WHAT IS A DATE NAIL? Briefly, a date nail is a nail with the date stamped in its head. For example, a nail with a "12" is from 1912. They are usually 2 1/2" long, with 1/4" shanks. Date nails were driven into railroad ties, bridge timbers, utility poles, mine props and other wooden structures for record keeping purposes.

Most date nails are steel, though many are copper, aluminum, malleable iron or brass. Lengths run from a paltry 3/4" up to 3", with shank diameters running from 1/8" up to 5/16". The nail heads can be round, square, diamond, pentagon as well as other more rare shapes. There are over 2,000 different date nails used by North American railroads that show the year. Add to that the nails which, tell wood, treatment, and other information, and toss in all date nails used in poles and other timbers, and the total number of different nails from this continent easily exceeds 3,500.


Western Europe suffered a timber shortage much earlier than North America, which is why railroads in France, England and Germany were chemically treating ties long before companies here. Date nails were in use in France by 1870, possibly as early as 1859. Wherever treated ties come into use, date nails are not far behind. Railroads need a way to monitor their investment in treating, and date nails became the most common method of this record keeping.

When North American railroads began to use treated ties in large numbers at the end of the 1800's, it was not known which chemicals, treatment methods or woods were most economical. They needed some method of keeping track of the lives of ties, so like their European counterparts they decided to mark them. Early methods included: By the late 1800's American railroads settled on the use of date nails. The oldest known North American date nail is a 97 from the Mississippi River & Bonne Terre. It was in 1899 that major railroads began using nails to date ties with nails: that year the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, the Great Northern, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie began nail use. Others soon followed.

By the 1920's nail use was the norm. It peaked in the early 1930's with over a hundred different railroads using date nails in 1931. The depression, then World War II adversely affected nail use, and from 1950 to 1970 the number of railroads using date nails steadily declined so that for the past thirty years virtually no railroad has used them. The newest date nail in a tie in North America is an aluminum 94 found in CSX track in Virginia. The decline of the use of date nails can be attributed mainly to two things: the perfection of treatment techniques, and to the reliance of stamps in the ends of the ties for records.


Date nails were manufactured by steel companies on high speed machines, even in the early years. If a railroad wanted to use date nails, they would order the kind of nails they wanted (for instance, a 2 1/2" x 3/16" steel nail, round with raised numerals "34"). Then the nails were driven into ties either at the treating plant, to indicate the year of treatment, or at the track, to indicate the year the tie was laid.

When a rotted or mechanically damaged tie was removed, the date on the nail was noted. Ties were never removed because of age, so date nails did not tell section foremen when to replace ties. In fact, some railroads found that dated ties lasted longer than usual because the men took special care of these ties.

In the first decade of the 20th century railroads which used date nails drove them into every treated tie. Some lines found the record obtained by this method to be a failure, so beginning 1909 some railroads concentrated their record in special test sections. For these companies keeping track of only a few thousand ties was far more economical and accurate than tracking several million ties. By the early 1920's, however, most of these railroads returned to the practice of placing nails in every treated tie.

Each railroad conducted its own experiments, so the nails used on one railroad will not be like those on other lines. For example, compare the Lehigh Valley with the New York Central:
Lehigh Valley 1910-1917, 1919-1921 and 1940-1943.
New York Central 1910-1932.

The LV 11 is the same style nail as the NYC 11: square head & shank, indented numbers. In other years the nails differ. The NYC stuck primarily with square nails while the LV used round nails. Neither company was loyal to a single steel company, either. The NYC bought its 1910-1913 nails from American Steel & Wire Co., its 1914-1915 nails from Jones & Laughlin, its 1916 nails from American Casting & Manufacturing, etc.

Often the shape of the nail head has some significance. For example, on the El Paso & Southwestern round nails were driven into zinc chloride treated ties while diamond nails were driven into creosoted ties.


*Did the nails hold anything down?
No. Date nails were used only to date the tie. The nail was driven in the upper face of the tie away from the rail. Date nails are much smaller than railroad spikes, which secure the rail to the tie.

*How can I tell what railroad used my nails?
The railroad name is NOT on the nail. No railroad put its name, initials or monogram on a date nail. Collectors have walked the tracks for the past thirty years and have recorded which nails are found on which railroads. This information is compiled in the book Date Nail and Railroad Tie Preservation (see below), so given a handful of date nails you can compare them with the book to find out who used them.

*Isn't pulling date nails illegal?
Yes, it is, if you don't ask for permission. By wandering on to an active line and pulling nails you are trespassing, vandalizing, and stealing, though railroads in general not only do not care about the nails, they are no longer aware they are even there. If you ask for permission first, you will almost always be given a positive nod to go ahead.

*Where can I find nails?
Either you can pull them yourself, or you can get them from other collectors by buying or trading.
To pull nails, your best bet is to find an abandoned or little-used railroad going through a wooded area. Walk the bed and check for discarded ties and ties reused as fence posts. In some locations it is handy to drag a powerful magnet through the cinders or to use a metal detector to find these elusive steel gems.
To buy or trade nails, join the Texas Date Nail Collectors Association (see below) or subscribe to the e-mail newsletter Nail Notes (it's free: see below). You will come in contact with other collectors this way.
You can bid on nails on eBay but be careful as the prices are high at times.

*Are you the only nut who does this?
No! There are about 190 members of the TDNCA, and subscribers to my Nail Notes, most of whom are NOT in the TDNCA, number over 180. Over 200 copies of Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation have sold so far.

*How can I clean my nails? Should I clean them at all?
Some collectors prefer nails with that rusty patina. If you like shiny new looking nails, let them sit overnight in a jar of vinegar. Don't use any really abrasive method of cleaning, like sandblasting or muriatic acid, and don't paint, varnish, or plate your nails. To protect them from rusting over again, one collector sprays them with WD-40.

*How can I display my nails?
First, ask you wife (assuming you are male and married) if she WANTS these old ugly things displayed. Once you have been relegated to the basement, an easy method is to take a piece of pegboard, drill the holes bigger (say to 7/16") and put it in a wooden frame of your construction. The nails fit nicely in the holes. Jeff Oaks had some old maple drawers whose bottoms were replaced with pegboard. Now these hang vertically on the wall so the nails are plainly visible.

*I just want to sell my nails! How do I do it?
Contact Jeff Oaks and he'll usually work something out. He does not buy, sell, or trade date nails, but he can direct you to the best method for you.


Jeff Oaks has collected over 180 e-mail addresses of people interested in date nails. He occasionally send out "Nail Notes", in which what's new in the nailing world is revealed. This includes new discoveries, eBay tips, info on shows, digital photographs of nails, opinions, etc.

Nail Notes are issued about every two weeks to a month.

If you want to be included, let him know by clicking below.


Despite its name, the TDNCA is a North American organization which has served date nail collectors since 1970. The magazine "Nailer News" is issued four times a year, and it contains articles on nails, ads for nails, info on nail shows, etc. Issues are normally about 24-30 pages long.

Annual membership is $16.00. Send your check to:
Jerry Waits
501 W. Horton
Brenham, TX 77833


Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation
by Jeff Oaks

Volume I
Page Topic
--1- Introduction
-19- History of railroad tie preservation
-19- Contents
-20- History of railroad tie preservation
-64- Tables
-76- Short biography of Octave Chanute
-91- Railroad listings A-H

Volume II
185- Railroad listings I-Y
345- Index of railroads without entries
346- Treatment company sets
347- Shadow sets
352- About the author

Volume III
--1- Photographs of nails
--1- Introduction to the photographs
--5- Date nails showing the year only
-75- Letter nails
-95- Letter-number tie nails
-98- Letter number nails
121- Single digit code nails
142- Switch nails
142- Pole height and depth nails
146- Descriptions of some nails not shown
149- Reverse listing
198- Index of railroad initials
203- Quick guide to shank markings

The volumes are paperback, plastic comb bound (like spiral bound), on standard 8 1/2 x 11 paper. It is Special Report #3, University of Indianapolis Archeology and Forensics Laboratory. It was first published in late January, 1999.

The introduction contains detailed info on notation, a glossary, lists of treatment chemicals and processes, general nail collecting information, and the bibliography.

The railroad listings comprise about 3/4 of the text (Volumes I & II). For each of over 250 North American railroads, a list of date nails they used is given, followed by all info I have on their tie treating and record keeping practices.

These lists form the foundation for the history of railroad tie preservation. No such history had ever been published before, and those article-length histories of wood preservation which have appeared in engineering journals over the years are invariably slanted or give bad information. That is because it takes a careful examination of each railroad's practices to see the whole picture clearly. I am the only one crazy enough to spend years compiling this info!

The reverse listing is extremely helpful. If you have a nail and you don't know what railroad used it, you can look it up here. The reverse listing, about 50 pages long, was created by a computer program I wrote which takes the railroad listings as input.

It took me nearly a decade to write the book. I corresponded with five dozen nail collectors and read thousands (I lost count after about 2,000) pages photocopied from old railroad engineering journals and books. I issued a first edition, called "Date Nails by Railroad" in 1994, but it contained only the railroad listings, and those had not yet been well researched.

If you have any questions on date nails, drop me a note. I am always glad to find out what people are pulling and trading. I often help people identify nails, and I learn what is out there.

To order, send $28.00 ppd. to:
Jeff Oaks
Department of Mathematics
University of Indianapolis
1400 E. Hanna Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46227

Thanks for your interest!


BACKGROUND I'm not sure this belongs on the date nail page---it is far too incomplete to really be useful. It would be much better with maps, and with about a hundred railroads.

A&LM - The name is a little misleading as it only covered 54 miles from Monroe, LA to Crossett, ARK.

Algoma Central - A Canadian RR that goes north from Sault St. Marie to Hearst, Ont.

Big 4 - Actual name was Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (CCC&SL) and it pretty well covered the entire area enclosed by those cities plus some fringe areas around that as well. Line was owned and merged in to the New York Central in 1933 (after the depression). It probably had well over 5,000 miles of track when nails were used.

BS - Only had 44 miles of trackage in the Birmingham and Bessemer areas of Alabama.

C&NW - Covered over 11,000 miles from Chicago mostly north and west covering 11 states from Illinois & Wisconsin to Wyoming and North Dakota.

C,NS&M - Primarily a traction line carrying commuters between Chicago & Milwaukee. Covered around 100 miles and was already being dismantled in the early 1960's.

Cotton Belt - The actual name is St. Louis Southwestern and went from St. Louis to Dallas. It is better known by its motto, the Cotton Belt route.

Detroit & Mackinac - Covered 235 miles of Northeastern Michigan from Bay City, Michigan close to Lake Huron and up to Cheboygan.

DM&IR - Covered over 500 miles in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Green Bay & Western - This railroad covered approximately 250 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin to the Minnesota border.

Hillsdale - This is now known as Indiana Northeastern.

L&HR - Covered only 76 miles in New York and New Jersey.

MeC - Covered over 900 miles in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont from Portland, ME as it's headquarters.

Milwaukee - The name was Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul until 1927 when the name changed to Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific. "Milwaukee Road" was a nickname, and was never the official name of the railroad. Its main line ran down Chicago to Milwaukee to St Paul to Helena to Seattle, but also had another major branch that went west from Chicago through IA and SD.

Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis - This actually started in Memphis and Paducah on the west going to Atlanta. I am not sure how the St Louis got in the name unless it is from joint track rights from Paducah.

P&PU - Primarily a switching railroad in the Peoria and Pekin area of central Illinois which probably had approximately 50 miles of track.

P&NW - A short line which only had 32 miles of track from Prescott to Tokio, AR.

Texas & Pacific - This went from Shreveport to Dallas to Midland to El Paso.

TH&B - A Canadian connecting line with several branch lines in the Hamilton area that connected to and served Toronto and Buffalo. The mileage is not known, but probably in the 200-300 mile range.

Tucson, Cornelia & Gila Bend - Only covered 44 miles from the town of Gila Bend, Arizona mostly thru the Luke Air force Range. Wabash - This went mainly from Toledo to Ft Wayne to Springfield and then Kansas City. Wabash also had a line from Detroit "Boat Dock" to Ft. Wayne, Indiana and south to Peru, Indiana.

If you can help with info on other railroads, let me know and I will add it to this page.


This page is posted & designed thanks to Bob Schneider