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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Saturday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail:


Railroads, Romans and the Space Shuttle
09 November 2020

In 1905, Mark L Requa built the Nevada Northern Railway to standard gauge. Standard gauge is defined as 4-feet 8½-inches of width between the rails. Any rail spacing smaller than that is called narrow gauge. The most common narrow gauge railroads are the 3-foot railroads in Colorado. Anything over the 4-feet 8½-inches is called broad gauge. There were examples of this back east before the civil war. But where did this exceedingly odd number of 4-feet 8½-inches come from? Why is that gauge used?

Because that's the way they built railroads in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and thatís the gauge they used.

Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads?

The first long distance roads in Europe and England were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4-feet 8½-inches is derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.


Space Shuttle Columbia; NASA photograph

Would you believe there is a connection between railroads, the Roman Empire and the Space shuttle?



Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's behind came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original question.

Now the twist to the story...

There's an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.

Thiokol at their factory in Utah makes the SRBs. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a Horse's behind! And you thought the history of the Nevada Northern Railway started in 1905.



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