Railroad promoters and officials had their hands full, too. First they had to convince skeptical legislators and investors of the practicability of railroads; then they had to manage the explosive growth after the idea caught on.
Most of the early lines were modest in their aspirations. The 1826 Mohawk & Hudson Rail Road built a 17-mile line between Schenectady on the Mohawk River and Albany on the Hudson River as a shortcut for traffic on the Erie Canal. Finished in 1830, the railroad served as a portage route between the two rivers and saved 40 miles of slow canal travel. Another early railroad, John Stevens's 1830 Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company, was built to carry-passengers and freight across the neck of New Jersey separating the Delaware River from New York Harbor.
More ambitious was the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, which intended to connect interior points to coastal cities as a way to enhance port commerce. When it opened in 1833 to the city of Hamburg, South Carolina, it had the distinction of being the longest continuous railroad in the world (136 miles) and the first to use a steam locomotive in regular passenger service.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad gets credit for commencing the first truly modern railroad, even though John Stevens had predated the B&O with what was for its time an audacious plan to build a railroad across Pennsylvania. The B&O originated in the minds of leading Baltimore merchants in 1826, and it was chartered in early 1827. Three years later, the B&O opened America's first common-carriage railroad (13 miles to Ellicott's Mills) as the first leg of a proposed 380-mile, double-tracked line over the Allegheny Mountains intended to tap into the burgeoning western traffic moving on the Ohio-Mississippi River system. This was different in scale, intent, and risk from the short railroads that were its contemporaries. So different, in fact, that the B&O was a tremendous gamble.
Only at the beginning did British technology play a substantial role in American railroading. The first locomotive in the U.S. was an import from the machine works of John Rastrick of Stourbridge, England, which delivered the "Stourbridge Lion" to the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. After a nearly disastrous trial on the company's 18-mile tramroad in eastern Pennsylvania in August of 1829, the "Lion" and its sister engine were set aside. Later British locomotives, such as the "Planet" type locomotives built by Robert Stephenson, were far more successful. In 1831, the Camden & Amboy imported the "John Bull," now preserved at the Smithsonian Institution.
Iron rails, too, initially came from Great Britain because domestic forges could not deliver inexpensive, high-quality wrought iron in the immense quantities needed. British mechanics were likewise a significant import. The ranks of railroad mechanical departments were filled with men who had learned their crafts in British mills and factories and then emigrated to North America to find a better life.