The Great Gauge Change of 1886

Nov. 20, 2020 – In May of 1886, the United States was in the midst of what is now known as the Gilded Age. This period was marked by a rapidly developing economy and the cultural reunification of the North and South. Over the course of 20 years, the average wage for an industrial worker in the U.S. nearly doubled, and the standard of living for American families skyrocketed above that of most European countries. The economic development that epitomized this era rode in on trains – innovative, perpetually evolving trains. A uniform and efficient railroad system became a pivotal asset to the nation, and the time had come to work out its antiquated quirks.

Over 60 years earlier, in 1827, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had been commissioned with the purpose of transporting goods being shipped along the Ohio River in the West to the port at Baltimore in the East. As America’s first railroad, the company set the standard for railways in the North by copying British railways in formatting track. The rails were placed 56.5 inches apart – a measurement that had been decided on by George Stephenson, a British engineer known as “the Father of Railways.” A separate railroad, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, got its start only 9 months later in Charleston, South Carolina. To accommodate the movement of larger cotton bales, the founders of South Carolina C&R decided on a rail spacing, or “gauge,” of 60 inches – exactly 5 feet.

As the years went on, the 56.5 inch gauge became the standard for railroads hailing from the North, while Southern railways followed South Carolina’s suit in standardizing the 60-inch gauge. These were not the only gauges present in the U.S. railroad system. In fact, by 1871, there were at least 23 different gauges in use by American railroads. Since trains would have to be specially formatted and equipped to run on a certain width of track, this was a major issue by the Gilded Age reform. Trains would have to be unloaded and the freight moved to another train at the interchange in order to make its full transit. In fact, North Carolina adopted the Stephenson gauge (Northern system) in order to make trade with the North easier and drew massive amounts of commerce away from surrounding Southern states as a result.

On February 2, 1886, the operating officers of the South’s major railroads met at Kimball House in Atlanta to discuss a shift to the Stephenson gauge. While some advocated passionately for the full transition, the final decision was to adopt a 4-foot-9 inch gauge – 3 inches narrower than the Southern gauge, but still a half inch wider than the Stephenson gauge. This miniscule difference allowed for most engines formatted for the Stephenson to still traverse the tracks, while also being wide enough for use by the Pennsylvania Railroad, a unique Northern Railroad with a 4ft9in gauge which had many interchanges with Southern rails. It was decided that on May 31st and June 1st of that year, in just two days, tens of thousands of railroad laborers across the South would pull up some 11,500 miles of rail and move them inward. Only one side would need to be moved, so it was decided that the western or northern side of each track would be shifted 3 inches.

The four-month preparation period allowed for special wheels to be made for engines and cars that could simply be turned around on their axles on the transformation day to fit the new track. When May 31st came, hundreds of workers hit the ground reversing the wheels on thousands of cars and engines, while thousands more workers quickly plucked railroad spikes on the 11,500 miles of track and shifted them inward by 3 inches. This daunting task was made considerably more efficient with the use of a special caliper known as a railroad gauge. Instead of measuring the distance between the rails every few feet, the workers could simply slide the caliper (like the one found in Discovery Park’s Depot), which had a set length of 4ft9in, down the track and confirm its uniformity.

On June 1st, after the noisiest 36 hours the South ever experienced, the last spike was hammered in. Over the next several decades, regular maintenance of tracks eventually shifted all railroad tracks in the South to the Stephenson gauge of 4ft 8.5in. Nevertheless, the Great Gauge Change of May 31st and June 1st, 1886 remains one of the greatest feats of engineering in world history, let alone the most magnificent coordinated effort in the Southern United States prior to telecommunications.

Side note: The day after the transition, June 2, 1886, President Grover Cleveland, who was 49, married college student Frances Folsom in the Blue Room of the White House. Cleveland had been the executor of her father’s estate and oversaw her upbringing. Nevertheless, at just 21 years old, she became one of the most beloved first ladies in American History. This was a busy week in American history, indeed!