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Railroads America - Needs Of The New Republic

( Originally Published 1927 )



AS pioneers moved from the rocky fields of New England to the fertile Genesee Valley and as other adventurers crossed the Alleghanies the requirements of better means of communication and transport increased apace. Western New York was found to be a farmer's paradise, where wonderful crops of corn, wheat and other grains could be easily raised. But when the settlers had supplied their own wants the balance of their crops was useless to them; it cost $126 to carry a ton of freight from Buffalo to Albany, and that was very much more than a ton of wheat was worth.

Roads would not solve the problem, and so the people of New York State began to study waterways. From this study emerged the Erie Canal, connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River. This canal made the fortune of New York and brought within easy reach of the seaboard the country known as the Middle West. The city on Manhattan Island, which had been exceeded in population, wealth and business by Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, now jumped into the lead and became the nation's commercial metropolis, the gateway of the new world. To offset this Baltimore planned a canal connecting Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, and Philadelphia a canal from the Susquehanna River to the Ohio, but the territories to be traversed were so mountainous that competition with the Erie Canal and its various branches was found to be impracticable.

Emigrants pressed west, seeking new farms and homesteads ; through Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio there was a steady stream of fortune-hunters, carrying with them their household goods and live-stock, and floating down the river until they saw fields that attracted them.

The Ohio was the great road, for of all the larger rivers in the eastern part of the country, it is the only one that slopes westward. This stream transported the pioneers that settled Kentucky, much of Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, and sections of the river country in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. As land was tilled and trade began Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville became centres of manufacturing and shipping and the waterways were dotted with the flatboats of the farmers carrying produce to market.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened the lower Mississippi River to northern commerce and New Orleans became a busy port. When navigation by steam was demonstrated to be a practical proposition traders in the western country adopted the steam-boat. This boomed business on the Ohio and lower Mississippi, and in 1839 the trade of New Orleans equalled that of New York, although the Erie Canal soon allowed New York to underbid its southern rival for transportation of freight from the north to the sea. Meantime also the fur trade was increasing in importance and steamboats on the Missouri River connected St. Louis, the fur headquarters, with the country between the Kansas and Nebraska rivers, from where an overland trail was to carry pioneers across the continent to Oregon and California.

In a country of such vast proportions transportation was all-important and the use of steam as a propulsive power engaged the attention of many minds. As has already been stated, an American, Oliver Evans, invented a steam-carriage in 1772. At about the time when Trevethick was exhibiting his locomotive in England Evans was driving through the streets of Philadelphia in a steam-wagon, built like a boat on wheels, which he called the "Oruktor Amphibolis." In a book published in 1813 he made this prophecy :

"The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam-engines from one city to an-other, almost as fast as birds can fly, fifteen or twenty miles an hour.

"Passing through the air with such velocity, changing the scenes in such rapid succession, will be the most exhilarating exercise.

"A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast in Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup at New York the same day.

"To accomplish this, two sets of railways will be laid (so nearly level as not to deviate more than two degrees from a horizontal line), made of wood or iron, on smooth paths of broken stone or gravel, with a rail to guide the carriages, so that they may pass each other in different directions, and travel by night as well as by day; and the passengers will sleep in these stages as comfortably as they now do in steam stage boats.

"Twenty miles per hour is about thirty-two feet per second, and the resistance of the air will then be about one pound to the square foot; but the body of the carriages will be shaped like a swift-swimming fish, to pass easily through the air... .

"The United States will be the first nation to make this discovery, and to adopt the system, and her wealth and power will rise to an unparalleled height."

This vision of steam railways was shared by Colonel John Stevens, of Hoboken, who wrote this letter to the New York Commissioners for the Improvement of Internal Navigation in 1812

"Let a railway of timber be formed, by the nearest practicable route between Lake Erie and Albany, the angle of elevation in no part to exceed one degree, or such an elevation, whatever it may be, as will admit of wheel carriages, to remain stationary, whenever no power is exerted to propel them forward. This railway throughout its course to be supported on pillars raised from three to five or six feet above the surface of the ground. The carriage wheels of cast iron, the rims flat, with projecting flanges, to fit on the surface of the railways. The moving power to be a steam-engine nearly similar in construction to the one on board the `Juliana,' a ferryboat plying between this city and Hoboken."

The commissioners, however, thought that Colonel Stevens' project would be too expensive, and also objected, as so many were objecting in England, that the locomotive would not have grip or bite enough to draw a heavy load along the rails. Stevens said that his railroad could be tested at a cost of about three thousand dollars, but his offer was not taken up.

The first actual railway in the United States was the "Granite Railroad," sometimes called the "Experiment Railroad," constructed by Gridley Bryant in 1826. This was used to carry heavy blocks of granite for the building of the Bunker Hill Monument from the quarries at Quincy, Massachusetts, to the docks four miles away. Bryant had studied the rail-ways of George Stephenson and had made some inventions of his own, such as the switch, the portable-derrick, and the eight-wheeled car, all of which he used on the Quincy road. This railway, the vehicles drawn by horses, excited the greatest curiosity and admiration throughout the country.

The Quincy road had a considerable incline from the quarries to the landing-place on the Neponset River, and a single horse could draw immense loads over the rails. From the wharf the granite blocks were towed around the harbor by a steam tow-boat to their destination at Charlestown. The cost of the railroad was about thirty-four thousand dollars. There was a double track made of stone ties placed eight feet apart and upon these were laid longitudinal beams plated on the top with iron. The cars carried their load on a platform slung under the axle or, if the blocks were very large, they were held in place by chains. The wheels were made of wood, six feet in diameter, and were shod with iron, with a flange on the inner side of the rim. To clear the road-way of snow a snow-plough was invented, which is described thus by a contemporary writer : "Even the late snow, which is deeper than has before fallen for several years, has presented no obstruction. On first passing, while the snow was light, two pieces of plank were placed before the car, meeting in an angle at the centre, and drawn along the rails, and by this means the snow was effectually removed, so as to render the travelling of the wheels as free as in summer."

The next railway built was the "Gravity" road, of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, which was completed in May, 1827. This was nine miles in length and was used to carry coal from the Summit mines in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, to a landing on the Lehigh River. The railway was constructed with a series of inclines and the cars were moved by gravity and mule-power. The mules were allowed to ride down the inclines on sliding platforms, and it is said that they enjoyed this sport so much that they always refused to walk down the slopes.

Canals were still regarded as the best method of transporting freight and passengers any consider-able distance, but, although they could be carried over hills by means of locks and inclined planes, they could not be constructed across mountain ranges. For this some other method must be adopted, and therefore, when reports came of George Stephenson's success with his new steam-wagons, the officials of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company sent their assistant engineer, Horatio Allen, to England to attend the prize competition of locomotives at Rainhill and to purchase three of Stephenson's engines.



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