History of Railroad Tie Preservation

For me the most important part of the book Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation is the 56 page history of tie preservation in Volume I.  After compiling information on each railroad's experience with tie preservation (as recorded in old railroad engineering journals and books), and considering the evidence of the date nails, I wrote the history.  It is fully annotated.  A brief overview is given here.

Date Nails and Tie Preservation

Although most nail collectors don't think much about it, date nails exist solely because of tie preservation.  Just as the study of Ancient Roman coins is bound to the study of the Roman economy, it is impossible to understand date nails without considering the history of the chemical preservation of railroad ties.

Cronology of tie preservation and date nails in North America

1830-33 The South Carolina RR becomes the first in North America to treat its structural timbers.  Tar and turpentine were used.
1832 Ties are invented on the Camden & Amboy RR.  Kyan's method of treating with mercuric chloride is patented in England.
1838 Burnett patents his treatment with zinc chloride; Bethell patents pressure treatment.  Both are English.  First tests of Kyanized ties in the U.S.:  on the South Carolina and on the Northern Central.
1848 First permanent treating facility in the U.S., at Lowell, MA.  Canal timbers were steeped in mercuric chloride there.
1853 Creosote emerges as the best preservative, but its cost prohibits its use in the U.S.  It quickly becomes the European standard, though.
1855 First North American test of ties treated with zinc chloride:  Union RR of Cambridge (a horse railroad).
1868 First test of creosoted ties in North America:  Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.  The ties were treated in an open vat.
1870 Oldest known date nail, from a tie in France (I pulled this one!).
1875-76 First known dating of ties in North America:  On the Central RR of New Jersey test ties were hammer-stamped with the date.
1876 First railroad treating plant opens:  Louisville & Nashville.  Bridge timbers, not ties, were treated under pressure with creosote.
1877 First North American test of ties treated under pressure with creosote:  Houston & Texas Central RR.
1881-82 First known use of tags to mark ties.  Brass tags identified ties in two Santa Fe test sections. 


The Santa Fe becomes the first North American railroad to treat ties regularly.  They opened the first railroad tie treating plant at Las Vegas, NM in July, where ties were treated with zinc chloride by the Wellhouse process.  The Rock Island (1886) and the Southern Pacific (1887) followed the lead of the Santa Fe, and these three railroads were alone in tie treating until 1899.
     Also, the Santa Fe begins hammer stamping the year of treatment into treated ties.  The SP (1887) and Rock Island (1895) follow later.
1897 Oldest known North American date nail, from a tie on the Mississippi River & Bonne Terre.


Due to a sharp increase in the price of timber, other railroads begin using treated ties and date nails:  Great Northern; Chicago & Eastern Illinois; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (the latter may not have treated its ties).  All of these lines used zinc chloride.  The Santa Fe, Rock Island and SP continue to hammer stamp their ties, though they all turned to date nails by 1903.  Many other railroads begin using treated ties and date nails in the years following 1899.


The Big Four is the first railroad in North America to treat ties with creosote on a regular basis. In the Spring the Columbia Creosoting Co. opens the first American tie creosoting plant in Shirley, IN for treating the Big Four's ties.  The Santa Fe does the same in 1906, and by 1910 at least 16 major railroads will be using creosoted ties.  This new, "empty-cell" method causes suspicions in many tie treating engineers.
1909 The CB&Q is the first to abandon the date nail in favor of special test sections.  A nail in every treated tie gave a bad record on several railroads, so they decided to concentrate their record on short, specially designated stretches track called test sections.
ca. 1907-16


The creosote controversy.  With so much money tied up in wood presevation, the rapid spread of empty-cell creosoting causes a bitter controversy.  At this point the empty cell method had not yet proved itself in long-term tests!  The American Wod Preservers' Association condemns the process as fraudulent while many respected tie treating engineers shun creosote.  Only when the good record of empty cell treated ties became available, ca.1916, did these suspicions subside.
1916-1921 Because much of the creosote used in the U.S. was imported from Europe, the war causes a critical shortage.  Even those railroads committed to creosoting have to cut back.  Some revert to zinc chloride.


American railroads finally begin to use creosoted ties in large numbers.  In Europe creosote had been the norm since the 1860's.  Also, the date nail returns to favor.  The nature of record keeping is changing, and having the nails in ties is again though to be worth the cost.
1931 Date nail use peaks in North America.  Over 100 railroads use them this year.  The depression causes a decline after 1931.
1942-46 Date nail use takes another plunge because of WorldWar II.  Between 50 and 60 railoads use nails in these years.
1959-1971 The big plunge---date nail use experiences a steady drop from over 50 railroads to 4 railroads.  The record of treated ties is pretty much understood by this point, and railroads are now relying more on stamps in the ends of ties for their records.
1999 Newest known date nail in a North American tie: U.S. Navy track in New Jersey.  They are probably using 00's as well.

Octave Chanute

    Chanute is best known for his contribution to flight---he conducted glider experiments in 1896 and was in close contact with the Wright Brothers from 1900 to 1910---but for us he is the man who promoted tie preservation from 1880, when he began work on the Wood Preservation Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers, until his death in 1910.  What is interesting is the parallel between his wood preservation work and his aviation work:  he began by organizing all known experiments, and commenced to bring together people interested in the field.  In the end his ideas and theories had become obsolete (though he still clung to them), and he became disheartened by the feuding and secrecy within the science---a blow to his vision of an open society of experts in non-competitive collaboration.  My book contains a 15 page biography of Chanute.  It is the first to treat his work on tie preservation correctly.

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