From the Fall 2001 issue of Nailer News, 31.4, pp 5-8.

Crerar Adams & Co.,

   the Chicago Tie Preserving Co., and

        the Chicago & Eastern Illinois RR


by Jeff Oaks

    Simine Short is an aviation historian who is currently writing a book-length biography of Octave Chanute.  Recently she has been reading through volumes of his letters preserved in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and she has turned up some which are directly related to 1900 date nails on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois RR.  Using these letters along with other information, I will try to reconstruct just what nails were driven by the Chicago Tie Preserving Co. into C&EI ties in the years 1899 to 1905.  Let's review the historical background before we turn to the letters.

The Mt. Vernon tie treating plant
    In the last couple years of the 1800's the scarcity and price of timber reached a level which forced several railroads to begin the use of treated ties.  Among them was the Chicago & Eastern Illinois.  On July 17, 1899 a new treating plant at Mt. Vernon, IL began producing Wellhouse (zinc-tannin) treated ties for the railroad.  The facility was the second plant of the Chicago Tie Preserving Co., run by Octave Chanute.  Since I will be writing about three plants owned by this company, it might help the reader if I list them in a table:
 
 
Location Year built Process Railroad
Chicago, IL   1886 Wellhouse Rock Island
Mt. Vernon, IL   1899 Wellhouse C&EI, others
Paris, IL   1904 Rutgers Big Four

    Their first plant was located in Chicago, and had been treating ties for the Rock Island since 1886.  Octave was busy overseeing the operations of this plant, so he placed his son, Charles D. Chanute, in charge of the new Mt. Vernon plant.

    This new facility was capable of treating 1,000 ties per day, far more than the number required by the Chicago & Eastern Illinois.  For this reason it was made portable "by putting the retort on trucks, putting the boilers and machinery on cars, and arranging the tanks, platforms, and other parts so that they can readily be loaded on flat cars." [Railroad Gazette, August 18, 1899, p. 581]  In this way, if another railroad wanted to buy treated ties, the whole works could be moved to a different location for the job.

    We know that in addition to the C&EI, the portable plant treated ties for the Chicago & Western Indiana, and possibly for the Munising RR.  Another possible railroad is the Big Four Route (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis), which began using date nails in 1901.  I have found a record which explicitly states they started using nails that year.  Also, the nails 1, 2, and 3 (for 1901, 1902, and 1903) were pulled about thirty years ago by two brothers in Mansfield, OH.  The nails are very similar to Santa Fe dates.

    The Big Four would not be driving date nails into its ties if they were untreated.  As of 1901 the only tie treating plants near the Big Four were the two Chicago Tie Preserving Co. works.  Between the two, the job of supplying ties to the Big Four would have fallen on the Mt. Vernon portable plant.  The plausibility of this conjecture is made stronger by the fact that when the Big four decided to use zinc-creosoted ties in 1904, it was the Chicago Tie Preserving Co. which built the new plant, at Paris, IL.  I'll mention this plant again below.

The introduction of date nails on the C&EI
    The rumor sprung up among the employees of the Rock Island in 1898 that their Wellhouse treated ties were lasting only three or four years.  The record books of the foremen were so badly kept as to be useless, so to calculate the actual longevity the men had to walk the tracks and record the dates of twelve million ties!  These dates had been hand stamped in the end of the tie at the treating plant, with a hammer in which were inscribed the last two digits of the year.  Chanute's company had been stamping ties this way since 1895.

    Counting the stamps of so may ties made it clear to Chanute that the dating nail would be a much better way of keeping a record.  He wrote in 1900 "It is not sufficient to [date ties] with the stamping hammer.  That is what we are doing at the works here [in Chicago], but at our new works at Mt. Vernon we are not only stamping the tie with a hammer, but we are furnishing at our own expense a galvanized nail for the purpose of dating the tie, in order to be dead sure to be able to identify it 10 or 15 years hence." [Railroad Gazette, July 27, 1900, p. 507]  In an article announcing the opening of the new Mt. Vernon works, Chanute wrote in 1899 "zinc coated nails, with countersunk figures in the head...are driven in the ties to make sure that no question shall hereafter arise as to the date of treatment." [Railroad Gazette, August 18, 1899, p. 581]

    The following statistics of treated ties installed for the C&EI are not reliable, but they are at least roughly correct.  I have added the number of C&EI date nails which are known to exist today for each year:
 
Year Treated ties 
installed
No. of nails
known
1899    111,816     0
1900   221,568     2
1901   172,477     0
1902   194,430     0
1903     92,317     1
1904   181,426    few
1905   363,409    few
1906   448,113     0
1907   144,329     0

    A 1914 inspection near Mt. Vernon revealed "a number of red oak ties in track treated with the Wellhouse process bearing dating nails 1899...'' [Proceedings of the American Wood-Preservers' Association, 1915, p. 211]  Too bad not one of those 111,816 99's is known to have survived!  Herman Steury and Charles Sebesta each have one of the 00's.  Herman found his in a C&EI tool shed in Henning, IL.  Both nails have the "countersunk figures" specified by Chanute for the previous years' nails.  Herman also found 3, 4, and 5 driven into a tool house in Danville, IL.

The Chanute-Crerar letters
    Here are the transcriptions of the letters.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                     March 22d [1900]

      Crerar Adams & Co.
             Chicago

Gentlemen
                  We beg to accept your verbal offer of this date for 200.00 galvanized dating nails, of the size and shape of sample herewith, but with the figures 00 in raised figures on the head, at six cents per pound, F.O.B Chicago, cash.  Please advise us at what time you can deliver these nails.  We will want some of them by April 15.

                    Respectfully
                     Chicago Tie Preserving Co
                       Mr. O. Chanute, Pres't

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
     The number "200.00" needs some explanation.  Simine suggested that it is an error for 200.000 or 20.000, where the "." is used in place of the "," to separate the thousands.  In Europe, for example, they write 2,000 and 4.5 as 2.000 and 4,5---the roles of the comma and period are reversed.  What makes this interpretation appealing is that Octave uses the period in place of the comma in the third letter below.  I am in favor of the interpretation 20,000.

     More importantly, Chanute is ordering nails with raised figures.  His wording "but with the figures 00 in raised figures" can be thought of as being instead of depressed figures, which have been previously used.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                        April 15, 1900

 Crerar Adams & Co.
                #11 -- 5th Ave--Chicago, Ill.

 Gentlemen:--
               Referring to postal card of yrs.
[Sa]t[u]rday advising us that the dating nails are ready.  Will you please ship them to us
as soon as possible via C&EI Ry Co. to Mt Vernon, Ill.  Thanking you for rushing this
order we remain

                    Yours very truly
                     Chicago Tie Preserving Co.
                           C.D. Chanute
                            Sec'y & Treasurer

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Note that this second letter was written by Charles in Mt. Vernon.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                    August 16th [1900]

Crerar Adams & Co.
    Chicago Ill.

Gentlemen
             We beg to decline your proposal of 11th for 25.000 to 30.000 galvanized nails, same as last, at 5 1/2 cents a lb. and to thank you for your attention.

                       Respectfully
                    Chicago Tie Pres'g Co
                    Mr. O. Chanute

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Octave does not state explicitly in this last letter that these are dating nails, but I think we are safe in assuming they are.

    Crerar & Adams was a railroad supply company in Chicago.  They were the middlemen between the steel company which produced the nails and the tie treating company.  Suppose we designate type (02) as the WESIS type for the 1900 nails.  The Chicago & Eastern Illinois set for 1899-1900, were it ever to be found, would look like this:

2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  I          stl (02) 99,00
2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  R         stl (02) 00

Since the treating company had switched to single digits and a different steel company by 1903, we cannot say what the 1901 and 1902 nails were.  I believe Herman Steury has the only known 3, and since he is not able to read the shank to tell its type, I am not certain it is really type (01).  The 4 and 5, however, are known to be type (01).  These nails were made by the C.C. & E.P. Townsend Co. of Ellwood City, PA.

    There is a reason I am doubting the type of the 3.  I have a wild conjecture, and I am fully aware that it could easily be wrong.

    As I mentioned above, the Big Four made a contract with the Chicago Tie Preserving Co. for a new treating plant.  It was built at Paris, IL and went into operation in 1904, treating ties with zinc-creosote by the Rutgers process.

    What is important is that the date nails driven by the Chicago Tie Preserving Co. into Big Four ties at Paris are the same (01) 4 and 5 which were used in C&EI ties at Mt. Vernon.  It seems that Charles Chanute, who also ran the Paris plant, ordered the same nails for both operations.  In Chicago, Octave used different nails for the Rock Island beginning 1901.

    My conjecture is that the Big Four 1, 2, and 3 are the same as the C&EI 1, 2, and 3.  This is what the C&EI set for 1899-1905 would look like if I am right:

2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  I          stl (02) 99,00
2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  R         stl (02) 00
2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  I          stl (    ) 1-3
2 1/2 x 1/4  rnd  I          stl (01) 4,5

    Wiswell and Evans never assigned a type to the Santa Fe 1-3, the same company which made the Big Four nails.  I doubt it was the Crerar Adams & Co., since the C&EI 00 is clearly different.

    For the list of nails above to be correst, two things must be true:  (1) the Mt. Vernon plant treated Big Four ties from 1901 to 1903, and (2) the nails used at Mt. Vernon and Paris are the same.  Against my idea is the fact that the C&EI 3 is reported to be type (01).

    There is one other piece of evidence against me.  In his 1903 book Notes on Track, W. M. Camp wrote that the C&EI used "...a galvanized iron nail with the last two figures of the year of treatment stamped on the head." (p. 135)  First off, the nails were steel, not iron.  Second, in a general book on track structure and maintenance, we would not expect the author to disclose details such as the fact that some 00's had raised figures, and some later nails used only single digits.  Camp's goal was only to give a general description of nails on the C&EI. His source of information may date from the opening of the plant in 1899, too.

C&EI nails, 1908 up
    The Chicago & Eastern Illinois switched from the Wellhouse process (zinc tannin) to Burnettizing (straight zinc chloride) in 1906.  I don't know if the Mt. Vernon plant supplied these ties.  In the Fall of 1907 the railroad began also using creosoted ties, treated at the new Marion, IL plant of the American Creosoting Co.

    Because both Burnettized and creosoted ties were being used at the same time after 1907, they used date nails with different head shapes to distinguish the treatments.  Diamond nails went into creosoted ties and round nails into zinc treated ties.  No round nails are known after 5, probably because the ties rotted much faster than the creosoted ties.  Diamond nails are not too common.  08, 9, and 10 are known.  After 1910 the C&EI stopped using nails in all treated ties.
 
 

Postscript:  Charles Sebesta wrote to me after this article was published.  He told me that he also has a C&EI 3, and that it is not type (01).  Now we have to get Charles to compare his 3 with Dave Parmalee's Big Four 3!
 

Back to the main page