The Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad

A History of Railroad Technology


A Glossary of 19th Century Railroad Terms

abutment: A fixed point or surface, affording a relatively immovable object against which a body abuts or presses while resisting or moving in a contrary direction, for example, an end arch of a bridge.

atmospheric engine: Invented as the "digester" by Denis Papin of Blois, France, in 1695. It was improved by Thomas Newcomen, 1705, and James Watt, 1769. Newcomen's engine was the first effective steam-engine.

axle: A shaft or rod on which a wheel is placed.

Bessemer Steel: Steel produced by an industrial process in which impurities are removed by forcing a blast of air through molten iron. The process was patented by Henry Bessemer in 1855.

black powder: An explosive powder consisting of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal.

blacksmith: A person who forges objects of iron, including items essential to the building of a railroad, such as rail spikes.

blasting powder: A powder for blasting purposes composed of various forms of carbon and metallic salts.

boiler: A closed vessel in which water (or other fluid) is heated. The boiler for raising steam may be called a steam-generator.

brake: A contrivance for stopping the motion of a car-wheel by friction applied thereto.

brake-shoe: That portion of a brake which is brought in contact with the object whose motion is to be restrained.

brakeman: A person who operates, inspects, or repairs brakes, especially a railroad employee who assists the conductor and checks on the operation of a train's brakes.

buffer: (see car buffer)

cab: The covered part in the front of the locomotive which protects the engineer and the fireman, and shields the levers, etc.

cab deck: A base plate in the cab made of metal to protect it from fire.

caboose: A car attached to the rear of a freight train fitted up for the accomodation of the conductor, brakeman, and chance passengers.

car buffer: A fender or resiliant pad or block, placed on the end of a platform of a car bed to moderate the concussion of colliding cars.

chief engineer: The engineer in charge of or responsible for the locomotive(s) as well as the mechanical operation of the train, train speed, and all train handling.

chisel: Any of various specialized, edged tools for cutting wood, iron, or stone.

concrete: A mixture of rubber, stone chippings, gravel, or broken stones with lime and water. Used in foundations and filling in between masonry of walls.

coupler: A mechanism for connecting rolling stock in a train.

cow catcher: An inclined frame in front of a locomotive to throw obstructions from the track.

crane: A form of machine traveling upon a railroad for hoisting and lowering heavy weights.

culvert: A drain or water-way of masonry beneath a railroad track, a road, or a canal. It is a bridge or viaduct on a small scale.

cylinder: The chamber of a steam-engine in which the force of steam is utilized upon the piston.

deadwood: A wooden part of the car buffer block structure.

derail: To cause a train to run off its rails.

derailment: The condition of a locomotive or railway car in respect of being off the rails.

draft (air):The current of air which supplies a fire. Also, the course or direction of the hot air and smoke.

drawbar: An iron rod to connect a locomotive with a tender.

driving wheel: One of the large wheels of a locomotive to which the connecting-rods of the engine are attached.

engine: A machine which acts both to power and operate.

fire-box: (also firebox) The fire-chamber of a locomotive-boiler. It is jacketed with a water-chamber to prevent radiation of heat. The fire-box door may also be double and have a circulation of water through the hinges. A partition in the box sometimes divides the fire-space into two parts, and, being full of water, increases the fire surface.

force: An influence on a body or system, producing a change in movement or in shape or other like effect.

freight train: A train constructed and used for the carriage of merchandise.

golden spike: The ceremonial spike driven that joined the rails of the transcontinentalrailroad on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.

grade: The inclination from the horizontal of a portion of a road or railroad. It is expressed in degrees, in feet per mile, or other distance.

granite: A hard and durable silicious stone composed of quartz, feldspar, and mica conglomerated.

Greenwich Mean Time: The time as measured on the prime meridian running through Greenwich, England, and used internationally as a standard calculation.

hammer: Any of various specialized tools for driving nails or spikes, beating metals and the like.

handwheel: A wheel, as a valve, turned by hand.

Hell On Wheels: A traveling assembly of business establishments for railroad workers of the Union Pacific during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Businesses typically included purveyors of equipment and supplies, as well as gambling houses, saloons, dance halls, and brothels.

high pressure steam: A steam engine in which (in the U.S.) the safety valve is loaded with a weight equivalent to a boiler-pressure of 50 pounds per square inch. The amount varied by country. All early Newcomen and Watts engines were considered high pressure in England.

hoist: (see crane)

Howe truss: A truss made of steel or timber or both for spans up to 80 feet having both vertical and diagonal members.

hydraulic engine: An engine driven by the pressure of a column of water; the term is especially applied to one in which the piston of a cylinder is driven by water power.

hydraulics: The science that deals with the laws governing water or other liquids in motion and their applications in engineering.

inertia: The property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.

Janney coupler: (see knuckle coupler) An automatic coupler patented by Eli H. Janney in 1873.

knuckle coupler: (also Janney coupler) An automatic coupler patented by Eli Janney in 1873.

Lincoln pin: (see also link-and-pin) A colloquial term for the link-and-pin coupler.

link-and-pin: A tubelike body that received an oblong link for coupling rail cars. The link and pin was the original style of coupling used on American railways, eventually replaced in most cases by the Janney coupler.

locomotive: A self-moving, travelling steam engine.

make tracks: A colloquial term for laying railroad tracks.

maul: A large wooden hammer adapted for driving wedges and spikes, sometimes with iron facing around the head. The ceremonial maul used to drive the golden spike at Promontory Summit was, reportedly, faced with silver.

meridian: A great circle supposed to to pass through both poles and any point of a given place. Also, pertaining to midday or noon at that place.

multi-tube boiler: (also called multi-flue boiler) A steam-boiler having a large number of moderate-sized or small flues, as that of a locomotive.

nitroglycerine: (or nitro-glycerine) An oily liquid used for blasting purposes. It is made by adding small quantities of glycerine to a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids, and pouring that mixture into water. Great care must be taken during the manufacture process or decomposition can lead to spontaneous explosion.

pilot: (see also cow catcher and snow plow) The cow catcher or a frame in front of an engine to push obstructions from the rails.

piston: A device fitted to occupy the sectional area of a tube and be capable of reciprocation by pressure on either of its ends.

pneumatic drill: A drilling-machine operated by compressed air admitted alternately above and below a piston connected with gear-wheels which roate the drill. The air-reservoir and force-pump may be placed at any required distance from the cylinder and connected therewith by a flexible pipe, making it useful for large construction.

pneumatic pump: An air exhaust or forcing pump.

pneumatics: The branch of physics that deals with the mechanical properities of air and other gases.

pressure gauge: An apparatus or attachment for indicating the pressure of steam in a boiler.

Promontory, Utah: Location in Utah north of the Great Salt Lake where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met to complete the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

Pullman car: A kind of sleeping car; also, a palace car, a luxurious car for day or night travel

rail bed: The road bed of a railroad track.

rail gauge: (also rail-gage) Distance apart of the two lines of a railway forming a track, measured between the inner edges of the rails.

railhead: The farthest point reached in constructing a railroad.

railway: Railroad. Also, a railroad operating over short distances.

railway car: (also railcar, carriage, or coach) A vehicle for conveying passengers or freight on railways.

railway truck: (see truck)

railyard: (also yard) An area with tracks used for assembling, storing, loading and unloading, and maintenance of railroad cars and locomotives.

rolling stock: The cars of all descriptions which traverse the rails of a railway.

safety valve: A valve which automatically opens to permit steam to escape or air to enter the boiler in order to prevent its explosion or collapse.

shock absorbing spring: A device for damping sudden and rapid motion.

slack: The loose part of a fixed rope or other connector.

sleeping car: A railcar arranged with beds for passengers during night travel. In one version, the seats were convertible into a lower bed while an upper bed was let down from the ceiling.

smoke-stack: The chimney of a locomotive.

smokebox: (also smoke-box) A chamber in which the smoke and heated gases of the flues are collected and from which they pass to the chimney, funnel, or stack. In locomotives, the end of the boiler on which the chimney is placed. It receives the draft from the tubes. Locomotives with inside cylinders have them placed in this box, which keeps them and the steam-pipes at a high temperature.

snow-plow: An implement placed in front of a locomotive, used to clear a track of snow.

socket: A tubular recess in which an object is fitted.

spike: A large nail, above 10 d., intended for securing railway rails to the ties. Also, to drive with a hammer the large nail of the same name.

stationary steam engine: One permanently placed, as distinguished from a locomotive or portable engine. Also, a form of engine for drawing carriages on railroads by means of a rope.

steam engine: An engine worked by steam, typically one in which a sliding piston in a cylinder is moved by the expansive action of the steam generator in a boiler.

steam regulator: A valve for automatically regulating the passage of steam through a pipe or opening.

steam-powered drill: A large drill powered by steam, used to drive railroad spikes into the ground to hold the railroad ties down. Patented in 1871 by Simon Ingersoll.

stone arch bridge: (also stone bridge) A method of bridge construction in continuous use, but originated by the Romans who were the first to employ the arch on an extended scale. Longer bridges and viaducts use caissons or coffers for additional support.

summit: The highest elevation of a railway.

switch: The movable rails which connect one line of rails with another.

switchman: A person who has charge of a switch on a railroad. Also, the person who assists in moving cars in a railway yard or terminal.

swiveling truck: (see truck)

teamster: The driver of a team of oxen or horses.

telegraph: An apparatus or process for transmitting messages or signals to a distant place by means of electro-magnetism. It consists of a sending instrument and a distant receiving instrument connected by a conducting wire. The Morse instrument sent audible messages in an alpha-numeric code by pulsations of the armature.

telegrapher: The person operating an electro-magnetic telegraph.

tender: A car attached to a steam locomotive for carrying fuel or water.

throttle: (also throttle-valve) A valve which automatically opens to permit steam to escape or air to enter the boiler in order to prevent its explosion or collapse. Also the lever for manipulating that valve.

throttle gauge: A tool with straight calibrated measuring pins for measuring throttle valve gaps.

thrust: The downward and outward force exerted by an arch on each side.

time standards: The adopted civil time for a country or region, usually based on some specific meridian within the region.

time-table: A table giving the times of starting and arrival at each station of the daily trains of an given road (or train line).

train line: Passenger train route.

transcontinental railroad: (also railway or route) A railroad which passes or extends across a continent. Also, specifically the first transcontinental railroad, the Pacific Railway.

trestle: A rail or road bed supported by posts or pillars and framing in the intervals.

truck: (also railway truck or swiveling truck) A swiveling carriage with four or six wheels beneath the forward part of a locomotive or supporting one end of a railway car.

truss: also railway truck or swiveling truck) A swiveling carriage with four or six wheels beneath the forward part of a locomotive or supporting one end of a railway car.

viaduct: An elevated road for the passage of vehicles. Bridges are one form of viaduct, but the term usually refers to arched or trussed structures that cross valleys or gorges where the width of the water is only a small portion of the distance to be traversed. Viaducts are constructed where the depth renders embankments infeasible.

vigilante: Any person who takes the law into his or her own hands, usually done violently and summarily.