I have explored many abandoned railroads and old mining sites during backpacking and hiking treks in the mountains. I especially like to find old railroad spikes. These items date back to the early days of mountain railroading when most track construction was a handmade process using simple tools.
Spikes came in different shapes and sizes. The exact size and length of a spike was determined by a number of factors, including the type of wood used for the ties and the weight of the rail itself. Most modern spikes are 9/16-inch square and 5 or 5½ inches long under the back of the head. The underside of the head of the spike is inclined at the same angle as the slope of the top side of the rail flange to which it is hammered, most commonly 13 degrees. Older spikes and especially narrow gauge spikes were generally smaller than modern spikes.
Spikes for 12 to 16 pound rail
The smallest spikes were 2, 2½, 3 and 3½ inches in length. The 2 and 2½ inch spikes can be either 5/16 or ⅜ inch thick. The 3 and 3½ inch spikes were only made in thickness of ⅜ inch. These spikes were used in hardwood ties, such as oak, and were only used for the lightest types of track.
Spikes for 16 to 20 pound rail
The next largest spikes were 2, 2½, 3 and 4 inch long. What made these spikes different from the smaller sized spikes was the thickness of their shaft. Each of these spikes had a thickness of 7/16 inch are all were designed for use in hardwood ties, such as dried oak.
Spikes for 20 to 30 pound rail
There is one spike designed for this heavier weight of rail that is only 7/16-inch thick, and that is a 4½ inch long spike. All other spikes for this heavier track are a full ½ inch thick. This includes spikes of lengths: 3, 3½ and 4 inches. These spikes could be used in both hardwood ties as well as softer seasoned white oak. For softer woods there was an additional consideration — the sharpness of the cutting point that was driven into the wooden tie. For hardwoods, the cutting point was longer and extremely sharp, but for softer woods the cutting point was not longer than 1½ inches, with 1 inch being preferred.
Spikes for 40 pound rail and heavier
For heavier rail, anything from 40 pounds per yard and up, spikes were typically ½ or 9/16 inch thick under the head… For heavier rail, as may be expected, spikes were longer — up to 6 inches in length. If hardwood ties were used, the maximum spike length was generally 5 inches, with the 6 inch spikes reserved for ties made from softer woods.
Here are a few examples:
Probably the most unique is the Greer spike. It is an unusual double-headed spike designed by Howard Greer of Lake View, IL, in the late 1880s. The design is covered by US Patent 378068, issued July 31, 1888. Some of the spike’s unique features, such as its flat shank, build upon earlier Greer patents for spikes.
The design is primarily associated with its widespread use on the Rio Grande Southern (RGS) narrow gauge railroad of southwestern Colorado. The spikes were originally ordered in 1892, in conjunction with upgrading the railroad from 30 pound rail to 57 pound rail between Vance Junction and Rico.
The design is often referred to as a “Jeffery Spike”. Mr. E.T. Jeffery became the appointed receiver of the RGS during the 1893 bankruptcy, and suspicion is that the dislike of the new spike design led to his name being permanently associated with them.
I bought these Greer spikes at Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California about 40 years ago. When Walter Knott was acquiring equipment for his amusement park from the RGS & D&RGW back in the ‘50s, he salvaged quite a bit of track materials from the dismantler of the RGS. These included many kegs of the Greer spikes. He sold them in a couple of the shops at the farm as souvenirs. I think I paid 25 cents each for them back then.
Here are three modern spikes from West Virginia. The one on the top is unused and was engraved to commemorate the first annual Railroad Heritage Festival. The other two are from Cass Scenic Railroad and the B&O Railroad,
The smallest spike at the top is from the Little Dora (Heritage) Mill near Silverton, CO. The one in the middle is from the Argentine Central Railroad, near Waldorf, CO. The one at the bottom is from the Silverton Railroad, near Red Mountain, CO.
This spike is from the Cimarron and Northwestern Railroad, a lumber line in Ponil Canyon that served the Continental Tie and Lumber company mill near Cimarron, NM.
This spike is from the Carson and Colorado Railroad (SP Narrow Gauge), near Candelaria, NV.
This spike is from the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, near the Omega ore tipple between Placerville and Dallas Divide, CO. It still has low-level radiation readings as a result of the radioactive carnotite ore that was loaded at the site and used to make the first atomic bomb.
This spike was given to me at one of the early National Narrow Gauge Conventions in Durango, CO. On the back is a label that reads “Spike from Ophir Loop - Base cut from tie picked up back of Trout Lake - 1953.”
This is the extremely rare “Grasshopper” variety, found only in the wildest, remote, unihabited parts of Oklahoma.
The spikes that I have in my collection were either purchased from a dealer or given to me. If you wish to collect spikes on your own, always obtain landowner permission before entering or collecting on private property. Never collect spikes from an active in-service rail line. Technically, anything on the right of way is the property of the railroad. Even hiking along an active right of way can be considered trespassing. Since 9/11, the authorities have taken much more serious positions regarding anything involving transportation.
Never collect artifacts on public lands without written authorization from the BLM. Controlling regulations include the American Antiquities Act of 1906, amended in 1975, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and various amendments, and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLMA).
In simple terms, just understand that cultural materials on public lands may not be removed, damaged, disturbed, excavated or transferred without BLM permit. Cultural materials include prehistoric and historic artifacts and sites, broken objects and debris more than 75 (sometimes 100) years old that were used or produced by humans. Protected materials include arrowheads and other stone tools, grinding stones, beads, baskets, pottery, old bottles, horse shoes, metal tools, graves, trash scatters, buildings, mining equipment and other artifacts. If an object could yield information about the past by its location (Found in situ) then you are honor bound to respect that object. If you want to dig, getting permission on public land requires credentials and some amount of effort. Obviously historic sites such as cabins, sawmills, graves, trail traces, mining areas, and ghost towns are not open to collecting. While metal detector use is allowed on public lands, only modern money may be collected; coins and artifacts more than 75 or 100 years old may not be collected.
Many areas protected originally by the Antiquities Act of 1906 do not allow any collecting; that includes national parks, some national recreation areas, and national conservation areas.
I believe if you get a thrill from finding something on our public lands, the next person who comes along would get the same thrill. Just be glad the person who came before you had such an ethic. Take only photographs and leave only footprints.