History of Creosote

“Oyle or Spirit of Tarr”: A Precursor to Creosote

In 1716, a patent was granted to England’s Dr. William Crook for a precursor to creosote, “One Part of which is the Oyle or Spirit of Tarr,” to protect ships’ wood planking from decay and worms.

A century later, a whole industry was built, literally, on creosote-treated wood — the railroad industry. In 1865, a plant was erected in Somerset, Massachusetts, to treat wood intended for railway use. Ten years later, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad built a plant in West Pascagoula, Mississippi, to treat wood for ties and other railway necessities. For more details, visit our History of Creosote Wood Preservation Timeline

To this day, the material of choice for railroad ties, along with utility poles and foundation and marine piling, is wood treated under pressure with creosote.

In 2019, American railroads installed an estimated 22 million creosote-treated wood ties. They did so with confidence because creosote treated ties:

  • can be easily and safely installed
  • will last for an average of 30 to 35 years
  • will maintain their shape
  • will withstand temperature changes, vibration and compression
  • will resist drifting out of position
  • do not require insulators (readily allow electric signal current to flow)
  • can be reused and recycled as a biomass fuel
  • utilize a renewable resource — wood
  • contribute to conserving and extending timberlands

No single substitute can match all of these performance characteristics. And perhaps most important, treated wood is far less expensive than substitutes such as concrete, steel or plastic.

In fact, no substitute can match all the benefits of creosote treated wood at comparable costs.

creosote-treated wood benefits - graphic of railroad tracks at sunset

A Brief History of Creosote and Treating Processes

For a full timeline showing the history of creosote wood treatment, visit our Wood Preservation History Timeline

  • 1716 – “Oyle or Spirit of Tarr,” to Protect Ships’ Wood Planking
  • 1838Full-Cell Process John Bethell
  • 1865 – 1st Treating Plant in Somerset, MA; Using Bethell Process
  • 1881 – Boulton Conditioning Process
  • 1902Rueping Treating Process
  • 1906Lowry Empty-Cell Treating Process
  • 1929 – 203 creosote treating plants processed 360 million cubic feet of wood, which included 60 million crossties
  • 1945 – short supply of the preservative occurred during World War II
  • 1970 – U.S. EPA took over Registration Process from USDA