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Railroads America - Across The Alleghanies

( Originally Published 1927 )

AS in England, so in Pennsylvania it was the needs of the coal mines that led to the first use of railways. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company—which brought the "Stourbridge Lion" to the United States in 1829—had built a gravity railroad in 1828 for the purpose of carrying coal to convenient shipping points. This was the enterprise of the Philadelphia Quakers, William and Maurice blurts, who wanted to connect their coal mines in the valley of the Lackawanna with tide-water on the Hudson River by means of a canal. The railroad filled up a gap seventeen miles long and was constructed of eight inclined planes from one to four miles in length.

The first railroad built across the Alleghany Mountains was the Portage Road, which also utilized inclined planes. This formed a link in the system of canals and horse-railways built by the state of Pennsylvania to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The whole distance of three hundred and ninety-three miles between the two cities was covered in four sections. From Philadelphia to Columbia, eighty-two miles, there was a horse-railway, completed in 1833. At Columbia passengers and freight were transferred to the boats of the Pennsylvania Canal, which reached one hundred and seventy-two miles to Hollidaysburg, at the eastern foot of the Alleghanies. The canal boats were built in sections, and at Hollidaysburg they were taken apart, loaded on wheeled trucks, and carried to Johnstown on the other side of the mountains by the Portage Road. From Johnstown to Pittsburgh the journey was made by the western division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The Portage Road was thirty-six miles in length, and crossed the mountains at Blair's Gap, the summit of which was 2326 feet above the sea. The railroad passed over eleven levels, ten inclined planes, four viaducts, and through a tunnel. The trains of four cars each were drawn up and let down by stationary engines, one train ascending as the other descended. The rails were chained to cross blocks of sandstone. The Portage was a remarkable achievement and was in constant use until the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1854 built its tracks over the Alleghanies.

When the "De Witt Clinton" made its famous run from Albany to Schenectady on August 9, 1831, there was no railroad west of the Alleghanies and south of the Ohio River, but in that year the citizens of Lexington, Kentucky, began to plan a railway of their own from Lexington to Frankfort, the nearest important town on the Kentucky River. Henry Clay was one of the influential stockholders of the new line. The roadbed, as it was first built, was made of longitudinal limestone sills with cross-ties laid beneath them every four or five feet. The rails were strips of iron, fastened to the sills by means of lead or sulphur. The frosts of the first winter broke the stone sills and they were replaced by wood. The road was laid on a very crooked pattern, advocated by the engineers, who said that the conductor would be able to look back along the curves and see the passengers in the rear cars. The cars that were first used were two story vehicles, something like stagecoaches ; the lower story was for women and children, the upper for men, although in summer weather before the locomotive replaced the horses or mules that originally pulled the cars many women preferred to sit on the top deck. The first locomotive was a very primitive affair made by a Lexington mechanic; it had no cab, and the tender was an open box-car that held a small supply of wood and a hogshead of water which was filled by pumping from a well at the side of the road. In place of a pilot or "cow-catcher" two large beams stuck out in front and hickory brooms were attached to them for sweeping the track. When the locomotive was first put on the railway the directors invited guests to make a trip to Frankfort in a "brigade" of little platform cars. When the train drew near Frankfort snow began to fall and the engineer stopped his locomotive under a shed and refused to drive it further, stating that the wet track would be likely to derail the train. As the snow continued to fall the celebrating party had to get down from the cars and return home on foot.

At Frankfort, which is situated in a valley, the trains of the Lexington Railroad were lowered down an incline by a stationary engine, and on one occasion the cable broke and a train dashed down at tremendous speed, knocking out the end of the depot and smashing up the cars as well as injuring some of the passengers.

The first railroad in Ohio was the Mad River and Lake Erie, which ran from Springfield to Sandusky. Work on this was begun in September, 1835. The first engine used on the road was the "Sandusky," which is said to have been the first locomotive to have a regular steam-whistle; the "Sandusky" was built at Paterson, New Jersey, by an American, William Swinburne, who volunteered to construct a steam-engine when an English mechanical draughtsman who had been engaged by the company was unable to complete a satisfactory locomotive.

On the western prairies the pioneer road was the Northern Cross, later known as the Great Wabash. Originally this line extended from Meredosia, on the Illinois River, to Springfield, Illinois. The legislature of Illinois appropriated in 1837 the sum of ten million dollars for state improvements, and a large part of this was to be spent on railroads. Work on several roads began, but then came a financial crash, and construction on all the lines was suspended except on that of the Northern Cross, which was almost completed, and which was quickly finished to Spring-field. The first locomotive was placed on the track on November 8, 1838. The cab of this engine was open to the sky; it had no whistle, no spark-arrester, no "cow-catcher"; its speed was about six miles an hour, and six inches of snow were enough to block its passage. The historian of this road, A. A. Graham, tells of a meeting between the engineer Daniels and an angry bull who took up his station on the track before the train and refused to budge. Says the account : "Daniels came up to him, but unflinchingly and defiantly he held his place. Daniels shouted, threw sticks of wood at him and swore, but all to no purpose ; the bull had the track and meant to keep it. Daniels backed his train and came up again, making all the noise he could, but this only incensed the bull, and immovably he kept his place. The third time the engineer tried to scare him off by touching him with the engine, but there he stood, master of the situation. By this time Daniels got mad and said : `By Dads, I'll try which has the hardest head!'

"The meeting came near being disastrous to both, but Taurus went tumbling down the bank, never to repeat his experiment."

The Northern Cross was not a profitable venture at the outset, and its first locomotive had a checkered career. The engineer ran it off the track, burnt out the flues, and it was left abandoned on the prairie. Afterwards it was purchased by General Semples, of Alton, who had the notion of using road locomotives on the plains; he put on a new set of wheels, with tires two feet wide, changed the construction of the engine, and made a trial trip from Alton to Springfield. He found it necessary to take along a yoke of oxen to pull the locomotive out of mud-holes, and that one trip was sufficient to prove to him that he could not make his new-fangled road engine pay.

Here and there in the east and the middle west there were now short lines of railroads serving business centres. The next step was the organization of these scattered roads into larger systems, which, by means of branches connecting with main trunk lines, should knit up farming communities with the growing cities and thus unite the country in a compact, commercial whole. The Baltimore and Ohio Rail-road was a pioneer in this new development, reaching, with many branches, from Chesapeake Bay westward. In New York City Commodore Vanderbilt, a promoter of canals and steamboats, formed a company to buy up various small eastern lines and consolidated them in the New York Central. The Pennsylvania Central—now the Pennsylvania Railroad—was built out of many lines to furnish trans-port from the Atlantic over the mountains and as far as the Mississippi. The Erie Railroad had a network over four hundred miles long. The Rock Island Rail-road pushed out from Chicago, crossed the Mississippi in 1859 and extended west on the plains.

Westward the Star of Empire takes its course ! Intrepid adventurers and pioneer families in their Conestoga wagons had toiled across the great plains and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains to the fertile Pacific valleys; now in their footsteps came the railroad builders, men of far vision and indomitable courage, to link the two oceans with their steam-driven steeds.

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