Old Railroad Spikes And How To Date

How to Date Railroad Spikes (A Really Cool Find)

I have always been fascinated by the railroad and its evolution over the last few centuries. And one of its main components that have not changed much over the years is the railroad spikes. These powerful components can support the railroad for decades while aging slowly; therefore, as a child, I always wanted to know how to date railroad spikes. After all, an ancient spike is a piece of history and quite interesting for metal detecting enthusiasts like me.

Metal Detecting in the Woods
Metal Detecting in the Woods

When I became a metal detecting enthusiast, I learned more about how to date different types of metals, including historical railroad spikes. I love tracking the old railroads on the continent and learning more about their history. While there, I always look for the most aged railroad components, including the nails and spikes; the fun part is determining when someone installed the railroad spikes.

When determining the age and history of Railroad spikes, I usually examine this fastener, its properties, and any information I can find. Some details like the tool marks, burr marks, and head shape can help determine its age. For instance, rectangular spikes with a unique offset head were famous in the 1830s.

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What Are Railroad Spikes?

Railroad spikes, also called crampons or cut spikes, are huge nails with offset heads used to secure the base plates and rails to the sleepers, also known as railroad ties, to the tracks. (source)

These spikes helped revolutionize the railroad and enabled engineers to construct a robust and highly durable rail system.

The rail spike is believed to have been invented by Robert Stevens and first used in 1832. Robert’s design was still quite popular, and rail still used them until 1982. Even though Steven is credited for inventing the railroad spikes, there are several patents for later days, like the one filed by Carl Butts in 1908. (source)

These spikes are the outcome of American industrialization during the nineteenth century. The idea was to replace the costly cast iron chairs that the English used on their railroad.

Initially, railroad companies used cast iron chairs to help secure their I-shaped rails, but Robert improved the railroad by introducing a supporting base to all the T-rails connected using these spikes. Therefore, having been around for almost two centuries knowing how to date railroad spikes can be pretty interesting for metal detecting enthusiasts like us.

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The railroad spikes are usually chisel-shaped and come with a flat-edged point. To ensure they never loosen, railroad workers drive them into the ground ties with their edges perpendicular to their grain.

The railroad spikes are some of the most recognized railroad components; known by both the public and railway workers. And if you think finding them along some old railroad is intriguing, then you should try to date railroad spikes. You will learn a lot in the process, but you have to be ready to do lots of research.

Determining when manufacturing occurred and when they got installed can be pretty interesting, mainly because it is an excellent piece of history. Plus, the spikes were mass-produced during the early 1900s to cater to the many railroad tracks made during that era. (source)

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How to Date Railroad Spikes

Determining when the spikes got manufactured can be tedious; after all, you must examine several clues for an accurate guess. But this can be made more accessible by starting where you found the railroad spike. When guessing the age of the railroad spikes, you should do the following:

1. Examine the Railroad Spike

Even though they’re highly durable components, they tend to age with time; therefore, some critical symbols on them can disappear with time. So, you should start your search by examining some of its properties, including the tool marks, burr marks, length, and the shape of its head.

Remember, the railroad spikes have evolved over the 160 years, which means that if you know how their design has changed, you can determine the exact period when it was created and used.

For instance, during the 1830s, rectangular spikes with offset heads resembling Steven’s design were quite common. These spikes were designed with an offset head that made removal easier and is referred to as dog spikes. (source)

They’re still quite common, so you should not rely on the dog spike design as an age determinant or the only clue as to the exact age of the railroad spike. It would be best if you did more investigation and research for an accurate guess.

2. The Material Used to Make the Railroad Spike

If you’re lucky, you may find a spike with a logo on its head identifying its manufacturer and the material used to make it. Remember, the earlier ones were made from mild steel, while most modern railroad spikes are high carbon. Therefore, you may find the symbol HC or H on its head.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, as the logo may be removed during the hammering process or disappear with time. Knowing the material used to make it can help you narrow your research to a specific period.  

3. Examine the Place Where You Found the Spike for Clues Like Date Nails

If you’re the one who saw the railroad spike, you can try and examine some of the components attached to it or in the vicinity. For instance, the date nails can help you date railroad spikes thanks to the year indicated on their head. These strong nails are typically used on the ties.

As the name suggests, date nails have the date stamped. For instance, if it were made and installed in 1930, it would have an image of “30” on its head. The surrounding date nails can come in handy when determining the exact age of the spikes; after all, you must remove the railroad spikes when replacing the railroad ties. (source)

Rail companies used the date nails in the 1900s to show engineers the age of the railroad ties, which can be great information for dating a railroad spike. Date nails were first used in 1870 in France to help track the age of the treated ties; after all, companies needed a way to monitor the age of the railroads, and date nails played a crucial role in helping them maintain the railroads. (source)

Railroad Tracks Ties and Spikes
Railroad Tracks Ties and Spikes

4. You Can Even Examine the Tie Plates Near the Spike or on the Spikes

Other than the date nails, you can also examine the railroad sleepers; they have evolved over the years. If the railroad nearby was constructed using tie plates, you can use this information to narrow your search. Most railroad companies in the United States started using them in the 1900s.

On the other hand, rail companies first used concrete ties in 1884 on the Alford & Sutton Tramway, but in the United States, it was first introduced in 1896 by Reading Company. (source)

Unfortunately, the rail industry did not attain significant progress with concrete sleepers until the Second World War, when timber became scarce thanks to competition from other sectors. The type of sleepers on the railroad can play a crucial role in your research; since railway companies have details on when they started using specific ties.

5. Which Company Built the Railroad?

The type of tie plates used on the railroad can also help you date railroad spikes. For instance, you can find most railroad spikes on or near a railroad; therefore, you should find out who built the railroad and when.

Fortunately, you can find this information online, but you should be ready to do more research. Knowing the company that built the railroad near where you found the spike can come in handy in determining the exact date when

someone installed the railroad spikes.

What Do the Numbers Mean on Railroad Spikes?

Unlike the date nails, which have the year when the rail company installed the crossties, the railroad spikes come with the letters “HC” or “H” on them. The HC or H symbolize the material used to make them; remember, the initial spikes were made from soft steel, but later, manufacturers switched to high carbon steel, which is more durable.

You may also find a logo or letter that can help you identify the manufacturer of the railroad spikes that you have discovered. If you find one with the manufacturer’s logo, you can find out more details from them and even when they produced certain types of spikes, which can help you date railroad spikes.

Therefore, you shouldn’t dismiss the idea of contacting the spike manufacturing company or looking for their details online. Their history can help you date the railroad component that you have discovered.

Are Old Railroad Spikes Valuable?

If you find several railroad spikes excavating a particular region, you can sell them online. Used railroad spikes go for about a dollar online, and you can sell your collection of old railroad spikes on eBay or a similar platform. Most railroad spikes sold online are usually vintage components in excellent shape and can even be reused.

10 Railroad Spikes

10 Vintage Railroad Spikes

A listing of 10 old spikes on Ebay

Single Railroad Spike

Old Railroad Spikes

Single railroad spikes on Ebay

3 Old Railroad Spikes

3 Vintage Railroad Spikes

Get 3 old Single Railroad Spike from Ebay

Set of 10 collectable Railroad Spikes

10 Collectable Railroad Spikes

A complete set of 10 Railroad Spikes Ebay


Therefore, you should collect as many spikes as possible, date them and then try and resell them. You never know; you may find vintage railroad spikes that you can sell as a collectible.

Where Can You Find Old Railroad Spikes?

Generally, if you’re looking for several used railroad spikes for a particular project, you can purchase them online. But if you’re a metal detecting enthusiast and love the idea of excavating several places while looking for these spikes, then you can look for some of the old railroads in the country and go there with your metal detecting gear.

Several railroads in the United States are abandoned, particularly those built in some ancient mining towns. These railroads may not still be in use, but you can find some of the infrastructures on these sites, which makes abandoned railroads the best place to start your search.

It is the best method you can use if you love vintage railroad spikes; you can look for some old abandoned ones on numerous websites, including abandonedrails.com. These websites contain maps of some ancient abandoned rail routes that can be a goldmine for metal detecting enthusiasts like me. You can even find the history of these railroads on these websites, which can come in handy when you try to date railroad spikes.  

If that is not an option, you can visit the abandoned train stations or find out if you can metal detect near some old railroads that are still used. You can even try and date railroad spikes installed on the local train station just to improve your skills.

What Were the Small Railroad Spikes Used For?

How to date old railroad spikes
How to date old railroad spikes

Railroad spikes are indispensable components that have offered lateral support while securing the railroad for over a century. Fortunately, they do vary in size, with their length ranging between 5.5 to 6 inches. Therefore, the length of the spikes will depend on the purpose of the track.

For instance, earlier spikes, shorter than the modern ones, were used to secure wooden sleepers onto the tracks. To protect the railroad in winter, they used longer spikes that could allow the tracks to contract and expand.

After all, modern trains are heavier, and they need more robust spikes. Therefore, they have turned to even powerful spikes and replaced the ones on the curves with other fasteners.

Are the Railroad Spikes Still Being Used?

Yes, most railroad companies still use spikes on their track, but they have had to switch to other fasteners, especially around the curves. The newer fasteners are more robust and can secure the train while it’s on a curve.

Metal Detectorist Recap

For an avid metal detectorist, there is nothing more fulfilling than finding an ancient metal. But determining the age can be pretty easy for coin; unfortunately, that is not the case with railroad spikes; manufacturers don’t include the manufacturing year.

Therefore, when you find a spike, the first thing you should do before leaving the site is examined all the other components attached to it or the nearby railroad for clues. Remember, date nails can come in handy when dating your spikes. Railroad ties have also evolved over the last few decades, so find out the type of sleepers installed on the tracks.

With these details, you can learn more about the company that owned or built the railroad; maybe you will know when they installed and even serviced the tracks. Remember, rail companies should replace sleepers every 50 years. The physical characteristics of the spikes can also come in handy when dating the spikes.

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David Humphries, Writer and Creator of METAL DETECTING TIPS. After borrowing my son’s detector and finding $.25. I felt like a treasure hunter. FREE MONEY! I was seriously bitten by the metal detecting bug.

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  1. Wikipedia contributors, Rail Fastening System, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_fastening_system#Rail_spikes/ accessed September 18, 2022
  2. Madison Historical staff, Early 1900s Railroad spike, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/archive/items/show/2193/ accessed September 18, 2022
  3. US patent office staff, Railroad Spike, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth509737/m1/2/ accessed September 18, 2022
  4. The University of Indianapolis, what is a date nail? https://uindy.edu/cas/mathematics/oaks/datenails/ accessed September 18, 2022
  5. Wikipedia contributors, Concrete Sleepers, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_sleeper/ accessed September 18, 2022
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