Railroads were the continent's largest consumers of iron and also prodigious users of wood, paint, wire, machine tools, and all kinds of specialty products.

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

The Early Railroad Industry

Even before the wrenching changes of the Civil War, American railroads attained an almost sovereign status, and they were so powerful a force in American life that writers as diverse as Henry David Thoreau and the editors of The American Railroad Journal regarded the railroad as the defining American technology, if not the apogee of American accomplishment.

By the 1840s, the ultimate form of the nineteenth-century American railroad was beginning to emerge. Many lines had started out as government-assisted works or as joint ventures between local governments and private investors. It soon became apparent that there was so much money to be made in railroading that the private sector could go it alone.

This was the period in which the railroad industry emerged as "America's first big business," devising new management techniques and creating capital markets and mechanisms of finance. Railroading gave hundreds of thousands of Americans steady employment. By providing cheap transportation, it helped shape the rapidly growing domestic economy. The railroad speculator, too, became a familiar figure as railroads pioneered many of the cut-throat business practices that would flower in the latter half of the nineteenth century under the likes of W. H. Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and many others.

Railroad technology advanced rapidly. A clever mechanic or inventor could become wealthy, as railroads constantly sought ways to boost efficiency and profits. There were countless hare-brained proposals, but many ideas had real merit: the classic "American" locomotive (the 4-4-0 of Civil War fame); new kinds of inexpensive iron bridges; innovative car designs; and techniques for building and equipping railroads cheaply and quickly.

Even basic equipment, such as cabs for locomotive crews, bells, headlights, whistles, and a rudimentary series of operating rules had to be created, for railroading truly was a new undertaking. Americans soon turned away from British practice and devised methods and materials far better suited to the near-wilderness conditions facing so many railroads here.

Some inventions were well ahead of their time. In 1851, Dr. Charles Grafton Page tested an experimental electric locomotive on the B&O's tracks out of Washington, D.C. Ross Winans patented a crude kind of roller bearing in 1828, and the pages of the trade press were filled with fantastic mechanical schemes.

On the other hand, railroads acutely felt the lack of other, more basic, inventions. Throughout the antebellum period, freight and passenger trains had only crude hand brakes, manned by stout trainmen and brakemen, to stop them. Couplings between early railroad cars consisted of solid drawbars or pieces of chain with so much slack in them that the cars continually crashed into each other as the train accelerated and decelerated. Until the development of the injector, locomotives relied on mechanical pumps to replenish boiler water, which meant that a locomotive standing still for any length of time had to be run back and forth at intervals to keep from exhausting its water supply.

Shown here late in the nineteenth century, Ellicott City was the B&O's first terminus. The stone building on the left dates from 1831, making it America's first railroad station.

B & O Railroad Museum

Operating practices generally conformed to the limitations of the equipment and track. As the "American standard" track of "T" rails laid on wooden crossties became widespread, train speeds crept up throughout the period. Passengers were astounded at first to exceed 15 miles per hour; alarmists expressed fear that the human body could not withstand such velocities, and some men took out pencil and paper and wrote coherent sentences as they whizzed along to prove that the brain could function at speeds near 20 miles per hour.

Freight trains initially operated at between 5 and 10 miles per hour, about the same as wagons but with much greater efficiency and ease. By the time of the Civil War, well-maintained railroads were running passenger trains in excess of 40 miles per hour, and freight trains often above 20 miles per hour.

Railroads borrowed techniques for management and employee discipline from the military, devising elaborate sets of rules to govern the running of trains. Steamboats had followed somewhat flexible timetables for years, but the precision with which railroads had to be operated for safety reasons gave America the concept of "railroad time," meaning the rest of the country had to adhere to the railroad's schedule -- a fact resented by many. Before long, railroads had the power to make or break towns and direct the course of industry.

As the 1850s dawned, travelers demanded better equipment, closer coordination between railroads, and higher levels of comfort. The crowded, tiny coaches of railroading's first two decades gave way to more spacious and comfortable cars with padded seats, stoves for winter travel, and even primitive sleeping cars for long overnight runs. The public used the comparatively comfortable steamboats, with their sleeping cabins, dining rooms, salons, and pleasing decorations as standards against which to measure the comfort of train travel.