ASHS Column for 12 08 2005
Jerry Simmons

The story below is humorous and sounds
 good enough to be true. However, it is
not. It’s an urban legend that’s been
around for years, having spread rapidly
since finding its way to the Internet (see
www.watervalley.net/users/caseyjones/guage.htm). It’s here to show how reasonable-sounding explanations can often be mistaken for truth. Don’t believe everything you read or hear, and only some of what you see!
“Does the statement "We've always done it that way" ring any bells?

“The U.S. standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the U.S. Railroads.

“Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

“Why did "they" use that gauge, then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

“Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

“So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

“And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

“The next time you are handed a spec and told we’ve always done it that way and wonder who came up with that, you may think of them in not-too-agreeable terms, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

“Now the twist to the story: When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

“The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

“So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's rear end. And you thought being a horse's behind wasn't important.”


Actually, the SRBs mentioned here are larger in diameter than “two horses' behinds.” But that explanation does sound plausible, doesn’t it? According to Douglas Puffert of the University of Munich (see www.sdrm.org/faqs/gauge/gauge1.html), “American railways were not built by ex-patriate Brits, but almost exclusively by native American engineers who copied British practice. This practice they copied was that of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (opened in 1830), built by mine-works engineer George Stephenson.

Stephenson indeed copied the gauge with which he had previous experience in the mines, but this was originally the not quite so "exceedingly odd" measure of 4'8". The extra half-inch was added during construction of the L&M in order to allow a little more leeway between rails and wheel flanges. There is some evidence that the original rails were often 2" wide, indicating a width of track including the rails of exactly 5'0”

Puffert continues, “…. It appears true that mining ore carts were about the same width as road wagons, but the width varied by region. It is plausible that the width of wagons was fitted to road ruts, although ruts at narrow city gates might have mattered more than ruts on open roads. The main "evidence" for carrying the story back to Roman chariots, by the way, comes not from any study of the history of road ruts but from consideration of ancient "groove-ways"-- essentially permanent stone "ruts," a practical form of improved road surface at the time. It is true that one or two of these (NOT in Britain) happen to have roughly the same "gauge" as modern railways--within a broad band of wheel widths that would fit the grooves. However, others are of different widths. So part of the story as told may be consistent with the evidence, but hardly proved by it. But if anyone knows of better evidence, particularly any actual research on ruts, let me know.“

By the way--4' 8 1/2" (1435 mm.) is the standard gauge in nearly 60 percent of world route length.


Don’t forget to look at the Christmas gifts we have available. The outstanding one, we think, is a beautiful collectible ornament, a 3-D representation of Old 100. At only $15.00, we think your gift selection isn’t complete until you check out this deluxe suggestion. Of course, the Sawmill Scrapbooks and Pictorial History books make wonderful gift ideas for the local history buffs on your list! Make the Alger-Sullivan Historical Society the first stop on your Christmas shopping schedule!


From the Pine Belt News, December 7, 1905:

SARDINE NEWS – The people of our community are enjoying good health at present.
Syrup making and potato digging are going on now. Both the cane and the potato crops are good here this season.

Prof. W.I. Edwards has suspended the Sardine High School for a few days and is visiting his wife’s parents, who are quite sick.

Sardine now has a daily mail service, which is a great convenience.


Y’all come!

This page last modified on Sunday, December 25, 2005

A whistle stop in Flomaton. Does anyone know the date or the President that was here? Was it Wilson or Coolidge? Both names have been mentioned.