Part of the USA Today Network

RAILCAR GOLD Chapter 12 . . Narrow . . Part 1

RAILCAR GOLD    Chapter 12 . . . Narrow   add 2 blanks after GOLD
RAILCAR GOLD   Chapter 12 . . . Narrow

RAILCAR GOLD is a historically accurate multi-generational fictional tale of hidden treasure, primarily set in York County, Pennsylvania during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.  This is Part 1 of Chapter 12 . . . Narrow.  A new part will be posted every Thursday.  Recent chapters stand alone, starting here; however new readers may want to start at the beginning.



CHAPTER  12  . . . NARROW . . .  Part 1

Suddenly the word on the tip of everybody’s tongue is narrow gauge.  This was the underlying reason that George Billmeyer did not return to Princeton for his senior year.

David E. Small, Charles Billmeyer’s partner in Billmeyer & Small, was a personal friend of General William J. Palmer.  Well in advance of Palmer’s public announcement of his intention to build a massive Western railroad as the countries first narrow gauge railway, Billmeyer & Small were already underway, secretly, designing the bulk of the narrow gauge railcar fleet needed for this railroad.

George Billmeyer was given the task of studying the best practices and understanding the mistakes made by narrow gauge railcar manufacturers in the Old World.  He’d be off, for weeks at a time, at libraries in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The initial months of briefings that George made to Charles Billmeyer and David Small were secretive.  This confidentiality continued even after General William J. Palmer and his associates incorporated their vision of a grand western railroad, The Denver & Rio Grande, on October 27, 1870.

General Palmer publicly announced on February 17, 1871 his intention to build his railroad as the countries first narrow gauge railway.  Only after that speech, could George Billmeyer divulge the details of what he had been working on to Dan or any of this other friends.

With the announcement out in the open, other railcar manufacturers were anxious get into this new market.  Billmeyer & Small had a ten-month head start; they were intent on using this to their advantage, in greatly expanding their railcar manufacturing business.

At the time General Palmer made his speech in 1871, the rails on virtually all railways were spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart; known as standard gauge.  Palmer selected a narrower rail spacing of 3 feet, 0 inches apart for perceived economical reasons.

The use of narrow gauge rail spacing was not new in the world.  The narrow gauge movement appeared in Britain a decade earlier in response to the question; what is the optimal railway gauge?

One evening Dan asked George why standard gauge rails are spaced at such an odd distance of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart.  George laughed and responded, “Roman chariots and Roman carts.”  Dan was puzzled.

George continued, “The ancient roads in Britain were built by the Romans.  The space between the wheels on their chariots and carts were roughly 57 inches, which is 4 feet, 9 inches.  In the development of some of the earliest railway engines, sections of these ancient stone roads were utilized for test tracks, by laying flat rails in the grooves worn into the blocks of stone that paved the Roman roads.”

Dan asked, “What about the odd 1/2-inch.”

George laughed again, “That was due to manufacturing errors on the initial locomotives produced for the first common carrier railway in Britain.  These first locomotives were assembled and found to fit a gauge of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches better than the 4 feet, 9 inches, as was intended.  It was much easier to make a 1/2-inch adjustment to 8-miles of track, already laid, rather than make 1/2-inch adjustments to these two locomotives.  We’ve lived with 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches as standard gauge ever since; because new railways connected to that first one, and so on and so on.”

Dan summarizes, “So let me get this straight; we have standard gauge due Roman chariots, tweaked with a manufacturing error that they corrected with a work-around.”  George responded, “Now you got it.”

Go to Part 2