In the 1860s a movement toward construction of railways with narrow gauge tracks began in Norway and the British Empire. The first was built to 3' 6" gauge in Norway and opened in 1862. The same gauge was used in India and Queensland (Australia), and several 2' gauge lines were built in Wales. A narrow track gauge offered lower construction and operation costs through the use of lighter rails and smaller, lighter equipment. Sharper curves and steeper grades on hills reduced the grading and earthwork needed. These were thought best for lines built in undeveloped country without the population or trade to support the cost of a standard gauge railway, but use of narrow gauges spread more widely.
This movement came to the US in 1871. The first significant line was the 3' gauge Denver and Rio Grande, which built 1,673 miles of track in Colorado and Utah. Through connections there were eventually 2,783 miles of 3' gauge track that went into Idaho, Montana and New Mexico as well. There was a "narrow gauge fever" between 1878-83, when over 20% of the track laid was narrow gauge. There were narrow gauge lines in nearly every state and most Canadian provinces. an attempt was even made to build a 3' gauge "Grand Narrow Gauge Trunk" from Toledo, Ohio to Laredo, Texas and on to Mexico City.
Narrow gauge lines rarely lived up
to their promoter's dreams, most being both poorly funded and built. About two third of narrow gauge mileage was eventually converted to standard gauge, and the rest abandoned. Many logging or mining lines were meant to be short lived, and were torn up when no longer needed.