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A Brief Early History of the Railroad

and its Importance to Society
Deb Kohut
HIS 125
Industrial growth in the beginning was dependent on canals and other forms of water transport; stage coaches provided transport for passengers and mail. The canal companies built the first railroads, and stage coach style bodies were adopted by the first passenger trains which were put on railroad wheels and pulled with locomotives imported from Britain. It was not long before it became clear that British construction methods were going to be too expensive and thus unsuited to the needs of a rapidly developing country. (Gary Cross and Rick Szostak, 2004)
As the first American railroad began to emerge it was constructed as cheaply as possible and the locomotives were manufactured locally and built to specific requirements. Railroads spread rapidly opening up a host of new opportunities for the development of natural resources. There were many more railroads built that were both great and small; some were built for carrying passengers and some for freight but both went into previously undeveloped territories. The locomotives were developed along well defined lines, and increased in size and power but still retained the characteristics of their earlier years, that is to say simplicity, reliability, and ease of maintenance. Soon passenger amenities were improved and continuous automatic brakes were introduced and perfected for the safety of the passengers and the men working on the trains. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
The first commercial railways were laid down in Britain in the early eighteen twenties. The potential of railways did not escape the notice of the United States citizens and as early as eighteen twenty five William Strickland made a study for the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvement. (Gary Cross and Rick Szostak, 2004)
It would be hard to imagine any country which benefited more from railroads than the United States. A statement by Edward Pease, a backer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, when speaking about British railroads might have applied equally to the United States: ?Let the country but make the railways and the railways will make the country.? (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
February 28, 1827 is one of the most important dates in the history of the railroad for the United States. This was the day on which the state of Maryland granted a charter to the promoters of what would become the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Their aim was to reach the Ohio River and therefore funnel commerce into the city of Baltimore. The original route, which was surveyed with the help of the United States Army, included the outstanding Carrollton Viaduct. On July 4, 1828 the foundation stone was laid by Charles Carroll who was then in his 92nd year. The thing that made Carroll special was that at the time he was the last survivor of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. Carroll did live to see the railroad completed as far as Point of Rocks, which lay 73 miles southwest of Baltimore. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
Some historians believe that the Granite Railway in Quincy, Massachusetts was the first railroad in the United States. This railroad was a horse worked, iron faced timber track, which received its charter on April 3, 1826.This may be the case, however the Baltimore and Ohio was the very first common carrier, and also the first to offer scheduled freight and passenger services to the general public. (Albro Martin, 1992)
August 28, 1830 was another red letter day. Peter Cooper, an industrialist and inventor, had constructed a small experimental steam driven locomotive at his Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, which he called the Tom Thumb. Peter Cooper staged a race between Tom Thumb, drawing a car load of directors, and a horse drawn car. The draft for the boiler of Cooper?s little locomotive was provided by a belt driven fan, but in the race the belt would not stay in place, so steam pressure was lost. On this occasion the horse won, but the contest certainly served to convince a lot of people of the potential practicability of steam as motive power. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
In 1830 the first locomotive built in America was delivered from the West Point Foundry in New York City for the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad, which later became the South Carolina Railroad. It was named best friend of Charleston but was destroyed by a boiler explosion on June 17, 1831. Also in 1830 Matthias Baldwin of Philadelphia established his works, which became one of the most famous builders of steam locomotives in the world. His first locomotive, built in 1832 was called Old Ironsides. Also at this same time Iron rails were introduced to replace timber and iron straps. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
In 1835 Senator Chase of Ohio introduced a bill to Congress to provide for a survey of four possible routes for a coast to coast railroad. There was much interest, research and speculation, but no positive action was taken on this bill. At the same time this bill was introduced iron bar frames became popular for general use. They were introduced into the United States with the delivery of the first 0-4-0 Liverpool, designed by the British engineer Edward Bury in 1833. (Albro Martin, 1992)
The first patent for a locomotive was granted in 1836 for a 4-4-0 locomotive which was developed by Henry Campbell and built by James Brooks. This eight wheel locomotive was to later become a classic design, and would universally be known as the American type. (Albro Martin, 1992)
By 1853 the Baltimore and Ohio had reached the Ohio River at Wheeling West Virginia which was three hundred and seventy nine miles from Baltimore. It had been twenty five years since its commencement in Baltimore Maryland. This same year the Pennsylvania Railroad reached the Ohio River at Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
By 1860 there were thirty thousand six hundred thirty five miles of railroad completed in the United States. The major states with railroads were Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. During this same period there was great expansion of railroad building in the South and there were now nine thousand locomotives in the United States. (Arthur Tayler, 1996)
In February of 1861 Abraham Lincoln traveled by rail to his first inauguration and made stops at many principal cities. With the outbreak of the Civil War there was a financial panic because the price of rolling stock increased by two hundred eighty percent in a little over three years. Many of the railroads benefited from the inflated wartime traffic and demand of United States military railroads enabled some roads to unload obsolete locomotives at a handsome profit. Other roads, particularly in the Confederacy were halted, abandoned or blown up. The Virginia Central railroads westward expansion was halted by the Civil War, even though it would have been a valuable asset to the Confederacy. (John Binder, 2011)
The Civil War is known for introducing and employing new weapons, which have included rifled artillery, machine guns and submarines. This list should also include railroad weapons, which could be described as the predecessors of the modern fighting vehicles or tanks.

During this war, the railroad was second only to the waterways in providing logistical support for the armies. Railroads were vital to the economies of the divided nation and not a lot of serious attention has been given to the tactical use of locomotives and rolling stock which was used a lot during this period. (Alan R. Koenig, 1996)
It was because the railroads supplied military units they were quite often major objectives in the fighting. It is considered that an army without supplies cannot operate for very long. In dealing with large scale threats armies often stayed near the railroad tracks. While armies campaigned the locomotives and rolling stock often provided logistical support and some even performed tactical missions. These missions would include close combat because the railroad could provide a convenient avenue of approach to the enemy.In situations such as this it was quite common for commanders to send locomotives to reconnoiter the terrain in order to obtain information on the dispositions of enemy troops. There was of course a certain amount of risk involved in this, but then a lone locomotive could quickly reverse direction and as it could go as fast as sixty miles an hour it could quickly outrun any pursuing cavalry. Also because their mobility was so great they were useful as courier vehicles when commanders had to rush vital intelligence to their headquarters. This communications service was an important advantage where raiders often cut or tapped telegraph lines. (Alan R. Koenig, 1996)
Other things they were useful for was using them as rams. Troops would sometimes start a locomotive down a track with a full head of steam to damage an enemy train or the railroad facilities. As useful as they might have been, they were also vulnerable to derailments and sharpshooters who might perforate a boiler or kill a crewman. Also when they armored the engines against small arms fire it trapped too much heat inside. (Alan R. Koenig, 1996)
During World War I railroads were the backbone of the war efforts. Early in the war Russia mobilized her army quickly because of the great rail networks that spanned their huge country. The railroads moved men and equipment and brought food to the fighting fronts. By this time there were armored railway cars that protected vital rail lines. Other cars had huge platforms with large guns attached that were capable of hurling explosive shells for many miles. There were also ambulance trains that transported the wounded away from the front. (John Binder, 2011)
When the United States entered the war in 1917, the country?s railroads and rolling stock were seen as the most important part of war preparedness. There were massive requirements which were needed for the home front, as well as for the demands of overseas operations for the American forces and the Allies. (Alan R. Koenig, 1996)
The railroads were also of major importance during World War II in supporting military operations as well as in providing for the increased needs of the wartime economy. Because they were so important they were also vulnerable. Trains, tracks, yards and other railroad facilities became the prime targets of the German air force. Railroad operations during the war corresponded to the major phases of military operations. The first phase was from the Germany offensive of 1941, to the Red Army?s counteroffensive, which ended in a Soviet victory at Stalingrad in 1943. During this particular phase the railroads evacuated people, industrial plants, and took their own rolling stock to the eastern area of the country. In four months of 1941 one and a half million carloads of freight were moved eastward. The railroads also carried military personal and military materials from rear areas to the front. This all took place under actual or threatened enemy fire. (John Pike, 2011)
The Germans also used the railroads extensively. Not only did they use them for the transporting of troops and military supplies, but they also used them for the transportation of civilians to concentration camps. Some of the railroad cars even became death cars, where people were left locked inside for days without food or water. From the beginning of the railroad it has been used throughout history during times of war as well as peace. (John Pike, 2011)
During the Civil War it was realized how vulnerable the west was because of its isolation from the rest of the country. There were also communication problems with this part of the country.With the railroads came the telegraph system and it was soon determined that the railroad would have to extend across the country. Thus the first transcontinental railroad was born. This is not something that was accomplished overnight. The first rails were not laid until 1865 and the final spikes two of silver and two of gold were driven in at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869 when the railroad being built from the east met the one being built from the west. Because these two sets of tracks actually met where they were supposed to was actually a great accomplishment because the engineers did not have the equipment that we do today. (Stephen Ambrose, 1999)
Railroads have not just been important to the wars that our country and other countries have fought. With the building of the railroads the country enjoyed the rapid growth of the economy and the building of the railroads also created thousands of jobs for new immigrants. With the railroads came new ways of managing businesses. (David Haward Bain, 1942)
As the railroads grew, the country grew. The railroads made it easier for people to travel from one place to another and to move their personal property from place to place. Where it used to take weeks to get from one place to another it now only took days or even just hours depending on the destination. Because of this new areas of the country were opened for settlement and growth. (David Haward Bain, 1942)
Since the railroad ran on iron rails, they wore out quickly. Steel was much stronger but was very expensive and difficult to make. Henry Bessemer created the ?Bessemer Process? which allowed steel makers to make steel at a much lower cost. As a result of this process steel mills sprang up all around the country creating even more jobs that were connected to the railroad. (David Haward Bain, 1942)
Because of the progress in civilization, the people of the United States started to move inland into the continent and farther west to the coast. They also started to unveil a lot of natural resources from the vast miles of land. This led to the necessity of transporting goods across the country. To begin with steam ships were the medium most used for transporting goods and for traveling, but these only traveled on rivers and only went north and south. After this came the development of canals and then the first major railroad construction began. This led to the introduction of steam run rails which became the most important means of goods transportation for the period. (David Haward Bain, 1942)
We have discussed the railroads and their importance to the efforts of war, the transporting of people and how through the railroad other types of jobs have been created such as the steel industry. Now let us look at the railroads and how they have handled freight from the eighteen hundreds to the present time, because in the modern day world this is of vast importance to the country as a whole.
Freight railroads are critical to the economic well being and to the global competitiveness of the United States. In the United States alone they move forty two percent of our nation?s freight and this is measured in ton miles. The railroads move things across the country like vegetables and fruit to grains. They move our automobiles from the automobile plants to different parts of the country. They bring lumber from the mills to the cities and coal from the mines to our cities where it is used for electricity and heat. The railroads connect businesses with each other here and overseas. They also contribute billions of dollars each year to our economy through making investments, by paying wages to their workers, by making purchases and by paying taxes. (, 2011)
Coal is the most important single commodity that is carried by rail in the United States. In 2002 coal accounted for forty four percent of the tonnage and twenty one percent of the revenue for Class I railroads. Most of the coal in the United States is used to generate electricity at coal fired power plants. Coal accounts for half of all United States electricity generation, far more than any other source and the railroads handle about two thirds of all the coal shipped.
There are many major commodities that are carried by the railroads including chemicals, which also include industrial chemicals, plastic resins and fertilizer. They also haul non-metallic minerals such as phosphate rock, primary metal products and forest products which include lumber, paper and pulp. Not only do they carry automobiles, but the parts for these vehicles as well. They also carry waste products such as scrap iron and paper to disposal sites. (, 2011)
In the beginning certainly the country had need of the canals and other forms of water transport and for the stage coaches that provided transportation for passengers and mail. It is fortunate for us as a country that the canal companies began building the railroads, even though in the beginning they still resembled the stage coach in body style. The efficiency of intermodal and of freight railroading in general has provided our nation with a huge competitive advantage in the global economy. (Gary Cross and Rick Szostak, 2004)
Ambrose, Stephen, 1999; Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1969 retrieved at Hamilton County Public Library on October 23, 2011
Bain, David Haward, 1942; Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad; Penguin Books Ltd, London retrieved from Ashford University online Library, on November 20, 2011
Binder, John J., 2011; Social Science History; Vol. 35 Issue 1, p19-57 retrieved from Ivy Tech State College at, on December 1, 2011
Cross, Gary and Szostak, Rick, 2004; Technology and American Society, Chapter 6, pp. 84-105; 2nd ed., Pearson/Prentice Hall, New Jersey
Koenig, Alan R., 1996; America?s Civil War Magazine; Vol. 8, pp. 32 retrieved from the Hamilton County Public Library on October 19, 2011
Martin, Albro, 1992; Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection & Rebirth of a Vital American Force; Oxford University Press, New York, 2011; Overview of US Freight Railroads; retrieved from, on November 19, 2011
Pike, John, 2011; Railroads: 1939-45 Great Patriotic War; retrieved from, on November 19, 2011
Tayler, Arthur, 1996; Illustrated History of North American Railroads; Quintet Publishing Limited, London