By J. K. Gurner
One of the first railroads built in the Mississippi valley was the Mississippi Central Railroad that ran through Water Valley to Grand Junction, Tenn. The gauge of this railroad was five feet. When we refer to the gauge of a railroad we are referring to the distance between the two rails that the train runs on.
In the early years of the development of the railroad, there were several different gauges used, from three feet to six feet. The two most popular gauges used in the United States were the English standard (4 feet, 8.5 inches) and the standard (5 feet).
When the railroad between Cairo, Ill., and New Orleans, made up of several smaller lines, was taken over by the Illinois Central Railroad, the common track gauge was five feet.
The Illinois Central Railroad track between Chicago and the Ohio River at Cairo used the standard gauge of four feet eight and one half inches. In order to make use of the track from Cairo to New Orleans, trains had to be ferried across the Ohio River moved into the shop yard and the trucks (wheels, axles and frame) on the freight cars changed to the five-foot gauge. This method of operation continued for trains going to and from New Orleans to Chicago from 1873 until 1881.
In 1881 authority was obtained to undertake the conversion of the gauge of the entire 547-mile line between Cairo and New Orleans in the same day – in fact within a few hours. Weeks before the Friday, July 29, 1881, date of the change, detailed instruction were given to every road superintendent, every road master, every road supervisor, and every section foreman along the route.
To handle the job, more than 3,000 men were distributed along the line. The work was begun as soon as it was light enough to see. By three o’clock in the afternoon one rail had been taken up, moved to the standard gauge and spiked into place in what was the greatest feat ever accomplished in gauge changing.