In 1830, Robert L. Stevens (1787–1856), “President & Engineer” of the newly chartered Camden and Amboy Railroad, travelled to England to order rails and a locomotive for the company. He had gained valuable experience in steamboat design and construction from working with his father, John Stevens. While on the voyage, he whittled from a piece of wood the T-rail which, with little variation, eventually became the standard in the United States. Formerly, early railroads in America had used an iron strap laid out on wooden rails. Stevens had difficulty finding an American rolling mill to produce the rails, so the earliest ones were manufactured in Britain. The first T-rails made in America were rolled in 1846 by the Cooper and Hewitt firm in Trenton. Over the next decade they came into common use. Stevens also developed the “hook-headed spike” and the “fish plate” for fastening the rails, and he replaced the stone blocks that rails were originally fastened to with logs that were shored up with crushed rocks. Thus he presaged the wooden “sleepers” still in use on today’s roadbeds. In 1882, an engineer quipped that in America “poverty is the mother on invention” because engineers such as Stevens “used cross-ties as a temporary substitute because too poor to buy stone blocks, and so made good roads because they were not rich enough to make bad ones.” Another Stevens invention was the pilot, or “cowcatcher” attached to the front of locomotives. He never patented any of his railroad inventions. The miles of rail crisscrossing the countryside are Robert L. Stevens’s “imperishable monument.”
Engraving of Ashbel Welch.
Engraving of Ashbel Welch (1809–1882). Welch was a noted engineer who lived in Lambertville. He was an official of the Camden and Amboy Railroad who successfully agitated for the adoption of a standardized track gauge. From: Biographical Encyclopaedia of New Jersey of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1877).
An act to regulate the width of track of the railroads in this state.
Senate No. 69. State of New Jersey. An Act to regulate the width of Track of the Railroads in this state, [1848?] Broadside. Citing a fifty-year-old law regarding carriages, the act establishes four feet ten inches as the standard width for railroads as well. By the late nineteenth century, however, four feet eight and one-half inches became the norm.
Portrait of Robert L. Stevens.
Portrait of Robert L. Stevens (1787–1856). From: The Evening News and Hoboken (Hoboken, N.J., 1893), p. 40. A son of John Stevens, Robert invented the T-rail, which is still in use today.