Title Reviewed:
American Narrow Gauge Railroads

Author Reviewed:
George W. Hilton

Richahd S. Simons


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 87, Issue 2, pp 208-209

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Narrow Gauge Railroads. By George W. Hilton. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Pp. xiii, 580. Maps, Illustrations, notes, tables, index. $60,00.)

A major contribution to railroad history, George W. Hilton's work incisively examines and analyzes an important phase that most rail historians have overlooked. Because standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches is now universal, it will amaze many to learn that narrow gauge, mostly 3 feet, was significant in the nation's rail development. These lines spread through forty-four states and totaled 18,529 miles and accounted for as much as 35 percent of new mileage in the peak year. Ultimately most were converted or abandoned.

Hilton's book, which is divided into two sections, first digs deeply into narrow gauge origins in England and supports the legend that standard gauge by happenstance duplicated the distance between Roman chariot wheels. An economist, Hilton discusses in depth the slim gauge movement and the lengthy, complex cost controversy that surrounded it. Proponents claimed construction savings and lower operating and financing costs. Opponents, meanwhile, countered that savings were minimal—that more trains were required because of smaller capacity cars, which translated into higher train crew expense. They also maintained that costs of transshipment to the proliferating standard gauge network minimized any savings. Hilton examines the narrow gauge fever that resulted in two national conventions and traces the movement's lingering death following collapse of the Grand Narrow Gauge Trunk in 1883 after it had nearly completed a line from Toledo, Ohio, to Laredo, Texas, on the Mexican border. Other chapters deal with locomotives, cars, physical plant, the incompatability problem, and industry decline. Each reflects exhaustive research, well-organized writing, and knowledgable interpretation. The second half of the book, an incomparable resource, lists a biography of every known company, arranged by states.

Indiana had strong ties to the narrow gauge industry. Hilton credits Colonel Edward Hulbert, who managed a southern Indiana road and retired to a Pike County farm, as one of two men responsible for the movement's strength in America. Indiana's six lines included the Toledo-Frankfort-St. Louis road that became the Norfolk and Western, a section of the Monon (now CSX) between Rennselaer and Delphi, and, strangely, a nine-mile Huntington-Markle predecessor of the Erie, which began as a six-foot gauge. The Toledo-Frankfort line, part of the Grand Narrow Gauge Trunk, made history in 1887 when the 206 miles east of St. Louis were converted in ten hours.

Hilton's book, done to high research, organization, and printing standards, is a monumental work in its field.

RICHAHD S. SIMONS, Marion, Indiana, is president of the Indiana Historical Society and vice-president of the National Railway Historical Society. He is the author of The Rivers of Indiana (1985).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.