workers at the back to align the two rails. The foreman would yell “good iron“ and the cart would move forward. Behind the cart other men called strappers would splice the rails together at the joints. Behind the strappers, spikers secured the rails to the wooden ties with spikes. And then more carts came from behind with more materials to lay. Hearing of the Union Pacific success, the Central Pacific also adopted this swift technique. The Casement method revolutionized track laying.“ —Impossible Engineering S3:E5, video “Mega City Railway“ @12:51

2/22/2019 10:06 PM  

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