Railroads originated in 16th century England, when mine operators laid wooden rails across muddy ruts so wagons heavy with coal wouldn't get stuck. Over time, they started reinforcing the planks of wood with steel and iron to give them permanence and durability. The efficiency of rolling horse-drawn carriages over rails soon made its way to America, with horses eventually replaced by steam-powered locomotives. On August 28, 1830, the first American railroad opened for business with the public.
Horse-Drawn Tram Roads
Before the advent of railroads to carry freight and passengers generally, several tram-type systems were built in the United States to serve specific projects, and many of these are claimed as the country's "first" railroad. One such system was built by merchant Thomas Leiper to transport stone from his own quarries in Pennsylvania, and its route is delineated on an 1809 survey map. Another took shape in 1826, when wooden planks and ties were laid in Quincy, Massachusetts, to transport tons of granite from quarries there to build the Bunker Hill memorial monument. Although considered something of a novelty, the Granite Railway proved its worth when a single horse easily pulled a 21-ton load along its tracks. Regular trips along the 3 miles of track continued until the monument was completed in 1843.
Stevens Steams Ahead
Meanwhile, an affluent New Jersey inventor named John Stevens experimented with steam engines for land-based transportation. After several successful efforts using steam to power boats, Stevens believed the engines could be adapted to power vehicles that would ride across the country on rails. In 1812, Stevens published a pamphlet arguing that "steam carriages" were the way of the future and railroads were superior to waterways for transporting passengers and freight. In 1815, Stevens convinced the New Jersey legislature to pass an act to build a railroad. Although he could never raise the money for the project, it was in effect America's first railroad charter. In 1826, Stevens unveiled an experimental steam-powered locomotive and demonstrated its utility on a track built on the grounds of his estate. Three years later, George Stephenson would introduce the first practical steam locomotive in Great Britain.
A Momentous Occasion
On February 28, 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad secured a charter for rail transport of freight and passengers and soon after became the first railroad to actually do so. Baltimore was at the time the second largest city in the country. The B&O broke ground for the railroad on July 4, 1828 in an elaborate ceremony featuring Charles Carroll, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, another groundbreaking ceremony took place on the same day for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance. Since both the canal and the railroad began in Maryland and intended to reach the Ohio River, an increasingly important route for trade and emigration, they frequently competed for land rights.
In August of 1830, B&O officially began carrying freight and passengers commercially. Initially, the track ran 13 miles between Baltimore and Ellicott City, Maryland. Until 1831, when it placed the first American-built steam locomotive in service, B&O's trains were pulled by horses. By 1852 the company had laid track all the way to Wheeling, West Virginia, fulfilling the promise made in the company's name to connect the city of Baltimore to the Ohio River. The B&O continued laying track, reaching St. Louis in 1857 and Chicago in 1874. When B&O celebrated its centennial in 1927, it was the oldest railroad in continuous operation in the world.
- The Library of Congress American Memory: History of Railroads and Maps
- Thomas Crane Public Library: The First Railroad in America
- The Library of Congress American Memory: Today in History -- February 28
- National Park Service: The C&O and B&O
- B&O Museum: History of the Museum
- Rutgers University Libraries: All Aboard! Railroads and New Jersey, 1812-1930
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