The Great Erie Gauge War, Pennsylvania, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Great Erie Gauge War, Pennsylvania, USA

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In the 1850s one railroad route (railway line) to get from New York to Chicago meant disembarking in Erie, Pennsylvania and boarding another train. This was because the railroads which met in Erie had different gauges (the distance between the rails). From Erie to Ohio, via the Franklin Canal Company's railroad, the gauge was 4 feet, 10 inches. From New York state to Erie, via the Erie and Northeast Railroad, the gauge was 6 feet.

When the railroads decided to standardise their gauges, the citizens of Erie became understandably upset; no longer would disembarking train passengers be forced to patronise their businesses. So the city council passed a local ordinance which prohibited the standardising of gauges. Not to be outdone, the Mayor issued a proclamation calling for citizens to be ready to help 'keep order' if necessary.


Hostilities began between the railroads and the townsfolk on 7 December, 1853, when the railroads started changing their tracks. The Mayor led a force of about 150 townspeople under the guise of 'special police' to 'restore order' to the situation. These police officers tore down railroad bridges and ripped up the tracks, earning them the nickname 'The Rippers'. The Rippers' actions left a nearly eight mile gap in the Erie and Northeast Railroad's rail line. The Rippers threw rotten eggs and spoiled vegetables at railroad officials who attempted to prevent the destruction of the company's property.

The most serious incident occurred on 27 December when a railroad conductor drew a gun and shot a Ripper in the head. Legend has it that the Ripper's skull was so thick that the bullet bounced off it, leaving him unconscious. Enraged by the shooting, the Rippers chased the railroad men onto a waiting train. As the train picked up speed, only two Rippers were able to climb on board. The train didn't stop until it reached the New York state line where it halted long enough to kick off the Rippers before taking the railroad men home. This 'kidnapping' led to the railroad men being called 'Shanghaiers' or 'Shanghais'.


The situation in Erie drew national attention at the time. Many newspapers across the USA nicknamed the troubles the 'Peanut War' because Erie's peanut vendors and pie sellers were among those who would suffer most by the gauge change. New York Tribune newspaper editor Horace Greeley1 wrote famously that Erie should be avoided by all rail passengers until 'grass shall grow in her streets'.

Three years after the fighting started the politicians at the State Capitol in Harrisburg passed a law which authorised the state to standardise the railroad gauges.

As it turns out, this footnote in the history of Pennsylvania had no real impact on Erie's growth as a city since today it is the state's third-largest city with a population of around 104,000.

1Greeley is famous for his statement 'Head west, young man' in which he supported the populating of the interior of the USA by 'civilized' people, and for a failed run for President in 1872.

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