Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2349:
BUILDING RAILROADS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, rail and romance The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Frederick Talbot's 1911 book, The Railway Conquest of the World, struck a chord with me. The rail tycoons of his day were, no doubt, a rapacious lot -- called robber barons for good reason. But they didn't build the railroads. Talbot's point is that laborers and engineers built them. His very first words tell of the unfathomable fascination of romance in railroad building. He keeps stressing that word romance:

Outside a few highly populated areas, much of the world was still vast expanse. If we wanted to move goods over land before we had motor trucks, roads were slow and difficult. The road trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia took two-weeks before the Erie Canal was built. It was still four day trip once we had the Canal. The overland journey from San Francisco to Chicago could take months.

So, Talbot says, the railroad surveyor was as much an explorer as an engineer -- working in uncharted places. Even my own early jobs on road survey crews had that quality, sixty years ago. We worked off in the brush. One did not first lay out roads or rails where they already existed. Try to imagine laying out the first railroads in Wyoming or the Yukon -- in China or Africa.

As Talbot tells of rail surveyors, he sounds like the writers who churned out boy's adventure stories a century ago. He tells of surveyors dying in floods and avalanches -- attacks by natives, suffering heat and cold, and having to subsist for months largely on what fish they could catch.

The actual construction was equally hair-raising. That fact sinks in as we trace this book -- richly illustrated with century-old, tipped-in photo plates. They display two things that words could never reveal in such stark terms:

First, the hair-raising impossibility of building in the trackless wastes of so much wilderness. We see rail being laid through mountains and across deserts -- over rivers and open water -- dodging floods, sandstorms, and avalanches.
African bridge
We're also caught off-guard by the complexity, elegance, and ingenuity of construction. A steel truss bridges the canyon cut by the Zambesi River below Victoria Falls. Heroic timber trestles carry rail over the rugged Alaskan terrain. The Oroya Railway ran in perpetual snow at 16,000 feet, in the Andes. A cantilever bridge over China's Namiti Gorge appears to spurt outward from solid rock.

Oroya Railway

Something else emerges: Rail will now serve more than commerce. A chapter: The Holy Railway to Mecca, tells of a thousand-mile run from Damascus through Palestine and Arabia to Mecca and Medina. Its sole purpose: to take believers on their Hadj to Mecca.

So rails ribboned the world and changed it utterly. Cars, trucks and planes would dominate the next century, but only by continuing after the heroic -- romantic -- business of laying track. The continents first had to be shrunk by iron bands.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


F. A. Talbot, The Railway Conquest of the World. (London: William Heinemann, 1911). (All images from this source.)

Rail in Skaguay

Namiti Bridge


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.