Crossing the entire Asian continent from Europe to the Pacific, the Trans-Siberian Railroad is the longest rail line in the world, running nearly 6000 miles (9446 km) from Moscow to Vladivostok. Begun in 1881, the railroad took 35 years to complete. Still one of the most beautiful rail routes in the world, riding it remains a popular tourist attraction.

Plans for the Trans-Siberian railway were first drawn up in 1857 and given to the Tsar. For the next 20 years numerous men took up the cause of the railway without success. Russia was a backwards nation in the 1800s, still struggling to industrialize, so the prohibitive cost and formidable task of constructing such a railway ensured that no progress was made. Russia needed to build several other railroads first just to get the raw materials to build the Trans-Siberian. The first real step was taken in 1873 when the Ural Railway Company was established to link the iron and coal mines of the Urals with Central Russia. That year, planning began in earnest for the Trans-Siberian railway.

Full time construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway began in 1881. As with America’s Transcontinental Railroad, Russian engineers started construction at both ends and worked towards the center. From Vladivostok the railway was laid north along the right bank of the Ussuri River to Khabarovsk. Meanwhile in the west, other links connected Moscow to Kuenga. Convicts and Russian soldiers were drafted into service to build the railway, almost literally by hand. In a virtually unindustrialized nation the railroad was built with brawn, sweat, elbow grease and horses. The last link in the railway, the middle section from Khabarovsk to Kuenga, was completed in 1916.

The importance of the Trans-Siberian railway can not be understated. The Railroad was crucial to Russian security. As the only means of transporting men and supplies over most of the interor, control of the railroad meant control Russia. Much of the Russian Civil War of 1917-1920 was fought for control of key portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Perhaps more importantly, the railroad opened up a vast new eastern frontier to Russian expansion (Unlike the American West, however, the government tightly controlled who could emigrate east). Places that used to take months to reach by coach over bad roads and sleigh-routes could now be reached in a matter of days. New cities grew up almost overnight and vast tracts of natural resources could now be exploited to the benefit of the nation. The railroad realized Russia's potential as a world-spanning power by literally spanning a significant portion of the World.

The Mysterious Bend in the Trans-Siberian Railroad

On Wednesday, October 24, 2001, a 650-kilometer rail link of the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and St Petersburg closed down for 24 hours as workers straightened out a 17-kilometer kink in the track near the town of Novgorod. The curious bend was the only anomaly in the otherwise-straight segment of railroad. Popularly known as the "Tsar's finger," the kink in the track was the subject of much local legend attempting to explain its origin.

One such tale claims that the Tsar, as he drew up the plans for the railroad, traced around his own finger on the ruler by mistake. Timid planners supposedly built the track as it was drawn, too frightened to point out the intimidating Tsar's error. Another similar myth attributes the bend in the track to a nick in the Tsar's ruler rather than his finger. Science fiction author Douglas Adams relates this version of the legend in his essay, The Little Computer that Could:

That reminds me of another favourite piece of information: there is a large kink in the trans-Siberian railway because when the Czar (I don't know which Czar it was because I am not in my study at home. I'm leaning against something shamefully ugly in Michigan and there are no books) decreed that the trans-Siberian railway should be built, he drew a line on a map with a ruler. The ruler had a nick in it.

However, a more likely explanation for the bend (offered by the Russian newspaper Kommersant) is that the steam-powered locomotives used in Russia at the time of the railroad's construction were not able to climb the steep Verbinsky gully and the bend in the track served as a means to avoid doing so.


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