If you’ve driven on U.S. Highway 79 where it passes the Texas Basket Factory, you may have noticed the many new railroad ties set alongside the tracks. We couldn’t help but wonder about the history of the wooden supports, initially hewn from local trees, that helped make Jacksonville an agricultural center for many decades.
During the early days of railroad construction, stone blocks, with wooden stringers running length-wise, supported the iron rail. In 1832, the Camden and Amboy Railroad ordered a large quantity of stone blocks from Sing Sing Prison in New York. Prison deliveries were so slow that construction foremen had their workers substitute wooden crossties taken from tree stands along the right of way.
Turns out the wooden crossties produced a smoother ride, were readily available and far less expensive. Wooden cross ties were here to stay.
Local trees would have been felled by railroad construction crews to make the bed that would eventually take the International and Great Northern Railroad (IG&N) into Jacksonville.
Bernard Mayfield, in his booklet “Vanishing Towns of Cherokee County Texas,” describes it as follows:
“By January 1872, seasoned work crews pushed out across the Neches River about two miles below Ragsdale Bluff, clearing timber and brush from the right of way, followed closely by road graders who manhandled the earth moving fresnoes (scrapers) with their unique three mule hitch, to fill the low ground and cut the steep inclines to easy grades. Bridge crews wove spidery trestles across streams and ravines. Stones used in building abutments were quarried at Sweetwater Springs about a mile below Ironton. Close behind came the tampers, flowing the roadbed with 2,600 hand-hewn oak crossties to the mile. Then, in stepped cadence, the rail setters advanced up the line laying strands of iron end to end. Each rail was “talked” into place by the rhythmic chant of the “caller” who with measured vocalizations commanded twelve men to lift and set a rail with the easy precision of a single man. And each time a rail clanged down on the crossties, the tracks moved twenty-six feet farther up the line. As the unerring spikers (nail drivers) sledged-hammered the iron to the wooden ties, a watchful gauger maintained a standard distance of four feet, nine and one-half inches between the rails. It wasn’t until November 9, 1872, that the first engine pulled into Jacksonville.
By 1900, there were almost 200,000 miles of rail in use with demand growing fast. To supply new road beds and to replace existing ties eventually reached unsustainable numbers – 110,000,000 in 1900 alone. Railroads had no interest in being in the crosstie manufacturing business and so a new industry of railroad tie manufacturers blossomed up to meet the railroads needs. Tie Hackers, the men who actually made the ties, worked on a piece-meal basis. Working from dawn to dusk, a top notch hewer could complete 15 to 20 ties from pine or 10 to 15 from hardwood trees.
So, to meet the demand in 1900, almost 70,000 Tie Hackers were required with another 50,000 men needed to collect, treat, load and ship the product. From the start of the Depression in 1929 through the end of World War II, more than 45,000,000 railroad cross ties a year were required to meet construction plans.
Date nails, like the ones on display in your Vanishing Texana Museum, were tagging devices utilized by railroads to visually identify the age of a railroad tie. In 1900, Octave Chanute, a railroad pioneer, proposed the idea of using date nails as a way of tracking the life (generally 20 to 50 years) of railroad ties.
The nails were also used by the railroad tie manufacturers. A nail stamped with an F4 would have been used by the IG&N to indicate the tie was made of Fir and was manufactured in 1904.
Today, as they set about changing the ties, you’ll see a track-mounted specialized machine that changes the ties without removing the track. Of course, there is a YouTube video if you miss the live action along Highway 79.
We regret the museum is not yet open. With so many interactive displays, it is taking some time (and $) to be in compliance with Governor Abbott’s executive order. The curator’s office is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 am. to 4. p.m.
Please feel free to stop by if you have any items to gift/loan (got a railroad item or two?) to the museum or if you have any questions.