Narrow gauge railroads in the United States

Narrow gauge railroads in the United States
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

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.

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)
Railroad State Start
Altoona and Beech Creek Railroad Pennsylvania 1891 1916 [2] converted to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Anniston and Atlantic Railroad Alabama 1884 1890 [3] converted to standard gauge
Arizona and New Mexico Railway Arizona, New Mexico 1883 1901 [4] converted to standard gauge
Arizona Narrow Gauge Railroad, later Tucson, Globe and Northwestern Railroad Arizona 1886 1894 [5]
Arkansas Central Railway, later Arkansas Midland Railroad Arkansas 1872 1887 [6] 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge until 1883, converted to standard gauge
Batesville and Brinkley Railroad Arkansas 1882 1888 [7] converted to standard gauge
Bellevue and Cascade Railroad Iowa 1880 1936 [8]
Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd Utah 1872 1881 Sold to D&RG in 1881, Standard Gauged 1883
Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad Massachusetts 1875 1940 [9]
Bradford, Bordell and Kinzua Railroad, later Buffalo, Bradford and Kane Railroad Pennsylvania 1880 1906 [10]
Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, later Bridgton and Harrison Railway Maine 1883 1941 [11] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Carson and Colorado Railroad, later Carson and Colorado Railway, then Nevada and California Railway, then Southern Pacific California, Nevada 1881 1960 [12]
Catskill and Tannersville Railway New York 1899 1918 [13]
Catskill Mountain Railroad, later Catskill Mountain Railway New York 1882 1918 [13]
Colorado Central Railroad, later Colorado and Southern Railway Colorado 1872 1941 [14]
Colorado and Southern Railway Colorado 1898 1943 Formed from Colorado Central Railroad and the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway.
Coronado Railroad Arizona 1879 1932 [15] 18 in (457 mm) gauge, later 3 ft  (914 mm) gauge
Cotton Plant Railroad Arkansas 1879 1882 [7] 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge until 1881, to Batesville and Brinkley Railroad
Crescent Tramway Utah 1883 1900 [16] 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge
Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway Colorado, Utah, New Mexico 1871 1969 [17] Utah portion standard gauged 1883
Eagles Mere Railroad Pennsylvania 1892 1928 [18]
Easy and West Railroad of Alabama Alabama, Georgia 1871 1890 [19] converted to standard gauge
East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company Pennsylvania 1873 1956 [20]
East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad Tennessee, North Carolina 1881 1950 [21]
Eureka and Palisade Railroad Nevada 1874 1938 [22]
Farmville and Powhatan Railroad, later Tidewater and Western Railroad Virginia 1882 1917 [23]
Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad Colorado 1894 1915 [24]
Franklin and Megantic Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Maine 1884 1908 [25] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Fulton County Narrow Gauge Railway Illinois 1880 1905 [26] converted to standard gauge
Golovin Bay Railroad Alaska 1902 1906 [27]
Hot Springs Branch Railroad Arkansas 1875 1889 [7] converted to standard gauge
Kane and Elk Railroad Pennsylvania 1896 1911 [28]
Kennebec Central Railroad Maine 1890 1929 [29] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Lancaster, Oxford and Southern Railroad Pennsylvania 1873 1919 [30]
Lawndale Railway and Industrial Company North Carolina 1899 1945 [31]
Lewisburg and Buffalo Valley Railroad Pennsylvania 1897 1906 [32]
Linville River Railway North Carolina 1899 1913 [21] sold to East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad
Little Cottonwood Transportation Company Utah 1910 1925 [16]
Magma Arizona Railroad Arizona 1914 1923 [33] converted to standard gauge
Maryland Central Railroad, later Baltimore and Lehigh Railroad Maryland, Pennsylvania 1882 1900 [34] converted to standard gauge; became Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad
Monson Railroad Maine 1883 1943 [35] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Montgomery Southern Railway Alabama 1882 1889 [36] converted to standard gauge
Montrose Railway Pennsylvania 1872 1903 [32] converted to standard gauge
Morenci Southern Railway Arizona 1899 1932 [37]
Mount Gretna Narrow Gauge Railway Pennsylvania 1889 1915 [38] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Nantucket Railroad Massachusetts 1881 1917 [39]
Nevada and Oregon Railroad, later Nevada and California Railroad, then Nevada-California-Oregon Railway Nevada, California, Oregon 1882 1929 [40]
Nevada Central Railway Nevada 1880 1938 [41]
Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad California 1876 1942 [42]
Nevada Short Line Railway Nevada 1913 1918 [43]
New Berlin and Winfield Railroad Pennsylvania 1905 1916 [44]
Newport and Shermans Valley Railroad Pennsylvania 1891 1934 [45]
North Pacific Coast Railroad, later Northwestern Pacific Railroad California 1873 1930 [46]
Oahu Railway and Land Company Hawaii 1889 1947 [47]
Ohio River and Western Railway Ohio 1877 1931 [48]
Oregonian Railway Oregon 1878 1893 [49] to Southern Pacific; converted to standard gauge
Otis Elevating Railway, later Otis Railway New York 1892 1918 [13] Funicular railway
Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad California 1890 1929 [50]
Phillips and Rangeley Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Maine 1890 1908 [51] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Pioche Pacific Transportation Company Nevada 1891 1948 [52]
Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad Pennsylvania 1871 1909 [53] 3 ft 4 in (1,016 mm) gauge
Pittsburgh and Western Railroad Pennsylvania 1878 1911 [54]
Rio Grande Southern Railroad Colorado 1892 1951 [55]
Sandy River Railroad, later Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Maine 1879 1908 [56] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Maine 1908 1935 [57] 2 ft  (610 mm) gauge
Shannon-Arizona Railway Arizona 1910 1932 [58]
South Pacific Coast Railroad California 1878 1940 [59]
Sumpter Valley Railway Oregon 1891 1947 [60]
Susquehanna and Eagles Mere Railroad Pennsylvania 1902 1917 [61]
Talladega and Coosa Valley Railroad Alabama 1884 1889 [36] converted to standard gauge
Tanana Valley Railroad Alaska 1904 1930 [62]
Tionesta Valley Railroad Pennsylvania 1882 1941 [63]
Seaboard Railway of Alabama, later Tombigbee and Northern Railway Alabama 1891 1904 [36] converted to standard gauge
Tonopah Railroad Nevada 1904 1905 [64] converted to standard gauge
Tuscarora Valley Railroad Pennsylvania 1893 1934 [65]
Tuskegee Railroad Alabama 1871 1963 [66]
Uintah Railway Colorado, Utah 1904 1939 [67]
United Verde and Pacific Railway Arizona 1894 1920 [68]
Utah & Pleasant Valley Utah 1875 1881 [16]
Wasatch & Jordan Valley Utah 1872 1879 [16] Merged with Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd, standard gauged 1883
Waynesburg and Washington Railroad Pennsylvania 1877 1944 [69] converted to standard gauge
White Pass & Yukon Route Alaska 1898 1982 [70]
Wild Goose Railroad, later Nome Arctic Railroad, then Seward Peninsula Railroad Alaska 1900 1955 [71]
Wiscasset and Quebec Railroad, later Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Maine 1895 1933 [72] 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 abandonement; these can be found on the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad at Knott's Berry Farm in California, among others. 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, and at the Grizzly Flats Railroad, and Laws Depot Museum.


  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
  3. ^ Hilton, p. 302
  4. ^ Hilton, pp. 309–310
  5. ^ Hilton, p. 310
  6. ^ Hilton, pp. 313–314
  7. ^ a b c Hilton p. 314
  8. ^ Hilton, p. 394
  9. ^ Hilton, pp. 416–418
  10. ^ Hilton, pp. 507–508
  11. ^ Hilton, p. 407
  12. ^ Hilton, pp. 438–440
  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
  28. ^ Hilton, p. 488
  29. ^ Hilton, p. 409
  30. ^ Hilton, pp. 488–490
  31. ^ Hilton, pp. 459–461
  32. ^ a b Hilton, p. 490
  33. ^ Hilton, pp. 311–312
  34. ^ Hilton, pp. 414–416
  35. ^ Hilton, pp. 409–410
  36. ^ a b c Hilton, p. 304
  37. ^ Hilton, p. 312
  38. ^ Hilton, pp. 490–492
  39. ^ Hilton, pp. 419–420
  40. ^ Hilton, pp. 326–328
  41. ^ Hilton, pp. 442–443
  42. ^ Hilton, pp. 328–329
  43. ^ Hilton, p. 443
  44. ^ Hilton, p. 492
  45. ^ Hilton, pp. 492–493
  46. ^ Hilton, pp. 329–330
  47. ^ Hilton, pp. 380–381
  48. ^ Hilton, pp. 470–471
  49. ^ Hilton, pp. 480–481
  50. ^ Hilton, pp. 332–333
  51. ^ Hilton, p. 411
  52. ^ Hilton, pp. 443–444
  53. ^ Hilton, pp. 493–494
  54. ^ Hilton, pp. 494–497
  55. ^ Hilton, pp. 360–362
  56. ^ Hilton, p. 410
  57. ^ Hilton, pp. 410–413
  58. ^ Hilton, pp. 312–313
  59. ^ Hilton, pp. 335–337
  60. ^ Hilton, pp. 481–483
  61. ^ Hilton, p. 499
  62. ^ Hilton, p. 306
  63. ^ Hilton, pp. 499–501
  64. ^ Hilton, p. 444
  65. ^ Hilton, pp.501–502
  66. ^ Hilton, pp. 304–305
  67. ^ Hilton, pp. 363–366
  68. ^ Hilton, p. 313
  69. ^ Hilton, pp. 502–503
  70. ^ Hilton, pp. 306–309
  71. ^ Hilton, pp. 305–306
  72. ^ Hilton, pp. 413–414
  • Hilton, George W. (1990). American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1731-1. LCCN 89-21873. 

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