Railroads and Barbed Wire

From its introduction, barbed wire seemed a natural companion to the railroads. As rails began to traverse the countryside, new barbed wire fences were crisscrossing the land at an even faster rate. If barbed wire “tamed” the west, then it was the railroads that connected it with civilization.

Isaac Ellwood realized the importance of the railroads to settlement of the Midwest. He shipped millions of pounds of barbed wire across the country by rail. Advertisements for The Barb Fence Company included scenes of trains chugging steadily alongside barbed wire fences that held back cattle grazing in the fields. Perhaps it was these advertisements that inspired the railroads to consider barbed wire as a deterrent to livestock grazing alongside their right-of-way.

To encourage railroads to expand westward, the government granted to them massive amounts of land for right-of-ways and development. These right-of-ways usually cut across land previously reserved for grazing livestock. It was not surprising then, that animals drifted onto the tracks.

Approaching trains, unable to stop quickly enough, would strike helpless animals. This caused needless injury and loss to livestock and costly damage to equipment. If the risk to animals and equipment was not reason enough to find a solution to the problem, there was risk to passengers’ safety if a collision resulted in derailment.

Legal disputes often arose when a train struck an animal. Were the railroads endangering the animals or were owners of the animals endangering the trains? Who was responsible for constructing a barrier? The federal government decided to leave it up to each state to enact legislation. Most states let the burden fell upon the railroad leaving the railroads in need of suitable fencing at a reasonable price. The problem was remedied as railway crews began to erect hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences alongside their tracks.

Unfortunately, this did not totally resolve the problem. It was not long before a few dishonest farmers and ranchers started to remove wire from railroad fences for their own use. Consequently, railroad crews could not repair the damaged fences fast enough. With the enormous number of legitimate barbed wire fences strung across the countryside, it was almost impossible to find the thieves and recover the stolen wire.

Legend says that it was Isaac Ellwood who came up with the solution. He modified Joseph Glidden’s “Winner” design (his company now owned the patent) to create a unique wire exclusively for railroad use. His design consisted of one or more square strands of wire woven among one or more traditional round lines. Thus, if railroad agents discovered a private field surrounded by wire containing square strands, they knew the wire was acquired unlawfully from their right-of-ways. His idea was successful as railroad companies became principle customers of The Barb Fence Company. Once again, barbed wire had struck a victory in the quest to settle the untamed West.