The Mail Tribune's recent series chronicling the birth of the railroad in Oregon inspired a reader's question: "How do you physically build a railroad by hand?"

The Mail Tribune's recent series chronicling the birth of the railroad in Oregon inspired a reader's question: "How do you physically build a railroad by hand?"

In the late 19th century, laying rails on a railroad was THE definition of backbreaking work, but the technique of handcrafting all those railroads across the country has seldom been told.

Lucky for us, as railroad tracks approached Medford in late 1883, a railroad engineer wrote a short letter to the Oregon Sentinel newspaper in Jacksonville that attempted to explain the process in layman's terms.

Following over the railroad's previously prepared grade, the track-laying force, a mini army of railroad "gangs," goes to work in a carefully choreographed dance.

"First, three rope men go ahead and stretch ropes along the grade as a guide for laying the ties," the engineer correspondent wrote.

The two ropes are staked out to mark the outside width of the ties and are measured from pegs previously placed by engineers at each track-center.

The "front-tie" gang is next, 34 men who carry and place ties in position between the two ropes.

The car that carries rails and fastening plates is pushed to the end of the two rails just laid and secured. Then "the front-iron men," 17 in all, begin to lay the next rails.

Two men begin the process by pushing a rail on each side of the rail car slightly forward, where they can be grasped at the end by two more men with specially designed tongs. One rail is handled at a time. As the men with tongs pull the rails free of the car, more men grab on and help carry the rail into position, drop it onto the ties, and then push it back so its end aligns exactly with the previously laid rail.

Meanwhile, the front tie men are carrying more ties forward as another gang of men position plates, bolts and spikes on the just-positioned rails. A small gang of six men follow them and bolt the plates to the rails. Only one half of the ties are initially laid, the rest are placed and bolted by Chinese workers who follow after the initial track-laying.

A crowbar-carrying gang of "liners" fine-tune the gauge and alignment of the rails. To keep the designated width or gauge that separates the track, an iron bar is placed at the front and in between the rails. The "spikemen," two teams of eight men, follow to drive the spikes. They are accompanied by the "nippers gang" tasked with blocking and holding onto the ties to keep them in position while the spikemen hammer.

Without delay, the rail car is pushed forward onto the newly laid rails and the entire process begins again for the next section.

The track-laying force also includes a "rear-iron" gang that reloads the empty rail cars and the "hind tie" men who reload ties. Seven "riders" and brakemen control the rail cars as they travel back and forth to the supply area, an area that includes a mini sawmill to cut the ties.

The Sentinel's engineer said 200 men in eight gangs make up the Southern Oregon crew in Jackson County. He never gave a count of the Chinese workers, but it's likely there were hundreds.

A few miles back of the track gangs, eight gangs of Chinese were assigned to the graveling train. They shoveled, raked and compressed rock to stabilize the rail bed.

On June 5, 1882, when the first spike was driven at Roseburg for the railroad that was headed to Jackson County, the Roseburg Plaindealer newspaper said more than 2,000 Chinese worked in support of about 500 "white men," with more of both expected to be hired.

It took the track-laying gangs a little less than two years of 10-hour or longer days of backbreaking work to handcraft a railroad 145 miles between Roseburg and Ashland.

That's exhausting to think of. Maybe, when we were kids and singing "I've been working on the railroad," it would have been better to have some tears in our eyes instead of those smiles on our faces.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at