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Strap Iron Rail

Diagram of Strap Rail

Whilst to our eyes wooden track looks almost childlike it represented a major breakthrough in transportation. A train could travel at 10 mph on the track – double what you might achieve on a horse and three times the speed you can walk. The train was reliable and could carry many passengers and freight much farther than a horse and cart could travel in a day.

In practice with the prevailing technology of the late 1830's and early 1840's, a strap of iron two and one-half inches wide and five-eighths of an inch thick was spiked from the top down into the wooden rails of the track structure. This was done to prolong the life of the wooden rails. (See figure drawing right).

A strap iron railroad

The practice of spiking the strap iron rail from the top down, however, created a very dangerous problem. As the wheels of the cars wore the rail down, it also wore down the tops of the spikes holding down the strap rail. At this point, the strap rail started breaking, usually in such a manner that at least one end would stick up in the air. Sometimes, as the next train came against this upended broken rail, it would ride up and over the wheel of the railcar, piercing the floor of the car. This was called a snakehead.

Notwithstanding it being dangerous there was one railroad here on the Mendocino Coast that used it. The Jughandle or Caspar Close up of strap iron trackRailroad belonging to the Caspar Lumber Company was made of strap iron. It was the first railroad built by the Caspar Lumber Company. It was just over a mile long and it was laid across the plateau between Caspar and Jughandle Creekto the north. We have been unable to find any pictures of the Caspar strap iron railroad but it probably looked something like the one in the pictureabove. The motive power for Caspar was horses.

The picture on the right shows what strap iron track looked like.