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Railroads America - Pioneer Railroad Travel In The East

( Originally Published 1927 )

MASSACHUSETTS was somewhat slower than some of the other states to build steam railroads, but when she had once begun proceeded ambitiously. The Boston and Lowell, the Boston and Providence, and the Boston and Worcester railroads were all opened for service in 1835. On the Worcester road the passenger cars were shaped like coaches and ran on single trucks ; the cars for freight were constructed like wagons and had canvas covers similar to those used on the Conestoga wagons. Previous to the opening of the railway baggage-wagons had made the journey from Worcester to Boston in a week if the weather was fine; the trip by locomotive was accomplished in three hours. Advertisements announced that steam trains would run on this line "three times each day during the warm season, and twice a day during the cold season, excepting Sundays."

In New England the same objections were made to the new idea as had been launched in old England. Great damage would be done to the farmers, horses would no longer be needed and there would be no market for oats and hay, domestic animals would be injured by the noise of locomotives, property would be destroyed by the sparks from the engines. Each successive plan for a new road roused more criticism, opposition and abuse. The Boston Courier of June 27, 1827, declared: "The project of a railroad from Boston to Albany is impracticable, as every one knows who knows the simplest rule of arithmetic, and the expense would be little less than the market value of the whole territory of Massachusetts; and which, if practicable, every person of common sense knows would be as useless as a railroad from Boston to the moon."

As late as 1842 the people of Dorchester resolved in a town meeting : "That our representatives be instructed to use their utmost endeavors to prevent, if possible, so great a calamity to our town as must be the location of any railroad through it, and if that cannot be prevented, to diminish this calamity as far as possible" by building the road through the marshes and over creeks.

A railroad was built, however, from Boston to Albany through the Berkshire hills and completed in December, 1841. Officials from Boston and neighboring eastern towns made a triumphal journey over the new line, and some of the party from New Bedford, to celebrate the astonishing fact of their arrival in Albany fifteen hours after starting out, had some spermaceti candles specially moulded, took the candles on the trip, and lighted them at the civic banquet held in Albany in honor of the event. Next day the authorities of Albany made the return journey to Boston with their eastern guests and not to be outdone by the New Bedford candles the New Yorkers carried with them a barrel of flour, the wheat for which had been threshed at Rochester two days before. This flour, made into bread, graced the board at the dinner given in Boston to the officials of the two cities and other guests.

These pioneer railroads expedited travel, but journeys by train had many drawbacks. Accidents were frequent, sometimes passengers were injured, some-times only discommoded. The locomotive would get into trouble and the train would have to be pulled to the next station by horses or oxen and a long wait made until the engine could be repaired. On some lines the roadbed of the track was made of a stone wall surmounted by a rail of split granite about a foot in thickness and depth, with a bar of iron on top for the carriage wheels. Such a rock-bedded road caused constant jarring of the train, which tired the passengers. The cars usually had no springs, and the train was stopped by a hand or foot brake, which jolted the carriages almost as severely as though they had met with a collision. Occasionally the brake-power was even more primitive ; on the Newcastle and Frenchtown Railroad it was the custom for the engineer to open his safety valve on reaching a station and then several negroes would seize the last car and attempt to hold it while the station agent would put sticks of wood through the spokes of the wheels and so arrest the momentum.

The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad used in 1836 what was called a Monitor or raised roof car. This was longer and lower than the customary passenger cars patterned on the stagecoach and the seats were placed around the sides as in an omnibus. The car was entered from the side and at each end was a small room, one for toilet purposes and the other furnished with a bar, where passengers could obtain refreshments to while away the tedium of the journey.

Freight cars on the pioneer roads were often called "burthen" cars; trains were referred to as "brigades" of cars. The freight cars were built like boxes, a little longer than they were wide, with a wheel at each corner. Some of the locomotives had very large driving-wheels, twelve feet in diameter. One rail-road solved the problem of a head-light by placing a quantity of pitch-pine on a platform car, the floor being thickly covered with sand. The platform car preceded the engine and the blazing pine-knots brightly illuminated the track. Most of the early railroads used wooden rails upon which strap iron was spiked. Frequently these strap rails, owing to the weight of the trains on their central sections and the action of heat and frost, would curl up, and then, when the ends of the rails were struck by a car-wheel, they would sometimes be driven up through the bottom of the car and the engineer would have to stop the train and pound down the "snake-head," as the curled end was called, or have an assistant hold the rail down with a lever while the train passed over it.

In England the term "coach," reminiscent of stagecoach days, clung to railway carriages; in America, however, probably due to the circumstance that the coach-like vehicle was early discarded on the roads, the railway carriage was frequently called a "car." In coaching days travellers "booked" seats for a ride, and in England ticket-agents still employ the phrase of "booking" passengers for the railway coaches. This expression was also originally used on the American roads, where it was often the custom to write the names of the passengers in a book at the railroad station ; but the custom was gradually given up as the volume of travel increased.

The passengers were a motley crowd. Most of them considered the new railroads a great improvement on the stagecoaches, but there were some who still hankered after the more leisurely method of travelling. Samuel Breck, of Boston, made this entry in his journal:

"July 22, 1835.-This morning at nine oclock I took passage in a railroad car (from Boston) for Providence. Five or six other cars were attached to the locomotive, and uglier boxes I do not wish to travel in. They were made to stow away some thirty human beings, who sit cheek by jowl as best they can.

Two poor fellows, who were not much in the habit of making their toilet, squeezed me into a corner, while the hot sun drew from their garments a villainous compound of smells, made up of salt-fish, tar, and molasses. By-and-by, just twelve—only twelve—bouncing factory girls were introduced, who were going on a party of pleasure to Newport. `Make room for the ladies!' bawled out the superintendent. `Come, gentlemen, jump up on the top; plenty of room there."I'm afraid of the bridge knocking my brains out,' said a passenger. Some made one excuse, and some another. For my part, I flatly told him that since I had belonged to the corps of Silver Grays I had lost my gallantry, and did not intend to move. The whole twelve were, however, introduced, and soon made themselves at home, sucking lemons, and eating green apples. . The rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the polite and the vulgar, all herd together in this modern improvement in travelling. . . . And all this for the sake of doing very uncomfortably in two days what would be done delightfully in eight or ten."

Charles Dickens made a visit to the United States in 1842, and described his adventures in his "American Notes." One adventure was an excursion from Boston to Lowell. This is the picture he gives of his railway experience :

"I made acquaintance with an American railroad, on this occasion, for the first time. As these works are pretty much alike all through the States, their general characteristics are easily described.

"There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there is a gentleman's car and a ladies' car : the main distinction between which is that in the first, everybody smokes ; and in the second, no-body does. As a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car; which is a great blundering clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in, from the kingdom of Brobdingnag. There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell.

"The cars are like shabby omnibuses, but larger : holding thirty, forty, fifty, people. The seats, instead of stretching from end to end, are placed crosswise. Each seat holds two persons. There is a long row of them on each side of the caravan, a narrow passage up the middle, and a door at both ends. In the centre of the carriage there is usually a stove, fed with char-coal or anthracite coal ; which is for the most part red-hot. It is insufferably close; and you see the hot air fluttering between yourself and any other object you may happen to look at, like the ghost of smoke.

"In the ladies' car, there are a great many gentle-men who have ladies with them. There are also a great many ladies who have nobody with them : for any lady may travel alone, from one end of the United States to the other, and be certain of the most courteous and considerate treatment everywhere. The conductor or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be, wears no uniform. He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates ; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him. A great many newspapers are pulled out, and a few of them are read. Everybody talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.

"Except when a branch road joins the main one, there is seldom more than one track of rails ; so that the road is very narrow, and the view, where there is a deep cutting, by no means extensive. When there is not, the character of the scenery is always the same. Mile after mile of stunted trees: some hewn down by the axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbors, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips. . . . Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen : the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water—all so like the last that you seem to have been transported back again by magic.

"The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out, is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in. It rushes across the turnpike road, where there is no gate, no policeman, no signal : nothing but a rough wooden arch, on which is painted `When the bell rings, look out for the Locomotive.' On it whirls headlong, dives through the woods again, emerges in the light, clatters over frail arches, rumbles upon the heavy ground, shoots beneath a wooden bridge which intercepts the light for a second like a wink, suddenly awakens all the slumbering echoes in the main street of a large town, and dashes on haphazard, pell-mell, neck or nothing, down the middle of the road. There—with mechanics working at their trades, and people leaning from their doors and windows, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, and pigs burrowing, and unaccustomed horses plunging and rearing, close to the very rails—there—on, on, on—tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars; scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its wood fire ; screeching, hissing, yelling, panting ; until at last the thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink, the people cluster round, and you have time to breathe again."

Other Trans-Atlantic travellers were more favorably impressed by the railroads of the United States. An Englishman, Joseph Biggs, who crossed the ocean in 1837, wrote in his diary : "There is no country where you can travel with such facility and cheapness as in America. There are already railways throughout all the New England States to every town of importance, and some thousand miles in progress in the South and West. In a few years you will be able to pass from the Gulf of Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, from icebergs to orange groves in five days.

"Whilst the English have almost stood still contemplating with great complacency the two or three splendid railways which they have made, the Americans have laid down many hundreds of miles. There is certainly no unnecessary expense incurred in their construction. The line appears in places like a huge frame of timber laid on the ground, on which the rails are screwed; the sleepers are not filled up with earth, and often in passing a marsh or a lagoon the single line is barely wide enough for the train.

"The engineers seem to have the `power' under better control than we have ; I have seen a train moving at the rate of seventeen miles an hour stopped in forty yards. The engine carries a sort of large shovel in front, which removes obstacles on the rails. Riding on the engine of a Washington train at night I saw a cow lying on the rails. We were upon her at once, and I expected a terrible concussion, instead of which the shovel scooped her up and carried her a few yards, when she fell off on the roadside and the train passed on scathless."

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