[This article originally appeared in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for 26 August 1899. Click on any image to download a high-resolution version of the image. Caution! The high-resolution images are large.]

The results of the operations of the Trans-Siberian Railroad for the year 1898 are said to be encouraging to the Russian government. In its present unfinished state the traffic must be strictly local. An analysis of the government report shows that the country through which the line runs, though at present undeveloped and subject to the rigors of the climate on a prairie sloping to the Arctic Sea under the fifty-first degree of latitude, is still capable of producing great crops of grain; that it has fine forest resources, that live stock may flourish in it, and that coal has been found sufficient for the purposes of the railway and the population which may settle on the lands contiguous to it. Therefore, the railway may be expected, when finished, to become a factor in the commercial business of the world, even if its through traffic is not considered, by the opening up of the riches of the hitherto unknown continent which it is destined to make accessible.

 On the Banks of the River Simm, near Miniar

The length of the road with its projected extensions is so great that even Americans, who are accustomed to deal with large distances, will have some difficulty in comprehending the scope of this undertaking. The longest continuous line on the North American continent is the Canadian Pacific Railway. Its main line from Montreal to Victoria is 2,990 miles in length. The located line of the Siberian railway, from Cheljabinsk to Vladivostock, is 4,776 miles; the branch through the recently acquired territory of Manchuria to Port Arthur will be 1,273 miles; so that the system will commence, before any feeders are built, with 6,000 miles of track. The distance from Vladivostock to St. Petersburg will be nearly 6,700 miles. The distance from Port Arthur to the harbors of the North Sea, on the estuaries of which the European trade with Eastern Asia is centered, is, approximately, 6,900 miles by the nearest route.

 Inverted Bowstring Truss Bridge Across the River Zouriazan / Surveying 
Under Difficulties, Near the Summit of the Khamar, Dabansk Mountains

The Siberian Railway is, like all Russian roads, of a five-foot gage. It is constructed after the manner of American Western railways, single-tracked, gravel-ballasted, where ballasted at all, with Howe truss bridges over the smaller waterways, and steel bridges across the large rivers. The watershed of the country east of the Ural Mountains is from south to north for more than 3,000 miles, which means a northern exposure entailing more severity of climate than is known on the railways of the United States and Canada. The rivers here are deep, full flowing streams, the alluvial bottoms of which necessitate large spans and make it desirable to have as few bridge piers as possible. Floating ice is in the rivers for about seven months of the year. The bridge at the Ishim has openings amounting to 700 feet, that at the Tobal 1,400 feet, that at the Irtish 2,100 feet; and the bridge over the Yenesei has a total length of just under 3,000 feet. Lake Baikal is traversed by a steam ferry for a distance of some forty miles. Forty bridges, each over 200 feet long, cross the tributaries of the Obi River between Omsk and Irkutsk. East of Baikal the road passes into the valley of the Amoor River, bridging waterways running from north to south. After spanning the Amoor at Khabarovka by a steel bridge some 5,000 feet in length, it turns abruptly to the south toward Vladivostock, running to the east of the rivers skirting the Khenden-a-Lin Mountains. The total length of water crossings between Cheljabinsk and Vladivostock is given at 301 miles exclusive of the forty miles of ferry; the snow sheds and fences at 565 miles.

 West Siberia Railway—Bridge Over the Irtish

The western section extends from Cheljabinsk on the European frontier to Pochitanka, 1,080 miles. It runs for 880 miles over a highland plane so level that the distance exceeds an air line by only 2½ per cent. There are tangents on this division of 50, 62, and 86 miles. For fully 600 miles the line traverses an excellent agricultural country, producing all kinds of grain in abundance. The 300 miles west of Tomsk run through a fine stock country containing many small lakes of slightly brackish or alkaline water; 200 miles east of the main stream of the Obi River the country is hilly, heavily timbered, and cut up by many small streams. The central division commences at Tomsk and extends to Irkutsk, through a barren upland, climate and soil alike forbidding settlement. The third section crosses the Baikal Lake, and extends to Misorskaia. From this point to the Amoor section, the road passes its summit to drop down into the Pacific slope, running along the old Chinese frontier, touching Kiahta—the emporium of Russo-Chinese overland trade—through a country rich in gold, silver, copper, and iron, producing even now, with antiquated machinery, some fifteen millions of dollars worth of gold annually. The Amoor section extends eastward toward the Pacific, approximately 1,600 miles. This is the district from which the greatest returns may be expected agriculturally. It is well timbered, contains large bodies of alluvial lands and its climate is tempered by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. The next, the Ossoori section, extending southward to the terminus at Vladivostock, runs through a hilly country fit for agricultural and stock raising purposes, and rich in excellent bituminous coal. The branch which runs through Manchuria passes through a thickly settled farming country; it leaves the Khingan Mountains to the west and crosses the many streams flowing into the Soongaree River, reaching the fine harbor of Port Arthur, which, being ice free the year around, will, it is safe to say, rival Hong Kong at no distant day. Port Arthur is destined to become the great city of Siberia. The fertile territory tributary to the Siberian Railway proper is equal in size to Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark combined. This territory is capable, if once peopled, of sustaining a railroad out of the local traffic it will produce. The long stretch of 1,500 miles extending from Tomsk to the head waters of the Amoor is perhaps the only distance on the line of the road which a Western railway man would consider difficult to handle successfully as regards revenue. But this upland country has not been explored, and there is a possibility of its becoming a mining country of great importance.

 Movement of Trains on the Ice Near the Bridge Over the River Irtish

The transportation problem of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a peculiar one. The products which it may expect to carry are what Americans wou1d call low-grade freight—grain, ore, live stock, and timber. To transport these articles from the interior of Asia to the markets of the world must entail too long a railroad haul. It may be pointed out that California wheat is carried from San Francisco to Liverpool via Cape Horn, not all rail by way of New York. In general it may be held that agricultural staples cannot stand a railroad haul of over 2,500 miles. The greater part of the import and export trade of East-em Asia is in the hands of the western European nations, taking its way through the Suez Canal. The schedule time of the North German Lloyd’s steamers between Bremen and Shanghai is 46 days. Its tariff rates are less than $6 per ton or cubic meter of room to Shanghai or Port Arthur, $6.25 to $8.75 to Yokohama and Hiogo, and $8.75 to $l1.87½ to Nagasaki. Between London, Liverpool, and other English harbors and Asiatic points, the freights are a little less than is charged to and from German ports. This means, practically, that in the competition for through freights, the Trans-Siberian Railway may not cope with the steamship lines to Europe, either in rates or time. For, assuming the adoption of the European classification, with its tariffs running from 0.47 to 2.35 cents per 1,000 kilogrammes per kilometer, we have a rate per ton of the lowest grade of freight for 7,000 miles of over $200, which is prohibitory. As to the time, we must consider the necessity of a transfer from the Russian five-foot gage cars to the standard gage cars at the European frontier, and also the physical condition of Russian railways in general. Railroad men will concede that on crowded, single-track Asiatic railways a freight train will do well if it makes 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, a day, for many consecutive days, taking into consideration the liability to accidents, delays by reason of accumulated traffic from opposite directions, and the uncertainties incident to an Arctic climate. At any rate, this is the standard adopted by other Russian roads, of which Mr. Poultney Bigelow says that “an express train means a train that does not carry cattle and occasionally attains a speed of 25 miles an hour,” and where the adaptability of the inferior administrative officials to the requirements of modern railway service has not, as yet, been demonstrated. The time, therefore, between Vladivostock and Hamburg, under present conditions, will be about the same either by rail or steamer, with the advantage of uninterrupted passage and fragmentary rates in favor of the latter. For east bound freights from the interior of Asia to the United States or Canada there will be but little demand. Siberia, Canada. and the States of the Union raise products of the same kind, making an interchange unlikely to occur. We are therefore bound to assume that if the Siberian Railway is to earn its expenses at all, it must rely upon its local traffic almost exclusively. This can only be made possible by the introduction and establishment of a new population, both agricultural and manufacturing, originating beyond the old limits of the empire into the territory traversed by the road. Now this population is close at hand. It does not have to cross broad seas, as did the immigrants that built up the United States. The time is big with events in the Far East. The close of the century witnesses the breaking up of the greatest of old world industrial nations, the empire of China, and Russia will fall heir to whatever it may choose to take, both as to Chinese population and territory. So far from imitating American anti-Chinese legislation, Russia favors the immigration of its newly acquired subjects into the Siberian provinces.

The “spheres of interest” in China, at present, stand thus:


Tokien and Che Kiang 72,630 square miles


Shantung 65,104 square miles


Kwang Se 78,250 square miles
Kwang Tang 79,456 square miles
Quei Chow 64,554 square miles
Yunnan 107,969 square miles
TOTAL 330,229 square miles


Kiang Su 44,500 square miles
Kiang Se 72,176 square miles
Ngan Hoe 48,461 square miles
Honan 74,320 square miles
Hoo Peh 70,450 square miles
Sgetchuen 166,800 square miles
TOTAL 476,707 square miles


Mongolia 1,500,00 square miles
Manchuria 400,000 square miles
Pe Chili 58,949 square miles
Kansuh 86,608 square miles
TOTAL 2,045,557 square miles


The Chinese, as known to the citizens of the United States, are a frugal, intelligent, hardworking race. As irrigators and fruit farmers they are unequaled; as miners, both in placer and fissure mining, wherever they have been permitted to work, they have excelled. For the development of such a country as Southern Siberia they will be found eminently adapted. They are imitative to a degree, docile and obedient, and will make excellent factory hands. We conclude, therefore, that a railroad having farming, mining, and manufacturing prospects like those enumerated above may be supposed to have reasons for anticipating a successful issue of its financial affairs.

 Map Showing Route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad

The mere construction of a line of railway extending communication between the ports of the Pacific and those of European Russia would have been comparatively an easy achievement. The builders of the road had immeasurably more than this to accomplish. They had to make a scientific exploration of half a continent, to drain swamps, utilize peat bogs for fuel, lay out irrigation ditches, dig wells, provide for the housing, feeding, and health of incoming settlers and their animals, to erect school houses, bring in agricultural teachers to show the immigrants how to plant, water, and raise crops fitted for soil and climate, make country roads and bridges, arrange rural mail facilities, and a multiplicity of other things about which an American railroad man has not to think. The construction of the railway led to the rectification of navigable streams for the shipment of material, to the sinking of shafts to obtain iron and coal, the laying out of villages for the workmen, the erection of machine shops, plants for the manufacture of cement, and technical schools for railway employés. For purposes of construction it was necessary to examine the mouths of the great rivers flowing into the Arctic Sea, to explore Lake Baikal and place buoys in its channels. The “volunteer fleet” was increased by three great ocean steamers, and railway connection was built to the port of Archangel on the White Sea.

 Ironworks of Miniar

In the Trans-Siberian Railway we have a magnificent exposition of well considered and ordered human endeavor. No one will want to contend that in the accomplishment of so stupendous an enterprise all mistakes have been avoided; but the effort is a noble one, and worthy of the great nation which has undertaken the task;

The above is a resumé of a lengthy article, the full text of which will be found in the current issue of the SUPPLEMENT.

 Erection of 469-Foot Steel Trusses for the Great Bridge Across the Yenesei. 
Total Length of Bridge 2,975 Feet

Special thanks to Dave Morrison ("daverail" on eBay) for finding this article and lending it to us for publication here.

This page created 12 April 2001; most recent update 6 June 2011.



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