Rails & Spikes

Rail Spike

Let’s take a train trip courtesy of QBO! If you’ve recognized these squared, rusty 6″ nails at our sales, you may have spent time strolling train tracks. They are officially called ‘rail spikes’, ‘cut spikes’ or ‘crampons’ and they fasten the metal rails to the wood cross ties to make the train track. On abandoned railways, spikes eventually work their way loose and can be found laying out on the ground, where passers-by collect them. Some blacksmiths use old spikes to create knives, trivets or fireplace pokers, usually keeping the distinctive offset nail heads intact.

Rail spikes are an American invention, created by Robert Livingston Stevens in 1832. They are the most common rail fastener in North America. There are three basic types of spike in the ASTM A65 standard, each containing different amounts of carbon steel. On rare occasions, spikes were also cast in precious metals, but more about that later. When attaching tie plates (where rails meet end-to-end) the spikes are pounded in as tightly as possible to keep the rails aligned and prevent trains from derailing, but when attaching a rail to the wooden ties along its length, the spikes are looser to allow a bit of movement. Although hydraulic tools are used today, in a few cases spikes are still pounded in by hand, which really takes some muscle!

Queen B only rarely sells railroad ties, the squared timber crossbars which support the rails, although as reclaimed lumber they can be nicely used in landscaping. The creosote-treated ties are weather resistant but not recommended for vegetable gardens or kids’ play areas. QBO does frequently sell the third component of train tracks – the steel rail itself. Cut lengths of track are common souvenirs, such as this short cross-section made into a pen holder commemorating the Valley and Siletz Railroad in Oregon.

The Valley and Siletz 40.5 mile line ran through Polk and Benton counties. It connected riverside Independence with the logging town of Valsetz (named after the Valley and Siletz), supplying the Willamette Valley with lumber. But the railway changed hands many times as needs shifted, and its troubles were compounded by legal issues. Boise Cascade ended up owning the line for a few decades before closing it in 1978. The line was re-opened from 1985 to 1992 by Dave and Mike Root to serve the Mountain Fir Lumber Company, but it has now lain dormant for 30+ years, shedding its spikes.

In contrast, this Golden Spike celebrated the 160th anniversary of the first Transcontinental Railroad in the world which connected Alameda, California, on the west coast, to the nation’s already existing eastern lines. The gold-painted spike is probably from the Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah, where the two lines coming from East and West (and bankrolled by competing companies) were joined together on May 8th, 1869 to complete the Transcontinental.

The final spike to be driven in was solid gold, made by a friend of Central Pacific President Leland Stanford. Stanford built his rail line by overworking his Chinese, Irish, Mormon and Civil War veteran laborers, which even back then drew some harsh criticism. The ruthless mogul’s investment made him a vast fortune, which he later used in part to found Stanford University. In 1978 when the student body decided to retire their “Indian Chief” mascot, a hearty majority voted for the new mascot to be the “Robber Baron”, a term coined for the brutal railroad tycoons by 1800s reporters. Sadly, the university was not amused and 45 years later it still has no official mascot but at least we can admire Stanford’s Golden Spike. 😉