Alana posted the old story about how the US standard railroad width of 4 feet 8½ inches is derived from the Roman chariot’s width. It’s a fun story about how government specs live forever. Go read it and then come back for my Paul Harvey impersonation.
While it’s true that the modern standard gauge in the US matches the British gauge, it wasn’t always obvious that that would be the case. For quite a while the 5-foot gauge was popular, especially in the South. In various parts of the country, gauges varied from 2½ all the way up to 6 feet. It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the need for the reconstruction of the South that it became obvious that a standard gauge was needed. Even then, although most of the North was using 4′8½″, the need for many railroads in the South to interconnect with the Pennsylvania Railroad led to moving the entirety of the South to the Pennsy standard of 4′9″. It wasn’t until years later that the popularity of the current standard gauge won out. Now you know.
You can read much more about this in the article “The Days They Changed the Gauge” from the August 1966 Ties magazine. The article tells the story of the dramatic change over of an estimated 11,500 miles of track to the 4-foot 9-inch gauge in just two days of May 1886.
As an aside, I find it surprising to myself that this is the first post by Alana that I have commented on. Perhaps I’ll just say that I’m still thinking about her post on ritual and Seraphim’s comments about it. So true.