To Build a Mile of Southern Track

It is common knowledge that the South was extremely short of all industrial materials and facilities. This definitely included railroads and the track they required. In this essay, I will show what it took to build a mile of that track so that you can see how big the task was to build even a short segment of line.

A mile of Southern railroad required a large investment in iron, local products and labor. The labor came mostly from slaves hired from local plantations. Frequently, plantation owners along the proposed line of a railroad would pay for shares of ownership in the new railroad with the labor of their slaves on the line near the plantation.

The local products were ballast material sand, gravel, crushed rock and wood. The wood was required for bridge, water tank, and station construction and for ties. The new railroad made do with whichever ballast material and wood it could obtain in the area.

The iron was the difficult part of building the railroad. Rail was usually purchased from England and produced in Wales. The cost, including shipping, was about the same as Northern produced rail, but English rail had a reputation for lasting longer. Rail produced in the South was almost non-existent. Chairs and spikes were frequently Southern.

Here are the numbers for one mile of track (both rails), made as cheaply as possible, consistent with accepted engineering practices:

T-rail 3,500 yards of 62#/yard rail for the main line

60 yards of 50#/yard rail for 1/5th of a 480ft station siding (1 siding per 5 miles)

Chairs 422 18# cast iron (1 per length of rail)
Spikes 4,700 1# iron (2 per tie)
Total iron requirement 234,500 pounds / 117 tons
Ties 2,350 1 per 2.25 feet
Culverts 1 per 5 miles
Bridges 1 per 10 miles, very rough average
Ballast varied, but always as little as possible in the initial construction
Station 1 per 5 to 10 miles
Water tank 1 per 15 miles, or more if the terrain required it