Narrow gauge railroads in the United States

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Eureka at Rockwood, 1997.JPG

Standard gauge was favored for railway construction in the United States, although a fairly large narrow gauge system developed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Isolated narrow gauge lines were built in many areas to minimize construction costs for industrial transport or resort access, and some of these lines offered common carrier service. Isolated lines evolved into regional narrow gauge systems in Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Hawaii, and Alaska.


New England

The first narrow gauge common carrier rail road was the Billerica and Bedford Railroad which ran from North Billerica to Bedford in Middlesex County, Massachusetts from 1877 to 1878. There were extensive 2 ft (610 mm) gauge lines in the Maine forests early in the 20th century. In addition to hauling timber, agricultural products and slate, the Maine lines also offered passenger services. The Boston, Revere Beach & Lynn Railroad was a narrow gauge commuter railroad that operated in Massachusetts. Narrow gauges also operated in the mountains of New Hampshire, on the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and in a variety of other locations.

Mid-Atlantic States

East Broad Top's rare gas-electric railcar M-1

The last remaining 3 ft (914 mm) gauge common carrier east of the Rocky Mountains was the East Broad Top Railroad in central Pennsylvania. Running from 1873 until 1956, it supplied coal to brick kilns and general freight to the towns it passed through, connecting to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Mount Union, Pennsylvania. Purchased for scrap by the Kovalchick Corporation when it ended common carrier service in 1956, it reopened as a tourist railroad in 1960. Still owned by the Kovalchick family, trains operate over 5 miles (8.0 km) of the original 33-mile (53 km) mainline. This trackage is today the oldest surviving stretch of narrow gauge railroad in the United States.

It was the last survivor of an extensive narrow gauge network in New York and Pennsylvania that included many interconnecting lines. The largest concentration was in the Big Level region around Bradford, Pennsylvania, from which lines radiated towards Pittsburgh and into New York state. The Waynesburg & Washington Railroad, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, operated in the southwestern part of the state until 1933.


The Southeast helped initiate the narrow gauge era with the opening of the Tuskegee Railroad in 1871.

Longest lived of its narrow gauges was the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad. Originally built as a broad gauge in 1866, the was later converted to a narrow gauge railroad between Johnson City, Tennessee and Cranberry, North Carolina and ultimately Boone, North Carolina. It continued in service until 1950.

Another long-lived southern narrow gauge was the Lawndale Railway and Industrial Co.


One of the first three narrow gauges in the U.S. -- the Painesville & Youngstown—opened in Ohio in 1871, and the narrow gauge movement reached its greatest length in the Midwest. For a brief time in the 1880s it was possible to travel by narrow gauge from Lake Erie across the Mississippi River and into Texas. The hub of this system, Delphos, Ohio, shared with Durango, Colorado the distinction of being the only towns in the United States from which it was possible to travel by narrow gauge in all four compass directions.

The Chicago Tunnel Company operated a 60-mile long underground 2-foot gauge freight railroad under the streets of the Chicago Loop. This common carrier railroad used electric traction, interchanged freight with all of the railroads serving Chicago, and offered direct connections to many loop businesses from 1906 to 1959.

Ohio was a center of the narrow gauge movement. In addition to serving as the northern end of the Little Giant "transcontinental", it had several other notable lines, including the long-lived Ohio River & Western, the Kelley Island Lime & Transport Company (the world's largest operator of Shay locomotives, virtually all of them narrow gauge) and the Connotton Valley, a successful coal hauler still in operation today as the standard-gauge Wheeling & Lake Erie.

Numerous 3-foot-gauge common carrier narrow gauge lines were built in Iowa in the 19th century. The largest cluster of lines radiated from Des Moines, with the Des Moines, Osceola and Southern extending south to Cainsville, Missouri, the Des Moines North-Western extending northwest to Fonda and smaller lines extending north to Boone and Ames. These lines were all abandoned or regauged by 1900. The Burlington and Western and the Burlington and Northwestern system extended from Burlington to Washington, Iowa and the coal fields around Oskaloosa. This system was widened to standard gauge on June 29, 1902 and merged with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad a year later. The Bellevue and Cascade, from Bellevue on the Mississippi to Cascade inland remained in service until abandonment in 1936. A caboose from the Bellevue and Cascade is the only surviving piece of Iowa narrow gauge equipment. It currently operates on the Midwest Central Railroad in Mount Pleasant, a heritage railroad.

Rocky Mountains

A steam locomotive of the C&TS RR

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, opened in 1871, was one of the first three narrow gauges in the United States and by far the longest and most significant. It effectively circled the state of Colorado, and feeder lines were run to the mining communities of Leadville, Aspen, Cripple Creek, Telluride and Silverton. Through affiliated companies, its lines extended west to Salt Lake City, Utah and south to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The northern trunk line was re-gauged to standard early, but the southern portions remained steam hauled and narrow gauge until the 1960s.

Other major narrow gauges in Colorado included the Rio Grande Southern, the Denver, South Park and Pacific, Colorado Central, and the Florence and Cripple Creek. The Uintah Railway operated in Utah and Colorado. By the twentieth century, Colorado was the largest mother lode of narrow gauge railroading in North America.

California and Coast

The Southern Pacific operated several narrow gauges, including the Carson and Colorado Railway. Another major SP line was the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad, running from Reno into southern Oregon.

Two small regional railways in the Pacific Northwest were the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Co near Astoria, and the Sumpter Valley Railway near Baker City, OR. The latter one still operates in the summer.

The San Francisco cable cars use 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) as did the now defunct Los Angeles Railway and the San Diego Electric Railway.


The last surviving commercial common carrier narrow-gauge railroad in the United States was the White Pass and Yukon Route connecting Skagway, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. It ended common carrier service in 1982, but has since been partially reopened as a tourist railway.


Hawaii boasted an extensive network of narrow gauge sugar cane railways, but also was home to the Oahu Railway and Land Company which was the only US narrow gauge railroad to use signals. OR&L used Automatic Block Signals or ABS on their double track mainline between Honolulu and Waipahu a total of 12.9 miles (20.8 km) and had signals on a branch line for another nine miles (14 km). The section of track from Honolulu to Waipahu saw upwards of eighty trains a day, making it one of the busiest narrow gauge main lines in the world.

Other applications of narrow gauge in the U.S.

Shay geared locomotive at the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad
Temporary narrow gauge (3 foot 6 inch) rail yard used to support construction of New York City's East Side Access project in 2012.

There were also numerous narrow gauge logging railroads in Pennsylvania and West Virginia who operated mostly with geared locomotives such as Shays, Climaxes, and Heislers.)

Many narrow gauge lines were private carriers serving particular industries. One major industry that made extensive use of 3 ft (914 mm) gauge railroads was the logging industry, especially in the West. Although most of these lines closed by the 1950s, one notable later survivor was West Side Lumber Company railway which continued using 3 ft (914 mm) gauge geared steam locomotives until 1968.

There is one narrow gauge industrial railroad still in commercial operation in the United States, the US Gypsum operation in Plaster City, California, which uses a number of Montreal Locomotive Works locomotives obtained from the White Pass after its 1982 closure. Temporary narrow gauge railways are commonly built to support large tunneling and mining operations.

The famous San Francisco cable car system has a gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm), as did the street cars on the former Los Angeles street railway.

Rail haulage has been very important in the mining industry. By 1922, 80 percent of all new coal mines in the United States were being developed using 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) (42 inch) gauge trackage, and the American Mining Congress recommended this as a standard gauge for coal mines, using a 42-inch wheelbase and automatic couplers centered 10 inches above the rail.[1]

U.S. Common Carrier narrow gauges in the twentieth century

Literally thousands of narrow gauge railroads were built or projected in the U.S. The following list includes those common carrier narrow gauge railroads which operated into the Twentieth Century. Note: this list intentionally excludes tourist railroads, amusement parks, loggers, and other non-common carriers.

List of narrow gauge railroads in the United States
(all 3 ft (914 mm) gauge unless stated)
Altoona and Beech Creek RailroadPennsylvania18911916[2] converted to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Anniston and Atlantic RailroadAlabama18841890[3] converted to standard gauge
Arizona and New Mexico RailwayArizona, New Mexico18831901[4] converted to standard gauge
Arizona Narrow Gauge Railroad, later Tucson, Globe and Northwestern RailroadArizona18861894[5]
Arkansas Central Railway, later Arkansas Midland RailroadArkansas18721887[6] 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge until 1883, converted to standard gauge
Batesville and Brinkley RailroadArkansas18821888[7] converted to standard gauge
Bellevue and Cascade RailroadIowa18801936[8]
Bingham Canyon & Camp FloydUtah18721881Sold to D&RG in 1881, Standard Gauged 1883
Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn RailroadMassachusetts18751940[9]
Bradford, Bordell and Kinzua Railroad, later Buffalo, Bradford and Kane RailroadPennsylvania18801906[10]
Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, later Bridgton and Harrison RailwayMaine18831941[11] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Carson and Colorado Railroad, later Carson and Colorado Railway, then Nevada and California Railway, then Southern PacificCalifornia, Nevada18811960[12]
Catskill and Tannersville RailwayNew York18991918[13]
Catskill Mountain Railroad, later Catskill Mountain RailwayNew York18821918[13]
Colorado Central Railroad, later Colorado and Southern RailwayColorado18721941[14]
Colorado and Southern RailwayColorado18981943Formed from Colorado Central Railroad and the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railway
Coronado RailroadArizona18791932[15]  18 in (457 mm) gauge, later 3 ft (914 mm) gauge
Cotton Plant RailroadArkansas18791882[7] 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge until 1881, to Batesville and Brinkley Railroad
Crescent TramwayUtah18831900[16] 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge
Denver and Rio Grande Western RailwayColorado, Utah, New Mexico18711969[17] Utah portion standard gauged 1883
Eagles Mere RailroadPennsylvania18921928[18]
East and West Railroad of AlabamaAlabama, Georgia18711890[19] converted to standard gauge
East Broad Top Railroad and Coal CompanyPennsylvania18731956[20]
East Tennessee and Western North Carolina RailroadTennessee, North Carolina18811950[21]
Eureka and Palisade RailroadNevada18741938[22]
Farmville and Powhatan Railroad, later Tidewater and Western RailroadVirginia18821917[23]
Florence and Cripple Creek RailroadColorado18941915[24]
Franklin and Megantic Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes RailroadMaine18841908[25] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Fulton County Narrow Gauge RailwayIllinois18801905[26] converted to standard gauge
Golovin Bay RailroadAlaska19021906[27]
Hot Springs Branch RailroadArkansas18751889[7] converted to standard gauge
Kane and Elk RailroadPennsylvania18961911[28]
Kennebec Central RailroadMaine18901929[29] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Lancaster, Oxford and Southern RailroadPennsylvania18731919[30]
Lawndale Railway and Industrial CompanyNorth Carolina18991945[31]
Lewisburg and Buffalo Valley RailroadPennsylvania18971906[32]
Linville River RailwayNorth Carolina18991913[21] sold to East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad
Little Cottonwood Transportation CompanyUtah19101925[16]
Magma Arizona RailroadArizona19141923[33] converted to standard gauge
Maryland Central Railroad, later Baltimore and Lehigh RailroadMaryland, Pennsylvania18821900[34] converted to standard gauge; became Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad
Monson RailroadMaine18831943[35] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Montgomery Southern RailwayAlabama18821889[36] converted to standard gauge
Montrose RailwayPennsylvania18721903[32] converted to standard gauge
Morenci Southern RailwayArizona18991932[37]
Mount Gretna Narrow Gauge RailwayPennsylvania18891915[38] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Nantucket RailroadMassachusetts18811917[39]
Nevada and Oregon Railroad, later Nevada and California Railroad, then Nevada-California-Oregon RailwayNevada, California, Oregon18821929[40]
Nevada Central RailwayNevada18801938[41]
Nevada County Narrow Gauge RailroadCalifornia18761942[42]
Nevada Short Line RailwayNevada19131918[43]
New Berlin and Winfield RailroadPennsylvania19051916[44]
Newport and Shermans Valley RailroadPennsylvania18911934[45]
North Pacific Coast Railroad, later Northwestern Pacific RailroadCalifornia18731930[46]
Oahu Railway and Land CompanyHawaii18891947[47]
Ohio River and Western RailwayOhio18771931[48]
Oregonian RailwayOregon18781893[49] to Southern Pacific; converted to standard gauge
Otis Elevating Railway, later Otis RailwayNew York18921918[13] Funicular railway
Pacific Coast RailwayCalifornia18731941[50]
Pajaro Valley Consolidated RailroadCalifornia18901929[51]
Phillips and Rangeley Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes RailroadMaine18901908[52] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Pioche Pacific Transportation CompanyNevada18911948[53]
Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon RailroadPennsylvania18711909[54] 3 ft 4 in (1,016 mm) gauge
Pittsburgh and Western RailroadPennsylvania18781911[55]
Rio Grande Southern RailroadColorado18921951[56]
Sandy River Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes RailroadMaine18791908[57] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes RailroadMaine19081935[58] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge
Shannon-Arizona RailwayArizona19101932[59]
South Pacific Coast RailroadCalifornia18781940[60]
Sumpter Valley RailwayOregon18911947[61]
Susquehanna and Eagles Mere RailroadPennsylvania19021917[62]
Talladega and Coosa Valley RailroadAlabama18841889[36] converted to standard gauge
Tanana Valley RailroadAlaska19041930[63]
Tionesta Valley RailroadPennsylvania18821941[64]
Seaboard Railway of Alabama, later Tombigbee and Northern RailwayAlabama18911904[36] converted to standard gauge
Tonopah RailroadNevada19041905[65] converted to standard gauge
Tuscarora Valley RailroadPennsylvania18931934[66]
Tuskegee RailroadAlabama18711963[67]
Uintah RailwayColorado, Utah19041939[68]
United Verde and Pacific RailwayArizona18941920[69]
Utah & Pleasant ValleyUtah18751881[16]
Wasatch & Jordan ValleyUtah18721879[16] Merged with Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd, standard gauged 1883
Waynesburg and Washington RailroadPennsylvania18771944[70] converted to standard gauge
White Pass & Yukon RouteAlaska18981982[71]
Wild Goose Railroad, later Nome Arctic Railroad, then Seward Peninsula RailroadAlaska19001955[72]
Wiscasset and Quebec Railroad, later Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington RailwayMaine18951933[73] 2 ft (610 mm) gauge

Viewing narrow gauge railroads today

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad in Portland Maine

Some cars and trains from the Maine Two-Footers are now on display at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Portland, Maine.

In 1957, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad was revived as a tourist attraction under the common name, Tweetsie Railroad. It currently runs a three mile (5 km) route near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Similarly, the East Broad Top Railroad was revived in 1960 and runs on three miles of original 1873 trackage.

Significant remnants of the Colorado system remain as tourist attractions which run in the summer, including the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad which runs between Antonito, CO in the San Luis Valley and Chama, NM; and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs in the San Juan Mountains between its namesake towns of Durango and Silverton. Another line is the Georgetown Loop Railroad between Georgetown, Colorado and Silver Plume, Colorado in central Colorado. Much equipment from the Colorado narrow gauges is on display at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado. Many pieces of the D&RGW's narrow gauge equipment was sold off to various other companies upon its abandonment; the Ghost Town and Calico Railway a heritage railroad at Knott's Berry Farm in California operates passenger service daily with two Class C-19 Consolidation (2-8-0) locomotives hauling preserved coaches along with a famed Galloping Goose RGS #3. D&RGW 223, a C-16 steam locomotive, is undergoing restoration at the Utah State Railroad Museum in Ogden, Utah.[16]

Much of the equipment from the Westside Lumber Co. found its way to tourist lines, including the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad and Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in California and the Midwest Central Railroad in Iowa. Additional equipment from the west coast narrow gauges is displayed at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge RR Museum, in Nevada City, CA, Laws Depot Museum, and at the Grizzly Flats Railroad (donated to Orange Empire Railroad Museum after Ward Kimball's death.) along with a Westside Lumber caboose.


  1. ^ H. H. Stoek, J. R. Fleming, A. J. Hoskin, A Study of Coal Mine Haulage in Illinois, Engineering Experiment Station Bulletin No. 132, University of Illinois, July 1922, pages 102-103.
  2. ^ Hilton, p. 484
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  7. ^ a b c Hilton p. 314
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  13. ^ a b c Hilton, pp. 452–453
  14. ^ Hilton, pp. 340–342
  15. ^ Hilton, p. 311
  16. ^ a b c d e Strack, Don. "Utah Railroads". Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  17. ^ Hilton, pp. 344–353
  18. ^ Hilton, p. 486
  19. ^ Hilton, p. 302–304
  20. ^ Hilton, pp. 486–488
  21. ^ a b Hilton, pp. 516–519
  22. ^ Hilton, pp. 441–442
  23. ^ Hilton, p. 543
  24. ^ Hilton, pp. 358–359
  25. ^ Hilton, pp. 410–411
  26. ^ Hilton, pp. 387–389
  27. ^ Hilton, p. 305
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  31. ^ Hilton, pp. 459–461
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  46. ^ Hilton, pp. 329–330
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  48. ^ Hilton, pp. 470–471
  49. ^ Hilton, pp. 480–481
  50. ^ Westcott, Kenneth E.; Johnson, Curtiss H. (1998). The Pacific Coast Railway : central California's premier narrow gauge. Los Altos, Calif.: Benchmark Publications. ISBN 9780961546748. 
  51. ^ Hilton, pp. 332–333
  52. ^ Hilton, p. 411
  53. ^ Hilton, pp. 443–444
  54. ^ Hilton, pp. 493–494
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  59. ^ Hilton, pp. 312–313
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  61. ^ Hilton, pp. 481–483
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  71. ^ Hilton, pp. 306–309
  72. ^ Hilton, pp. 305–306
  73. ^ Hilton, pp. 413–414
  • Hilton, George W. (1990). American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1731-1. LCCN 89021873.