The Railroad and American History

American Railroad History
Steam locomotives – 1942

Railroads played a major role in developing the United States of America; central to the Industrial Revolution and to the colonization of the western states, America’s railways are legendary.

The mania surrounding American railways began with the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad in 1828,rapidly expanding until the Panic of 1837 temporarily halted its growth.

The Early Period

Closely following British railroad technology, America’s first locomotives were steam powered.  Sparking, stinking, and smoking though they were, they could move heavy loads for long distances – that was enough to allow the railroads to get a solid start and begin their steady march from east to west.

While the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was best known, the Granite Railway was actually the first to run freight during the early years of railway transport in the United States.  Trains on this railway hauled granite for constructing the Bunker Hill Monument.  Other small railroads such as the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad carried freight and passengers; the Main Line of Public Works in Pennsylvania ferried passengers and freight from the Ohio River area to Philadelphia.

Out west, the Union Pacific-Central Pacific railway provided quick service from Omaha and Chicago to San Francisco.  Between these hubs, many small cities sprang up; populated with workers well-versed in the art of railway maintenance, they served first as rail centers, gradually growing into cities in their own right as time passed by.

Railways During the Civil War and Reconstruction

Throughout the southern states, railways were localized for the most part; short lines linked cotton regions to river and ocean ports, and the fact that there was no interconnected railway throughout the south proved a major handicap throughout the Civil War years.  In contrast, the northern and Midwestern states had constructed railways linking all major cities by the year 1860, which proved to be advantageous.  Though times were lean for most during the war and during reconstruction as well, the railway infrastructure made transporting shipments of grain, cattle, and hogs to national and international markets a possibility.

By the 1870’s, railroads had almost completely replaced turnpikes and canals; soon enough, the steamboats that had plied the nation’s major rivers for decades were displaced as well.  While the idea of travel by water is a romantic one, it was incredibly impractical, even in its heyday.  Shipping was essentially halted during the winter months due to freezing, and perils of all sorts met steamboats as they did their best to traverse the systems of canals and rivers that they traveled on.  Trains could run year-round and they were safer, too;  the likelihood of a steamboat sinking was at that time much greater than that of a train crashing.

As Wall Street grew and the American financial system became more stable, the majority of the short lines that served local communities were eventually consolidated into twenty trunk lines; this happened relatively quickly, with all major work having been completed by 1890.  The unification of the railways mirrored the reunification of the nation after the Civil War; thanks to easier transport, Americans enjoyed lower costs and greatly reduced shipping times for all types of goods, and they enjoyed travel like never before.

By the year 1910, the railway system was at its height; despite road building programs that allowed trucks to take over freight traffic, trains continued to be the best option for travel during the first half of the twentieth century.  Comfortable and stylish, and increasingly quiet as well as speedier than ever thanks to the development of the diesel electric locomotives which replaced the clattering, smoky coal-fired steam locomotives of the past, trains provided people with a way to get from one place to another at what was at the time an almost unimaginable pace.

While consolidations and bankruptcies plagued the railways during the mid-20th century, and while some thought trains to be an outmoded means of transportation, railways continue to hold a functional place on the American landscape, and a nostalgic place in the American heart.  With new developments in technology, plus routes nearly two hundred years old in some cases, the future of America’s railways looks just as promising as their past.

Debbie Phillips enjoys writing about the diverse collection articles on humanities, culture, movies and more at You can enjoy Hamlet Character Analysis, a Great Gatsby Summary and more.


American Railroads & Trains Footage 1942

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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