Historical Markers
First Iron Rails Historical Marker
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First Iron Rails

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
US 11 in Danville at Mahoning Creek

Dedication Date:
May 12, 1947

Behind the Marker

Illustration with cross-sections of different types of  rails
Illustration with cross-sections of different types of rails
In the beginning, when horses or mules provided the locomotion, Pennsylvania's pioneer railroads all used wooden tracks. Wood was cheap, easy to replace, and quite strong enough for the small loads that could be pulled by horses or men.

Wooden rails, however, could not hold the weight of a steam locomotive. Even the relatively small locomotives of the early steam era quickly tore apart everything that engineers could find to put underneath them. Railroads on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean spent decades searching for track that would be strong enough to carry increasingly heavy loads, yet cheap enough that companies could afford to lay it over great distances.
Hand-colored lithograph, drawn from nature by James Queen. Drawn on stone by F. von Lahr. Printed by P.S. Duval and Co.'s Steam Lithography Press, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1855.
Montour Iron Works, Danville, PA. circa 1855.

In the 1830s, the most popular form of railroad track in America consisted of a thin layer of flat strap-iron "facing" nailed to longitudinal wooden stringers, which were kept in constant width (or gauge) by wooden crossties placed perpendicularly on the ground. Strap-iron track was adequate for horse-drawn railroads. It was relatively cheap, more durable than the all-wooden tracks of the first American railroads, and easy to maintain and repair.

Strap-iron track also had its drawbacks, the most notorious of which were "snakeheads." When a piece of strap-iron rail broke under the weight of a passing train, the loose end flew up violently under spring tension, often ripping into the floor of the all-wooden cars. If these were passenger cars, riders could be injured or even killed by the impact.

Other limitations also soon became apparent. Strap iron was clearly not adequate for steam locomotives. When the first steam locomotive to operate in America, the English-built markerStourbridge Lion, made its maiden run on August 8, 1829, near Honesdale, Pennsylvania, it was too heavy for the strap-iron rails and the soft hemlock stringers of the markerDelaware and Hudson Canal Company, which quickly lost their shape beneath the weight. Strap-iron track was easy to maintain, but required a great deal of attention to keep it in working order. Another drawback was that American iron producers found it difficult to compete with English firms that manufactured most of the strap iron rail used in the United States.

The challenge, then, was for Americans to develop a shaped metal rail that would bear the entire weight of a train and rest directly on crossties. This concept was not new. In 1831, Robert Livingston Stevens of New Jersey (1787-1856) developed the idea of a T-shaped rail that consisted of a broad head, thin web, and flat base that could be spiked directly to wooden crossties. But turning this concept into a practical reality took time.
Early iron T-rail in New Jersey
Early iron T-rail rail in New Jersey

In 1839, American railroads ran on tracks of a wide variety of gauges and shapes: 101 American railroads were using strap iron on sleepers, forty-two were using some form of shaped rail (largely imported from England), and twenty-nine were using an unspecified method. To break English control of the iron rail industry, American iron makers tried, at first unsuccessfully, to produce heavy-edged (shaped) rail.

The first success came in western Maryland, where the Mount Savage Iron Works in 1843 installed a rolling mill to produce a shaped rail. The company began rolling the first "U"-shaped iron rails in America the next year, an achievement for which the English-financed company was awarded a silver medal by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.

On October 8, 1845, the Montour Iron Works of Danville rolled the first iron T-rails in Pennsylvania, and perhaps the United States; accounts vary, because the Mount Savage works also may have produced T-rail in either 1844 or 1845. The iron T-rails produced by Montour Iron and perhaps Mount Savage were the pioneer American version of the T-rail shape that is used today on virtually all railroads throughout the world. Through the Montour and Mount Savage mills, the American railroad industry began to end its dependence on British imported iron rail.
Stacked wooden ties, Reading RR Creosote plant
Stacked wooden ties, Reading RR Creosote plant

Founded in 1838, the Montour Iron Works became a major producer of iron T-rails, employing 1,800 to 2,000 men. More than thirty other furnaces and mills operated in the vicinity, conveniently located near anthracite coalfields and native sources of iron ore. Iron rail production became a major industry, requiring technical skill and the right rolling equipment, but no proprietary manufacturing secrets. Within a very few years, several mills began to make iron T-rail.

For fourteen years, the Montour plant produced the then-standard eighteen-foot-long rails, then advanced to rolling thirty-foot-long rails, which were first ordered in 1859 by the nearby Sunbury and Erie Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary. Thirty feet became the customary length of rail, eventually to be replaced about 1905 by thirty-three-foot sections. About 1925, thirty-nine feet became the standard length until 1,500-foot-long strands of continuous welded rail began to gain widespread acceptance in the 1960s.

The technological advances made by the Montour iron plant and others, however, proved to be short-lived. Locomotives quickly grew too heavy for even the sophisticated new iron T-rails. Within a single generation, American manufacturers began to roll stronger and more durable steel T-rails. In time, the greater durability of markersteel rails led railroads to replace every foot of iron rail track with steel rails.
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