Crosstie wood preservation methods have been vital to the development of railway transportation, infrastructure, and supply chains around the world. This timeline illustrates the role that coal-tar creosote and other wood preservatives have played in economic development through the years.

For a more complete description of this history, visit our page, Timeline: A History of Creosote Wood Preservation.

Kyanizingin the Early 1800s

detail of Kyan's Patent for Prevention of Rot in Timber - kyanizing wood preservation process

In 1832, John Howard Kyan patented the first popular wood treatment process known as “Kyanizing.” This method involved steeping timber in a water-based mercuric chloride solution. Kyan’s father owned valuable copper mines in Ireland. The decay of the timber supports in these mines had turned his attention to the question of preserving wood.

Unfortunately, the Kyanizing solution did not penetrate wood’s surface, making it ineffective. A few years later, Franz Moll patented the use of coal-tar creosote to preserve wood, but still no one knew how to insert the preservative deeper into wood.

Nonetheless, Kyan’s invention inspired a popular song featuring these opening lines:

Have you heard, have you heard
Anti-dry Rot’s the word?
Wood will never wear out, thanks to Kyan, to Kyan!
He dips in a tank any rafter or plank,
And makes it immortal as Dian, as Dian!

‘Bently’s Miscellany’ – January 1837

John Bethell’s “Full Cell” Patent Improves Wood Preservation

full cell coal tar creosote wood treatment Bethell process diagram by Creosote Council

Not long after, in 1838, John Bethell, a British solicitor and inventor, patented a “full-cell” treatment process, which injected preservative deep into wood using pressurization. The fundamentals of this process continue to be used by the wood preservation industry today. His obituary in 1868 stated:

On July the 11th, 1838, Mr. Bethell took out a patent for his process of preserving timber from decay and from the attacks of insects and worn, by impregnating it with creosote oil.

Institution of Civil Engineers

In 1853, the first cross-border railroad using creosote-treated crossties was completed: the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Montreal and Quebec, Canada, with Portland, Maine.

Montreal needed access to an ice-free Atlantic port, and Portland hoped the railroad would bring more economic growth to the small city.

The First Successful Creosote-Treatment Plant

In 1875, the second creosote-treatment plant—but the first to be successful—was established by the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad company in West Pascagoula, Mississippi. Called the “West Pascagoula Creosote Works,” it was the first continuously operated creosote treatment plant in the nation and remained in operation until 1978.

A historical marker at the site states:

Established in 1874 to protect railroad bridge timbers against rot and the toredo worm, the plant was open until 1978. Thousands of the treated pilings were used in building the Panama Canal.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The railroad was economically strong throughout its lifetime, earning the nickname, “The Old Reliable.” When it acquired the New Orleans, Mobile & Texas Railroad in 1881, it began pressure-treating railroad ties with creosote.

1897: Forest Management Boosts Sustainability

Just before the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. Congress passes the Organic Administration Act of 1897 (Forest Service Organic Administration Act of 1897), which set forest management standards for America’s “forest reserves” and set the foundation for wood becoming a sustainable national resource. The Act was signed into law on June 4, 1897, by President William McKinley, and stated:

“No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States…”

Organic Administration Act of 1897

1902: Empty-Cell Processes Increase Cost Effectiveness

Five years later, in 1902, Max Rueping developed an “empty-cell” treatment process, which made adjustments to Bethell’s pressure-treatment process: it used less creosote by ejecting excess preservative with vacuum pressure at the end. Suddenly, creosote treatment was more cost-effective, making wood preservation an increasingly worthy investment.

As we note in our article, Wood Treatment in the 20th Century: Wood Preservation Takes Off Thanks to Empty-Cell Processes: “the Rueping process is the method of choice for utility poles, while the Lowry process is the method of choice for railway ties.

coal tar creosote rueping process wood treatment diagram by creosote council

Lowry process coal tar creosote wood treatment diagram by creosote council

A document titled “Wood Preserving” on the EPA website summarizes the empty-cell processes and benefits:

The empty-cell process obtains deep preservative penetration with a relatively low net preservative retention level. If oil preservatives are used, the empty-cell process most likely will be used, provided it will yield the desired retention level. The Rueping process and the Lowry process are the two most commonly used empty-cell processes. Both use compressed air to drive out a portion of the preservative absorbed during the pressure period.

Wood Preserving document, EPA

1905: Mojave Desert Is Traversed Using Creosote-Treated Ties

In 1905, the Salt Lake Route was completed, connecting Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and establishing the City of Las Vegas, NV, as a major waypoint due to its freshwater springs. Creosote-treated railroad crossties allowed railway lines to survive the Mojave Desert’s extreme environment, facilitating the economic development of the Southwest. As noted in our article, How Creosote-Treated Railroad Crossties Led to Desert Railroads and the Birth of Las Vegas:

How can wood keep its shape in such a dry environment? The only way to combat wood’s natural ability to seek moisture equilibrium is to create a barrier that blocks out the environment and seals in the wood’s moisture content.

1906: Empty-Cell Treatments Are Improved

One year later, in 1906, Cuthbert Lowry developed a second “empty-cell” treatment process which simplified the Rueping Process by dropping the initial pressurization step. The Lowry wood treatment method significantly reduced the amount of creosote needed to seal wood from approximately 20 to only 8 pounds per cubic feet. This adjustment made treatment more economical while still providing an exceptionally long service life. Today, the Lowry process is favored for some wood products while the Rueping process is still favored for others.

1929: Creosote-Treatment Plants Thrive

By 1929 a total of 203 creosote-treating plants had processed 360 million cubic feet of wood, including 60 million crossties used in the railroad industry. Today, plants process wood in a similar manner, although workers at modern creosote treatment plants utilize personal protective equipment (PPE) and practices based on the latest engineering and safety research.

Today: 95% of Crossties Are Preserved Wood

In 2020 alone, there were over 20 million railroad crossties produced, 95% of which were fashioned from creosote-treated wood. Approximately 95% of all new railroad ties are preserved wood, as opposed to non-wood products made from concrete, steel, or plastic. Among all wooden ties, 98% are either creosote- or creosote-borate treated.

All this from a substance that is described using a made-up word. German scientist named Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach created the term “creosote” using the Greek root words “kreas,” which means “flesh,” and “soter,” which means “preserver” – all of which is detailed in the article, What Is Coal-Tar Creosote Used in Wooden Infrastructure?

graphic image showing coal and wood for article titled: "What is Coal-Tar Creosote" used in wooden structures