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Burnetizing Works of the U.P.R.R. at Omaha

UPRR Burnetizing Works at Omaha
Carbutt stereoview 222 (1) of the Union Pacific Railroad's first tie treating plant.
(See enlargement below.)
The Union Pacific Railroad began its westward expansion in 1865, and they constructed a plant at Omaha which began operating that year treating ties with zinc chloride.  Constuction of such a long railroad required more ties than the plant could handle, and what ties managed to fit the equipment were treated with too strong a solution, resulting in brittle ties.  The plant was abandoned in 1866. ... This plant treated primarily cottonwood ties with zinc chloride by the Burnett process for ties in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  With three retorts the plant was too small for the job, could not accept most ties because of their size, and too strong a solution was used.  Some secondary sources give the years of operation as 1866-1867, but a contemporary account published in Railway Record, June 15, 1865, p. 205 stated that the plant was nearly ready to begin treating.  It was abandoned in 1866. [RG 10-29-86, 737] [WPN 8-51, 97] [Trat II, 235] [UP, 108-110]
Caption Courtesy Professor Jeff Oaks, from his book, "Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation," Special Report #3, University of Indianapolis, Archeology and Forensics Laboratory..

Burnettizing on the Union Pacific
by Jeff Oaks
[Reprinted by permission from the Nailer News]

One ... transcontinental railroad stereograph [see above] ... shows the Burnettizing works of the Union Pacific, which was constructed in Omaha in 1865.  The plant treated mainly cottonwood ties under pressure with zinc chloride.  This method is called Burnettizing, after its 1838 inventor, William Burnett. ("Burnettizing'' is misspelled with only one "t'' on the card ... )

I really never expected to run across a photo of this early plant!  I have seen a picture of the 1865 Old Colony creosoting works, which treated bridge piles in New England, but it was taken after the plant was abandoned.

The photo of the UP plant shows it in operation, and there are several interesting features to note:

  1. I see only one retort (treating cylinder), and it is small---about four feet in diameter.  The plant had three retorts.  Where are the other two?  They would normally all be in the same building.  There is room for them, but I see only what seem to be a door and a window.  They must be hiding there somehwere.
  2. The ties on the first car to go into the retort are pretty uniformly square in shape, unlike the odd-shaped ties strewn about the left part of the picture.  I did read that one problem they had was that they could not accept most ties because of size.  Maybe those ties scattered on the left are rejects.
  3. What are those beams on the other retort cars?  They are too big to be ties, so they must be structural timbers.  Previously I read only that ties were treated there.
  4. I knew before that the plant was abandoned in 1866, and the date on the card makes it clear that it shut down no earlier than October that year.
Besides problems with the size of ties, their zinc chloride solution was too strong, which resulted in brittle ties.  This was a common problem with early Burnettizing.  Also, the plant was just not big enough to handle the vast numbers of ties used in the rapid construction of the transcontinental railroad.

The Omaha plant only operated 1865-66.  When the UP again decided to treat ties, the large facility at Laramie, WY only operated 1886-87.  It wasn't until 1903, when a new plant was constructed at Laramie, that the UP finally committed itself to preserving ties.  See my article on the UP in the Winter 2000 issue of Nailer News.

Note:  There is second picture of this Brunettizing Works, [Carbutt 223 (2)] from the UPRR Museum's photograph collection that is reproduced enlarged in Steven Ambrose's book, "Nothing Like It in the World."


UPRR Burnetizing Works at Omaha

Related:  THE ARTIFICIAL PRESERVATION OF RAILROAD TIES BY THE USE OF ZINC CHLORIDE by Curtis, Walter W. 1899 Amer Soc Civil Eng Transactions Vol 42, Paper 861, pp. 288-374.

"Early tie treatment: When the UP first built their line in the 1860s, they handcut the ties, and used the burnetizing process to help preserve at least some of the ties (cottonwood is soft!) with zinc chloride. It wasn't until the turn of the century that the UP got serious about preserving ties as the price of new ties increased. When they built the tie plant in Pocatello in the early 1920s, they used zinc chloride to treat the ties, using the Burnetizing process. By this time the railroad was treating all of their ties. This process worked in dry clmiates, since the zinc leaches out in wet climates. In this process the ties were placed in a retort, and heated with steam. A vacuum then drew out the moisture, and zinc chloride then introduced. By 1925 the more expensive creosote process was being used, and the zinc chloride was discontinued by 1929 at Pocatello. In the creosote process the ties were air dried, and a vacuum then used to remove the moisture. Then the creosote was introduced under high temperature and pressure. The ties had previously been incised with the slots you see on them so the creosote can permeat the ties. A vacuum then removed the excess creosote. For many years the railroad felt that handcut ties would last longer than saw cut ties, due to the fuzzy surface on saw cut ties, which would promote decay." —Thornton Waite [from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

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