Russia and Our Early Railroads

By John Decker

"….America, a country in which they are so little inclined to submit to the influence of routine…"
page 65, book I, Volume 2, Journal of Means of Communication, by Colonels Pavel P. Melnikov and Nikolai Osipovich Kraft.

We Americans must have been doing our railroading right in most ways when the railroad industry was in its infancy. Not only did we have talented civil engineers and business administrators who adapted this British technology to a different continent, and put it on a firm basis so that it could begin a huge expansion after the 1839-1847 business depression ended; we also attracted foreign civil engineers and writers to come to this country and observe how railroaders were coping with the challenges of serving a continent-sized nation with the new technology. Doubtless some observers merely had a look and went home; but a select few committed their observations to paper and eventually became published authors.

By the summer of 1839, when Colonels Pavel Petrovich Melnikov (1804-1880) and Nikolai Osipovich Kraft (1798-1857) arrived in America, the track they were following had become well-worn: Michael Chevalier of France, Charles F. Zimpel, Carl Ghega and Franz Anton von Gerstner of Austria-Hungary, and von Reden of Prussia had all come before or were present at the time. Gerstner (1793?-1840) working with his faithful assistant Ludwig Klein to produce a fact-packed report1, was suspected by several of our civil engineers, upon meeting him, that he was covertly acting as a consultant for the Tsar. After all, Gerstner had been commissioned by Nicholas I to build Russia's first railroad, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo, seventeen miles, just a few years before2.

They were wrong. Tsar Nicholas I, acting through his trusted advisor Count Toll,3 appointed Melnikov and Kraft, not Gerstner, to visit the United States and inspect its railroads. The two professors from the Institute of the Corps of Transportation Engineers in St. Petersburg left home on June 1, 1839, on a trip that took them over thousands of miles in the New World, lasting a total of fifteen months. We do not know whether the two Russian colonels ever crossed paths with Gerstner and his little group; but toward the end of his life Gerstner must have been aware that they were on American soil.4 Worn out by the exertions of his journey, the Austrian fell ill early in 1840 and died in Philadelphia in April of that year.

Melnikov and Kraft returned to Russia in the fall of 1840 and wrote a report5 on their journey and the technology they had encountered. It still exists, both in manuscript form and in a slightly edited version in the (Transport Journal) for 1842. The continued existence of these documents is a miracle, in my opinion. They survived the terrible disorder that overtook Russia in 1917-20, and then an even greater threat when the Nazis came close enough to what was then Leningrad to be able to attack the city with artillery fire. The university campus on which the Melnikov-Kraft reports were (and are) located took some artillery hits and was damaged by bomb-induced fires6.

A word about that university: it was founded on November 20, 1809 as the Institute of the Corps of Transportation Engineers. Initially it used the palace of Prince N. B. Yusupov at 115 Fontanka Quay. This elegant palace still stands on the campus. Later it expanded to include numerous buildings housing the many departments, a small chapel, and a railroad museum. During the period of soviet power, it was called the Leningrad Institute of Transport Engineers, and in recent years it has been renamed as the St. Petersburg State Transport University. It is one of very few institutions of higher education devoted entirely to the science and practice of building and operating railroads.7 Other forms of transport were taught on the campus at one time, but a major restructuring took place in 1930, during the Stalin period. The other transportation modes became independent institutes devoted to highways, airways, waterways, etc.8

During that period in the early nineteenth century that Russia is so proud of, when Alexander Pushkin wrote immortal poetic works, Melnikov and Kraft graduated from the Institute and became professors there. Not long after Nicholas I (1796-1855) succeeded his late brother Alexander I (1777-1825) as tsar, the Institute of Transport Engineers began to buzz with news and speculation about the new form of transport introduced in England, beginning in the north with the coal-hauling lines around Darlington. Melnikov actually published a 98-page book with a print run of six hundred, very large for the time, entitled Concerning Railways9: this at a time, in 1835, when the huge Russian empire had not so much as a mile of common-carrier track.

Though cautious, Tsar Nicholas I was definitely interested in railroads10, particularly since two ardent supporters of them, a Moscow merchant named A. V. Abaza and a nobleman, Count Bobrinsky, enjoyed his almost complete trust. Important noblemen who advised him sowed doubts in his mind about the economic feasibility of railroads, principally because they preferred that the Empire's scarce resources be used to improve water transport.11 The information contained in the report compiled by Melnikov and Kraft when they returned from America helped Nicholas I to decide regarding the feasibility of a railroad from St. Petersburg to the once (before 1703) and future capital of the nation, Moscow.

It is evident from the contents of Melnikov's and Kraft's four-volume draft report that they had opportunity to speak with some of our more prominent civil engineers: Moncure Robinson, George Washington Whistler, George Brown and Benjamin Latrobe, plus others. Using his memoirs written thirty years after the trip to summarize what he had learned, Melnikov recalled how many of these Americans, along with others, had pointed out the extent to which ten years of railroad building in the U.S. had benefited the nation. Anything spent by the Empire's exchequer, they asserted, would quickly be paid back, both directly through railroad revenues and indirectly through an increase in Russia's wealth.12

What Melnikov and Kraft presented for the perusal of the department of transportation and his imperial majesty Nicholas I was not a chatty travelogue, but a technical report. It lacks the state-by-state, railroad-by-railroad information provided by Gerstner and beloved by 21st-century local historians, since such data would not have served the report's main purpose, to help Nicholas I make one of his most important decisions. As reviewed by this writer on a visit to St. Petersburg in May 2003, the report is handwritten, and is in the old orthography, meaning it includes letters banished from the Russian alphabet beginning with the orthographic reform of 1918. But that does not mean that it is impossible to read: the handwriting is that of a professional scribe, who obviously had placed a blank page, with ruled lines that showed through, beneath each page he worked on. The scribe had learned to make his letters absolutely consistent and even in this era, thirty years before the American Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter. The result is a thin, some might call it spidery, script, but easy enough in most places to read if you know Russian handwriting.

Volume I of the manuscript has three sections plus notes. Section 1 is devoted to the principal parameters or questions to be decided in building a railroad: grades, curvature, and gauge. Curves which serve as connecting links between straight sections of the line receive attention in this section. The methods by which American railroads are constructed is the subject of section 2: rails, their shapes and mechanical testing of them; the merits of rails used on American railroads, including initial cost, length of rail and means by which one rail is attached to another, switches and diamonds, as well as turnouts and turntables. The authors have six well-justified reasons why strap rail is unsatisfactory, and present them all. (Americans eventually came to the same conclusions, and replaced strap rail so quickly and completely that very few segments of this kind of rail survived long enough to be captured by the new technology of photography.)

Section 3 goes into the lower part of the track structure, discussing foundations, piles, and the unique raised wooden foundations of the Charleston & Hamburg Railroad in South Carolina, as Gerstner also describes on pages 711-712 of the English-language edition of his report13. Various other railroads and their systems for building the foundational part of the track structure are presented. Longitudinal ground timbers and crossties are described.

Volume II of the draft report, with the scribe continuing in his unvaried handwriting, describes railway construction procedures. Section I is devoted to earthwork, meaning earth-moving processes. This means going into means to reduce costs in doing earth-moving; how to deal with construction through swampy areas; transporting dirt from or to the side of the roadbed; carriage of dirt from one sector of the road to another; the use of temporary roads for transport; the possible use of a permanent line for same; fixing the site to unload cars; and devices and auxiliary means for carrying out earth-moving operations, such as temporary railways and the rolling stock on them. Also presented are mechanical shovels, various drives to power the scoops, and the observations Melnikov and Kraft made of an excavator on the Western Railroad near Westfield, Massachusetts14. Lastly, and more to the point as applied to a country, Russia, where labor was bound to be cheap, the authors do a cost analysis of the mechanical excavator.

Section 2 of volume II offers a detailed analysis of how our railroad builders used stone, noting that not much of it was used for railroad structures in America. Pile drivers are mentioned, and the specific example given is that of one such employed by the New Orleans & Nashville Railroad [which was never completed as such] in 1840. Section 3 is a detailed description of wooden bridges. Melnikov and Kraft point out that these are cheap, simple and usable on rivers requiring large spans. They describe the king post and queen post construction methods, along with a type of bridge called the County Road design, plus Town's bridge. Specific examples in the eastern U.S. are provided: the James River bridge at Richmond, and a span of the Reading Railroad near Peacock Lock on the Schuylkill River in southeastern Pennsylvania. The advantages and disadvantages of these various designs are compared. The fact that some 136 changes have been made in Long's basic design is mentioned. Then some specific bridges are given scrutiny: a Monongahela River bridge in Pittsburgh, the wooden bridge across the Susquehanna at Columbia in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and (though not for rail traffic) the Permanent Bridge over the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia, dating from 1805. The final section, section 4, of volume II, describes operations to build and maintain the track structure, this time meaning including everything above the foundations.

Volume III of the manuscript report is devoted to locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars and stations. Section I of this volume is on locomotives, and mentions Dunham Locomotive Works in New York. Some specific engines mentioned are Narragansett [owner unknown], Young Lion [owner unknown], and Gowan & Marx of the Philadelphia & Reading. Also mentioned among the manufacturers are Norris in Philadelphia and Gillingham & Winans in Baltimore. Sections two through four, in rather straightforward fashion, are devoted to passenger cars, freight cars, and stations, respectively. Section 5 is simply a paste-in of material in English obtained from the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway in England, plus some specifications in English for the Croton Aqueduct in upstate New York.

Volume IV has a very self-conscious title, for this is what the entire effort to travel and obtain information was all about: it is called Numerical data on railways, and application of them to a line from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The authors, particularly Melnikov, were early champions of a railroad connecting the two traditional capital cities of the empire. Mikhail Voronin and Margarita Voronina, in their biography of Melnikov, do the best job of summarizing what this volume included: "…a unique work of investigative science. It was a kind of techno-economic justification for constructing the first major railway in Russia…It consisted of 308 large-format pages. Melnikov regarded the concluding part of the report as having great significance, as the summation of his ten-year battle to introduce railways to Russia, a scientific basis for the economic feasibility of this new type of transport.15"

Volume IV draws on more than just American data; it includes virtually anything the authors considered useful for the Tsar's considerations and decision on the matter of beginning construction of a 400-mile line between the Empire's twin capitals. Extensive data are presented on various types of Baltimore & Ohio operations: motive power, fuel, etc. Locomotives of Baldwin, Eastwick & Harrison, Locks & Canals of Lowell, and Dunham are presented. The already-existing Tsarskoye Selo Railway gets attention, with its expenses and income; it surprised everyone by going well beyond being merely the "Tsar's toy" of common gossip, to a road that made significant profits. Freight and passenger expenses for the future main line from St. Petersburg to Moscow are detailed, along with expenses for the track structure, double-tracking, and personnel.

Publication in a trade journal. It was not enough to simply hide all this information in a single-copy manuscript. Since 1826, the Institute of the Corps of Transportation Engineers had been producing a trade journal. Melnikov printed his first piece in it in 1832, and had been a regular contributor ever since. Therefore, volumes 2 and 3 of the Transport Journal for 1842 carried extensive excerpts from the manuscript [described above delete these two words], leaving out (surprisingly) only the material from Volume III, covering locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars and stations, plus (not surprisingly) the tedious, table- and graph-filled numerical data from Volume IV.

What remained was freely rearranged in the journal, and appears on pages 19-86 from book I of volume II, pages 95-198 of book II, and pages 285-375 of book IV. Later in 1842, Volume III of the journal included 156 pages of material taken from the handwritten manuscript report. If one compares the manuscript report with what appeared in the journal, one sees that in many cases the material was barely excerpted at all, but rather just copied.

The imperial censor examined these journal volumes and passed them for publication. His stamp of approval is found on one of the initial blank pages of each volume, providing a pointed reminder of what a different societal structure prevailed in the Russian Empire than in the America of Jackson and Van Buren.

And what ultimately became of Melnikov and Kraft? Once the Tsar had made his decision to go forward with the building of the St. Petersburg & Moscow Railway, his two subordinate civil engineers obtained prestigious appointments: Melnikov as supervising engineer of the 222-mile northern division, Kraft of the 178-mile southern division. George Washington Whistler (1800-1849) was hired from America to be their consultant. Kraft did not succeed in surviving to the end of the decade in which the railway was completed, but Melnikov continued in a long and distinguished career, eventually becoming Minister of Transport in the 1860s.

Making copies of this material at the science & technology library of the Transport University is prohibitively expensive. Therefore, all I came back with were several free digital camera images of an engineering drawing of a four-arch bridge over the Schuylkill River near Phoenixville on the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad16. But one may hope that it may exist in a library somewhere in the west, perhaps in the Library of Congress. Even a microfilm copy of its contents would allow scholars to obtain a copy of the parts relating to early American railroads. If so, then after translation we would have yet another detailed, well-buttressed report, done by professional engineers of the highest quality, that would shed light on the infancy of our industry.


1 Gerstner, Franz A. Ritter von, die innern Communicationen der vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerica, 2 vols. (Vienna: L. Förster's artistische Anstalt, 1842-3).

2 Voronin, Mikhail and Voronina, Margarita, Franz Anton von Gerstner, Pioneer Railway Builder ([English translation:] Danville, Pennsylvania: Languages of Montour Press, 1997, p. 64.

3 Haywood, Richard M., the beginnings of railway development in Russia in the reign of Nicholas I, 1835-1842 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1969), p. 201. Haywood found a quote from S. I. Maltsov's memoirs. The latter early in 1839 heard the Tsar say, "I am sure that we can build railways in Russia. They built them in America. I shall send someone there to look at them, and then we shall begin."

Professor Haywood did virtually all of his research for the volume named above outside the U.S.S.R. in the 1960s. Later, when he was writing a sequel that covered the same topic for the years 1842-1855, he did visit the Science & Technology Library at St. Petersburg State Transportation University. Visits by non-Russian scholars are evidently a rarity, because Professor Haywood's name is still mentioned by the library staff.

4 Gerstner, op. cit., pages 30-31 (introductory biography of Gerstner by Dr. Frederick C. Gamst).

5 Melnikov, P.P. and Kraft, N. O.: (Technical description of railways of the North American States) (St. Petersburg: Manuscript copy in the science & technology library of the St. Petersburg State Transportation University), 664 pp.

6 Author's group, (History of Rail Transport of Russia and the Soviet Union), vol. 2 (1917-1945)) (St. Petersburg and Moscow: PGUPS), p. 349. No English translation of this work exists currently. The "author's group" referred to is a group of professors and engineers, most of them from St. Petersburg State Transportation University.

7 ----, Petersburg State Transport University (St. Petersburg: PGUPS, a slick-paper 16-page pamphlet in English on the history and curriculum offerings of the University).

8 Tarasov, Boris Fedorovich, Nikolai Rynin and Russia's Beginnings in Aerospace ([English translation:] Danville, Pennsylvania, Languages of Montour Press), pp. 30-31. The four new, independent institutes were the Leningrad Institute of Water Transportation Engineers, the Leningrad Institute of the Civil Aviation Fleet, the Leningrad Institute of Highway Engineers, and the Military Transport Academy.

9 Melnikov, P. P. (Regarding Railways), St. Petersburg: Institute of the Corps of Transport Engineers, 1835, 98 pages.

10 Haywood, op. cit., page 181: "Nicholas I, although still very much interested in railways, must have had doubts about allowing such tremendous undertakings."

11 Haywood, op. cit., p. 187-88. One of the more hilarious hypocrisies related by Haywood is on page 185: Count Georgiy Kankrin, a staunch opponent of main-line railroads in Russia, sometimes went to Germany to visit spas and springs for his health. At precisely the same time when he was objecting to the newfangled trains, he was using them in Germany to shorten the times it took to get from one resort to another.

12 Haywood, op. cit., page 203.

13 Gerstner, Franz Anton Ritter von, Early American Railroads. ([English translation:] Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1997. Edited by F. C. Gamst, translated by David J. Diephouse and John C. Decker

14 Gerstner, op. cit. in translation, p. 357, makes mention of the same devices "in the vicinity of Worcester and Springfield." Evidently the Gerstner party and the Russians visited the Western Railroad of Massachusetts in quick succession, with the Austrian probably coming first. The owner of the devices was not the Western Railroad, but one Otis of Philadelphia, the builder. Each cost the astronomical sum (for 1839) of $3,500.

15 Voronin and Voronina, op. cit., page 23.

16 Eric DeLony, head of the Historic American Engineering Record, an agency within the National Park Service, describes the diagrammed Philadelphia & Reading structure as a "terrific graphic of what I would characterize as a typical masonry arch bridge dating from the mid-19th century, showing details of the centering, which would have been all-important to building the bridge." (email to the author on May 28, 2003).

The author expresses his greatest thanks to Mrs. Liudmila Mikhailovna Rodionova, head of the Science & Technology Library at St. Petersburg State Transportation University, for making available the Melnikov-Kraft report from 1841 and the volumes from the Transport Journal in which the report is summarized. He is also grateful to Dr. Margarita M. Voronina for visiting him in the library between lectures on what was a very busy day for her.

[photos to be included: Pavel Petrovich Melnikov (1804-1880) ; Nikolai Osipovich Kraft (1798-1857) ; Full-scale model of strap-rail track structure typical of the 1830s and 1840s ; Reading Locomotive Gowan & Marx ]