John Speller's Web Pages Erie Gauge War

John Speller's Web Pages - US Railroads

Erie Gauge War
In discussions of breaks of gauge on both sides of the Atlantic it has been generally assumed that a break of gauge is something undesirable, inconveniencing passengers and causing additional expense to the railroad companies, unless, as in the case of the Russian 5 ft. gauge, the break of gauge is felt to serve some strategic purpose. It comes as a surprise to most people to discover that in the 1850s railroad companies were held hostage by a massive outbreak of violence in defense of a break of gauge.

The ostensible reason for the opposition by the local populace to the elimination of the break of gauge in Erie was that they were doing really rather well out of the fact that passengers had to change trains. An army of piemen and peanut vendors descended on the trains to sell their wares while the passengers got out of one train and waited for another one. Another army of baggage handlers had to be employed to move stuff from one train to another, and further employees were required to transship freight between the gauges. Some passengers even took the opportunity of the stop to break their journey in Erie and the city's hotels and restaurants benefited accordingly. The city of Erie and the town of Harborcreek stood to lose dozens, if not hundreds of jobs if the break of gauge was abolished, and this was something they were determined to resist.

In December 1853 the neighboring communities of Erie and Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, on the shores of Lake Erie, rose up in protest at the proposal of the Erie and North-East Railroad to convert its gauge from 6 feet to the "Ohio" gauge of 4 ft. 10 in. to enable through running to Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. This was somewhat to the detriment of the Erie Railroad, also 6 ft. gauge, and it is at least possible that some of the outbreaks of unrest that occurred were tacitly encouraged by the Erie company. On 7 December 1853 the E&NERR began the gauge conversion at the Pennsylvania State Line. To prevent the E&NERR from accomplishing their goal of narrowing the gauge, on 10 December 1853 angry mobs encouraged by the Mayor, the Sheriff and the local police, destroyed a bridge and tore up seven-and-a-half miles of track. Over the ensuing weeks the railroad repeatedly relaid the track and the mob, known as the "Rippers," repeatedly ripped it up again.

Partly because the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, happened to be passing through Erie at the height of the troubles, the Erie Gauge War received national attention and was even discussed in Congress. An injunction was obtained from the United States Circuit Court in Pittsburgh to protect the railroad's property but this was simply ignored. A Deputy US Marshall pointed out the US seal on the injunction to Archibald Kirkpatrick, one of the Harborcreek leaders, and he promptly threw it on the ground, stamped on it and pointed out his heelprint as being the "Harborcreek Seal."

The most serious incident happened on 27 December 1853 when a railroad official, finding himself trapped by a hostile crowd of "Rippers," fired a shot and grazed the head one of the protesters rendering him senseless for a few minutes. The crowd, thinking erroneously that the "Ripper" had been killed, became incensed and invaded the train, which beat a hasty retreat to the State Line, Shanghaiing some of the "Rippers" and taking them along. The railroad party thus became known as the "Shanghais." The "Rippers" were kicked off the train at the State Line and left to walk home. Eventually the railroad and the city came to an agreement in which both made some concessions and in 1854 tranquility returned to northern Pennsylvania.
The original railroad station at Erie, Pennsylvania, built 1851
Erie Railroad broad gauge 2-6-0 No. 254, built by Danforth, Cooke & Co. in 1865, noteworthy for being one of the earliest "Moguls" and for being an early anthracite-burning locomotive, though here shown as converted to woodburning during the coal shortage of the Civil War
Harborcreek Station, Erie Railroad
Erie & North Eastern Railroad stock certificate signed by E&NERR President Charles Manning Reed (1803-1871)
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