The origin of railways it would be difficult to fix any precise date to. The laying down of wheel-tracks of some more cohesive material than ordinary earth, seems so obvious and natural astorender it extremely improbable that wooden ways in peculiar situations (especially in mines) were not brought into use before the period assigned to it by writers on the subject. From their statements it would appear, that the date of their primary existence was in the year 1670; at which time coal came to be extensively substituted for wood fuel in London and other populous districts. At that period the great mart for coal was Newcastle upon Tyne; and the transport of the mineral from the mines to the ships in the river became of great and increasing difficulty, owing to the wearing away of the road, by the constant traffic of the very numerous waggons, carts, and horses. Previous to the erection of these railways, it was no uncommon thing for the occupiers of the .mines, to employ five or six hundred horses and carts each, in the same traffic. It therefore became an object of vast importance to adopt some plan of reducing the very great expense incurred in the keeping of so many horses and drivers, wear and tear of carts, and the making and repairing of roads.
After giving the subject much consideration, wooden rails, consisting of straight pieces of timber, were laid down and embedded in the road. These were found so advantageous at Newcastle, that they were speedily copied in other mining districts, and remained in use for a considerable period of time. The mode of constructing these rude railways was as follows. After the ground had been levelled and smoothed, as in the formation of an ordinary road, sleepers, composed of large logs of wood, and cut into lengths corresponding with the breadth of the road, were laid across it at short distances, and firmly bedded into it, for the purpose of supporting and keeping fast the rails on which the waggon-wheels were to run. The rails were connected end to end, forming two continued lines, running in a parallel direction on each side of the road, and crossing the large logs at each of their extremities, which formed the foundation for them to rest upon, and to which they were nailed, or otherwise secured, to keep them in their places. The rails were of course very imperfect, and were rapidly worn away, or broken, by the continued friction of the wheels upon them.
In order to repair or reconnect them when their continuity or evenness was destroyed, slips or pieces of timber of a smaller scantling were laid over the dilapidated portions; and the strength which the latter thus derived, led to the introduction of double rails throughout the line; and this improvement was distinguished by the term of a "double-way," in contradistinction of the former plan, afterwards denominated the "single-way."
In the single-way above delineated, it should be observed that the ends of the successive rails necessarily met on a sleeper to which they were fastened; but owing to the continual concussions they were subjected to, not only by the loaded waggons, but by the feet of the draught horses, they soon became loosened, worn out, or otherwise deranged. By fixing another rail above the former, which might be of any length, and be fastened to it in any part, it not only much increased the strength of the whole, but defended the substructure from wear; while the upper, or covering rail when worn out might be renewed without materially disturbing the under. The double-rail also, being more elevated from the ground, admitted of a greater depth of cinders, or other hard substance, in order to form a more solid and durable road for the waggons and horses. The annexed diagram, which is designed to exhibit a cross section of the road, will make this matter clear. At a is one of the sleepers, which lie bout two feet apart across the road, throughout its entire length: b b show the nds of the under rails, which are cut of a uniform length, so as to rest upon hree sleepers; so much constituted the single-way before delineated.
At c e are the upper or covering rails, which may be of the length of the whole balk, and be fastened wherever convenient to the under rails; and this addition constituted it into a "double-way," which term might reasonably be supposed to imply a double road, instead of a single one. Railroads of the last described kind continued in use for many years in the collieries of the north of Eng'and; and a horse was found competent to draw three tons of coals upon them. • The waggons used were nearly of the present construction; but their wheels of so small a diameter, as to be generally termed "rollers." At the declivities, significantly called runs, brakes were employed to retard the progress of the waggons. To avoid descending from the high banks near the river, high platforms, called staiths, were erected, projecting over the water. On to these staiths the waggons were run by a slightly inclined plane, and there discharged through spouts either directly into the holds of ships moored underneath, or into capacious intermediate reservoirs conveniently planned for the subsequent loading of ships.
In most cases the wooden railroads, from the mine to the place of shipment, were made so as to follow very nearly the undulations of the country over which they passed; excepting only here and there at very steep ascents; and for a long period of time no attempts were made to counteract the rapid descent of the carriages down the declivities, except by means of brakes, which, depending wholly upon the strength and dexterity of the waggoners, often failed, and were productive of many sad accidents. When cast-iron wheels were first introduced, they were only used for the fore-axle, the wooden wheels being retained on the hind-axle, from the idea that the brake could only be applied effectively to the wooden wheels. At length it was contrived, by an extension of the lever, to apply a brake to the metallic; and then all the four wheels were made of iron. The next improvement was the substitution of iron rails for wood, which alone enabled the horse to take double his previous load.