Early Day Railroad Construction

If you take a close look at the railroad tracks in front of the Issaquah Depot, you can see bolts that hold together sections of rail. These are known as joint connections. These days, many of the rail joint connections used on older rail systems are no longer necessary. Modern rail laying methods involve welding rail sections together to make a continuously welded rail. Welding rails together is expensive but lowers maintenance costs. And, if you are a rail passenger, welded rail gets rid of the old “clickity-clack” sound when the wheels crossed rail joints. But, the traditional jointed rail system that we have at the Issaquah Depot is still used on some railways in the US and in other countries.

To make a jointed rail, the ends of rail sections are bolted together with 2 heavy steel plates, called fishplates or joint bars, one on each side of the rail joint. Full lengths of rail, as supplied by the factory, would have bolt holes in them. But, if an odd length of rail is cut for repairs or to fit a rail section, new bolt holes have to be drilled through the rail. Unfortunately, railroad workers in the 1800s and early 1900s did not have motor driven machines to make these holes. They had to manually drill holes in the vertical part, or web, of the rail. To help ease this job a bit, a rail drilling machine that used men as the “motor” were developed in the 1800s.

A sample of one of these machines is on display at the Depot museum. It’s a New-Style Paulus model made by the Buda Boy Co., patented in 1890 (pictured at right). It would have been operated by two railroad workers, one on each side turning a hand crank. The cranking would turn a horizontal shaft at the bottom of the machine. Attached at the rail end of the shaft was a large drill bit that turned to cut a hole in the rail. As the drill shaft turned, the machine’s mechanism moved the drill through the rail very slowly.

The IHM rail drill was restored by volunteer Eric Martin and is fully functional. Eric set up the display with the drill bit completely through the rail as it would appear when workers finished drilling a hole. To do this, Eric and I hand cranked the machine until the drill bit pierced the rail. After about 20 minutes of turning the handles, with a few short rests, we achieved success. However, Eric admits to a bit of “cheating” to shorten the work time; he pre-drilled a half-sized bolt hole in the rail using a modern motor powered drill.

For select groups, like rail enthusiasts, a specially trained docent could demonstrate how the drill operates without actually having to drill a hole.

This is one of a variety of projects we tackle at the Auto Freight Building (aka “The Shop”) on the corner of First Avenue and Bush Street. If you see our door open on a Saturday morning, feel free to stop by and find out what we are working on!

5 replies
  1. Issaquah History Museums
    Issaquah History Museums says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t know what the value of the drill would be. You might check in Railfan or similar publications where people list equipment for sale. We received our more than 15 years ago as a donation. We’ve had at least three other organizations email us with questions about our track drill since this post was originally made.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    My 76 year old father has this drill and wants to restore it. Cleaning, repairing and treating/painting. We took a look at it and are not sure where to start to disassemble it. I’m thinking that Eric may have some insight to this. If you could take the time to reply it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. raymond.rasmussen@shaw.ca

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hello. My Father has the very same drill that Eric restored and he was wondering if he could get some insight as to how to disassemble it for cleaning and restoration. Specifically how to remove the gears and gearshafts. Any info would be appreciated. Thanks, raymond.rasmussen@shaw.ca

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