This review appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Nailer News, the publication of the Texas Date Nail Collectors Association (TDNCA).

Book Review

The Wood Crosstie:  A 150 Year Success Story, by Paul D. Webster.  Published by the Railway Tie Association, Gulf Shores, AL. Paperbound, 277 pp.  8 1/2" x 11", on heavy, black & white paper.  See the end of this review for ordering information.

Though it was published in 1991, I did not know about this book until Mike Hobbs, a rail collector in Illinois, told me about it this September (2000).  I ordered my copy through the RTA web site.  The title page of the book reads:  "A 150 Year Success Story / The Wood Crosstie / The Railway Tie Association & The National Association of Railroad Tie Producers / A Three-Quarters of a Century History / by Paul D. Webster.  First edition."

The National Association of Railroad Tie Producers was founded in 1919, and changed its name in 1932 to the Railway Tie Association (RTA).  It is "a trade association that represents sawmills, tie producers and users, and treating companies involved in the production of wood crossties.'' (210)  The purpose of this book is to support the wood tie industry by giving people---mainly people within the industry---glimpses into the nature of the broadly political problems the industry has faced in its 75 years, along with other interesting tidbits from the past.  It consists mainly of reprints of articles from RTA's magazine Cross Ties and its predecessor Cross Tie Bulletin.  These are loosely strung together by brief (1/2 to 2 pages) introductions by the author.  I will examine the book by topic rather than by page order.

Concrete ties
This has been a big issue for the RTA from the beginning.  Concrete ties are a threat to the wood tie industry, so it is not surprising that a large portion of this book contains articles attacking concrete ties and lauding the wood tie as the best alternative for railroads.  Concrete ties offer the advantage of a longer life, no environmental problem with disposal, and they have been successfully used in Europe for many years.  And at least since the 1890's substitute ties such as concrete and steel have been promoted to halt the destruction of our forests.  A disadvantage of concrete is initial cost.  Titles of reprinted articles include:

   No Shortage of Wood for Ties and Never Will Be, Says National Lumber Manufacturers Assn. (1931, p. 110)
    U. S. Timber Growth Considerably Exceeds Timber Drain (1936, p. 115)
    Substitute Tie Quite Out of the Picture (1932, p. 115)
    Europe Turns Back To Wooden Ties (an exaggeration!  1937, p. 117)
    No Substitute For Wooden Ties (1950, p. 118)
    3 Billion Ties, 95% Wood, In Tracks of the World (1954, p. 119)
    "Final Verdict" is "No," On Substitute Cross Tie (1954, p. 120)
    Why WOOD IS BEST for Cross Ties (1927, p. 126)
    Failure of Substitute Cross Tie Materials (1928, p. 130)

In 1977 the Department of Transportation decided to upgrade 400 miles of the 1,300 mile Northeast Corridor with concrete ties, and the RTA was hopping mad.  Webster writes "Lobbying and politics seemed to prevail, at least from the viewpoint of the wood crosstie industry.  The concrete folks offered a tie that would:  1.  Last for fifty years; 2. Cost twice as much as wood; 3.  Offer an unproven design for use in the United states." (p. 208)

By now you probably realize that taking the RTA at face value on the topic of concrete ties is like accepting the word of a politician at election time.  The bias is too strong to allow one to gain a good understanding of the issues.  And the kind of tactics used by the RTA on this issue (and others) is reminiscent of Goltra's attacks on empty-cell creosoting from 1912-14 (read these in the history of tie preservation in my book).  They blame the success of the opposition on "lobbying and politics", since they cannot admit that concrete ties might be good; they emphasize the "unproven design" of concrete ties, when they have been used successfully in Europe for decades.

I am not making any claim as to which tie is best.  I am just pointing out that when an industry is threatened, it cannot be relied upon to be impartial, and one can expect them to twist facts in their favor.

Creosote a poison?
Naturally the RTA would like to see unrestricted use of creosote, both in production and disposal.  Unfortunately for them, the EPA has declared creosote a "restricted use pesticide".  Webster and the RTA claim that creosote is in fact perfectly safe, and they back up their claim with (1) a list of criteria for determining whether or not a substance can be classified as a hazardous waste, and (2) proof that creosote falls into none of these classifications. (p. 188)  Again, only someone as partial as a tie producer or treater can agree with this without doing more research!

The seriousness of EPA intervention (or regulation, depending on your viewpoint), can be seen in Webster's statement "Until 1965, the pressure treating industry had never anticipated the EPA or all the other laws, rules, regulations, and agencies that would arrive at the wood crosstie producer's doorstep over the next twenty-five years and force 85% of the industry to permanently close its doors, and cost the survivors millions upon millions of dollars to bring their facilities into environmental compliance in order to continue operating in the wood railroad tie supply business." (p. 188)

And of course the RTA is against trucks.  As early as 1931 they were complaining of "unregulated competition which threatens railroads." (p. 144)  Reprinted articles include "Who Owns the Highways?" (1933, p. 146); "The Truck War in the States" (1932, p. 148); "Trucks and Buses Endanger Motorists" (1932, p. 148).

Producing ties
There are a lot of interesting photos, articles, and stories on the production of ties.  There are photos of lumbermen in the forest, of the activities in and around tie treating plants, and of interesting logging and tie equipment.  There are good, detailed accounts of hewing and sawing lumber into ties, and of the wages and working conditions of the men who made the ties.  For example, you can read Webster's transcriptions of old lumbermen's activities in "Thoughts on Shoulder-Loading Crossties" (p. 105), and you might find the 1935 article "Jerseyman Has Cut 100,000 Railroad Ties Single-Handed:  Calls Hewing Timber an Art" (p. 99) a fascinating piece.  For me, this is the best part of the book.

The boring stuff
Why did Webster included items such as the list of Standing Committees of the RTA and their assignments for 1991 (pp. 27-35), the 1920 list of Regional Vice Presidents (p. 37), the 1919 Constitution and By-Laws of the NARTP (pp. 39-44), or numerous photos of RTA officials?  Perhaps that kind of documentation is interesting to current officials, or perhaps it gives the book an air of authority, or of seriousness.  He includes the 1932 Constitution of the RTA (pp. 153-156), and info on the Executive Committee and Governance (p. 226).  I could flip through the book for more examples, but it is too boring!

Railroad tie history
There are two articles in the book which treat the history of ties.  One is bad and the other good.  The bad article is by Thurman E. DeVore and is titled "CREOSOTE--  Our Standard Wood Crosstie Preservative for Over 100 Years" (pp. 243-247).  Even the title of this 1991 piece is wrong!  This error comes from his statement "In 1875, the first wood preservative plant in the United States opened in Pascagoula, Mississippi by the L&N Railroad.  The plant used creosote to treat mostly railroad ties."

I have to take a big breath before I delve into the errors he commits in this one sentence!
    (1) It was not the first wood preserving plant in the U.S.  Dozens of plants had been built before 1875.  One of these, the 1848 plant in Lowell, MA was the first permanent treating facility in the U.S.  The first railroad pressure creosoting plant was built by the Old Colony RR in 1865.  The L&N plant in West Pascagoula was the first permanent railroad treating plant in the country.
    (2) Ties were not treated at this plant!  It was built to treat structural timbers along the Gulf coast to prevent attacks by marine borers.  See my book for details.  The L&N did not begin treating ties until the 20th century.
    (3) The plant opened in 1876.  It was built in 1875.

The first railroad in North America to use creosoted ties on a regular basis was the Big Four Route, beginning 1905.  For over a decade there was a nasty controversy over whether empty-cell creosoting methods really work (see my history, Vol. 1), after which followed a creosote shortage caused by the First World War.  It was not until the early 1920's that creosote became the industry standard.  So the title of DeVore's article should say "for 70 Years" instead of "for Over 100 Years".

You might think I'm being a bit hard on DeVore, but there are other mistakes in his history I don't have time to dig into now.  Of course the main purpose of his piece is not to give us an account of the deveopment of tie treating, but to defend the wood tie industry by addressing the  of concrete tie problem and the creosote problem.  This part of his article is slanted like the accounts I gave above, but he is more toned-down than Webster or some of the others.

So for someone interested in tie history, DeVore's piece is unreliable.  For somone interested in the current issues of concrete ties and creosote, he is biased.

The good article, titled "Creosote Crossties", is from 1977 and was written by Ralph H. Bescher.  "A quick review is made of the history of the development of pressure treatments for crossties from the early nineteen hundreds to date..."  This is well-done.  The only problem is that it is too brief!  I would like to have seen him write a little more.  After the history, of course, comes the author's main point, supported by a correct use of statistics:  that it is not cost-effective to pump more creosote into ties to obtain a longer life.  The current empty-cell methods give a life of about 35 years in main line traffic, and injecting more creosote to make them 50-year ties will not yield a return on the extra money invested.

Perhaps this article is level-headed and honest because it does not address any of the threats to the tie industry, or maybe because this article was originally presented to the AWPA (American Wood-Preservers' Association), an organization with a bit more integrity than the RTA.

Long-lasting ties
To wrap up this review I want to direct you to the article  "Tie on Atlantic Coast Line in Service 80 Years" from a 1933 issue of Cross Tie Bulletin (p. 215).  This also appears in Date Nails Complete, pp. 318-319.  I now see it as a political article, intended to promote the wood crosstie over concrete and other substitutes.  In 1931, with fear of a depleted timber supply, there was talk in Washington of requiring railroads to begin using non-wood ties.  The measure was quickly snuffed out, but fear remained that it would resurface.  So it is not surprising to suddenly see articles on really old wood ties appear---in 1932 a piece on a 57-year-old Illinois Central tie was published, and the next year we see this article on the 80 year old ACL tie.

So should you buy the book?
To judge a book one needs to take into account its purpose.  It would not be right to evaluate The Wood Crosstie as real history, to see how it meets current academic standards of rigor.  As I stated in the beginning, this book is a political tract designed to support the wood tie industry, and as such it does very well.  Webster did a good job in putting this together.

Subscribers of Nailer News will like the photos and articles on tie production, and it is interesting to see the issues affecting the RTA.  For me it was worth the money.

The book costs $9.95 plus $4.30 shipping & handling.  Total cost:  $14.25.

If you have web access, go here to order:

Otherwise, send your check for $14.25 to:
    The Railway Tie Association
    115 Commerce Drive, Suite C
    Fayetteville, GA 30214

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