Many years ago there was a narrow-gauge rail line between Independence and Lexington, Missouri.

Narrow gauge means the rails were not as far apart as train tracks generally are today. The old depot for the line was built shortly after the Civil War and was located smack dab in the middle of Liberty Street, just south of the Independence Square.

Across the nation there were many other narrow-gauge railroads, but as the rail system was expanded and tied together, it became necessary to standardize track width so train cars could be transferred from one line to another, in order to get the cargo to its destination. The Independence and Lexington rail line was eventually altered to the standard gauge.

Today the U.S. standard railroad gauge across the country is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. When I first read that information in an article, I thought they were mistaken because it appeared to me as though the rails were farther apart than that. So, I took a tape measure down to the tracks and measured them. Sure enough they were 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart. A very odd figure I thought. Why were the railroads not built with an even figure, like five feet, or maybe an even six feet apart?

I proceeded to investigate and found out how they arrived at that odd dimension. The answer was very simple. That’s the same size as the spans for the imperial Roman war wagons back in Julius Caesar’s day.

Now hang in here with me for a minute and I will try to explain how this came about. It seems as though the U.S. railroads were built by English expatriates and that’s the gauge they built in England. This may seem like a silly question – but why did they build them like that in England, 4 feet, 8.5 inches? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways in England, and that’s the gauge they used back in those days.

So my next question was why did “they” use that odd dimension then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, and they were built with that wheel spacing, 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Curiosity got the best of me. Why did the wagons use that odd number for wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other wheel spacing the wagons would break apart on some of the old, long-distance roads, because that is the spacing of the old wheel ruts in the roads. Remember the roads were not paved back Every time it rained the ruts got deeper, and then the mud would dry out and get very hard as the wagons continued to compact the ruts.

So who built the old rutted roads in the first place? Well, the first long-distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome. The same roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The Roman war chariots first made the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match, for fear of destroying their wagons. The Roman Empire was a very organized society, and the Imperial war chariots were all built alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches carries down from the original specifications for the Imperial Roman army war chariots. Apparently specs are kind of like bureaucracies. They live forever!

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to or call him at 816-896-3592.