Sleepers Through Time

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

ties were transported by wagon or delivered to a river bank for assembly into a raft for tie drives downstream to a railhead. Tie hacks were paid at the delivery point. A good hewer could make 10 hardwood or 15 pine ties daily. In the 1930s the price paid at the yard was 50 cents per tie, providing a grand sum of $5 to $6 for a standard 12-hour day. Later the price increased to $3 per tie.

Due to the low value received for ties, no money was paid to the landowner for the trees. During the 1930s, as tie prices increased, the customary payment to the landowner was about 25 cents per tie. Trees containing two tie logs would be worth 50 cents.

At buying yards, such as the one at Doniphan, ties were inspected for rot, knotholes and the correct size. If the tie had a defect it had no value. Even a small knothole caused ties to be rejected, resulting in no payment. It was sometimes difficult to judge if the underlying knot would be sound.

A tie hacker spent some time selecting a tree, felling it and hewing out a tie. If he discovered a small knothole he might try to hide it. The solution was to whittle a dead limb of the same species into the shape of the cavity.

Then the tie hacker plugged the hole by driving the plug into the knothole and hewing off the plug head with the broad axe. He might also rub a little dirt on it. Tie pluggin' was a deceitful solution, but something many tie hackers did.

Hand hewing of ties was doomed to become a lost art, but not without a fight. At stake was a loss of jobs on a nationwide scale. To supply the 110 million ties needed in the year 1900 it was estimated that 60,000 to 70,000 men were hewing ties. Another 50,000 men were involved in collecting, stacking, drying, distribution and sales.

Debate compared hewed with sawed ties. Proponents of hewed ties cited better resistance against movement when installed, plus two false premises stating that an axe cut closed the pores of the wood, making the ties more resistant to decay, and that sawed ties offered more opportunities for the wood to hold moisture.

Equipment manufacturing companies developed small, simple to operate and affordable sawmills suited for farm use. A farm tractor or a steam engine provided

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