How fast did Civil War era steam engines go?

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How fast did Civil War era steam engines go?
Posted by emmar on Thursday, December 01, 2005 1:10 PM
We just finished learning about the Civil war in my US history class and this question came up during a discussion. I was wondering if anyone here knew how fast steam engines went during that time, Civil war railroading is not something that I know very much about.
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Posted by vsmith on Thursday, December 01, 2005 1:40 PM
Depends which side of the Mason-Dixon line you were on

Express trains in the north could run at speeds up to 60 mph if the track was well maintained and the line was well funded by its owners, however these were usually short runs by today s standards, NYC to Boston, NYC to Philly, NYC to DC. get farther west or south and the standards got worse, speeds got slower. For many of the same reasons that I'll mention below.

In the South, most lines were still quite primative often using strap rail, namely a metal plate that was layed on top of a wooden "rail" cheap to make but lousy for speed, so slow speed were the flavor of the day, 15-20mph was likely tops on these lines. These also had a common habit of wearing loose where it was nailed down to the rail with large spike nails, wheel action would cause the strap to coil up violently even ripping up thru the bottom of cars, RRers referred to these as "snakeheads". Where solid iron rail or pressed U rail ( shet of metal pressed into an inverted U shape with flanges for spiking) was found speeds could be increased but not by much, Iron rail was still weak and the U rail wasnt very strong either, likely 20-30 mph tops even for Express trains. Alot of these slow speeds are also the result of less that perfect ballasting on many southern lines, mostly due to the limited budgets many of these RR's were built to during the Ante-bellum days. When to Union forces occupied an area, they would often face RRs that had been burned or damaged, and that were built to whatever gauge the owners wanted 5' was most common. When they rebuilt these lines after the war they were often rebuilt by northers engineers who used the technics and standards common up north, the gauges were standardized and the general operational standards and construction standards overall were improved on all southern RRs as a result. As a result of these modernization and rebuilding practices and using the newer stronger steel rails both in the south and also in the north by the 1870's high speed 40-60 mph travel was almost common between almost all northern and southern cities east of the Mississippi.

Other lines that were not in the line of fire often operated right to and after the war with scant a hint of disturbance, though almost all the broad guage trains reguaged to standard by the end of the 19th century. However many of the narrow guage lumber and industrial lines, and their quite a few, operated right up to the end of their days .

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Posted by oltmannd on Thursday, December 01, 2005 1:42 PM
In Ambrose's book "Nothing like it in the World", he mentioned that sprints of 40-50 mph at times on inspection trains on the newly built sections of the UP.

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Posted by dknelson on Thursday, December 01, 2005 2:26 PM
I think I have read estimates that the "Great Locomotive Chase" between the General and the Texas (and the engines that preceded the Texas) reached estimated speeds of 70 mph + but those are all estimates -- and obviously not a typical situation by any means.
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Posted by dldance on Thursday, December 01, 2005 3:07 PM
Most of the previous posts have talked about top speed. However, average speed was much slower - in the range of 15 to 20 mph. This sounds slow to us but to put things in perspective here are the estimated average speeds of contemporary transpertation modes:

Pony Express -- 7 to 10 mph
Stage coach -- 3 to 5 mph
Horse & wagon (long distance) 2 to 4 mph (this was the preferred mode for the gold rush because it was so much faster than ox teams)
Ox team & wagon -- 1 to 2 mph ( this was the perferred mode for most western pioneers as they could walk comfortably along side the wagon and load more freight in the wagon)
walking -- 2 to 3 mph
River boat (downstream) -- 5 to 10 mph
River boat (upstream) -- 1 to 5 mph

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Posted by emmar on Saturday, December 03, 2005 12:32 AM
Thanks everyone. I had said in class that I thought that they must have gone at least over 20 in good situations, but my teacher thought the top speed that engines in that time could go in the best conditions would be about ten or twelve miles per hour. Thanks again.
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Posted by CShaveRR on Saturday, December 03, 2005 12:43 AM
Sounds like it's time to teach your teacher a thing or two...

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Posted by grampaw pettibone on Saturday, December 03, 2005 2:07 AM
The Northwestern of SC and the Alcolu RR both had average speeds of 12 MPH up into the 1930s. By the way, does anybody know what Chair rail was???

Tom

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Posted by Anonymous on Saturday, December 03, 2005 8:54 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by grampaw pettibone

The Northwestern of SC and the Alcolu RR both had average speeds of 12 MPH up into the 1930s. By the way, does anybody know what Chair rail was???

I've not heard of chair rail, but in Britain most of our lines used bullhead rail. With this the rail is dumbell shaped and placed in a chair, which is screwd to the sleeper. The rail is kept tight in the chair with a wooden key hamered in between the web of the rail and the outer jaw of the chair. Chair rail might be another name for bull head rail.
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Posted by vsmith on Saturday, December 03, 2005 10:41 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by emmar

Thanks everyone. I had said in class that I thought that they must have gone at least over 20 in good situations, but my teacher thought the top speed that engines in that time could go in the best conditions would be about ten or twelve miles per hour. Thanks again.


10-12 mph would be correct if it was on strap rail, which was very common in many areas of the south. This was due to the lack of availablity of steel or iron in most of the agricultural south, ironicly 90% of iron and steel in the south was shipped from the industrial rich north.

Where soild steel, iron or U rail was used the more common speed of 20-30mph were used. More common in the North, in the South this would have been mostly along the Atlantic seaboard trunk lines and coastal areas where steel could be more easily imported by ship. Elsewhere wood strap rail was fairly common.

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Posted by grampaw pettibone on Saturday, December 03, 2005 5:03 PM
Actually, most of the track consisted of 56 lb rail. I was told that the slow speed was due to 1) there was really no hurry and 2) it gave less wear and tear on the locomotives. Ref chair rail, it was used for a brief period on the NorthWestern, but was quickly replaced with 56 lb steel track., probably in 1889 when it went to standard guage from th Southern Standard 5 foot guage

Tom

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Posted by andrewjonathon on Saturday, December 03, 2005 5:49 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by emmar

Thanks everyone. I had said in class that I thought that they must have gone at least over 20 in good situations, but my teacher thought the top speed that engines in that time could go in the best conditions would be about ten or twelve miles per hour. Thanks again.


Well regardless of who is right, the one thing we do know is that they were a good few miles per hour faster than Amtrak is today.
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Posted by dehusman on Saturday, December 03, 2005 5:56 PM
An 1876 P&R rule book limits loaded coal trains to 8 mph, empty trains to 10 mph and coal trains on mine branches to 6 mph.

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Posted by route_rock on Sunday, December 04, 2005 9:50 PM
Of course the South did have a few areas of regular rail as opposed to strap rail as you cant make Sherman bowties out of strap rail! lets go with a 40 mph top speed as speed limits to those wild hoggers of yesteryear were like speedlimits on our nations roadways. Suggestions until an official with authority is standing there watching you roll by.

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, December 04, 2005 10:24 PM
From the reprint of the June 1870 Railway Guide:

New York Central's 'Special Chicago Express'
Lv NYC 10:30 AM, Arr Albany NY 2:45 PM, a distance of 143 Miles, no stops listed.
Average speed: About 33 mph

Illinois Central's 'Express'
Lv Chicago 9:30, Arr Champaign 2:45 PM. 128 miles with 6 stops enroute
About 24 mph

Chicago & Alton's Night Express
Lv Chicago 11:00 PM, Arr Bloomington IL 4:10 am, 126 miles with 5 stops enroute
About 24 mph

Mobile & Ohio Mail (The only train, a local all stops train)
Lv Mobile Ala 5:30 PM, Arr Columbus Miss 9:30 AM, 230 mi with 23 stops enroute
Average speed about 14 mph

New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern (An all stops 'Express')
Lv New Oreleans 7:00 AM, Arr Canton 6:00 PM, 206 miles wih 21 stops enroute
Average speed just less than 19 mph

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