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Railroad velocipede

Many professionals have specialized equipment to help them carry out their jobs, and railroad track inspectors are no exception.

This strange looking piece of equipment, known as a velocipede, was an important tool for railroad track inspectors. These workers traveled assigned sections of track at least twice daily, checking it for damage and signs of wear. Velocipedes allowed them to cover the miles rapidly while keeping them close to the track to better examine its joints and the underlying gravel bed.

Velocipedes (from the French for "swift footed") had both foot pedals and handles. Unlike the more common hand car which sped across the tracks through hand pumping, the velocipede was made to move through a combination of pushing and pulling its handles forward and backward while also pedaling in the manner of a bicycle.

Three flanged wheels kept the velocipede on the tracks; a fourth wheel would have added unnecessary weight. It was important that the track inspector's vehicle be lightweight, as he often was alone when the velocipede needed to be removed from the tracks or turned around. The fact that it is mostly made of wood also kept the vehicle light and maneuverable.

This particular velocipede was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by Charles Goebel, an avid railroad collector and one-time employee of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if ATSF owned this velocipede, as Goebel's records are sketchy.

A description of how track inspectors used velocipedes is included in the 1897 book The American Railway:

One of the habitués of every station is the section-master, who looks after three, five, or ten miles of track and a gang of from five to twenty-five men who keep it in repair. He is not much seen, because he is out on the road most of the time; and his duties are not of a kind that the reader could study, on paper, to much advantage; but he deserves mention because his place is a really important one. Railroad tracks . . . must be constantly watched to see that they do not fall even a little below their highest standard. This care-taking can be intrusted only to one who has had long experience at the work. In violent rain-storms the trackman must be on duty night and day and patrol the whole length of his division to see that gravel is not washed over the track or out from under it. Though roughly dressed and sunburned, he is an important personage in the eye of the engineer of a fast express train.

This velocipede is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Velocipede

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2002

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.