It was very early understood that the railroad problem in Russia was much more analogous to that in the United States than to that in England. The Emperor, therefore, in 1839, sent the Chevalier De Gerstner to the United States to obtain information concerning the railroads of this country. It was this person who obtained from the Emperor the concession for the short railway from St. Petersburg to Zarskoe Selo, which had been opened in 1837, and who had also made a careful reconnoissance in 1835 for a line from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and had very strongly urged its construction on the American plan. The more De Gerstner examined our roads, the more impressed he was with the fitness of what he termed the American system of building and operating railroads to the needs of the empire of Russia. In one of his letters in explaining the causes of the cheap construction of American railroads, after noting the fact that labor as well as material is much dearer in America than in Europe, he refers to the use of steep grades (93 feet to the mile) and sharp curves (600 feet radius), upon which the American equipment works easily, to the use of labor saving machinery, particularly to a steam excavating machine upon the railroad between Worcester and Springfield, and to the American system of wooden bridge building, and says: "The superstructure of the railroads in America is made conformable to the expected traffic, and costs therefore more or less accordingly;" and he concludes, "considering the whole, it appears that the cheapness of the American railroads has its foundation in the practical sense which predominates in their construction." Again, under the causes of the cheap management of the American roads, he notes the less expensive administration service, the low rate of speed, the use of the eight wheeled cars and the four-wheeled truck under the engines, and concludes: "In my opinion it would be of great advantage for every railroad company in Europe to procure at least one such train" (as those used in America). "Those companies, however, whose works are yet under construction I can advise with the fullest conviction to procure all their locomotive engines and tenders from America, and to construct their cars after the American model."
Notwithstanding this report, the suggestions of De Gerstner were not at once accepted. The magnitude of the enterprise would not admit of taking a false step. Further evidence was needed, and accordingly it was decided to send a committee of engineer officers to various countries in Europe, and to the United States, to select such a system for the road and its equipment as would be best adapted to Russia. These officers, Colonels Melnikoff and Krofft, not only reported in the most decided manner in favor of the American methods, but also stated that of all persons with whom they had communicated, no one had given them such full and satisfactory information upon all points, or had so impressed them as possessing extraordinary ability, as Major George W. Whistler. This led to his receiving an invitation from the Emperor to go to Russia and become consulting engineer for the great road which was to connect the imperial city upon the Baltic with the ancient capital of the Czars.
When we consider the magnitude of the engineering works with which the older countries abound, we can but regard with a feeling of pride the fact that an American should have been selected for so high a trust by a European government possessing every opportunity and means for securing the highest professional talent which the world could offer. Nor should it be forgotten that the selection of our countryman did not arise from any necessity which the Russian Government felt for obtaining professional aid from abroad, growing out of a lack of the requisite material at home. On the contrary, the engineers of the Russian service are perhaps the most accomplished body of men to be found in any country. Selected in their youth, irrespective of any artificial advantages of birth or position, but for having a genius for such work, and trained to a degree of excellence in all of the sciences unsurpassed in any country, they stand deservedly in the front rank. Such was the body of men with whom Major Whistler was called to co-operate, and whose professional duties, if not directed specially by him, were to be controlled by his judgment.
Accepting the position offered to him in so flattering a manner, he sailed for St. Petersburg about mid-summer in 1842, being accompanied on his voyage by Major Bouttattz, of the Russian Engineer Corps, who had been sent to this country by the Emperor as an escort. Arriving in St. Petersburg, and having learned the general character of the proposed work, he traveled partly by horse and partly on foot over the entire route, and made his preliminary report, which was at once accepted.
The plan contemplated the construction of a double track railroad 420 miles long, perfect in all its parts, and equipped to its utmost necessity. The estimates amounted to nearly forty millions of dollars, and the time for its construction was reckoned at seven years. The line selected for the road had no reference to intermediate points, and was the shortest attainable, due regard being paid to the cost of construction. It is nearly straight, and passes over so level a country as to encounter no obstacle requiring a grade exceeding 20 feet to the mile, and for most of the distance it is level. The right of way taken was 400 feet in width throughout the entire length. The roadbed was raised from six to ten feet above the ordinary level of the country, and was 30 feet wide on top.
One of the most important questions to settle at the outset in regard to this great work was the width of the gauge. At that time the opinion in England as well as in the United States among engineers was setting very strongly in favor of a gauge wider than 4 feet 8½ inches, and the Russian engineers were decidedly in favor of such increased width. Major Whistler, however, in an elaborate report to the Count Kleinmichel argued very strongly in favor of the ordinary gauge. To this a commission of the most distinguished engineers in Russia replied, urging in the most forcible manner the adoption of a gauge of six feet. Major Whistler rejoined in a report which is one of the finest models of an engineering argument ever written, and in which we have perhaps the best view of the quality of his mind. In this document no point is omitted, each part of the question is handled with the most consummate skill, the bearing of the several parts upon the whole is shown in the clearest possible manner, and in a style which could only come from one who from his own knowledge was thoroughly familiar with all the details, not only of the railroad, but of the locomotive as well.