To nineteenth-century Americans, the United States seemed unimaginably vast. Yet they lacked the one thing they needed most to fulfill their destiny: reliable, all-weather transportation. Common roads, canals, and steamboats merely whetted the country's appetite for mobility. One technology in particular -- the "rail road" -- offered dependable, year-round transport anywhere a narrow path for two rails could be carved. It was the tool Americans had been waiting for, and they used it vigorously to settle the continent.
Imagine, for a moment, how Americans of the early nineteenth century must have felt gazing westward toward two million square miles of fledgling country. Promoters estimated there to be a thousand million acres available for settlement and exploitation, and practically every acre held the promise of freedom, prosperity, and the chance for a new life built on hard work and initiative.
Wealth, in the form of good farmland and grass for stock grazing, or metals like lead and gold, was there for the taking. Better yet, the United States tolerated no aristocrats, and there were no centuries-old traditions limiting what a man and his family could do in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Yet with few exceptions, there was no effective way to reach that promised land, or to ship back the fruits of human toil.
George Washington recognized the need for some kind of transportation network. "Smooth the road and make easy the way," he wrote, "and see how amazingly our exports will be increased and how amply we shall be compensated for the expense of effecting it."
Railroads intensified a transportation revolution, the results of which were astonishing. At no other time in history has a people settled so large an area and wrested from it so much wealth in so short a time. Both the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire pale in comparison with the expansion of the United States and Canada across the North American continent. Admittedly, that incredible growth came at great cost. Native Americans were displaced from their ancient lands, nature was continuously assaulted during the rush to build an industrialized society, and the United States suffered one Civil War and many smaller skirmishes in the struggle to define itself. Yet the undeniable result was a continent that, despite its ongoing turmoil, has enjoyed a degree of power, affluence, and accomplishment unprecedented in human history.
None of that would have been possible without effective, cheap, fast transportation. The railroad provided just that, making it possible to have truly national markets, cultures, languages, and governments. In the United States, those bonds of steel helped fulfill the national motto E Pluribus Unum, or "From Many, One."
Until the "Age of Steam," neither land nor water transport had changed much for two thousand years. Americans still relied on sheer muscle, using animals to pull wagons laden with as much as' eight tons of freight. A traveler on horseback might manage 40 miles per hour in short spurts, but seldom exceeded that distance in a day's travel.
For most people, transportation on land meant walking. On a good road in good weather, a hearty person could cover 20 miles in a single day; in bad weather, or over rough terrain, half of that was normal. By the early nineteenth century, coach travel was available over main routes along the eastern seaboard and inland to burgeoning cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The roads of the period were muddy in spring, dusty and rutted in summer, and often impassable in winter.
The canal boom of the 1820s sought to lace populated areas together with "ditches" three to six feet deep and anywhere from 20 to 40 feet wide, along which sturdy freighters and packet boats could be towed by animals. Canal transport was cheap and effective, although canals were expensive to build, especially if they required costly stone locks or complex engineering. Traffic was slow, averaging three miles per hour, and canals often froze in winter.
More critically, the Appalachian Mountains posed an insurmountable barrier to east-west links. The lack of water in large sections of the country precluded the use of canals, so that despite the immediate success of the Erie Canal (opened from the Hudson River to Lake Erie in 1825), shippers and travelers recognized the limitations of canals as they sought an effective means to reach the rapidly advancing western frontier.
Americans had more success with steam navigation. Both Atlantic coastal and Ohio-Mississippi, or "western," steamboats introduced the nation to fast, cheap, comfortable transportation. The first steam-powered trans-Atlantic crossing and the introduction of steamboat service between Pittsburgh and New Orleans both took place in 1819. By the mid-1820s, well-appointed boats were plying most of the Mississippi River system, the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, Hudson River, and anywhere else there was enough water to float a hull and enough traffic to attract an entrepreneur.
Yet like canals and roads, river traffic was seasonal and subject to the vagaries of weather. Water routes often were roundabout, and there simply were not enough rivers in the right places to serve the entire country. For the prevailing tide of traffic between the East and West, water transportation was important, but at best inconvenient and often inadequate. What Americans really wanted was a steamboat that could run on dry land, anywhere they needed it to go. And that is what they proceeded to build, using ideas stretching back to antiquity.
No one actually "invented" the railroad, nor can any one place claim its birth. Ancient Corinthians cut grooves in stone pavement to guide wagon wheels, as did the Romans. In late-medieval Central Europe, miners crafted tramways (later, "tramroads") with crude wooden wheels rolling on equally crude wooden rails. By the 1500s, tramways were in use in Germany and Great Britain, and by the time of American independence there were hundreds of miles of fairly sophisticated tramroads and railroads operating throughout the mining districts of England and Wales, using gravity and animal power. A man by the name of Richard Trevithick built the first successful steam locomotive in 1804, operating it on the Penydarren tramroad in Wales.
By 1825 and the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in northern England, there was little doubt that the combination of iron rails, steam locomotion, and trains of cars would develop rapidly as a form of freight and passenger transportation. Nicholas Wood's "Practical Treatise on Railroads," published in 1825, was widely read and available to interested Americans. The success of Robert Stephenson's locomotive "Rocket" at the 1828 Rainhill Trials held by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway proved the potential of steam power. Present at that contest -- which pitted the most novel and advanced locomotives of the day against each other -- were representatives of America's earliest railroads. Ross Winans of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Horatio Allen of the South Carolina Railroad watched attentively as the "Rocket" raced by with heavy trains at what to them were dizzying speeds. They returned to the United States with the conviction that railroads were exactly what the new nation needed.
There were at least a few quarry tramroads in the United States by 1800, and well-known examples were in use outside Philadelphia and Wilmington by 1810. As early as 1812, Revolutionary War veteran and indefatigable promoter Colonel John Stevens published a pamphlet entitled The Superior Advantages of Railways and Steam Carriages over Canal Navigation. By 1815, he had secured a charter from the State of New Jersey to build a tram-road -- in effect, an early, common-carriage railroad -- from Trenton, on the Delaware River, to New Brunswick, at the head of tidal navigation on Raritan Bay opposite New York City. In 1825, Stevens made a demonstration "steam waggon" to operate on a circular wood track in Hoboken. He and other visionaries, such as Oliver Evans, planted the seeds that eventually found fertile soil in the United States.
From the handful of railroad charters granted by state legislatures in the late 1820s, the number of railroads proposed or under construction increased rapidly through the 1830s. At first, large cities wanted railroads to connect with other cities or improve their status as trading centers. Then smaller cities and towns clamored for a railroad link that would join them to emerging trunk routes, and before long, population centers of all sizes at least dreamed of having some kind of railroad connection.
Track mileage in 1830 totalled around 100, with several thousand miles of track planned or under construction. That compared with roughly 1,300 miles of canals in use and several thousand miles of established river routes. Just 10 years later, the number of railroad and canal miles were almost identical-a little over 3,300 for each-but few people were promoting canals in 1840. Instead, despite the financial panic of 1837 and a general lull in business, tens of thousands of miles of railroad were under construction in all settled parts of the country. The railroad had arrived on the American scene.
Old Railroad Innovation
The first two decades of railroading were a period of experimentation and rapid technological evolution. By the 1820s, the United States could claim a small but competent group of surveyors, engineers, and builders with experience constructing roads, canals, and bridges. The field of civil engineering did not yet exist, but the U.S. Military-Academy was training military officers as engineers based on the well-established French engineering curriculum.
To assist in locating and developing our first railroads, the federal government often permitted these military engineers to assist railroad companies. Other needed skills came from wagon makers, millwrights, stonemasons, and machinists familiar with the crude marine steam engines of the day. In fact, almost anyone with a craft, or experience with machinery or construction, found opportunity in railroading.
There were fundamental questions to be answered. Should the flanges be on the inside of the wheels, or the outside? Should rails be of wood, iron, or of more permanent stone? Were steam locomotives practical for US. railroads? Should railroads minimize curvature at the expense of grades, or vice versa? Some of the best engineering minds of the day soon began devising answers. Jonathan Knight, a skilled mathematician and engineer, made calculations as to the rolling characteristics of railway vehicles and proposed a wheel with a slight taper to the tread-the shape still in general use.
The versatile Robert Stevens of New Jersey (John Stevens's son) conceived of the "T" rail design that is still the standard for American railroads. Inventions such as the swiveling four-wheel truck, designs for switches and turntables, and all sorts of basic engineering challenges kept these pioneers busy for years. Many railroads paid dearly for their initial mistakes, with the entire country watching. But even mistakes provided valuable lessons.
Old Railroad Lines
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.
Labor on the Old Railroads
In those days, almost anyone could find work on the railroad. The hardest, lowest-paying jobs were in railroad construction. Shovels, wheel barrows, mules, and black powder were the primary tools with which hundreds of thousands of men moved millions of tons of earth. With axe and adz they transformed countless trees into ties, bridge timbers, and lumber for cars.
Often, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and other northern European countries drifted from one railroad job to another, supporting their families as best they could. In the South, both slaves and free men worked to build and maintain railroads. Surprisingly, women also found work on the railroad in these early years. Most often they worked as charwomen in railroad buildings, car cleaners, cooks at railroad eating houses, and doing other traditionally "women's" work that paralleled their duties in the home.
A few lucky men had skilled railroad jobs as machinists, painters, carpenters, boilermakers, and similar craft-oriented occupations. Almost all companies started apprentice programs, and railroad jobs were often handed down from father to son or uncle to nephew. Train and engine service carried with it high status and considerable risk. Locomotive engineers in particular were heroes to the general public and small boys alike, and the conductor was a man of great authority who had charge of the train as a captain does his ship. To attain those coveted positions, men had to work their way up from the bottom, starting as brakemen or engine wipers and serving an indefinite apprenticeship.
Brakemen performed especially hazardous work. They had to ride the tops of freight cars in all weather for as long as it took to traverse the standard 100-mile division. Sometimes railroaders were required to go right back out on another run, working 20 or 30 hours straight. The toll of death and injury was great, as it was in many mining and industrial occupations.
Railroaders accepted those risks for a number of reasons. Above all, railroading was one of the first industrial occupations to offer the possibility of lifetime employment. If a man followed the rules, served faithfully, and was careful for his own safety, he might have a well-paying job for life. That was an almost revolutionary development for the common working man, who at this point in history was accustomed to working on a daily basis and experiencing feast or famine -- literally -- for the effort.
Railroaders also took great pride in their craft and their role in building up the country. Too often overlooked in the scholarly studies of railroad work is the fact that railroading could be downright enjoyable. Compared with repetitive factory work or following a mule and plow for a lifetime, railroad work offered genuine challenge, the chance for meaningful advancement, and a constantly changing work environment.
As railroads grew larger throughout the antebellum period, the basis of railroad employment shifted from traditional crafts and paternalistic relations to a more hard-nosed and impersonal style of industrial relations. In response, railroaders began banding together for their own protection. Early railroaders' mutual benefit societies-insurance plans-emerged in the 1850s as the men found it difficult or impossible to secure regular insurance. Those voluntary societies formed the nucleus of the major railroad craft unions that would emerge after the Civil War. The companies regarded any kind of activism as treason, and they responded swiftly with dismissal, fines, imprisonment, or blacklisting, depending on how powerful that particular company happened to be.
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.
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.
Growth of the Old Railroads
The growth of the railroad network made life different -- and better -- for almost everyone. When flour had to be hauled over the National Road from Wheeling, on the Ohio River in western Virginia, to Baltimore for export to Europe, the farmer was lucky to receive $1 a barrel. Wagon freight charges amounted to $4. After the B&O Railroad opened its main line to Wheeling in 1853, the price at the docks remained about the same, $5 or so. But the railroad charged only $1 to haul that barrel of flour the 380 miles over the mountains in one-tenth the time. The farmer pocketed $4, which in turn allowed him to purchase manufactured goods brought in from the East by railroad and to improve his farm for still higher yields.
These brief vignettes do not do justice to the change wrought by the railroad in the 30 years before the Civil War. In half a lifetime, this one technology helped push the extent of settlement a thousand miles westward. It made possible one national market, no matter how vast the continent. That market would arise only after the intense sectional rivalries had been settled by war, but even in the 1850s, western grain and cattle found ready buyers in the big cities of the East, while the railroad permitted the concentration of the steel industry in just a few eastern locations.
Railroads brought fresh food, fuel, and raw materials to the burgeoning cities, materially improving the quality of life for countless Americans. With the means for adequate transportation at hand, politicians seriously proposed an all-rail link across the country to California. Railroad development started simultaneously in dozens of isolated areas, all awaiting the completion of a national system.
Perhaps most important, those first decades of railroading in America changed people's perceptions about time, space, and their relationships with each other and their country. All across the land, people spoke of the way trains had accelerated and intensified life in America. Yet for most people, the railroad was good; it improved their lives and enhanced the opportunities that nature presented.
In the coming years, the nation would even see its railroads change the course of war, proving yet again how powerful the combination of iron, steam, and human determination could be.
Old Railroad Timeline
Quarry tramways are introduced in the United States.
John Stevens receives a state charter for a tramroad in New Jersey.
Stevens is granted a charter to build a railroad in Pennsylvania.
The Granite Railway near Boston opens as the first U.S. railroad to carry passengers and freight.
The B&O inaugurates the first regularly scheduled passenger trains in the United States -- coaches hauled by horses for a distance of 13 miles.
By year's end, the South Carolina Railroad begins offering regularly scheduled, steam-powered passenger service; a railroad boom commences nationwide.
The B&O Railroad's Washington Branch opens, providing the first rail line to the nation's capital.
Henry R. Campbell completes the first 4-4-0 locomotive; later named the "American" type, it became the most popular nineteenth-century locomotive.
Samuel F. B. Morse makes the first successful tests of his "magnetic telegraph," inaugurating the age of instantaneous electronic communication over long distances.
Congress hires surveyors to locate possible rail routes to California.
Financial panic temporarily halts most railway construction. Regional disputes lead to talk of civil war.