Sleepers Through Time

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

power for operating the mill. As mechanical technology evolved, fewer ties were hand hewn.

The life expectancy for the 110 million untreated ties installed during 1900 was four to six years. Ties are now treated with coal tar creosote, a chemical preservative, and the life expectancy for a tie averages about 30 years.

In Missouri, a leading tie producing state, there were preservative treating companies in Springfield, Kansas City, St. Louis, Piedmont and Ellington. There are fewer but more efficient operations today. Environmental regulations control the application of creosote, and the demand for wood ties has been reduced. Fewer plants are needed to meet today's demand.

The Missouri Department of Transportation reports that in 1991 about 7,052 miles of track were in service in Missouri. About two-thirds was in mainline quality track and the other third was in sidings, spur lines and rail yards. Main line track requires about 3,700 ties per mile and a better grade of tie to withstand the rapid movement of heavy trains. The lower maintenance tracks required about 2,900 ties per mile, including ties of a lower grade.

Research is on-going to improve designs of spikes, rail bearing plates and ties made of concrete. To date, concrete ties, reinforced with steel, are in service in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. In certain applications, such as high speed curves, concrete ties are holding up well. However, on most mainline track, wood remains the tie of choice.

Builders use retired railroad ties in retaining walls, raised gardens and other landscaping projects. Researchers are looking for solutions for disposal of retired landscape ties. One possibility is the use of the old ties as boiler fuel.

Railroads are important to consumers, farmers and related businesses. Bulk cotton for clothing, lumber products for the construction of homes, fruits, vegetables and grain, as well as autos and their parts, travel by rail. Although farmers no longer hand hew ties for an income, they continue to supply the wood needed for railroad ties and depend upon railroads to help link farm products with city consumers.

Magnificent steam powered locomotives have given way to the impressive, but not quite as romantic, diesel powered engines. Only a handful of steam locomotives remain in service, most on excursion lines. Although wood ties have undergone several modifications in their manufacture, it remains a fact that wood sleepers, made from a renewable natural resource, helped to support rails and trains.

Tie Video Available

The Conservation Department sells a historical video about the production of railroad ties in Missouri. Stamp of Character sells for $10. In it the 1920s come alive through archival black and white footage of the last railroad tie drive made on the Black River by the T.J. Moss Tie Company of St. Louis.Intense manual labor, animal powered wagons, steam driven loaders and the creosote treating process are featured. This sound-enhanced footage provides a unique look at the process of making a railroad cross tie during a period when forests covered two-thirds of the state.

To order the video, write to Missouri Department of Conservation, Media Library, PO Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180. Missouri residents should include 62 cents sales tax. You can also telephone (573) 751-4115 extension 205 or fax (573) 751-2260 and purchase the video with a credit card.


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