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Visual Evidence

Image 5: The Road, Strap Rail

Strap rail on stone stringers Strap rail on wooden sleepers
Strap rail on stone stringers.  Strap rail on wooden sleepers.

The idea of a road made of rails was not new when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered in 1827. English mine carts had been rolling over short tracks since the mid 1700s. However, the B&O was to be 300 miles long, and was to carry freight of all kinds - and people, the most sensitive cargo of all. The railroad track would be the key to a smooth, efficient ride. The B&O’s founders intended their railroad to be a great work designed to last forever. Much of its early track consisted of long granite sills, or stringers, which were set directly into the ground. Thin iron straps were placed on top of the stringers, and formed the actual running surface. Not surprisingly, these stone rails proved expensive to purchase and extremely difficult to lay. To speed construction the B&O built some of its track with wooden stringers. Long, wood beams were placed onto connecting ties, or sleepers. Iron straps were placed on the long beams to create a smooth running surface. Notice that the connecting ties cannot be seen in the background of the image because they are buried by dirt. This dirt formed a smooth path for horses to walk on as they pulled railcars along the track.

Questions for Image 5:
  1. Why was a road made of smooth rails easier for a wheeled vehicle to roll over than a road made of dirt?

  2. What were the advantages and disadvantages of strap rail?

  3. Why was dirt placed in between the rails and overtop the wooden ties?
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