The First Railroads Help to Build America

While not all people saw the first railroads as beneficial toward the building of early America, that opinion would soon prove to be incorrect.

In 1800, Oliver Evans, the inventor of the first non-condensing, high–pressure steam engine, predicts that in the future, “people will travel in stages moved by steam engines form one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour.” Evan’s steam engine would become the single most powerful driving influence of the coming industrial revolution, and the future of railroads in America.

Even though he did not live to see railroads, Evans could foresee the emergence and widespread use of this new technology for all sorts of transportation. Poring over the details of James Watt’s patented steam engine, Evans worked on improving the technology of the steam engine for the rest of his days. Modern American railroads owe a great debt to this man.

Father of the American Railroad

Colonel John Stevens, had a great real of experience in steam powered ships and boats, and built the first ocean–traveling steamboat in 1809, the Phoenix. After building another steamboat, Steven turned his efforts toward using this new steam power technology for land travel. He argued in the U.S. Congress about the advantages of rail travel and was soon granted a charter for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which he started with two other partners. This enterprise failed soon after.

In 1825, Colonel Stevens built the first steam locomotive in America when he was seventy–five years old. This first steam powered locomotive, the “steam waggon,” operated on a circular track on his estate. In 1830, he started the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company. It is considered the first successful railroad in America.

The First Common Carrier Railroads in America

The invention and utilization of steam powered technology in the design and construction of the first steam powered trains was indeed a herculean accomplishment, the use of steam driven trains was not yet available to just anyone. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was first American common carrier. The B&O was chartered on April 24, 1827 by the City of Baltimore.

Soon after the B&O was established, merchants in South Carolina formed the 137–mile South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company. Americans were catching railroad fever and falling in love with the idea of traveling by rail. Railroads were seen by the public as a fast and efficient means of moving goods and freight from one location to another.

Railroads Begin to Build America

Over 2,800 miles of track were laid down in the states east of the Mississippi River by 1840. By 1850, that number skyrocketed to over 9,000 miles of railroad tracks in the U.S. Most of these early railroads were independent of each other and existed totally unconnected in various regions across the country.

Most of the tracks had not even been standardized to a particular width and ranged from today’s standard 4 feet 8 1/2 inch gauge up to 6 feet wide. The government was not yet really involved with the early formation and establishment of these first railroads. Because of this lack of involvement and regulation, travelers and railroad workers suffered from unsafe practices like exposure to certain gases, chemicals, and exposure to extremes in the daily operation of these railroads.

Building America was the primary job and benefit of these early railroads. For example, the distance between Cincinnati and St. Louis would normally take three days to travel the 702 miles by steamboat. The railroad cut the distance to 339 miles and only took 16 hours to travel between the same cities.

In the beginning, railroads were thought to be a devise of the devil and could cause folks traveling by rail to suffer from a concussion of the brain. But there efficiency and utility as a means to make more money faster soon overcame any superstitions the public may have had about trains. The benefits of traveling and shipping by rail were quickly adopted by any business or merchants wanting to save money and deliver goods to market faster.

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