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.
Railroads faced their 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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), along with the 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
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 the efficiency 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 Norfolk Southern 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 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.
Norfolk Southern's C40-9W #9052 heads a parade of GEs leading westbound stack train 23M through Bailey, Pennsylvania on June 14, 2009.
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. 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.