Early in October, 1830, and shortly after the surveys of the Camden and Amboy Railroad were completed, Robert L. Stevens (born 1787) sailed for England, with instructions to order a locomotive and rails for that road.
At that time no rolling mill in America was able to take a contract for rolling T rails.
Robert Stevens advocated the use of an all-iron rail in preference to the wooden rail or stone stringer plated with strap iron, then in use on one or two short American railroads. At his suggestion, at the last meeting held before he sailed, after due discussion, the Board of Directors of the Camden and Amboy Railroad passed a special resolution authorizing him to obtain the rails he advocated.
During the voyage to Liverpool he whiled away the hours on shipboard by whittling thin wood into shapes of imaginary cross sections until he finally decided which one was best suited to the needs of the new road.
He was familiar with the Berkenshaw rail, with which the best English roads were then being laid, but he saw that, as it required an expensive chair to hold it in place, it was not adapted to our country, where metal workers were scarce and iron was dear. He added the base to the T rail, dispensing with the chair. He also designed the "hook-headed" spike (which is substantially the railroad spike of to-day) and the "iron tongue" (which has been developed into the fish bar), and the rivets (which have been replaced by the bolt and nut) to complete the joint.
A fac-simile of the letter2 which he addressed to the English iron masters a short time after his arrival in London is preserved in the United States National Museum. It contains a cross section, side elevation and ground plan of the rail for which he requested bids.
The base of the rail which he first proposed was to be wider where it was to be attached to the supports than in the intervening spaces. This was afterward modified, so that the base was made the same width (three inches) throughout.
Mr. Stevens received no favorable answer to his proposals, but being acquainted with Mr. Guest (afterward Sir John Guest), a member of Parliament, proprietor of large iron works in Dowlais, Wales, he prevailed upon him to have rails rolled at his works. Mr. Guest became interested in the matter and accompanied Mr. Stevens to Wales, where the latter gave his personal supervision to the construction of the rolls. After the rolls were completed the Messrs. Guest hesitated to have them used, through fear of damage to the mill machinery, upon hearing which Mr. Stevens deposited a handsome sum guaranteeing the expense of repairing the mill in case it was damaged. The receipt for this deposit was preserved for many years among the archives of the Camden and Amboy Company. As a matter of fact, the rolling apparatus did break down several times. "At first," as Mr. Stevens in a letter to his father, which I have seen, described it, "the rails came from the rolls twisted and as crooked as snakes," and he was greatly discouraged.
At last, however, the mill men acquired the art of straightening the rail while it cooled.
The first shipment,3 consisting of five hundred and fifty bars eighteen feet long, thirty-six pounds to the yard, arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Charlemagne, May 16, 1831.
Over thirty miles of this rail was laid before the summer of 1832.
A few years after, on much of the Stevens rail laid on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, the rivets at the joints were discarded, and the bolt with the screw thread and nut, similar to that now used, was adopted as the standard.
The rail was first designed to weigh thirty-six pounds per yard, but it was almost immediately increased in weight to between forty and forty-two pounds, and rolled in lengths of sixteen feet. It was then three and a half inches high, two and one-eighth inches wide on the head and three and a half inches wide at the base, the price paid in England being £8 per ton. The import duty was $1.85.
The first shipment of rail, having arrived in America, was transported to Bordentown, and here, upon the ground on which we stand, and which this monument is erected to mark forever, was laid the first piece of track (about five-sixths of a mile long) in August, 1831. The Camden and Amboy Company, following the example of the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad, laid their first track upon stone blocks two feet square and ten to thirteen inches deep. These blocks were purchased from the prison authorities at Sing Sing, N.Y. Some of these stone blocks have been used in constructing the foundation for this monument.
Mr. Stevens ordered the first joint fixtures also from an English mill, at the same time. The ends of the rails were designed to rest upon wrought iron plates or flat cast plates. The rails were connected at the stems by an iron "tongue" five inches long, two inches wide, and five-eighths of an inch thick. A rivet, put on hot, passing through the stem of each rail near the ends of the bar, fastened it to the tongue and completed the joint. A hole oblong in shape, to allow for expunctral contraction, was punched in the stem at each end of the rail.
The first "spikes six inches long, with hooked heads," were also ordered at the same time. These were undoubtedly the "first railroad spikes" (as they are known to the trade) ever manufactured.
Mr. Stevens neglected to obtain a patent for these inventions, although urged to do so by Mr. Ogden, American Consul at Liverpool, and the credit of being the inventor of the American rail was for a time claimed for others, but the evidence brought forward in late years fully established the fact that he was the originator of the American system of railway construction.
The "Stevens rail and spike" gradually found great favor everywhere in America - all the roads being relaid with it as the original T or strap rail became worn out.