Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What was the pace of hammering rail spikes? How fast?

From: "Jane Rohrschneider" keywestjane@kwahs.org

I am trying to find information about railways for our new exhibit "Speedway to Sunshine." It is about the history of the railroad in Key West.

The information that I need, and am hoping you can help with, concerns one of the hands-on areas in the exhibit. This area will contain a large hammer that they used to hammer spikes and people will be able to hold it to see how heavy it was. I found some info. about the contest of John Henry and his 20 pound hammer but could not find out how fast he (or anyone) can hammer a spike into the rail. I would like to know how many blows it took a man to get a spike into the rail and how fast he could do it. I also read that men worked slowly so the other men would not get angry, so I wonder if the boss had some sort of rule that so many spikes had to be put in during a certain time. ...

—Jane Rohrschneider


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

If you know how rapidly the railroad you are studying was completed, mile by mile, you can use the information in the following to help calculate the answer to some of your questions:

"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

The construction schedule for the Central Pacific Railroad is shown in the frequently asked questions.

For the fastest ever, see: A Railroad Record That Defies Defeat – How Central Pacific laid ten miles of track in one day back in 1869.

1/11/2011 12:06 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wendellhuffman@hotmail.com

I suggest you spend some time in Google books. In the advanced search screen, searching for full text, search "track laying" and "spiking".

There are some great old texts on how to build track. One by Huntington is good, but much earlier than era of the Key West extension – and a lot of things changed over time. Other good books (all on Google) are by Camp, Tratman, and Van Auken. They are a bit later. I think it is Huntington that talks about the importance of driving the spikes straight, etc. I'm not sure how the FEC was laid, whether by hand or
machine. I suspect by machine, though the spikes were probably all still driven by hand.

The Bell quotation refers specifically to work on the UP, and it feels like he allowed himself a bit of poetic license. While it is generally consistent with descriptions of the work on the CPRR, he seems to have ignored the distinction between lead spikers and high spikers. The lead spikers started the spikes, in a precise sequence, and the high spikers came along after and drove the high spikes the rest of the way down. If one is going to count strokes, the strokes of the lead spikers might add two or more strokes to each spike. The lead spikers presumably worked kneeling, so would not have been able to put a full swing into their initial blow(s). The image we get of the high spikers is that they each had a particular spike on each rail, they would hit it once and walk ahead to that same spike on the next rail, leaving it for others following them to drive the spike home. But, the CP (like the UP) was in a hurry, and they threw in a lot of extra men to gain rapid progress – one record-setting day they were averaging 80 feet/minute for over six hours. With just under 3 rails per each 80 feet, and if each man had one spike per rail to worry about, they were hitting a spike and walking to their next spike roughly within a 20-second interval. But that was an average, they were also having to stop quite often to allow the rail cars to pass forward and back, delivering rail to the front.

[continued below]

1/11/2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

If the FEC was being built with a track-laying machine – as I suspect (given what I presume was the weight of its rail), most (if not all) splicing, gauging, and spiking was done in front of the machine – after the rails were laid, but before the machine and train was pushed ahead. This means everything had to be done within each rail length. With less room, there were fewer men, each man had to do more tasks (splicing, gauging, and spiking) and each man may have been responsible for starting and finishing each spike. They might still be able to drive a started spike home with three blows, but the work would have progressed a whole lot slower.

I notice that the Florida East Coast Railway Society states on their website that they are doing research into the construction techniques of the Key West extension. They may well have something to help you.

One summer, when my father was 15, he and his 12-year old brother talked their father – a Santa Fe station agent in Kansas – into getting them a pass so they could spend the summer riding railroads all around the country. He said they could go anywhere they wanted, so long as they did not go to Key West. Being a good Kansan, grandfather apparently thought a railroad across the water too dangerous a thing to ride. So, the first place they went, of course, was Key West. The one souvenir of the entire summer was a coconut, which my grandmother used for years as a door stop.


1/11/2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: vandtrr@cs.com

In addition to Wendell's excellent reply, you also have to consider the kind of wood used for the ties. Here in California redwood was often used and it is relatively soft. Do not know what kind of wood might have been used for the FEC ties but if it was a soft pine, spike driving might have gone pretty quickly.


1/11/2011 2:57 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The road-master's assistant and section-master's guide: a manual of ... By William S. Huntington, Charles Latimer.

Railway track and track work By Edward Ernest Russell Tratman.

Notes on track: construction and maintenance By Walter Mason Camp.

Practical track work By Kenneth L. Van Auken.

1/11/2011 3:25 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman" wendellhuffman@hotmail.com

One other comment on this: the primary factors governing the number of strokes it took to drive spikes (assuming the strength of the men was equal) were the length of spike and the hardness of the wood. It is likely that the FEC was using longer spikes in the 20th century than the CP and UP used in the 1860s, and they quite likely were using denser (i.e. harder) wood. The UP was (in)famous for its cottonwood ties. That description of three strokes to drive a spike home may well be based on observation of men driving spikes into cottonwood. It isn't bragging to suggest that even I could drive a spike into cottonwood with three strokes – assuming that I could hit a spike three times in a row. I suggest you start by trying to identify the kind of wood from which the FEC's ties were cut. Annual or engineering reports should have that.


1/14/2011 8:26 AM  

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