The Russian adoption of a 5 foot gauge, in contrast to the 4 foot 8 1/2 inch gauge customary in Western Europe, has been widely but incorrectly viewed as a military measure. The first railroad in Russia was built to a 6 foot gauge and was opened in 1837. At about the same time the Warsaw (then in the Russian Empire) to Vienna Railway was built with a gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. The first major railroad in Russia, however, was the line from St. Petersburg to Moscow. To advise on various matters concerning the construction of this line, the Russians brought in the American civil engineer George Washington Whistler, father of the painter James McNeill Whistler and husband of "Whistler's Mother." The problem of the proper gauge for the new railroad, whether it should be 6 feet or 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, was presented to Whistler, who recommended a gauge at least as wide as 4 feet 8 1/2 inches but felt that 6 feet was unnecessarily wide. Since the line would not be connected to any other, he pointed out, the gauge might just as well be 5 feet, a width which he apparently felt was more satisfying than the awkward 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. If military considerations had been paramount, the gauge more reasonable would have been narrower than the European gauge rather than wider. An invading army can readily narrow a wide gauge simply by moving over a single rail, but to widen a narrow-gauge track and provide clearance through tunnels and over bridges is an altogether more difficult matter.
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