American Passenger Rail -- From the Early Days to Amtrak: The Iron Horse

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The development of the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries largely coincided with the epic story of its railroads. Trains contributed hugely to prosperity and provided a sense of national identity, coming to symbolize the country’s strength, optimism and pioneering spirit. For over 170 years Americans have been proud to call themselves ‘locomotive people’.

It may be symbolic that one of the country’s first railroads had as its purpose the hauling of granite for the Bunker Hill Monument, which was being built to commemorate a defining episode in America’s War of Independence. Gridley Bryant’s Granite Railway used horsepower to operate over three miles of track at Quincy Massachusetts, in 1826. America’s first steam-powered locomotive was the English-built Stourbridge Lion, inaugurated in August 1829 on the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company’s line at Honesdale, Pennsylvania. But the story really began on 19 February 1827, when a group of Baltimore residents decided to build the country’s first public railroad between their city and the Ohio River. Charles Carroll, by then the only surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone on 4 July 1828, and two years later the experimental engine Tom Thumb, weighing less than a ton, reached 18mph on 13 miles of Baltimore & Ohio track.

America’s first (and the world’s second) regular steam train service went into operation on Christmas Day 1830 on the South Carolina Canal & Railroad, when the Best Friend of Charleston took a passenger train out of Charleston on a line built to transport cotton from central Georgia. Completed three years later, the Charleston & Hamburg was for a time the world’s longest railway (135 miles/217km).

Other lines soon followed, most notably the New York Central from Albany to Buffalo and the Philadelphia & Columbia (the first to be government-sponsored). Like most early lines, they served local needs and few people imagined the railway’s full potential. Canal owners and road transport companies opposed them, partly on safety grounds, and doctors warned of the dangers inherent in such reckless speeds. Indeed, accidents did often happen. Few rights of way were fenced off and early railroad cars were little more than stagecoaches with flanged wheels, whose grip on the track was sometimes uncertain.

Despite these problems, total trackage increased to 3,000 miles by the early 1840s and to 9,000 miles (4,800 - 14,500km) by 1850 (when it was three times the length of the canal system). By the late 1850s America had built half the world’s railroad mileage in existence.

Early locomotives such as Tom Thumb and the Best Friend of Charleston had upright boilers but these were soon replaced by engines using horizontal, English- style boilers which allowed greater capacity. Mid-century engines were most usually handsome American-type ( 4-4-0) wood burners, brightly painted and extravagantly decorated with polished brass. Other elegant innovations included a bell, whistle, headlight and pilot (or cowcatcher) to remove any obstacles ahead. A cab gave weather protection to the crew and a sandbox was added to improve traction. Typical examples from this period can be seen in the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery and in D W Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance.

The first ticket offices were at stagecoach stops or in hotels, but characteristic railroad depots soon developed, usually as one-storey buildings located parallel to the tracks. Large cantilevered canopies protected passengers and freight from inclement weather. Clock towers were often added at a later date as stations became more elaborate and companies adopted distinctive styles of architecture to make their railroads easily identifiable.

The New York Central brought together ten small railroads in the northeast whose lines ran roughly parallel with the Erie Canal, later extending them to St Louis. The Erie Railroad went from the Hudson River north of New York to Lake Erie and Chicago, enabling New York City to enjoy fresh milk every day and consume more strawberries than anywhere else on earth. Chicago by this time had 11 railways and saw 70 trains a day, making it the busiest rail center in the world.

From 1856 the Illinois Central linked Chicago to Cairo, at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, with federal land grants assisting the line’s construction through 700 miles (1,130km) of thinly populated country The far west’s first railway, the Sacramento Valley, opened in the same year between Sacramento and the gold mines at Folsom.

Southern railways made slower progress, but by the 1860s 1,000 miles (1,600km) of track existed in each of Georgia , Tennessee and Virginia , and a network of lines served all states west of the Mississippi . This proved vital to both sides during the Civil War, when railroads and trains became major targets. In 1862, General Bragg’s army of 30,000 men travelled nearly 800 miles (1,300km) to the key rail center of Chattanooga from Mississippi by Confederate railway. The following year, 23,000 Union troops and their equipment journeyed 1,200 miles (1,900km) from Virginia to relieve Chattanooga . Their expedition took 12 days and required 30 trains with a total of 600 coaches. More than 35,000 lives were lost in bitter fighting before the battle ended. Later in the war, General Sherman’s army of 100,000 men in Georgia needed 16 trains a day to keep it supplied. Without railways the North might never have broken Confederate resistance.

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