The first track widely laid in the United States was made of wooden stringers, running in the direction of travel, with a flat iron bar fastened to the top, called strap iron. This served until the locomotives began to grow in weight, crushing the wooden stringer and the iron bar. Only a very few of the poorest roads (like the Winchester & Potomac) were still using strap on their main lines when the war began.
The replacement for strap iron was either U-rail or T-rail. U-rail formed an inverted U-shaped rail (here), on which the car’s wheels ran. U-iron was very good, but easily got out of alignment as the ground shifted. The South Side was the only major Confederate line still using much U-rail during the war. A few roads used flange rail, one that could be flipped top to bottom when the top became worn.
T-rail is the rail shape we know today (here). The rail was held in place by spikes driven into each tie close to the rail. The ends of rails were joined by chairs, in which the rails sat, or by bolting straps of iron (fish plates) to the sides of the joining rails and bolting them together. Except for the South Side, all significant Southern railroads had changed to T-rail or were well along in the process. T-rail would flake in spots as it wore. This flaking (lamination) could be fixed one of four ways: on the spot with a blacksmith forge (here), by replacing the rail and treating the flaking one in a company shop, by removing the flaking section and welding good rail in its place, or by replacing the rail and re-rolling the rail at a rolling mill.
Rail was known by its shape (above) and by its weight, in pounds per yard. By the Civil War, major Southern lines were using 62-65#/yard rail. Older rail, and rail on minor lines and sidings, was usually about 50#. Iron rail was good for about 10 years, based on peace time travel loads. A significant amount of Southern rail reached that age during the war. Rail wore more quickly than anticipated by the frequent and heavy war-time trains.
The Confederacy had the ability to make T-rail, but not the foresight to make it. All iron that would have been used for rail was consumed in other war projects, and all rolling facilities that could have re-rolled older rail was consumed in making armor for gunboats. However, it must be realized that the TOTAL capacity of the Confederate foundries and rolling mills could have provided less than one-half what the Southern railroads needed.
Since rail could not be made and was not imported, it had to be taken from sidings and lesser railroads and given to main lines, major roads, and essential new construction. The railroads which lost iron to Navy armor or other railroads make a long list – at least 25 roads. In fact, several were completely stripped of rail and went out of business.
Track was laid on cross ties (also called “sills”) of local wood. The rule of thumb was ties twice as long as the width between the rails (the gauge). So 5-ft gauge track would be laid on ties about 10 feet long. Since they were usually laid on bare ground when the road was constructed, and since the coating/impregnating of ties had not begun, ties lasted only about 5 years in the South. The labor of replacing ties each year was huge, with many lines cutting, moving, and placing 30-75,000 ties each year. As the roads earned money, they spent some of it ballasting bad sections of track, but fully ballasted roads were very rare.
Track was about 5 feet wide, laid on a roadbed about 10 feet wide. On each side of the bed was a ditch of about 20-foot width. This made the entire footprint about 50 feet in width. Cuts through hills and forests were frequently made wide enough to allow double tracking in the future (adding about 10 feet to the footprint).
The maintenance of the bed, track, ditches and rail occupied about one maintenance train per 100 miles of track, full time. In the spring, additional trains were used to recover from winter weather damage. Maintenance service was usually the last duty of small, old engines. Continual local maintenance was done by a section master and one or two men per mile of track in the section master’s area (usually about 10 miles).
Confederate labor shortages were particularly noticeable in the track maintenance area. At one time, railroads were allowed only one man per mile of track for maintenance, despite the need for extra maintenance due to the much heavier wear of wartime traffic. Some roads, like the North Carolina Railroad in 1862, almost fell apart before Army details were provided to make up the missed track and bed maintenance.
By the end of the war, essentially every mile of Southern track needed either bed or rail maintenance – and most required both. Most of the Southern railroads that went bankrupt, were bought, or merged in the five years after the war did so because they could not find or generate the cash required to rebuild their roads and rolling stock and service their heavy debt loads.