1820s And 1830s Railroads, The Beginning

As T.J. Stiles points out in his authoritative title, "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life Of Cornelius Vanderbilt," the railroad fundamentally changed the United States in far more ways than improved transportation.  It ushered in the modern, corporate America we know so well today where huge conglomerates preside over nearly every facet of our lives.  The railroad was the first such business of its kind which employed thousands, served millions, and was capitalized in the hundreds of millions.  They directly impacted numerous, intercity municipalities although, ironically, were privately owned ventures.  As the 19th century dawned, however, no one could have imagined such incredible machines would exist that would whisk freight and passengers at previously inconceivable speeds.  As with all technologies, however, the railroad was slow to develop in America.  While they soon found their way across the Atlantic Ocean after debuting in England, it was not until the Baltimore & Ohio's development in latter 1820's did the concept truly catch on.  Afterwards, several similar operations sprang up all along the East Coast.  The B&O was the country's first common-carrier although the Granite Railway holds distinction as the first of its type put into use when it opened in 1826.  By 1840 railroads were here to stay although many technological developments remained before efficient, safe operations became commonplace.

A New Era In Transportation, Railroads In The 1820's

As Mr. Stiles' book notes, America's first railroads were not conceived for the purpose of providing interstate, or even intrastate, travel.  Instead, they were constructed entirely for specific reasons.  Take, for instance, America's first, the Granite Railway of Massachusetts.  It opened for business on October 7, 1826 carrying a wide gauge of 5 feet.  The line was only 3 miles in length, entirely horse or mule-powered, to transport granite slabs between Quincy and the Neponset River at Milton to build the Bunker Hill Monument project.  In an era long predating the modern, all-steel "T" rail, this operation utilized massive stone rails.  The next noteworthy project was the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, incorporated on April 17, 1826 to connect the Hudson River at Albany with the Mohawk River at Schenectady.  The purpose of the M&H was to act as a shortcut and compete with the heralded Erie Canal for the transportation of people and goods between Schenectady and the state capital at Albany. 

Due to funding issues it took more than four years until construction began and was not completed until August 9, 1831.  On that day the little 0-4-0 named DeWitt Clinton pulled the first load of paying customers.  It was the first steam locomotive to operate in New York.  The long delay in the M&H's completion, however, meant other operations were credited with various "firsts."  Most notable was the aforementioned Baltimore & Ohio.  The B&O was largely created out of a great need by the city of Baltimore to compete with the Erie Canal, which connected New York City with the Port of Albany at Buffalo.  In addition, Philadelphia was organizing a plan to build a similar transportation system across the state linking Pittsburgh.  Fearing its city would be left at an economic disadvantage Baltimore leaders formed the B&O, originally chartered on February 28, 1827 and officially incorporated and organized on April 24, 1827.  In January of 1830 the B&O launched service over its first 1.5 miles from a small station in Baltimore at Pratt Street.  That same summer on August 28th the B&O successfully tested Peter Cooper's 2-2-0 "Tom Thumb," a Planet Type steam locomotive.  It lost its famous race with a horse that day but successfully proved the viability of steam-powered locomotives.  The locomotive is also credited as the first American type ever placed into use although, as a test-bed unit only, was never actually operated in service.

Another important pioneer in railroading was the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company.  According to Jim Shaughnessy's book, "Delaware & Hudson: Bridge Line To New England And Canada," it was conceived by brothers Maurice and William Wurts to transport clean-burning anthracite coal from mines near Carbondale, Pennsylvania to New York City for home and commercial heating purposes.  Their original plans called for a duel, canal/gravity railroad.  The latter was designed by John B. Jervis and the company ordered four steam locomotives from England to handle the necessary tonnage.  Only one would ever be used. the Stourbridge Lion, manufactured by Foster, Rastrick & Company of Stourbridge.  Jervis tested the 0-4-0 steamer on August 8, 1829 but it sadly proved too heavy for the track.  Despite this setback the little locomotive earned the distinction as the first ever operated in the United States.  The next significant development occurred on the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company, a system based out Charleston.

The SCC&RR was the longest railroad of its day when it opened 136 miles between Charleston and Hamburg (near Augusta, Georgia) during October, 1833.  The project's purpose was, once again, to serve a specific need.  In this case, the port of Charleston wanted to haul agricultural products from inland farms, notably the important cotton crop, to the city for shipment. It was formed on December 19, 1827 and construction began thereafter.  Aside from its length and importance the SCC&RR also carries the honor of being the first to operate an American-built steam locomotive in revenue service when the Best Friend Of Charleston (built by the West Point Foundry of Cold Spring, New York) carried a trainload of passengers on December 25, 1830.  Another noteworthy system was New Jersey's Camden & Amboy Railroad, created on February 4, 1830 as the Camden & Amboy Rail Road and Transportation Company.  A project of Robert Stevens it was envisioned to link the Delaware River at Philadelphia with the Raritan River, which ran into New York City.  Many railroads of this era were built specifically to complement either preexisting canals or highly trafficked waterways. 

This was the case for the C&A which began construction in December, 1830 at Bordentown, New Jersey.  The first 13 miles to Hightstown opened to the public on October 1, 1832.  Its first steam locomotive, the 0-4-0 John Bull (built by the Robert Stephenson & Company of England) entered service in 1833.  The locomotive is significant due not only to its early design but also modifications which later became standard on future models; C&A personnel added a lead bogie (truck) to decrease derailments (giving it a 2-4-0 wheel arrangement), a pilot (cow-catcher) to move animals off the right-of-way, a covered cab for protection against the weather, headlight, bell, and even a covered tender.  The C&A would later join the growing Pennsylvania Railroad system in 1871 via lease.  By then it become part of the much larger United Canal & Railroad Companies.  Also of note was Philadelphia's Main Line which was built during the 1830s as a combination canal and rail artery meant to connect western Pennsylvania with the Ohio River. Unfortunately it was much too cumbersome and couldn't even compete with the Erie Canal. While the first lines built in the 1830s were proving themselves as a reliable means of transportation not everyone was sold on the newfangled technology. Canal owners and the cities they served feared railroads would put them out of business while some of the public worried about the safety of pressurized steam boilers, collisions and other dangers associated with it. These fears were well justified but other more ridiculous assertions claimed railroads were a "device of the devil" and could cause a "concussion of the brain". 

Railroad Development During the 1820s/1830s

While England could proclaim itself as birthplace of the railroad, by 1840 its total mileage (1,500) had been far surpassed by the United States.  Interestingly, the financial Panic of 1837 did not seriously inhibit railroad construction, unlike later in the 19th century when these economic depressions stunted further construction.  As previously discussed, the B&O was one of railroading's most pioneer systems.  Its value in pioneering new techniques can also not be understated.  As by Kirk Reynolds and David Oroszi note in their book, "Baltimore & Ohio Railroad," nearly everything decision it made was an educated guess based on what little was known about railroads and engineering practices at the time.  Perhaps most challenging was constructing a proper right-of-way and figuring out the curvature limits and grade severity a typical train could handle.  To aid in this endeavor engineers sailed to England, the birthplace of railroads, for ideas concerning construction and best practices.  Among their most notable takeaways was track gauge; English lines were utilizing a width of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches which was ultimately adopted by the B&O.  

Its next task was in designing a track guideway for the trains' wheels to follow.  Once again, engineers found themselves in unknown territory as they experimented with various techniques from stone guideways with wooden beams to iron straps using the same principle.  They eventually learned the best, most economical design was a wooden beam reinforced with a iron strap supported by wooden crossties.  Iron strap rails did work although proved incredibly dangerous as worn straps could let go causing the deadly phenomenon of "snake heads," which easily ripped through the floors of early wooden cars and maimed or killed passengers.  Finally, engineers had to conceive a right-of-way capable of handling this new form of technology.  Once more, with no books or prior research to guide them, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Army who was overseeing survey work, and Johnathan Knight, a civil engineer simply made educated guesses.  The B&O would initially use horses to power their trains with the intentions of hopefully one day switching to steam propulsion.  As a result, Knight and Long used very conservative figures, limiting the ruling grade to a very respectable 0.6% (or a mere 6 inches of elevation for every 100 feet traveled).  Interestingly, however, they allowed curves to be relatively sharp at 14-18 degrees, unaware the length trains would one day reach.  In the future, grades were allowed to be somewhat steeper while curves were reduced.

Early Freight And Passenger Cars

Gaining a true understanding of early railroad car development can be difficult due to anecdotal stories or just outright misinformation.  It is further complicated by the lack of historical documents available on the subject.  If you are interested in this subject three books on the topic are a must, all written by John H. White, Jr.: "The American Railroad Passenger Car" (Parts I and II) and "The American Railroad Freight Car."  As he notes, the story of America's first passenger cars built from stagecoaches remains widely told to this day.  In reality, while these were influenced from stagecoaches and manufactured by stagecoach builders, they were actually designed from the chassis up.  The first known passenger car contract was awarded to Richard Imlay of Baltimore in 1828 when the  Baltimore & Ohio Railroad approached him about supply the company with equipment.  The first, based from the standard mail coach of the day, was named the Pioneer and placed into service during May, 1830.  It was followed by five more nearly identical designs that same August.  Information on freight cars from this period is even more scarce since the public paid little attention to such things and there were no agencies in place to monitor railroads.  

The previously mentioned Granite Railway employed a basic, reinforced wooden flatcar designed by Gridley Bryant which utilized horse power to transport the marble over huge stone rails.  Again, during an era without available references ideas and concepts were abundant.  According to Mr. White's book, "The first series of cars were carried by four wagon wheels.  The stones were carried below the axles on a platform raised or lowered by a hand-powered winch fastened to a wooden truss frame that stood above the wheels.  For such an early period these cars were well crafted, finely built contraptions.  Bryant's concept proved so successful that its general design remained unchanged until the original Granite Railway system was abandoned in 1866.  In 1830, and throughout that decade most freight was transported in either a flatcar, a simple gondola (A simple flatcar with short sides to hold ladding [freight], it is more commonly known as the gondola today.  The first is credited to the Baltimore & Ohio of 1832 which referred to it as a "flour car" since it handled barrels of flour.), or an early type of hopper known as a "jimmie."  The latter predominantly handled anthracite coal, such as the small, 1,600-pound designs found on the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania.  These small cars could handle about 3,000 pounds each and transported anthracite coal from open-pit mines near Mauch Chunk over a 9-mile, 42-inch gauge railroad to the Lehigh River where the product was carried on to eastern points such as Philadelphia.  As the 1840's dawned, railroads were becoming a unified network but much work remained at established a system capable of efficient, interstate service.

Top Of Page

› The Beginning

Photography Featured On This Site

Popular Train Ride Events