American Narrow Gauge Railroads: simply epic!

August 6, 2009 by
Filed under: Railways 

If being a railfan is somewhat more eccentric today than it was yesterday, narrow gauge railfanning must be even more eccentric. And like any eccentric hobby, this specific form of railfanning has a diehard following, with people spending a lot of time, energy and money on it. If you’re into this hobby you will know how obscure the books in this field can be, how much time someone has put into it and how expensive they relatively are, being produced for just a small group of potential buyers.

Narrow gauge in Alaska: Seward Peninsula

Narrow gauge in Alaska: Seward Peninsula

If that would put off a publisher, then not the publisher of this book! Unlike most of the narrow gauge books, which are either mostly A5 or at best A4, this book it not just much larger than A4, it also feels like a real “volume” in more than one ways. Let me just spoil the fun right now: this is very probably the best book about narrow gauge I have ever seen. Really. Page after page of information on the American narrow gauge railways (or should that be railroads?), with a lot of pictures and drawings.

Dual gauge: one way of solving the gauge problem

Dual gauge: one way of solving the gauge problem

The book consists of two parts, each of which could have been a separate book. The first part, up to page 298, is a general history of American narrow gauge railways and contains a lot of fascinating information about the economical and even ideological aspects of the American narrow gauge. I didn’t know this, but in the US during the later 1800s there was a very serious debate about the merits of narrow gauge versus standard gauge. This meant that a lot of narrow gauge was actually build, since in the early days some of the merits of narrow gauge were apparently appealing enough to the builders of railways. The book tracks this period profusely, telling stories of a lot of pretty much failed railways which were either abandoned soon or regauged to standard gauge, like the narrow gauge in the southwestern states.

Transfer problems: on of the main problems with narrow gauge was the cost of transshipment

Transfer problems: on of the main problems with narrow gauge was the cost of transshipment

Besides the history of the narrow gauge the first part of the book also tells about the rolling stock used by the railways. This is of course the perfect excuse for the author to show a lot of beautiful pictures of narrow gauge in action, but at the same time the book also shows the surroundings of the narrow gauge. Do not expect too much detail however, given the fact that this book is about one of the largest countries and whatever detail the author has put into it, it simply isn’t possible to list all rolling stock. But what is shown gives a perfect idea of what was once riding the rails of the American narrow gauge!

Uintah Railroad: known for their very large engines

Uintah Railroad: known for their very large engines

What is very interesting is the question of economics: the gauge difference meant transshipment, and that meant a lot of costs. Several different solutions to this problem were considered and put to use by the railways and these are shown in the book. Especially handy here are the illustrations, showing the different systems used at one time or another, plus the effects of the system. Not every system was used by a railway with a stable trackbed, so some of the pictures show some pretty heavy damage caused by vans falling over.

This first part is pretty good on its own, really, and at this point the book is already so interesting it is a “must buy”. But, there is more, much more! Because after this, the other part of the book starts: page after page after page of narrow gauge lines with their histories and a lot of maps. This second part merits a complete book on its own of course, but the author chose differently. And rightly so: this has now become a very large book, so large I can’t put it under the scanner properly to give you a sample page (whence the pictures of the book). These pages show a lot of history and depending on the importance and the duration of the existence of the line more or less space in the book is devoted to each railway.

One of the things that makes the book quite far above average is the lavish use of literature, shown in easy to find footnotes. For instances: at the end of every single railway listing is always a short set of literature given, which means you don’t have to go looking in the back of the book amongst hundreds of listings to see which book we are talking about. This way it is very easy to see which reference books have been used often and which not. So, take the Alaskan railways: Rails North is definitely a book I want to have as well, since this books is used in all the text on the Alaskan narrow gauge railways.

( By the way: NASA has a program, World Wind, which gives you satellite images right on your desktop of the entired world. However, for the US it also gives older topographical maps. And some of these maps, especially the ones about Alaska, are often so old they show pretty much all the lines mentioned in this book. And until recently Google Earth still showed the Seward Peninsula railway in the railway layer on the satellite maps of Alaska. I’ll write more about that in another posting.)

So, in short: this is a VERY good book, probably one of the best I have seen about narrow gauge. It is completely different from the average books about narrow gauge: a standard narrow gauge book is about a specific company, line or region, and so can not be compared, but if I look at the books on this subject from other countries, then this is a very well made book. The quality of the pictures, the maps and the printing in general is also to a very high standard. I can’t complain about the lack of color: 95% of the history we are talking about is the black and white area and we are simply lucky to even have pictures of some railways!

So, in short: I was already looking for this book, and then was lucky enough to discover the NVBS library had it. But if you can’t get it second hand or in your local library, you can find part of the book online at Google Books.

Author: George Woodman Hilton
Paperback: 600 pages
Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1 edition (January 1, 1995)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0804723699
ISBN-13: 978-0804723695
Product Dimensions: 11.9 x 9.1 x 1.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 4.2 pounds

The book be found on Amazon:

And some other books about American narrow gauge:


One Comment on American Narrow Gauge Railroads: simply epic!

  1. The Seward Peninsula Railroad on USGS maps on Sat, 8th Aug 2009 21:35
  2. […] the book “American Narrow Gauge Railroads” by George Hilton, a review of which can be found on this site. He mentions that the 42 mile railway was abandoned by 1955 and later partially used as a bed for a […]

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