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There are a number of reasons why America became the greatest country in the history of mankind. It is a varied and complex story going back to Colonial times, the Revolution, the formation of a constitutional democracy, the expansion westward and so much more. This web site is about the role railroads have played. We owe our great economic and industrial strength to the "Iron Horse," as much as to any other factor in the growth of this country.

It started in England — the development of steam power, the steam locomotive, the concept of a railroad with regular schedules and fares — and Americans picked it up and took it to unforeseen heights, like a football team intercepting the ball on their own 10-yard line and running it 90 yards to a touchdown. Starting in the 1820's, Americans were working to developi railroads, and then it took off. In the 1830's a number of companies got their start, and within just 30 years, railroads had crisscrossed the country with thousands of miles of iron rail, touching almost every town between the Great Mississippi and the Atlantic seaboard.
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Who is the Father of the American Railroad?
Who deserves credit for kicking off the greatest transportation revolution in human history?

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Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, onof America's first Railroad Tycoons.
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Charles Carroll of Carrollton was said to be the wealthiest man in all the Colonies. He had inherited large tracts of land and was a successful Maryland Planter. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, he was also a leading and very outspoken advocate for declaring Independence from Britain. He used "of Carrollton" after his name to distinguish himself from other Charles Carrolls.

Carroll is known for introducing a bill in the Maryland senate that would have gradually abolished slavery, though he did not feel it would be practical to free his own slaves. He is also known as the last surviving signor of the Declaration and for being one of the founders of the first American railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio. In 1828, 54 years after marking his signature 4 names after John Hancock, Carroll laid the first ceremonial stone, marking the beginning of the construction of America's first railroad.
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Carroll represented his home state of Maryland in the Continental Congress, and on July 4, 1776, he signed the most significant document in American history, the Declaration of Independence. He was the last surviving signer, when he died in 1832, more than 56 years after the signing.

Charles Carroll was 44 when George Stephenson was born. Yet he would live long enough to found the American railroad that used a Stephenson-designed steam engine.

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Just about 5 years after Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, a child was born in Northumberland, England to Robert and Mabel Stephenson, who lived a hard life and could neither read nor write. Young George Stephenson was illiterate himself until the age of 18, but put himself through school. After losing his wife and second child to disease, he devoted himself to his work and learned steam engine maintenance and repair on the job.
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George Stephenson was not the first to build a steam engine or even steam powered locomotive, but he was the first to do it successfully. In 1814, he built a locomotive that proved it could haul 30 tons coal at 4 miles per hour along a track. Then in 1825, Stephenson persuaded entrepreneurs planning a 25-mile rail line from Auckland to Stockton to try steam instead of horses. The resulting Stockton Darlington Railroad carried 450 passengers at the speed of 15 miles per hour. In 1829, Stephenson built a much improved locomotive that became known as the "Rocket," which could haul rail cars at 39 miles per hour. The Rocket design became the basis for all future steam locomotives. Stephenson's company also built rails, and he settled on a gauge of 4 ft. 8-1/2 in., which became the standard gauge in England and eventually in the U.S. and around the world.
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Meanwhile in the United States, the major event that would kick off the building of the great American railroads was not the development of the steam engine (that was happening in England); it was the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The canal ran from Albany on the Hudson River 363 miles west to Buffalo and Lake Erie. This was a giant event in U.S. transportation history, as it connected the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean via the port of New York to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. The canal fostered population growth toward the west and opened an efficient trade route between the eastern and midwestern states. It also gave New York a huge advantage over all other port cities in the country.
This is where Charles Carroll and a few other Maryland entrepreneurs enter the picture. They wanted to make the port of Baltimore competitive with New York. This is where Charles Carroll and a few other Maryland entrepreneurs enter the picture. They wanted to make the port of Baltimore competitive with New York.
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In 1776, John Stevens, who would later become known as an inventor and developer of the first propeller-driven steam boat served as a captain under George Washington in the Continental Army.
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The steam locomotive built by Stevens in 1825. This replica was built in 1940 for the World's Fair by the Pennsylvania RR and is currently on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Click on photo to enlarge.
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John Stevens, Inventor

The son of a wealthy merchant and ship owner, John Stevens graduated from Kings College in 1768 and got a degree in law. But engineering, not law would prove to be his passion. During the Revolutionary War, he achieved the rank of Colonel after serving as Treasurer of New Jersey and Surveyor of Eastern New Jersey.

He purchased a large estate in 1784 in what is now Hoboken, New Jersey. He purchased a ferry service between Hoboken and Manhattan and became interested in Steam Engines, convinced that steam was the way to go for commercial shipping.

He petitioned his connections in the U.S Congress to write a patent law, resulting the the first U.S. Patent Act of 1790. He then patented his first major invention, a vertical multi tubular boiler (for steam engines) and then a screw propellor. He built a small propeller driven steam boat and crossed the Hudson River in it in 1804.

Having been edged out of commercial shipping on the Hudson by Robert Fulton, he sailed his steamship Phoenix to Philadelphia to take up commercial shipping on the Delaware River. This voyage from New York to Philadelphia in 1809 marked the first time in history that a steam-powered ship had successfully navigated ocean waters. The Phoenix was a sidewheel paddle steamer. Stevens had concluded that the paddle configuration with a low pressure boiler was safer in larger ships.

He then turned his attention to steam for rail roads. In 1812, when the state of New York appointed a group of commissioners to study a route for a canal connecting Albany and Buffalo, Stevens tried unsuccessfully to convince them that a steam powered railway would be more efficient and effective than a canal.

He then turned to his connections in Washington getting them to pass the American Railway act of 1815. In that same year, he was awarded the country's first railroad charter by the New Jersey State Legislature for a rail line between the Delaware and Raritan Rivers… which did not succeed.

In 1825, George Stevens built a small steam locomotive and ran it around a track on the grounds of his estate. In 1830 he established the Camden & Amboy Railroad & Transportation Company which became a successful commercial enterprise, operated by two of his sons, Robert Livingston Stevens and Edwin Augustus Stevens.

Another legacy is the John Stevens Institute of Technology, which thrives today in Hoboken. There is a wonderful video about John Stevens on their web site:

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The Jervis Type was the second locomotive designed by Jervis. It introduced a 4-2-0 construction with a leading wheels to guide the locomotive on curves. Click on image to enlarge.
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John Jervis

In 1817 as the work on the Erie Canal was proceeding westward through wooded land, 22-year-old John Jervis was hired to work as an axeman, clearing a path for the surveyors. Unlike Stevens and Allen, Jervis, son of a lumberman, had not been sent to college. He picked up his engineering skills on the job. Within a couple of years, he was helping with the engineering of the canal. In 1825, he went to work for the new Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, and became their chief engineer in 1827. He convinced the owners to use a steam locomotive to move coal from the mines to the canal and went to work on the short rail road using a rail design of wood and iron strap. The company sent his assistant Horatio Allen to England to meet Stephenson and bring back a steam locomotive.

So credit for firing up the Stourbridge Lion and making what some say is the first steam locomotive run in America really goes to more than one man. William Wurts had the vision to build the company, and it was Horatio Allen who came back from England with the locomotive and oversaw its introduction.

Jervis went on to pursue a long career in railroading. He was chief engineer for the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road, which later morphed into Vanderbilt's giant New York Central. He also designed aqueducts for New York and Boston. He helped to form an ironworks in Rome, New York (a few miles north of the Erie Canal northeast of Syracuse). In 1832, he designed a 4-2-0 * steam locomotive for the Mohawk and Hudson company. The city of Port Jervis, New York is named after him. It is located on a port he designed for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company.

* Locomotives are often characterized by their wheel configuration, such as 4-2-0. The first number refers to the number of guide wheels ahead of the main driving wheels. The second number tells us how many drive wheels the locomotive has, and the third number refers to the trailing wheels.

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Crowds gathered at Honesdale, Pennsylvania on August 8, 1829 to watch the locomotive from England known as the Stourbridge Lion steam down a track of wood with steel strap. The locomotive was too heavy for the rail, and was not used again, but the value of steam power had been proven.
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Horatio Allen, Engineer

In 1823, Philadelphia businessman William Wurts, having discovered valuable anthracite coal in northeastern Pennsylvania chartered the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. Between 1825 and 1828, the company built a 108-mile canal between Honessdale, PA on the Delaware River and the Hudson River near Rosendale, NY. Population centers in the northeast were running out of easily accessible hardwoods to burn, and the War of 1812 had resulted in import restrictions on bituminous coal from England. The market for Pennsylvania anthracite was rich, so what ultimately became the company known as the Delaware and Hudson Railroad started as a way to transport coal to New York. To get the coal from its source near Carbondale, PA, to the canal at Honesdale, Wurts built a (downhill) 17-mile long gravity railroad. It was here that the idea to try a steam locomotive came up. Wurts sent his engineer, Horatio Allen, to England to check out and purchase the locomotive.
Allen and chief Engineer Jervis had convinced management that steam was the way to go.

Allen met with Stephenson and bought one locomotive from the Stephenson company. He also purchased three from Foster, Reastrick & Company in Stourbridge, England.

On Aug 8, 1829 Allen himself operated the engine while a crowd of spectators cheered him on. The track was what not we we think of today as railroad track. It was wood with an iron strip for the wheels to roll on. Chief engineer Jervis, who had designed the track had specified that the locomotive could not weigh more than 4 tons. But its weight was 7-1/2 tons, which proved too much for the track. So Allen's first run was the locomotive's last run. Still, it made history.

Foster Rastrick built a total of only four locomotives in its short life.: the three sent to the U.S. and one for use in England. The one built for England was of a slightly different design and actually ran for 30 years before being retired. In 1829, George Stephenson introduced the locomotive named the Rocket, with a design that became the standard of future locomotives. The three locomotives purchased for the U.S. from Foster and the earlier design locomotive from Stephenson were then obsolete. But history had been made.

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Tom Thumb - The steam locomotive built by Peter Cooper. Click on photo to enlarge.
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Peter Cooper, Self Educated Inventor, Successful Businessman, and Philanthropist.

Today The Cooper Union is a private college in Manhattan with about 900 students. The college offers a high-quality education in the fields of architecture, art, and engineering and was since its beginning in 1859 tuition-free until recently when financial conditions forced the institution to introduce tuition and scholarship programs. It is an amazing example of how the history of railroading in America is so intertwined with the growth of a great nation. Founder Peter Cooper believed that a good education should be available to dedicated young people who wanted to learn, regardless of social class, ability to pay, religion, race …. or even gender.

The Cooper Union is a small college, as colleges go, but has played a huge role in American History. It was in the the "Great Hall" on February 27, 1860 that Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address advocating the power of the Federal Government to limit slavery, the address that propelled him to the nomination and ultimately the Presidency, the address that became known as his "Cooper Union Speech." In so many ways, this institution that has always reflected the philosophy of its founder, has stood at the moral center of America. And it has represented progress in many ways.

Peter Cooper was born to a working class family. With only a year of formal education, he learned engineering working as an apprentice in a coach maker's shop. In 1821, he went into business for himself buying a glue making operation. Cooper found ways to improve the production of glue and gelatin and ended up doing very well in that business.

He then took an interest in the newly formed Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Convinced the enterprise would drive up the price of land in Maryland, Cooper purchased 3,000 acres to take advantage of the opportunity. When he discovered rich deposits of iron ore on his land he founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore.

The B&O plan was to lay track for horse drawn carriages. Cooper wanted to convince the B&O that they should use steam engines, not horses. With the help of 18-year-old James Mulholland working in the George Johnson machine shop, Cooper built a crude steam engine. The B&O had laid track between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills, Maryland. A race was arranged in late summer 1831 between Cooper's 4-wheel locomotive (nicknamed Tom Thumb) and a horse drawn carriage from the Stockton & Company stagecoach service. Tom Thumb was handily winning the race when a belt slipped off the blower pulley and caused the engine to lose power. Though the horses won the race, the superiority of steam had been proven. The B&O would go on to build a great railroad, buying a lot of rail from Cooper's iron works and making Cooper a very wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist. It is a truly great American story.

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The "Best Friend of Charleston" locomotive built by the West Point Foundry in New York and shaped by boat to Charleston, arriving in December, 1830
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Best Friend of Charleston

Concerned about a weakening local economy Charlestown merchants were looking for a way to increase trade with points west. In 1828, the South Carolina State Legislature chartered the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company." The company engaged the services of engineer Horatio Allen, who had a few years earlier met with George Stephenson in England to purchase steam locomotives for use by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. On Allen's recommendation, they purchased a locomotive to be built by the West Point Foundry in New York and built a six-mile stretch of wood and iron rail road. Arriving by boat in October, 1830, the new locomotive was dubbed, the "Best Friend of Charleston." And on Christmas day, 1830, to the delight of a cheering crowd, it made a successful inaugural run the length of the new railroad and back again, reaching speeds of 15 to 25 miles per hour, causing one person to write later [We] " flew on the wings of wind … leaving the world behind."

The railroad then operated between Charleston and Summerville in the early months of 1831 until an accident caused the first boiler explosion. However, the railroad went on with a new locomotive, having already earned the distinction of being the first operating railroad with regular service in America.
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The Dewitt Clinton

Dewitt Clinton was a naturalist, philanthropist, mayor of New York, Senator, and then Governor of New York. His belief in the importance of transportation infrastructure made him a key player in the concept and construction of the Erie Canal. The Canal opened in 1825 while Clinton was Governor of New York and proved to be a big success. So in 1831 when John Jervis built a steam locomotive for the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road to run on a 16-mile track from Albany to Schenectady, he named it after the Governor. The locomotive was a 0-4-0 configuration, which meant no leading wheels or trailing wheels, just 4 drive wheels. Parts of the locomotive were cast at the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York, which is just north of West Point on the Hudson River.
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The rail route between Charleston and Hamburg, South Carolina. Click on image to enlarge.
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The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company

In 1833, the company that had, three years earlier introduced the "Best Friend of Charleston" completed a working railroad on a 136-mile route between Charleston and Hamburg, which was just across the Savanah River from Augusta, Georgia. The company could not get white workers to work in the swamps along the route and had to rely on slave labor. When African Americans point out that their forbears played an important role in building this great nation, the first significant operating railroad is a good example. Construction methods were designed for quick results, not longevity. The rail was iron strips known as “strap iron” fastened to timber rails. One thing South Carolina had an abundance of was timber. Following the first 136-mile leg between Charleston and Hamburg, the company built rail lines that reached Columbia in 1840 and Atlanta, Georgia in 1853. The company needed stopover locations spaced evenly along the route with a water pump and timber supply. The company purchased 15 locomotives and scheduled daily runs between Charleston and Hamburg. The train went from Charleston to Hamburg in about 9 hours, making stops at five towns (railroad depots) along the way. With some of the route going downhill on the Hamburg to Charleston run, the time was about 45 minutes faster.
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1876 Map showing the B&O routes. Click on Image to Enlarge
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Carrollton Viaduct. Click on Image to Enlarge
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Thomas Viaduct. Click on Image to Enlarge
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The Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road Company

In 1853, twenty-six years after its charter, the company achieved its original objective when its rail line reached Wheeling, West Virginia and the mighty Ohio River. The port of Baltimore was now connected by rail to western markets and producers. By the 1870's the B&O had reached St. Louis, Missouri. With rivers and mountains to cross, reaching the Ohio was no small accomplishment.

An early challenge was crossing the Gwynn Falls Stream in southwest Baltimore. Construction on the Carrollton Viaduct (shown at left) was started in 1828 and completed in 1829. The arch bridge built of granite has a span of 80 ft. and a height of 65 ft. Amazingly, the bridge is still in use today as CSX diesel powered freight trains routinely cross over it.

The Thomas Viaduct crossing the Patapsco River was completed in 1835. It was the first stone railroad bridge in the country to consist of multiple spans. The bridge is 612 ft. long and rises to a height of 59 ft. Amazingly, that bridge also is still in use today by CSX Railroad.

The B&O railroad was crucial to the Union Army during the Civil War, connecting the capitol with points north and west for moving troops and equipment. However, the B&O suffered a great deal of damage at the hands of southern forces who launched numerous raids on the railroad and even stole locomotives, cars, and track for use by the South.

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This map from 1863 shows railroads blanketing the eastern half of the country just 34 years after Horatio Allen demonstrated his primitive locomotive on a wooden track in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. When you think of men with pickaxes, shovels, and crowbars building roadbeds and laying iron and steel rail, one 10- or 13- foot rail at a time across vast stretches of country, including the Appalachian mount chain, building bridges over rivers, the achievement is mind-boggling. In my office I have a 6-foot print of this map. If it were printed any smaller, the names of all the towns connected by rail would be too small to read. Below are small sections of the map. Click on each to enlarge.
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Albany in 1862
Albany in 1862
Click on image to enlarge.
Syracuse in 1862
Rochester & Syracuse in 1862
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Detroit in 1862
Detroit in 1862
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Chicago in 1862
Chicago in 1862
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Indianapolis in 1862
Indianapolis in 1862
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Toledo in 1862
Toledo in 1862
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St. Louis in 1862
St. Louis in 1862
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Harrisburg in 1862
Harrisburg in 1862
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Philadelphia in 1862
Philadelphia in 1862
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Memphis in 1862
Memphis in 1862
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Richmond in 1862
Richmond in 1862
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1862 RR map key
Click on image to enlarge.
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Promontory Point, Utah

Even during the stress of the Civil War, President Lincoln was looking forward to a united and growing future America. In 1862, he signed an act authorizing the construction of a railroad from the Missouri River to the California West Coast. California had become a state 12 years earlier, and Lincoln understood the need for a fast route between the two coasts. The gauge was to be 4 ft. 8-1/2" inches, and this became the American standard. Two Railroad companies would build the new Transcontinental Railroad. The Union Pacific would work its way west from a starting point near Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific would work its was east from Sacramento. But there was a war on, so it wasn't until July, 1865 the the Union Pacific laid its first rails in Nebraska. Central Pacific had already progressed into the the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The two met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 with great fanfare. The quality of the single line was spotty, but the connection had been made. Other rail lines across the west would follow, and rail became the thing that connected all the states and enabled great commercial growth during the Industrial Revolution.
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© 2019 Phil Dickinson
Middletown, RI 401-847-2020

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