The First American Railroads

IN 1828, THE 90-YEAR-OLD CHARLES CARROLL STEPPED UP to make the inaugural speech at the breaking ground ceremony for the new Baltimore and Ohio railroad. Carroll had witnessed the birth of the United States firsthand—he was the only surviving signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. Half a century later, as he commemorated the launch of this ambitious project that aimed to reach into the heartland of the continent, his words proved to be remarkably prescient: “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that.”


The United States, which had only recently freed itself from the shackles of colonialism, was far behind Great Britain, its former colonial master, in terms of technological development. Its earliest railways—it soon adopted the name “railroads”—were dependent on British imports, as were its river-boats, factories, and mining operations, all of which ran on British steam engines. To catch up, American industrialists kept a close eye on British railway developments, and often traveled across the Atlantic to pick up the latest information. The size of the US, and the ambition of its people, made it fertile ground for the iron road, and it was perhaps inevitable that the new nation would soon boast more miles of track than the rest of the world put together. In fact, the US would end up, at the peak of the railroad boom in 1916, with more than 250,000 miles (400,000km) of line, by far the biggest rail network the world has ever seen.


Until the advent of the railroads, transportation in the US had been difficult and slow. There were a few canals, but these iced up in winter. The roads were very poor, owned by turnpike trusts that were unable to maintain them properly as the tolls that were collected were insufficient. Steamboats were the best form of transportation, but they only gave access to certain parts of the country. The first American railroad pioneer was Colonel John Stevens, a successful steamboat designer and operator who was obviously rather taken with the railroads since he wrote a pamphlet entitled Documents Tending to prove the Superior Advantages of Rail-ways and Steam-Carriages over Canal Navigation. As early as 1815, he obtained the first railroad charter for permission to construct a line linking the Delaware river near Trenton with the Raritan river in New Jersey, though in the event it was never built—no investors came forward to finance the plan, which was far ahead of its time. Undeterred, in 1825 Stevens designed and built a steam locomotive, which ran on a circular track on a narrow-gauge line at his estate.

Stevens and his two sons were involved in a number of other early projects, notably the Philadelphia and Columbia line, which was built to link the port of Philadelphia with Columbia on the Susquehanna river to give merchants in Philadelphia access to Harrisburg and Western Pennsylvania. They also founded the Camden and Amboy Railroad, which ran from Camden, across the Delaware river from Philadelphia, to Amboy, on the New Jersey shore opposite New York. Initially, all these lines were horse-drawn, but inevitably, given the distances involved, locomotive traction was considered—and for that, British technology was needed. John Stevens’ son Robert traveled to Britain and brought back a locomotive, John Bull, which was built in the Stephenson Works. It arrived in parts and was assembled by Isaac Dripps, an engineer who fitted pilot wheels at the front to help guide the locomotive around the sharper bends on the American railroad, and who was also credited with inventing the “cowcatcher”—in reality a cow killer that pushed away cattle or deer that had roamed onto the line, invariably fatally.


Building lines in the US in the early 19th century was by no means easy. First, the promoters had to obtain a charter from the state government, then they had to persuade investors, who were often local people, to support the plan, and finally they had to find sufficient workers to build the line as there was often a shortage of labor. There was one key advantage compared with other countries. Once a charter was obtained, the railroad company had “eminent domain”—the right to take over any land required for the line’s construction. Sometimes, though, the law was difficult to apply in practice. When the Erie Railroad was being constructed across upstate New York, it was planned to cross Native American land. The local tribe demanded $10,000 (in modern terms, around $300,000, or £185,000) for the right of way. Appalled, the railroad works manager blustered that the land was no good for anything else apart from growing corn or potatoes. The local chief responded: “It pretty good for railroad,” and got the money.


Most of the early railroad development was stimulated by competition between the great cities of the eastern US, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Each wanted to obtain cheap access to the Midwest, where towns were growing rapidly, creating an important market for produce. Baltimore proved to be the most adventurous in promoting a railroad stretching deep into the hinterland. The Baltimore and Ohio was the most significant of these early programs, being the first attempt to build a rail link between an Atlantic port and the Ohio River, and so reaching the Midwest.


As with so many of these early lines, the promoters of the Baltimore and Ohio were unsure about whether to use horses or steam locomotives to haul the trains. Given that they wanted the line to reach the town of Wheeling, nearly 400 miles (650km) from Baltimore, it is extraordinary that they even considered using equine power, but they arranged a competition between the hay eater and the coal burner. A locomotive builder, Peter Cooper, had built a little engine nicknamed Tom Thumb for the line, and it proceeded to impress the promoters with a test run on the initial 13 miles (21km) of track that had been completed, reaching an exhilarating 18mph (29kph). On the run back toward Baltimore, Cooper foolishly agreed to race his locomotive against a powerful grey horse. The animal soon took the lead, thanks to its faster acceleration, but was then overtaken by the steady little engine when Cooper opened the safety valve to provide extra power. However, he overreached himself: after the locomotive had gained a significant lead, the belt that drove its pulley snapped, and the engine eased to a halt. The equine victory proved Pyrrhic, however, as Cooper had done enough to persuade the promoters that steam haulage, rather than horsepower, was the only way to make the line viable. Although work started in 1828, and trains started operating on part of the line two years later, it was not until 1853 that the tracks reached Wheeling on the Ohio River owing to legal, financial, and technical difficulties.


Farther south, there was a far longer pioneering line, which was completed much more quickly and used American technology. The Charleston and Hamburg was an attempt to revive Charleston’s foreign exports, which had gone into decline, and its local merchants hoped to secure the trade of the rich cotton-growing area in the region. They chose steam power from the outset, and the first engine, the Best Friend of Charleston, built at the West Point Foundry in New York, pulled its first train in December 1830. Unfortunately, a couple of months later, the pioneering locomotive suffered an untimely demise when an inexperienced fireman, annoyed at the sound made by the escape of steam from its safety valve, sat on the offending piece of machinery—which caused the boiler to explode, killing the fireman and scalding the driver. Despite this mishap, the line was complete by 1833, and at 136 miles (219km), it was, for a time, the longest in the world.


American railroads differed from their European counterparts in several respects. The key difference was one of scale, not just in the extent of their reach, as they gradually extended further and further west, but also in the size of the trains and locomotives themselves. Their characteristically huge, bulbous smokestack—needed to contain the sparks that might otherwise set fire to the countryside—were far taller than their European equivalents, for the American lines had few bridges or tunnels. Consequently, even today American trains are almost 3ft (1m) taller than those in Europe, enabling them to carry much greater loads. Overall, US railroads were bigger in every sense than those across the Atlantic. They covered greater distances, and were longer and heavier because they used stronger and larger locomotives, all of which gave them a distinctive style (see The Early Years of American Steam).

The efforts to cut the costs of the new lines were successful, and US railroads were far cheaper to build than their European equivalents, but as a result, they were also less reliable and slower. Some aspects of the railroads were, however, better from the start. Locomotives, for example, were fitted with cabs for the crew, a “luxury” that was necessitated by the rigors of the US climate, but which did not become universal elsewhere until much later. Right from the start, too, passengers traveled in carriages that were open plan, rather than in individual compartments like those in Europe. These were necessary because traveling longer distances meant that travelers required ready access to conveniences, a facility that was not available on most European trains until well into the second half of the 19th century.These early lines were successful and mostly profitable, which attracted a wave of investment into the new industry. By 1837, at least 200 railroads were being promoted. Many of these were unrealistic or promoted by crooks intent on cheating potential investors, but many plans were still completed, and by the end of the decade 2,750 miles (4,425km) of railroad were in operation—a remarkable rate of progress. The spur for most of these lines was freight, particularly coal and minerals, but increasing numbers of passengers also flocked to the trains. Soon, the short lines were followed by long trunk railroads such as the Erie and the Pennsylvania lines, linking the Eastern Seaboard with the Midwest. Later, in the second half of the 19th century, the transcontinentals brought the railroads to the West. Before long, every town wanted to be connected to the railroad network as it was considered vital for their prosperity. Prominent local citizens would band together and form a company to obtain a charter, often investing their own money. A mere 20 years later, at the outbreak of the Civil War (see The American Civil War), there were nearly 30,000 miles (48,280km) of railroad in the US.

The railroads, in fact, grew symbiotically with the US economy, transforming the nation from a predominantly agricultural country into the industrial powerhouse of the world, all within a few decades. It is impossible to know whether the tracks spread so quickly because of the rapid growth in wealth, or whether it was the other way around, but there is no doubt that the US thrived because of the growing railroad system and that the railroads welded this vast nation together (see also Crossing America).

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