Original publish date: March 1, 2018
Last Thursday a young eastsider by the name of Trevor McCoy was driving south on Oriental Avenue when he was startled by a large piece of rebar as it came knifing through the floorboard of his car. The steel bar curled towards the sky as it traveled up and out the back window before McCoy’s car came to a halt, ripping off the muffler in the process. The incident happened around midnight in front of Arsenal Technical high school. The driver was shaken, but unhurt.
The news story piqued my interest because it happened on Oriental Avenue. My dad, Robert E. Hunter, grew up on Oriental and graduated from Tech in 1954. He delighted in taking detours whenever possible to point out the stoop that was once his family home. “That’s my stoop, that’s all that’s left.” he would say. However, as I learned the details of the incident, one word popped into my mind: Snakehead!
As an imaginative, history-loving kid, snakeheads were fodder for my nightmares. A snakehead is the term used to describe iron rails which would curl up and come loose from their wooden rails. Often, snakeheads took center stage in ghoulish tales where rails would pierce the bottom of a car, crashing upwards into the wooden floorboards like a knife through butter, sometimes impaling some poor unsuspecting passenger.
Traveling through the South in 1843-44, Minnesota clergyman Henry Benjamin Whipple wrote on page 76 of his diary: “The passengers are amused on this road by running off the track, sending rails up through the bottom of the cars and other amusements of the kind calculated to make one’s hair stand on end” Likewise, in his book “Southern Railroad Man: Conductor N. J. Bell’s Recollections of the Civil War Era (Railroads in America)”, Bell wrote: “It is said that one of these snakeheads stuck up so high that it ran over the top of a wheel of a coach and through the floor, and killed a lady passenger”
As anyone who has ever taken one of my tours knows, my Grreat-grandfather was a lifetime railroad man. He spoke of snakeheads often and always in the most terrifying terms. I searched every book, magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on looking for clarification on this dread phenomenon. Let me tell ya, researching in the years before the internet wasn’t for sissies. It took me years to discover the truth behind snakeheads and it turns out, they weren’t as scary as they were made out to be. Unless you were a first generation Hoosier.
Although the engine is the undisputed king of the rails, nothing is more important to a railroad as the track. After all, without rails, ties, and ballasting, freight and passengers do not move. Even though the image of the railroad is most closely tied to the American west, the railroad was born in France in the early 1700s. Or England in the mid 1700s. Depends on which version you believe. There are even those that say it was developed in Boston in the late 1700s. Regardless, that is an argument this article will not settle. The 4-feet width and 8 1/2-inch height were reportedly based upon ancient Roman chariot roads, that much is known.
In the United States, the Granite Railway of Massachusetts is credited as the very first, opening on October 7, 1826. It used early strap-iron rails atop a wooden base with thin strips of iron added for increased strength. During that first decade, virtually everything about railroading was an experiment learned on the fly. Early on, the strap-iron method worked best and engineers eventually learned that dense hardwoods, like oak, proved the most economical material for the supporting base. It was determined that cross-ties be at least 8-10 inches thick and about 8-10 feet in length.
Snakeheads reared their ugly heads, literally, as the straps holding the flat iron rails began to wear out after a decade or more of almost constant use. While crews of laborers were employed to inspect and replace any worn straps, the mass expansion of the railroad severely taxed the time and resources of railway inspectors. Strap failures caused the rails to become dislodged and the shock and bounce of the trains caused them to curl up. One train might pass over a dislodged rail without incident, while the next might encounter an entirely different rail situation as the loose end of the rail flew up violently under spring tension. One need only think of the last time they got a splinter, then magnify it, to imagine the result.
The prospect of an iron rail ripping through the bottom of a rail car is terrifying, but it seems to be confined solely to railroads is use before the Civil War. The reason snakeheads are so hard to research is the lack of comprehensive statistics for antebellum railroads. There was no federal agency collecting data and state interest was even less. Railroad companies sometimes self-reported accidents, but they had an obvious incentive to under-report.
To determine how prevalent and dangerous snakeheads actually were, the best way is to examine contemporary reports, if you can find them. The April 7, 1841 Newport Rhode Island Republican newspaper reported an accident near Bristol, PA: “As the train of cars were going from New York towards Philadelphia, near Bristol, one of the wheels struck the end of an iron rail, which was loose, and erected in the manner generally called a snake’s head.—The bar passed through the bottom of the car, and between the legs of a passenger, (Mr. Yates, of Albany) tearing his cloak in pieces, grazing his ear, and thence passed out the top of the car. An inch difference in his position on the seat, and he must have been killed.”
On June 22, 1841, the Boston Daily Atlas reported a similar accident in New Jersey, but later retracted the story after the president of the railroad wrote that the injury was caused by the passenger falling on a “fragment of the seat,” not from a rail springing through the floor. A careful (and exhausting) internet search reveals some 20 newspaper accounts of snakeheads in antebellum era newspapers. In one, a woman was slightly injured when a piece of iron entered a car in New York around 1848, and in another, a workman was killed on a construction train of the Jersey Central some years earlier. Most injuries usually stemmed from passengers being shook up from the jolt as the train left the tracks rather than being directly injured by the rail, but some of the injuries were frightening nonetheless.
In 1845, John F. Wallis of the Virginia legislature was injured on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. According to the Baltimore Sun on July 21: “It lifted Mr. W. completely off his seat, coursing up the surface of his leg and abdomen, lacerating him in several places and injuring his hand severely.” The New London, Connecticut, Morning News gave a more vivid description of the same accident: “One of the bars of iron becoming loosened from the rails, it shot up through the car at the seat where Mr. Wall was sitting, severely lacerating the back part of the hand, cutting his breast and pinning him up to the top of the car.”
Only one fatality could be found and that was reported in the August 22, 1843 Baltimore Sun newspaper. It happened to a “young man named Staats” killed on a train in New Jersey on the way to New York City, “the bar entered under the chin of this young man, and came out at the back of his head. He was instantly killed, but no other person injured. The cars went back to Boundbrook, left the body, and then after an hour’s delay, started for the city.” As macabre as it may sound, a description this gruesome was exactly what I needed to justify those nightmares of my youth.
While 20 snakehead reportings in a 30-year period might not qualify as a catastrophic transportation epidemic, it does make the snakehead newsworthy. These numbers do not take into account unreported snakehead incidents where no injury resulted. The vagueness of most reports and the difficulty of finding them in newspapers must be viewed as a sign of the times. Obviously, snakeheads were bad for business. However, the railroad workers knew the stories and they were quick to spin their tales to unsuspecting, impressionable laymen. That’s how folklore starts in the first place; part fact, part fiction and all imagination.
By the time of the Civil War, strap-iron rails fell out of favor, deemed too costly to maintain (and too dangerous) by the railroads. In 1831 solid iron, “T”-rail had been introduced but were not yet widely in use. By 1839, American railroads ran on tracks of a wide variety of gauges and shapes: 101 railroads were still using strap iron on sleepers, forty-two were using some form of shaped rail, and twenty-nine were using an unspecified method.
That all changed when, on October 8, 1845, the Montour Iron Works of Danville, Pa. rolled the first iron T-rails in the United States and the age of standard gauge track was born. The rail looked like a capital “T,” only inverted; the top was placed on the ground, providing a solid base of support while the narrow end was the wheel’s guideway. Within a single generation, American railroads replaced every foot of iron rail track with stronger and more durable steel T-rails. Interestingly, even today, some lightly used branch lines can still be found carrying rail rolled during the late 19th century.
That brings us back to the Arsenal Tech snakehead that appeared last week. The piece of rebar that swept up and out of the pothole to pierce young Trevor McCoy’s car has been cut off and the pothole has been filled. No doubt some of you may be wondering what a piece of rebar was doing there in the first place. Rebar (short for reinforcing bar) is used in roads to make the concrete stay in place after it cracks, not really to make the road stronger. Rebar gives tensile strength, nothing more. Pot holes are caused by tiny cracks in the concrete that allow water to seep in. The water destroys the concrete from inside the crack during the freeze / thaw cycle.
Antebellum Americans viewed the “terror” of the snakehead as a risk they were willing to accept and in time, snakeheads faded into folklore. The winter of 2017-18 saw an estimated 10,000 potholes on over 8,000 miles of city streets. By most accounts, this season’s more radical than usual freeze / thaw cycle has contributed to the worst pothole season ever. These rebar reinforced concrete streets are reaching social security eligibility age. Rebar snakeheads may well be on their way to becoming the folktales of Uber and Lyft drivers in years to come.