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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Railroad Builders

John Moody

in the
Chronicles of America series,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1921

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p1  Chapter I
A Century of Railroad Building

The United States as we know it today is largely the result of mechanical inventions, and in particular of agricultural machinery and the railroad. One transformed millions of acres of uncultivated land into fertile farms, while the other furnished the transportation which carried the crops to distant markets. Before these inventions appeared, it is true, Americans had crossed the Alleghanies, reached the Mississippi Valley, and had even penetrated to the Pacific coast; thus in a thousand years or so the United States might conceivably have become a far-reaching, straggling, loosely jointed Roman Empire, depending entirely upon its oceans, internal watercourses, and imperial highways for such economic and political integrity as it might  p2 achieve. But the great miracle of the nineteenth century — the building of a new nation, reaching more than three thousand miles from sea to sea, giving sustenance to more than one hundred million free people, and diffusing among them the necessities and comforts of civilization to a greater extent than the world had ever known before — is explained by the development of harvesting machinery and of the railroad.

The railroad is sprung from the application of two fundamental ideas — one the use of a mechanical means of developing speed, the other the use of a smooth running surface to diminish friction. Though these two principles are today combined, they were originally absolutely distinct. In fact there were railroads long before there were steam engines or locomotives. If we seek the real predecessor of the modern railroad track, we must go back three hundred years to the wooden rails on which were drawn the little cars used in English collieries to carry the coal from the mines to tidewater. The natural history of this invention is clear enough. The driving of large coal wagons along the public highway made deep ruts in the road,a1 and some ingenious person began repairing the damage by laying wooden planks in the furrows.  p3 The coal wagons drove over this crude railroad so successfully that certain proprietors started constructing special planked roadways from the mines to the river mouth. Logs, forming what we now call "ties," were placed crosswise at intervals of three or four feet, and upon these supports thin "rails," likewise of wood, were laid lengthwise. So effectually did this arrangement reduce friction that a single horse could now draw a great wagon filled with coal — an operation which two or three teams, lunging over muddy roads, formerly had great difficulty in performing. In order to lengthen the life of the road, a thin sheeting of iron was presently laid upon the wooden rail. The next improvement was an attempt to increase the durability of the wagons by making the wheels of iron. It was not, however, until 1767, when the first rails were cast entirely of iron with a flange at one side to keep the wheel steadily in place, that the modern roadbed in all its fundamental principles made its appearance. This, be it observed, was only two years after Watt had patented his first steam engine, and it was nearly fifty years before Stephenson built his first locomotive. The railroad originally was as completely dissociated from steam propulsion as was the ship. Just as vessels had  p4 existed for ages before the introduction of mechanical power, so the railroad had been a familiar sight in the mining districts of England for at least two centuries before the invention of Watt really gave it wings and turned it over to wider uses. In this respect the progress of the railroad resembles that of the automobile, which had existed in crude form long before the invention of the gasoline engine made it practically useful.

In the United States three new methods of transportation made their appearance at almost the same time — the steamboat, the canal boat, and the rail car. Of all three, the last was the slowest in attaining popularity. As early as 1812 John Stevens, of Hoboken, aroused much interest and more amused hostility by advocating the building of a railroad, instead of a canal, across New York State from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, and for several years this indefatigable spirit journeyed from town to town and from State to State, in a fruitless effort to push his favorite scheme. The great success of the Erie Canal was finally hailed as a conclusive argument against all the ridiculous claims made in favor of the railroad and precipitated a canal mania which spread all over the country.

 p5  Yet the enthusiasts for railroads could not be discouraged, and presently the whole population divided into two camps, the friends of the canal, and the friends of the iron highway. Newspapers acrimoniously championed either side; the question was a favorite topic with debating societies; public meetings and conventions were held to uphold one method of transportation and to decry the other. The canal, it was urged, was not an experiment; it had been tested and not found wanting; already the great achievement of De Witt Clinton in completing the Erie Canal had made New York City the metropolis of the western world. The railroad, it was asserted, was just as emphatically an experiment; no one could tell whether it could ever succeed; why, therefore, pour money and effort into this new form of transportation when the other was a demonstrated success?

It was a simple matter to find fault with the railroad; it has always been its fate to arouse the opposition of the farmers. This hostility appeared early and was based largely upon grounds that have a familiar sound even today. The railroad, they said, was a natural monopoly; no private citizen could hope ever to own one; it was thus a kind of monster which, if encouraged, would override  p6 all popular rights. From this economic criticism the enemies of the railroad passed to details of construction: the rails would be washed out by rains; they could be destroyed by mischievous people; they would snap under the cold of winter or be buried under the snow for a considerable period, thus stopping all communication. The champions of artificial waterways would point in contrast to the beautiful packet boats on the Erie Canal, with their fine sleeping rooms, their restaurants, their spacious decks on which the fine ladies and gentlemen congregated every warm summer day, and would insist that such kind of travel was far more comfortable than it could ever be on railroads. To all these pleas the advocates of the railroad had one unassailable argument — its infinitely greater speed. After all, it took a towboat three or four days to go from Albany to Buffalo, and the time was not far distant, they argued, when a railroad would make the same trip in less than a day. Indeed, our forefathers made one curious mistake: they predicted a speed for the railroad — a hundred miles an hour — which it has never attained consistently with safety.b

If the American of today could transport himself to one of the first railroad lines built in the United  p7 States it is not unlikely that he would side with the canal enthusiast in his argument. The rough pictures which accompany most accounts of early railroad days, showing a train of omnibus-like carriages pulled by a locomotive with upright boiler, really represent a somewhat advanced stage of development. Though Stephenson had demonstrated the practicability of the locomotive in 1814 and although the American, John Stevens, had constructed one in 1826 which had demonstrated its ability to take a curve, local prejudice against this innovation continued strong. The farmers asserted that the sparks set fire to their hayricks and barns and that the noise frightened their hens so that they would not lay and their cows so that they could not give milk. On the earliest railroads, therefore, almost any other method of propulsion was preferred. Horses and dogs were used, winches turned by men were occasionally installed, and in some cases cars were even fitted with sails.c Of all these methods, the horse was the most popular: he sent out no sparks, he carried his own fuel, he made little noise, and he would not explode. His only failing was that he would leave the track; and to remedy this defect the early railroad builders hit upon a happy device. Sometimes they would fix a  p8 treadmill inside the car; two horses would patiently propel the caravan, the seats for passengers being arranged on either side. So unformed was the prevalent conception of the ultimate function of the railroad, and so pronounced was the fear of monopoly that, on certain lines, the roadbed was laid as a state enterprise and the users furnished their own cars, just as the individual owners of towboats did on the canals. The drivers, however, were an exceedingly tough lot; no schedules were observed and as the first lines had only single tracks and infrequent turnouts, when the opposing sides would meet each other coming and going, precedence was usually awarded to the side which had the stronger arm. The roadbed showed little improvement over the mine tramways of the eighteenth century, and the rails were only long wooden stringers with strap iron nailed on top. So undeveloped were the resources of the country that the builders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 petitioned Congress to remit the duty on the iron which it was compelled to import from England. The trains consisted of a string of little cars, with the baggage piled on the roof, and when they reached a hill they sometimes had to be pulled up the inclined plane by a rope. Yet the traveling in these earliest days  p9 was probably more comfortable than in those which immediately followed the general adoption of locomotives. When, five or ten years later, the advantages of mechanical as opposed to animal traction caused engines to be introduced extensively, the passengers behind them rode through constant smoke and hot cinders that made railway travel an incessant torture.d

Yet the railroad speedily demonstrated its practical value; many of the first lines were extremely profitable, and the hostility with which they had been first received soon changed to an enthusiasm which was just as unreasoning. The speculative craze which invariably follows a new discovery swept over the country in the thirties and the forties and manifested itself most unfortunately in the new Western States — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. Here bonfires and public meetings whipped up the zeal; people believed that railroads would not only immediately open the wilderness and pay the interest on the bonds issued to construct them, but that they would become a source of revenue to sadly depleted state treasuries. Much has been heard of government ownership in recent years; yet it is nothing particularly new, for many of the early railroads in these new Western States  p10 were built as government enterprises, with results which were frequently disastrous. The mania, with the land speculation accompanying it, was largely responsible for the panic of 1837 and led to that repudiation of debts in certain States which for so many years gave American investments an evil reputation abroad.

In the more settled parts of the country, however, railroad building had comparatively a more solid foundation. Yet the railroad map of the forties indicates that railroad building in this early period was incoherent and haphazard. Practically everywhere the railroad was an individual enterprise; the builders had no further conception of it than as a line connecting two given points usually a short distance apart. The roads of those days began anywhere and ended almost anywhere. A few miles of iron rail connected Albany and Schenectady. There was a road from Hartford to New Haven, but there was none from New Haven to New York. A line connected Philadelphia with Columbia; Baltimore had a road to Washington; Charleston, South Carolina, had a similar contact with Hamburg in the same State. By 1842, New York State, from Albany to Buffalo, possessed several disconnected stretches of railroad. It was  p11 not until 1836, when work was begun on the Erie Railroad, that a plan was adopted for a single line reaching several hundred miles from an obvious point, such as New York, to an obvious destination, such as Lake Erie. Even then a few farsighted men could foresee the day when the railroad train would cross the plains and the Rockies and link the Atlantic and the Pacific. Yet, in 1850 nearly all the railroads in the United States lay east of the Mississippi River, and all of them, even when they were physically mere extensions of one another, were separately owned and separately managed.

Successful as many of the railroads were, they had hardly yet established themselves as the one preëminent means of transportation. The canal had lost in the struggle for supremacy, but certain of these constructed waterways, particularly the Erie, were flourishing with little diminished vigor. The river steamboat had enjoyed a development in the first few decades of the nineteenth century almost as great as that of the railroad itself. The Mississippi River was the great natural highway for the products and the passenger traffic of the South Central States; it had made New Orleans one of the largest and most flourishing cities in the  p12 country; and certainly the rich cotton planter of the fifties would have smiled at any suggestion that the "floating palaces" which plied this mighty stream would ever surrender their preëminence to the rusty and struggling railroads which wound along its banks.

This period, which may be taken as the first in American railroad development, ended about the middle of the century. It was an age of great progress but not of absolutely assured success. A few lines earned handsome profits, but in the main the railroad business was not favorably regarded and railroad investments everywhere were held in suspicion. The condition that prevailed in many railroads is illustrated by the fact that the directors of the Michigan and Southern, when they held their annual meeting in 1853, had to borrow chairs from an adjoining office as the sheriff had walked away with their own for debt. Even a railroad with such a territory as the Hudson River Valley, and extending from New York to Albany existed in a state of dilapidation; and the New York and Harlem, which had an entrance into New York City as an asset of incalculable value, was looked upon merely as a vehicle for Wall Street speculation.

 p13  Meanwhile the increasing traffic in farm products, mules, and cattle from the Northwest to the plantations of the South created a demand for more ample transportation facilities. In the decade before the Civil War various north and south lines of railway were projected and some of these were assisted by grants of land from the Federal Government. The first of these, the Illinois Central, received a huge land-grant in 1850 and ultimately reached the Gulf at Mobile by connecting with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad which had also been assisted by Federal grants. But the panic of 1857, followed by the Civil War, halted all railroad enterprises. In the year 1856 some 3600 miles of railroad had been constructed; in 1865 only 700 were laid down. The Southern railroads were prostrated by the war and north and south lines lost all but local traffic.

After the war a brisk recovery began and brought to the fore the first of the great railroad magnates and the shrewdest business genius of the day, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though he had spent his early life and had laid the basis of his fortune in steamboats, he was the first man to appreciate the fact that these two methods of transportation were about to change places — that water transportation  p14 was to decline and that rail transportation was to gain the ascendancy. It was about 1865 that Vanderbilt acted on this farsighted conviction, promptly sold out his steamboats for what they would bring, and began buying railroads despite the fact that his for friends warned him that, in his old age, he was wrecking the fruits of a hard and thrifty life. But Vanderbilt perceived what most American business men of the time failed to see, that a change had come over the railroad situation as a result of the Civil War.

The time extending from 1860 to about 1875 marks the second stage in the railroad activity of the United States. The characteristic of this period is the development of the great trunk lines and the construction of a transcontinental route to the Pacific. The Civil War ended the supremacy of the Mississippi River as the great transportation route of the West. The fact that this river ran through hostile territory — Vicksburg did not fall until July 4, 1863 — forced the farmers of the West to find another outlet for their products. By this time the country from Chicago and St. Louis eastward to the Atlantic ports was fairly completely connected by railroads. The necessities of war led to great improvements in construction and equipment.  p15 Business which had hitherto gone South now began to go East; New Orleans ceased to be the great industrial entrepôt of this region and gave place to St. Louis and Chicago.

Yet, though this great change in traffic routes took place in the course of the war, the actual consolidations of the various small railroads into great trunk lines did not begin until after peace had been assured. The establishment of five great railroads extending continuously from the Atlantic seaboard to Chicago and the West was perhaps the most remarkable economic development of the ten or fifteen years succeeding the war. By 1875 these five great trunk lines, the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, the Erie, the Baltimore and Ohio, and the Grand Trunk, had connected their scattered units and established complete through systems.

All the vexations that had necessarily accompanied railroad traffic in the days when each one of these systems had been a series of disconnected roads had disappeared. The grain and meat products of the West, accumulating for the most part at Chicago and St. Louis, now came rapidly and uninterruptedly to the Atlantic seaboard, and railroad passengers, no longer submitted to the inconveniences of the Civil War period, now began  p16 to experience for the first time the pleasures of railroad travel. Together with the articulation of the routes, important mechanical changes and reconstruction programmes completely transformed the American railroad system. The former haphazard character of each road is evidenced by the fact that in Civil War days there were eight different gages,a2 with the result that it was almost impossible for the rolling stock of one line to use another. A few years after the Civil War, however, the present standard gage of four feet eight and one-half inches had become uniform all over the United States. The malodorous "eating cribs" of the fifties and the sixties — little station restaurants located at selected spots along the line — now began to disappear, and the modern dining car made its appearance. The old rough and ready sleeping cars began to give place to the modern Pullman. One of the greatest drawbacks to ante-bellum travel had been the absence of bridges across great rivers, such as the Hudson and the Susquehanna. At Albany, for example, the passengers in the summer time were ferried across, and in winter they were driven in sleighs or were sometimes obliged to walk across the ice. It was not until after the Civil War that a great iron bridge, two thousand feet long, was  p17 constructed across the Hudson at this point. On the trains the little flickering oil lamps now gave place to gas, and the wood burning stoves — frequently in those primitive days smeared with tobacco juice — in a few years were displaced by the new method of heating by steam.

The accidents which had been almost the prevailing rule in the fifties and sixties were greatly reduced by the Westinghouse air-brake, invented in 1868, and the block signaling system, introduced somewhat later. In the ten years succeeding the Civil War, the physical appearance of the railroads entirely changed; new and larger locomotives were made, the freight cars, which during the period of the Civil War had a capacity of about eight tons, were now built to carry fifteen or twenty. The former little flimsy iron rails were taken up and were relaid with steel. In the early seventies when Cornelius Vanderbilt substituted steel for iron on the New York Central, he had to import the new material from England. In the Civil War period, practically all American railroads were single track lines — and this alone prevented any extensive traffic. Vanderbilt laid two tracks along the Hudson River from New York to Albany, and four from Albany to Buffalo, two exclusively for freight  p18 and two for passengers. By 1880 the American railroad, in all its essential details, had definitely arrived.

But in this same period even more sensational developments had taken place. Soon after 1865 the imagination of the American railroad builder began to reach far beyond the old horizon. Up to that time the Mississippi River had marked the Western railroad terminus. Now and then a road straggled beyond this barrier for a few miles into eastern Iowa and Missouri; but in the main the enormous territory reaching from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean was crossed only by the old trails. The one thing which perhaps did most to place the transcontinental road on a practical basis was the annexation of California in 1848; and the wild rush that took place on the discovery of the gold fields one year later had led Americans to realize that on the Pacific coast they had an empire which was great and incalculably rich but almost inaccessible. The loyalty of California to the Northern cause in the war naturally stimulated a desire for closer contact. In the ten years preceding 1860 the importance of a transcontinental line had constantly been brought to the attention of Congress and the project had caused much jealousy between  p19 the North and the South, for each region desired to control its Eastern terminus. This impediment no longer stood in the way; early in his term, therefore, President Lincoln signed the bill authorizing the construction of the Union Pacific — a name doubly significant, as marking the union of the East and the West and also recognizing the sentiment of loyalty or union that this great enterprise was intended to promote. The building of this railroad, as well as that of the others that ultimately made the Pacific and the Atlantic coast near neighbors — the Santa Fé, the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern — is described in the pages that follow. Here it is sufficient to emphasize the fact that they achieved the concluding triumph in what is certainly the most extensive system of railroads in the world. These transcontinental roads really completed the work of Columbus. He sailed to discover the western route to Cathay and found that his path was blocked by a mighty continent. But the first train that crossed the plains and ascended the Rockies and reached the Golden Gate assured thenceforth a rapid and uninterrupted transit westward from Europe to Asia.

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Development of the Railroads in the United States
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Thayer's Notes:

a1 a2 If you're one of those who believe the Internet canard that the standard rail gauge (American: other countries have different standard gauges) derives from the "Roman war chariot" (the Romans by the way never had war chariots!), see this good page at The Straight Dope. It should also be pointed out that most of the ruts now seen in Roman roads are not intentional but due to processes of wear, that they're just as likely to come singly as in pairs, that even triplets are sometimes seen, that when in pairs they're not strictly parallel and their distance apart varies in width from one occurrence to the next, and finally that they extend not much more than a few feet, most of the pavement being free of ruts.

b When this book was published, according to Greg Procter's page, the record rail speed was 130 mph (210 km/h); safe train travel at such speeds did become routine, but only in the second half of the 20c.

c See for example this photograph of a mining car in the Atacama desert of Chile.

d Cinders were still a problem many years later: see the 1854 experience of Dutch immigrant Johannes Remeeus.

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Page updated: 21 Jul 10