Railroad History, An Overview Of The Past

Railroad history in the United States is nearly as old as the country itself, dating back to the mid-1820s. As we know this great nation of ours would not have grown and prospered as it did without the railroads, which brought together the young United States and allowed for unprecedented growth and prosperity. The "Golden Age" of railroading lasted from roughly the 1880s to the 1920s before other modes of transportation (such as automobiles and airplanes) began to displace the industry as the leading means of moving people and goods. Railroading faced its toughest adversity during the 1960s and 1970s when it lost so much market share that many companies were either purchased by stronger ones or simply went bankrupt. After the industry was deregulated in 1980 it began to make a comeback and today is seeing a renaissance. In this section we will look at the history of our country's involvement with trains from its earliest beginnings in the 1820s; a timeline so to speak as to how the industry has arrived to where it is today.

An Ohio River Rail Road 4-6-0 leads a work train near Parkersburg, West Virginia during the line's construction in the 1880s.

Railroad history in America has its earliest beginnings dating back to 1815 when Colonel John Stevens gained the first railroad charter in North America to build the New Jersey Railroad Company, although it was never actually constructed until 1832, and would eventually become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Colonel Stevens also tested the first steam locomotive in the country in 1826, when he showcased his "Steam Waggon" design (basically a steam-powered horse carriage) on a small circular track he had built on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.  Later, in August of 1829 Horatio Allen, a chief engineer for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (later the Delaware & Hudson Railway) tested an early English steam locomotive design on a 16-mile stretch of track the company owned between Honesdale and Carbondale, Pennsylvania.

The locomotive used was named the Stourbridge Lion, which was a very simple two-axle machine with a vertical boiler, and it was employed to move coal from the mines at Carbondale to Honesdale. A year after that in August of 1830 the three year old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tested its famous Tom Thumb designed by Peter Cooper and a month later the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company tested its noted design the Best Friend of Charleston. The South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company would also be remembered by history as it was the first railroad to haul a revenue train with an American-built steam locomotive when its Best Friend of Charleston, which was built by the West Point Foundry in New York, carried a trainload of passengers on December 25, 1830.

While the steam locomotive had proven its worth as a reliable piece of machinery in which railroads could haul their goods (also known as ladding) it was the B&O that is remembered as our nation's first common carrier railroad (meaning it was expected to haul anything, within reason, offered to it by the general public) when it was chartered on April 24, 1827 by the City of Baltimore to compete with the Erie Canal (which connected Albany to Buffalo) and another proposed in western Pennsylvania. Soon after in 1827 Charleston, South Carolina merchants chartered the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company which was to connect Charleston and Hamburg (along the Savannah River) on a 137-mile system.

Following the creation of the B&O, South Carolina Railroad and success of the steam locomotive railroad mania struck the nation as a fast an efficient means of moving goods. By 1840 the states east of the Mississippi River boasted over 2,800 miles of track and by 1850 that number had more than tripled to over 9,000. During these early years much of the trackage was still disconnected with most concentrated in the Northeast with the rest scattered in the Southeast and Midwest, much of which ranged in track gauge from the standard 4 feet 8 1/2 inches to six feet. There was also little government oversight during these early years and as a result the public suffered from unsafe practices and the unwillingness of railroads to interchange traffic with another due to the greed and selfishness of owners.

A B&O 4-6-2 Pacific heads a local passenger train as it eases into the station at Williamstown, West Virginia some time during the 1940s.

While some of the public was wary of railroads at first such as claiming them to be a "device of the devil" as one school board in Ohio put it or that travel by train would cause a "concussion of the brain" the efficiency they brought could not be argued. For instance, railroads could cut the distant it took between cities by steamboat in half. A good example is traveling between Cincinnati and St. Louis. By water this trip took 702 miles and three days but by railroad it took only 339 miles and 16 hours.  While the Civil War was devastating to the nation it was also hard on railroads, particularly in the South. Despite the carnage brought by the war the railroad further proved its worth as a reliable and efficient means of moving people and material. After the discovery of gold in California the rush to the west coast was on and this included the railroads.

A Northern Pacific A-B-B-A set of FTs, led by FTA #5401A, lead an eastbound freight of boxcars through Clinton, Montana during a sunny summer day in July of 1956.

With the creation of the Pacific Railway Bill, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862 designated the new Union Pacific Railroad (building westward from the Missouri River) and Central Pacific Railroad (building eastward from Sacramento) to complete the transcontinental railroad. Being given large tracts of land by the government the railroads were finally able to complete the line on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. Without this bill signed by Lincoln rail history and that of our country would likely have been very different.

After the completion of the transcontinental railroad the industry exploded in terms of mileage and by the 1890s there was over 163,000 miles in operation. This time also saw many other advances such as the agreement on the standard track of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches in the 1880s and the development of the automatic coupler and air brake, which revolutionized efficiencies railroads could provide along with allowing for much safer operations.

An A-B-A-B-B set of Santa Fe covered wagons, led by F7A #301, pulls the westbound San Francisco Chief during one of its final runs through Hercules, California in April of 1971. Amtrak was only a few days away.

It was during this time through roughly the 1920s that railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability. The year 1916 saw peak mileage at over 254,000 and railroads held virtually 100% of all interstate traffic, both passenger and freight. Below is a timeline of railroad mileage through the years:

1840: 2,808 Miles

1850: 9,021 Miles

1860: 30,000+ Miles

1870: 52,922 Miles

1880: 93,267 Miles

1890: 163,597 Miles

1900: 193,346 Miles

1916: 254,037 Miles

1945: 226,696 Miles

1963: 214,387 Miles

1995: 170,000+ Miles

Today: 160,000+ Miles

During the 1930s the streamliner era hit the nation as railroads attempted to sway patrons back to the rails since automobiles had become so reliable and affordable folks were taking to the road more and more.

In terms of traffic World War II was the final act for the railroad industry. After the war ended both passenger and freight traffic declined steadily through the 1950s and no matter how hard railroads tried to lure passengers back onto trains it was to no avail. The decade saw the beginning of the mega-merger movement when smaller lines like the Virginian Railway were purchased by larger ones like the Norfolk & Western Railway. The 1960s would set the stage for the disaster of the 1970s as the industry cut maintenance and passenger trains drastically in an attempt to reduce costs. The common observer could see this themselves as tracks became weed-choked and many passenger trains were dilapidated with unmatched, dirty and sometimes worn out equipment (which was sometimes also the case for freight trains).

Several Lehigh Valley units including RS11 #402, U23B #508, C420 #408, and an EMD switcher congregate on the ready tracks at the Sayre, Pennsylvania terminal on July 3, 1975.

During the 1970s several famous companies went under, now termed fondly as fallen flags. The decade also saw the collapse of railroading in the Northeast as Penn Central went under taking most of its neighboring railroads with it. What came out of this mess was the government funded and subsidized Consolidated Rail Corporation or Conrail which began operations on April 1, 1976 in an attempt to revitalize the region. The year 1971 also saw most passenger train operations taking over by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, a government subsidized system. For a more in depth look at our country's passenger trains please click here.

Railroads today would likely be very different if it wasn't for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia that the railroad industry was able to regain its footing. The bill allowed railroads to be much deregulated and allowed them to more freely set their own freight rates and abandon unprofitable rail lines. Before this time railroads had been mostly left for dead as an outdated mode of transportation that should go the way of the stagecoach.

The 1980s saw a slow recovery as Conrail posted its first profits in 1983 and the mega-merger movement continued with today's Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation formed during the decade. The 1990s saw a continued trend of mergers with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway disappearing into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway system when it merged with the Burlington Northern in 1995. That same year Union Pacific purchased the Chicago & North Western Railway and NS and CSX gobbled up Conrail in 1999. The first decade of the 21st century has continued to see a railroad revival as freight has poured so heavily onto the rails that the industry is running out of capacity, a scenario many thought would never happen and has not been seen since World War II. We have also seen a renaissance of passenger railroading as folks flock to trains to beat the gridlock and look for a more relaxing way to commute and travel.

Penn Central U25Bs #2685 and #2674 lead a southbound Erie Lackawanna freight through North Tonawanda, New York on August 5, 1973.

In any event, below are links are broken down into a timeline format from the industry's beginnings in the early 19th century through today:

The Beginning, Railroading In The 1820s and '30s

A New Industry Takes Flight, The 1840s

The 1850s, A Blossoming Industry

Railroads In The Civil War, The 1860s

Heading West, The 1870s

A Standard Time Achieved, The 1880s

The First Aid Kit, A History (1880s)

Safety And Steel, The 1890s

The "Golden Age" Comes To A Close, 1900-1920

The Streamliner Era, The 1930s

Railroads In World War II, The 1940s

The Industry In Decline, The 1950s

Mergers and Bankruptcies, The 1960s and 1970s

Railroading Today, The 1980s Onward

Notable Early Railroads

Baltimore & Ohio

Camden & Amboy

Delaware & Hudson

Granite Railway

Mohawk & Hudson

South Carolina Canal And Rail Road Company

Notable Events

Great Locomotive Chase

The recovery of the railroad industry has been partly due to deregulation. However, other factors have also caused the revival. First, as our nation's infrastructure has been neglected over the past several decades highway congestion has gotten worse and worse. Today it has reached near critical levels and the only relief valve available is trains, thus people and goods have been returning to the rails. Another factor is the environment. These days everyone is thinking green and since nothing is more efficient at moving people or goods per fuel mile than trains railroads have gained much praise for their environmental friendliness.


Norfolk Southern's C40-9W #9052 heads a parade of GEs leading westbound stack train 23M through Bailey, Pennsylvania on June 14, 2009.

Without the railroads it is probably safe to say that our country would not be the world leader that it is today and without them in the future there is little chance we, as a nation, could remain the power that we are. Yes, we may not have the most advanced high speed passenger rail system in the world (which, quite honestly is rather embarrassing) but we do have the most efficient and advanced freight system, which is marveled and emulated by other countries. For more reading about our country's railroads please click here to visit the fallen flags section of the site.

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