Creosote-Treated Wood Crossties: The Backbone of North American Railroads

For more than a century, coal-tar creosote has fortified wooden railroad ties so they can carry heavy rail cars across any environment for decades at a time. Whether transporting passengers or freight, railroads – and the wooden ties that undergird them – remain a crucial part of the continent’s transportation network.

On this page you can learn more about creosote-treated railroad crossties, including creosote treatment processes, the origins and development of the railroad system, and how this infrastructure benefits the economy and society.

Creosote Wood Preservation: The Hidden Strength of Railroad Networks

Untreated wood does not last as long as treated wood. A key benefit of treating wood enables this natural, renewable resource to have a longer useful life in the form of wooden infrastructure.

After the first wood-pressurization treatment process, known as the Bethell Process, was created in 1838 the American economy grew exponentially. Rather than simply coating wood in preservative, pressurization treatment successfully injected preservative deep into wood’s cells.

In the mid- to late-19th century, railroad lines cropped up across the country. This usage of crossties on a mass scale proved that creosote—a coal-tar distillate produced in the production of coke for the steel manufacturing industry—preserved wood better and longer than had ever been possible. Creosote-treated wood did not structurally fail like untreated wood or wood treated using inferior methods that had been tried throughout the prior century. With minimal maintenance creosote-treated wood could last a lifetime, so when a timber shortage increased costs at the end of the 19th century, creosote became the preferred preservative.

Further process refinements in the 20th century made creosote treatment even more economical. Rather than entirely filling wood’s cells with creosote, “empty-cell” processes were created, which filled the cells but then ejected a remainder of the creosote, saving a large share of the preservative. These empty-cell methods reduced the costs associated with creosote wood preservation, helping to proliferate this method across the crosstie manufacturing industry:

Due to these developments, the railroad industry has more than a century of experience using creosote-treated railroad ties, as our article “Railroads Specify for Good Reasons” explains.

Creosote’s effectiveness as a preservative and these innovations in pressurization methods helped spur iconic growth of the American economy in the late 19th century, known as the American Industrial Revolution.

Creosote-Treated Railroads Ignite the American Industrial Revolution

The late 1800s was marked by an explosion of railroad construction connecting far-flung regions of the U.S. and its neighbor to the north, Canada. Between 1871 and 1900, 170,000 miles of track were laid (1), or 277% growth in the reach of the railroad network; prior to 1871 there had only been 45,000 miles of track.

A shortage of timber in the 1880s led to a rise in the cost of crossties, leading railroads to invest more heavily in the most effective treatment method: pressurized creosote treatment. Railroad operators saw first-hand that wood treated with creosote produced the longest service life, making it the preferred treatment option by the turn of the 20th century:

  • The first creosote wood treatment plant was built in West Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1875, which treated bridge pilings for railroads and added crossties to its production in 1881.
  • The following decades saw exponential growth of treatment plants, with a peak of 203 in 1929, which represented more than 200% growth in 54 years. (2)

The growth of the railroad industry also helped establish the field of forest management, which formalized itself in the early years of the 20th century with several institutions which still exist today:

  • 1904: the first professional association for the wood preservation industry was established, the American Wood-Preservers’ Association, now called the American Wood Protection Association (AWPA).
  • 1910: the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory was established in Madison, Wisconsin, to research commercial wood issues and keep America’s domestic wood industry sustainable.

In the final decades of the 19th century, railroads were instrumental in shipping food, manufactured goods, and people across far-flung regions of the United States. From short-lines that connected urban centers to nearby rural communities to transcontinental railroads that crossed international borders, railroads developed the United States, driving job and population growth across many regions.

Railroads not only drove traffic and business to urban centers that were already established, but they created entirely new cities centered on railway routes and stops. For example:


Creosote-Treated Wood Crossties: A Sustainable Source of Economic Prosperity into the 20th Century

By the early 20th century, the nation’s railroads connected major regions and communities of all different sizes. But the 20th century saw the industry pivot to being more focused on urban transportation, as innovations in electrification in the late 1800s created competition for the nation’s existing steam-powered rails.

Electrified rail cars, made possible by innovations in electric engines, third rails and overhead catenary wiring systems, led to both “interurban” routes and urban rails known as “streetcars” or “trolleys”.  Both types of electrified short lines ballooned in the first decades of the 20th century.

  • Interurbans were mid-length tracks generally no more than 75 miles long that followed major streets in urban areas and reached into the countryside to serve neighboring towns. Although they often paralleled steam railroads, they were more frequent and took off in metropolitan areas with population corridors like Chicago-Milwaukee, or scattered suburbs like Los Angeles. (3)
  • Streetcars or trolleys served city dwellers and workers, and crossed cities with generally no more than 15 miles of track.
  • Short-line electrified railways carried 98% of passenger traffic by 1918 and 77% of freight traffic between cities (4) and was the fifth-largest U.S. industry by 1920. (5)
  • Interurban tracks jumped more than fivefold in 15 years, from 3,122 miles in 1901 to a peak of 15,580 by 1916. (6)

Electric railcars helped the nation’s major cities grow into the large metropolises we know today. In fact, electric rail technology from streetcars were then used in cities’ elevated railways; many of these inter-city rail systems remain in place today in the nation’s largest cities, known as Chicago’s “L”, Washington DC’s “metro”, Boston’s “T”, and New York’s subway system.

However, the same economic growth the railroads fostered also forced the economy to transform; as the economy grew—and the market for transportation—so did rail’s competition:

  • 1903: The Wright Brothers proved flight was possible (7)
  • 1908: Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company released the Model T at $300 apiece, selling millions of private automobiles throughout the coming decade despite poor road conditions (8)
  • 1926: The first fixed-route passenger service on a commercial airliner was established (9)

Deeper into the 20th century, a number of macroeconomic shocks hurt the passenger railroad industry, leading railroads to pivot fully to commercial, freight-only purposes by the mid-20th century:

  • World War I: In 1917 the U.S. government nationalized the entire railroad industry to support the war effort. During this time, the railroads were used more heavily than ever but did not receive the maintenance they needed.
  • The Great Depression: While railroad companies were still recovering from national control, the economic depression of the 1930s dealt a heavy blow to railroad companies—many failed.
  • World War II: In the wake of the Second World War, most railroads permanently stopped all passenger rail service and pivoted exclusively to freight rail.
  • Amtrak: National Railroad Passenger Corporation: The transition away from passenger rail was complete when Congress created Amtrak in 1971, allowing the remaining railways with passenger service to shut down these routes and focus on freight.

Becoming a Freight Rail System, Fueling the 21st Century Economy

By the end of the 20th century, railroad service had splintered and specialized into many different types. Interurbans and streetcars morphed into the passenger subway systems of the nation’s large metropolitan areas, longer distance passenger rail was publicly funded and provided through Amtrak, and privately owned railroads shifted to freight service.

Despite strong competition from personal automobiles and the commercial airline and trucking industries, privately operated railroads shifted their operations to moving goods rather than people. These freight lines fueled local, regional and national industries, and continue to do so today:


  • 1980: Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which relaxed regulations for short-line railroads and enable them to more effectively compete with other commercial transportation services
  • 1990: The number of short-line railroads (defined as Class II or Class III railroads) more than doubled; today there are more than 500. (10)
  • Today: there are over 600 freight railroads:
    • Only seven freight railroads gross over $490 million per year and are considered Class I railroads. (11)
    • The vast majority are Class II or III short-line/regional railroads, ranging from small local operations to large multi-state systems.
  • US freight railroads form a 140,000-mile system of privately owned and operated tracks and earned nearly $80 billion in 2019.
  • The US freight rail system is “the envy of the world” and considered the world’s safest, most comprehensive, and most productive freight rail system. (12)