Axe ties

Axe ties are railway ties (or sleeper)[1] that are hewn by hand, usually with a broadaxe. There are 2,900 ties per mile of track on a first class railroad. The early railways would not accept ties cut with a saw, as it was claimed that the kerf of the saw splintered the fibres of the wood, leaving them more likely to soak up moisture causing premature rot.

The process

Geoff Marples wrote an account of being a tiehack in the East Kootenays in 1938 and described the process of making axe ties to include:[2][3] First a suitable tree was chosen and then falling and limbing the tree. Next came scoring which is chopping, by eye without a chalk line, of notches to remove extra wood about every 10 inches (25 cm); hewing the trunks only on two sides unless the log was over 11 inches (28 cm) in diameter; bucking (cutting to in this case 8 feet (2.4 m)); peeling any remaining bark off; and stacking the ties so a chain can be wrapped around them. Next came skidding each group of ties to a landing with a team of horses, and then loading and hauling the ties to a railway siding by truck and unloading by hand. Scaling was the key event where a railroad inspector accepted or culled (rejected) and graded each tie as a number one (7 inches (18 cm) by 9 inches (23 cm) used for the main railroad lines) or number two (6 inches (15 cm) by 6 inches (15 cm) used for sidings). Loading the 200 pounds (91 kg) ties by hand onto a car was the last task. Marples wrote that he netted 48 cents for each grade one, and 36 cents for each grade two and made $150 for a winters work.

Wood species

Cedar was the most sought after wood for ties, since it is known for being extremely resistant to rot, however, as electric power came into more common use in the early 1900s, it was substituted with other species such as Tamarack. In northern regions where jack pine was plentiful, that species became a more common source for railway ties. Jack pine ties did not last as long as cedar or tamarack (lying on the ground), but were cheaper to produce. As creosote treatment came into use the axe ties were phased out, but jack pine remained best suited for softwood ties.

Production in Canada

Axe tie production was an early industry of importance for many communities in Ontario along the railway in the early 1900s. Examples include Foleyet and Nemegos.


  1. "Railroad n." def. 3.c. Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) © Oxford University Press 2009
  2. Marples, Geoff. "The Tiehack", part 1.. British Columbia Forest History Newsletter. No. 60. August 2000. Victoria, B. C., Forest History Association of British Columbia. p. 1-4. print.
  3. Marples, Geoff. "The Tiehack", part 2.. British Columbia Forest History Newsletter. No. 61. December 2000. Victoria, B. C., Forest History Association of British Columbia. p. 1-4. print.
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