Amazing articles on just about every subject...


( Originally Published 1918 )

The canal era and the railroad era. A few thousand miles of railway were built before 1850, and almost no new canal enterprises were undertaken after that date. The railway succeeds the canal, but for a time the two overlap there is no point of time when it can be said Here the canal ends and the railway begins. There are no such theatrical changes in human affairs — no sharp lines of distinction, but rather zones of transition, when the old is not yet gone and the new is not yet here.

Beginnings of the railway. Being younger and industrially less developed, this country was much behind the mother country in railroad construction. In England crude attempts to use rails for purposes of transportation had been made before the middle of the seventeenth century. For a long time the vehicles used were ordinary road wagons, and the power employed was varied, including horses, gravity, and wind acting upon sails. After the invention of Watt's steam engine, in 1769, it was suggested that steam power could be used for propulsion ; the stationary engine was first tried, and then the locomotive. The superiority of the latter was demonstrated in 1829, when George Stephenson's " Rocket " won a prize of £500 offered by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway for a locomotive engine of a speed not less than ten miles an hour ; the "Rocket," though weighing only four and one-fourth tons, made twenty-nine and a half miles an hour on a level track with a load of twelve and three-fourths tons.

Beginnings in America. In this country tramways operated by animal power, gravity, or stationary engines were employed before railroads, as the term is now understood, were known. Sails were used here also. The pioneer railroad in this country is generally conceded to have been the Baltimore and Ohio ; it was, at any rate, the first road in the nature of a public utility. Its first rail was laid on the Fourth of July, 1828, by Charles Carroll, reputed to be the only living signer of the Declaration of Independence, and in 1830 the first division of the line was open for general transportation purposes. This was at first a horse-car road, but locomotives soon took the place of the animals ; the cars were at first small and open, like stagecoaches, but later on were larger and mounted on trucks. Of course the whole apparatus was on a scale that appears to us now as ridiculously minute ; the roadbed was poor, and the rails were hardly more than strips of metal. But it was gradually borne in upon people's minds that it was not the canal but the railroad that was to be the last word in the evolution of transportation.

The earlier lines. Numerous railroad lines were begun shortly after the Baltimore and Ohio. The New York Central system originated in the Mohawk and Hudson, which opened, in 1831, seventeen miles of road between Albany and Schenectady. A little later Boston was connected with Providence, Lowell, and Worcester, and in 1841, by way of Worcester, with Albany. The following year saw a Boston-to-Buffalo connection. The germ of the Pennsylvania system, from Philadelphia to Columbia, was put into operation in 1834 ; and by 1837 Philadelphia was connected with New York Bay and Baltimore. In 1838 the Reading railroad was in operation up the Schuylkill valley. The first railroad in the South was a South Carolina line running from Charleston to Hamburg, a settlement opposite Augusta on the Savannah River ; this road was opened in 187, was one hundred and thirty-seven miles in length, and enjoyed for a brief time the distinction of being the longest railroad in the world.

The first lines were local. The earlier railways were not designed to be arteries connecting West and East ; with few exceptions comprehensive schemes did not underlie the early railroad enterprises ; most of the lines were local and, being of different gauges, were not available for long shipments. When the idea developed of linking up the short separate lines into systems, it was found that there were many different companies operating the roads, each in its own way ; nothing was uniform. In 185o there were seven different companies operating lines connecting Albany and Buffalo. This matter of a non-uniform gauge was always a great nuisance ; there was even developed a sort of telescopic axle permitting the adjustment of the wheels to tracks of different gauge.

Engineering difficulties. In the laying out of the early railroads the engineer had to keep in mind constantly the necessity of low initial cost of construction. Hence the first American rail-roads showed sharp curves, steep grades, and irregular courses. It was easier to follow the old road or trail than to strike out on a new one ; but the early highway was, as we have seen, often based on an Indian trail, or even, as in the Middle West, on a buffalo trail, neither of which was noted for its directness. And where the old dirt roads had been diverted from these more or less hap-hazard lines, it was less for the purpose of straightening the course than of meeting the wishes of some person or community which had foresight enough to want the road and influence enough to get it deflected in that direction. This sort of course introduced engineering difficulties that were elsewhere— for instance, in England — unknown. The resources of American mechanics were taxed to the limit, and all sorts of devices were adopted to make the engine stick to the track ; on the other hand; however, many permanent improvements were made, such as the swivel, or bogie, truck, which permits of sharp turns.

The early locomotive. The early locomotives were not very strong ; for example, it is said that on the Mohawk and Hudson the engines had to be taken off in winter and horses used in their stead, and in some cases it is recorded that passengers often had to get out and help start the train by pushing. The locomotives were practically all wood-burners, as they were introduced prior to the coal age. Stories are told of the stop-ping of a train to allow the fireman to cut wood, the engineer and well-posted passengers getting out their fishing tackle and enjoying themselves the while. The smokestacks had to be high, and at many of the overhead bridges they had to be taken down ; and so it became a custom for a watchman to examine bridges after a train had passed, carrying with him a bucket of water in case the engine had set fire to the bridge. And the roadbeds were too flimsy to support a locomotive and train of much size ; it was thought that heavy locomotives would destroy the bed, and their size was kept down. It is not so surprising that the popular mind came but slowly to an appreciation of the nature and possibilities of the railroads. Apparently the railroad impressed the early legislator as a sort of improved common road, to be ranked with the macadamized turnpike ; at any rate, the first railroad charters were patterned directly upon turnpike charters.

Retardation of development. There was much opposition to the building of the first railroads on the part of rival transportation agencies, such as turnpike and canal companies and owners of stage lines. Tavern keepers were against the innovation because they thought they would lose business built up in connection with horseback and stage travel. But the growing cities were reaching out for the trade of adjacent country districts, the rapidly developing West was calling, and railroad construction proceeded, all things considered and despite difficulties, at a good speed. To realize this we must remember that there was a day of small things even in the powerful industry which we now accept as a matter of course. During the first decade of railroad-building only 2800 miles had been put into use; ten years later, in 1850, there were about 9000 miles. And during this time the railroads had to demonstrate their superiority over canals ; people were slow to realize their possibilities ; capital. was scarce ; and it was not known for some time whether or not the railroads could compete successfully with the waterways in the carrying of freight. Not until the middle of the century was it apparent that our railways were destined to carry heavy freight as well as passengers and packages.

No railway systems. All these facts made for retardation of development, and up to 185o our railways occupied an unimportant relation to the country's internal commerce. There was as yet no idea of a railway system ; the lines were local and isolated. Philadelphia, as the converging point 'of a number of lines, was at first the most important railway center ; New York made connection with the West by the Erie Canal, which had a big traffic both in passengers and freight. From 1840 to 1850 it was in New England that railway mileage increased most rapidly.

Outreachings toward the West. Before 1850 the railroads were located almost exclusively in the states along the Atlantic the only important line in what was then called the West was one running from Sandusky to Cincinnati. Up to 1850 the internal commerce, at least, was carried almost solely upon natural and artificial waterways and upon roads. Previous to 1850 only one line of railroad had been completed between tidewater and the great interior basins of the country, and even this line was a series of links rather than a continuous chain. These links were later absorbed into the New York Central. Carriage of freight on this line was taxed by the collection of canal tolls in addition to other charges for transportation, the result being a virtual prohibition of traffic. The commerce resulting from these early roads amounted to little until the middle of the century was passed. The line next opened, from Boston to Ogdensburg, was also composed of distinct -links ; and the third, the New York and Erie, was not opened until 1851. The fourth was the Pennsylvania, whose mountain division was opened in 1854, after a period of the use of inclined planes with stationary engines, constructed by the state. The fifth line, the Baltimore and Ohio, was opened in 1853 ; and in 1859 the Memphis and Charleston railroad finally reached the Mississippi. In the extreme north the line now known as the Grand Trunk was finished in 1853. In 1858 the Virginia system connected up with the Memphis and Charleston and the Nashville and Chattanooga railroads.

Trunk lines. Upon these original lines was erected the vast system that connects our interior with the seaboard and that served as an outlet for its products, which would have had little or no commercial value apart from cheap transportation. By i860 the railroad lines named above, assisted by the Erie Canal, afforded ample means for the speedy and cheap transportation of products seeking Eastern markets, and were entirely competent to deal with that stream of trade.

Conditions previous to the Civil War. This shows that the trunk lines were laid down between 1850 and 1860 and that the same period was experiencing the consolidation of short lines into systems. By 1853 it was possible to travel from the seaboard to Chicago by an all-rail route. In the decade after 1850 there was much activity in railroad-building in the region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi, supported by Federal grants, state subsidies, and general good times — until these last were interrupted by the panic of 1857. This calamity, followed closely by the Civil War, put a check on railroad-building which was not thoroughly shaken off till 1868. Then followed five years of intense speculation in railroad securities, during which, also, the mileage of the whole country increased 40 per cent.

Transcontinental lines—, Meanwhile there was an unparalleled extension toward the Far West. The discovery of gold in California and the movement of population thither awakened interest ; and in order to get that section connected with the East the Federal government was liberal in its gifts to companies that would undertake the tremendous task of building railroads to the Pacific coast. There was also a feeling that the Far West could be yoked closely to the free states of the North in the struggle which was threatening between North and South. Yet the idea of a railroad from New York to the Pacific had been brought forward as early as 1834. The supposed barrenness of the West and other attendant difficulties caused this proposition to attract little attention ; but Congress was finally induced, after much agitation, to grant liberal subsidies to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. Then the former built westward from the Missouri River and the latter eastward from Sacramento, which was already connected with San Francisco ; and in 1869 the two lines met, forming the first transcontinental line.

Rapid progress after the war. We left the general railroad situation, in the paragraph before the last, at 1873. The panic of that year is the next factor in railroad as well as in national history. It is said to have been caused by the too rapid building of rail-roads and the over-investment in them as much as by any other single factor. From 1873 to 1878 our railway mileage was increased by only 11,500, so that the total mileage in 1880 was only a little over 93,000. Then, during the decade following, this mileage was nearly doubled, some 73,000 miles being constructed. Though all sections of the country had their part, the central and Western sections were most active, since they were being rapidly settled and were making marked progress in material development. In some cases railways preceded settlements, preparing the way for the immigrant ; there was much flimsy construction in places, so that, as it was said, some lines consisted only of a " right of way and two streaks of rust."

Recent construction. Since 1893 the advance has been rather deliberate, the annual mileage constructed averaging about 2000 ; but with the return of prosperity, in 1898, there was a gradual recovery in rate of building, several thousands of miles being added each year. The fact of it is that traffic on our railways has increased recently much faster than the mileage built. Judging from the embargoes that have to be laid by the railways and the delays that at times are borne by those who deal with freight departments, it would seem, even to the non-expert, that the business of the country is outgrowing the available railway service. This view is held by some railway specialists. Nevertheless our railway mileage is something like two fifths that of the whole world and exceeds the combined mileage of all the countries of Europe.

Railroad rates. As the railway net of the country has expanded, numerous improvements have appeared all along the line, particularly in the service given the public ; and together with such improvements has come a marked reduction in freight and passenger rates. In the early days of railway transportation the American public paid from four to thirteen cents per ton mile for carrying goods ; in some of the early charters authority was given to charge a rate on bulky articles of ten cents a ton mile or of ten cents per cubic-foot measurement for a distance of a hundred miles. At the present time our average freight rate per ton mile is close on to ten mills, but the figure varies greatly in different parts of the country. It should be realized, though it is not generally known, that, generally speaking, a railroad depends for its revenue upon its freight service, the passenger service counting for no more than a small gain or, perhaps, even a loss. Electrification. The electrification of railway lines is a growing movement of the present day; a road so equipped spares passengers many of the worst discomforts connected with travel. It is predicted that heavy passenger trains running at rather long intervals and drawn by powerful locomotives will give place to the more frequent service of trains composed of from two to four motor cars. That would mean that the railway service is going to approximate to the trolley service, with which it has, in a number of localities, come into competition and combination. It was the invention of the dynamo that made possible the utilization of electricity to drive motor cars, and, once tested out, the latter speedily displaced the horse car ; 70 per cent of the street-railway mileage of this country was run by animal power in 1890, while today the electric car is practically universal.

Revolution wrought by the railroads. Railroads, with their numerous problems of control, capitalization,reorganization, charges, etc., come in for a good share of this country's attention. It was in connection with transportation that the American captain of industry found fields worth conquering. It was here, perhaps, that adequate opportunity was first provided for the display of the highest business ability. Our great accomplishments in railway engineering and operation have been brought about within the lifetime of some of our oldest fellow citizens. This has meant a tremendous industrial revolution through the substitution in transportation of mechanical for muscular power. The astonishing rapidity of these improvements in transportation forms a very good measure of the pace of industrial progress not only in this country but in the world at large during the period since the invention of the steam locomotive.

Home | More Articles | Email: