The History of Railroads
In the United States

~1500 -

Several European countries had a few primitive railroads as early as the mid-1500's. But they were used mainly to bring up wagonloads of coal or iron ore from underground mines. The mining railroads consisted of two wooden rails that extended down into the mines and across the mine floors. Men or horses pulled wagons with flanged wheels along the rails. The wagons moved more easily along the rails than they did over the rutted or muddy entrances and floors of the mines.

In the early 1700's, English coal-mining companies began building short wooden railroads to carry coal aboveground as well as underground. Horses pulled the trains of wagons along the rails. In the mid-1700's, workers began covering the wooden rails with strips of iron to make them last longer. English ironmakers also began making all-iron rails. The rails were flanged to carry wagons with ordinary wheels. By the end of the 1700's, ironmakers were producing all-iron rails without flanges. These all-iron rails carried wagons with flanged wheels.

Invention of the locomotive. Meanwhile, inventors had been developing the steam engine. During the late 1700's and early 1800's, the English inventor Richard Trevithick built the first engines capable of using high-pressure steam. He mounted one of the engines on a four-wheeled undercarriage designed to roll along a track. In 1804, Trevithick used this vehicle to pull 10 short tons (9 metric tons) of iron, 70 men, and 5 wagons along 9 miles of track. Trevithick's invention thus became the world's first successful railroad locomotive. Soon, other English inventors had also built successful locomotives.

An English locomotive builder named George Stephenson constructed the world's first public railroad, the Stockton and Darlington, which opened in 1825. The line operated between the towns of Stockton and Darlington, a distance of about 20 miles. It was the first railroad to run steam freight trains on a regular schedule. Stephenson's second railroad opened in 1830. It ran 30 miles from Liverpool to Manchester. It was the first railroad to run steam passenger trains on a regular schedule.

Stephenson also originated the idea that a country's railroads should all have a standard gauge. The gauge he selected for the railroads he built -- 4 feet 8 inches -- corresponded to the length of the axles on many horse-drawn wagons. This gauge was eventually adopted by most European railroads and by railroads in the United States and Canada.

Developments in the United States. A few horse-powered railroads began operating in the Eastern United States in the early 1800's. In 1815, an American engineer named John Stevens obtained a charter from the state of New Jersey to build a steam-powered railroad across the state. Although Stevens could not raise enough money for this project, he still wanted to apply steam locomotion to railway track. He constructed a circular track near his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, and built a small steam-powered vehicle to run on it. In 1825, this vehicle made a successful run.

In the late 1820's, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company of Pennsylvania decided to build a railroad. In 1829, the company ran an English-built locomotive along a section of wooden track. This locomotive, called the Stourbridge Lion, became the first full-sized locomotive to run on a track in North America.

In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began service over 13 miles of track between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City). The railroad's first cars were powered by horses. These horse-powered cars were the first railroad cars in the United States to carry passengers. The Baltimore and Ohio also experimented with a car equipped with sails. In the summer of 1830, New York manufacturer Peter Cooper built the steam-powered locomotive the Tom Thumb for the Baltimore and Ohio. But it was too small for regular service. In 1831, the railroad began regular passenger service with a locomotive called the York.

Meanwhile, the West Point Foundry of New York had built a steam locomotive for the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. In 1830, this locomotive, called the Best Friend of Charleston, pulled a train of cars along 6 miles of track. This event marked the first run of a steam-powered train in the United States. The Best Friend began making regular runs between Charleston and Hamburg, South Carolina, in 1831. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company thus became the first U.S. railroad to provide regular steam-powered passenger and freight service.

The number of locomotives and railroads multiplied rapidly in the United States after 1830. Historic first runs of locomotives included those of the De Witt Clinton on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad in New York in 1831; the John Bull on the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey in 1831; Old Ironsides on the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad in Pennsylvania in 1832; and the Pontchartrain on the Pontchartrain Railway in Louisiana in 1832. By 1835, more than 200 railroad charters had been granted in 11 states, and over 1,000 miles of track had been opened.

Meanwhile, builders were developing locomotives especially suited to the Eastern United States, where roadbeds had many curves. These locomotives had an independent wheeled undercarriage called a leading truck. The leading truck was attached to the locomotive by a center pin, which allowed the truck to swivel. A truck gave a locomotive more flexibility on curves. Most of the new locomotives had a four-wheeled truck and four driving wheels. These eight-wheeled locomotives became the most common type of U.S. locomotive during the last half of the 1800's.

Canada's first steam-powered railway, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, was started in the province of Quebec. The line opened for business as a horse-powered railroad in July 1836, and began steam-powered service later that year. The railway operated between the towns of Laprairie and Saint-Jean, a distance of about 16 miles. Other small railroads began operating in Canada soon after 1836.

Expansion in the United States. Railroads were under construction in all states east of the Mississippi River by 1850. Most of the lines were concentrated in the Northeast, and many of them ran only short distances. A network of lines radiated from Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. Railroads also linked cities in the Southeast.

Competition for trade spurred railroad construction in the East. By the early 1850's, four railroads had built rail lines that enabled them to haul freight between the Great Lakes region and the East Coast. New York's Erie Railroad opened between Piermont and Dunkirk on Lake Erie in 1851. In 1853, 10 small railroads along the Erie Canal merged to form the New York Central Railroad, which provided service between Albany and Buffalo. By 1852, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio had opened lines to the Ohio River, one of the most important trade routes in the country. The large railroads took over many smaller lines and so expanded rapidly.

During the 1850's, railroad lines connected Chicago with the Mississippi River, which was a major trade route. The Baltimore and Ohio reached St. Louis on the Mississippi in 1857. Both Chicago and St. Louis thrived as transportation centers.

In 1850, Congress began granting federal land to develop railroads. Government leaders thought railroads would help attract settlers to undeveloped regions of the Midwest and the South. The railroad companies kept some of the land for right of way and sold the rest to pay railroad construction costs. The first grant helped build a railroad from the Great Lakes at Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama. Settlers poured into the area along the route after the railroad's completion in 1856. The success of the experiment convinced Congress to continue granting federal lands for railroad development. In return, all United States railroads agreed to carry government troops and property at half the standard rates and United States mail at four-fifths the standard rates. These rates remained in effect until the mid-1940's.

The railroads continued to expand during the 1860's. They played a major role in the Civil War (1861-1865) by moving troops and supplies to battle. The South was at a disadvantage because it had far fewer railroad tracks and locomotives than the North had. After the war, iron and steel bridges were built across such major rivers as the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri.

The first transcontinental rail lines. In the early 1860's, the United States government decided to extend rail lines across the country. The proposed route roughly followed the 42nd parallel from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. Eastern rail lines were to be extended westward from Chicago to meet the new railroad at Omaha. Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. The act gave two companies responsibility for building the railroad. The Union Pacific was to start laying track westward from a point near Omaha. The Central Pacific Railroad was to lay track eastward from Sacramento. Congress granted both railroads large tracts of land and millions of dollars in government loans.

Work began on the Central Pacific track in 1863 and on the Union Pacific in 1865. The railroads faced the gigantic task of crossing the rugged Rockies and the towering Sierra Nevada. To obtain the necessary labor, the Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese immigrants to work on the railroad. Thousands of European immigrants worked on the Union Pacific. On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the two railroads finally met at Promontory, Utah. North America became the first continent to have a rail line from coast to coast.

By the end of the 1800's, the United States had five transcontinental rail lines. The Canadian Pacific Railway (now CP Rail) completed Canada's first transcontinental line in 1885. It extended from Montreal, Quebec, to Vancouver, British Columbia. The completion of these rail lines opened vast regions of the continent to settlement and trade.

Worldwide development. Railroad building spread rapidly from England throughout Europe. By 1870, most of Europe's major rail systems had been built. Other lines were built in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Some of these lines required that tunnels be blasted through the Alps to connect France, Switzerland, and Italy. The Orient Express, one of the most famous European passenger trains, began operation between Paris, France, and Istanbul, Turkey, in 1883. Since 1982, the Venice Simplon Orient Express has offered luxury service only from Paris to Venice, Italy, and back. The Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express offers similar service once a year from Zurich, Switzerland, to Istanbul.

Railroads opened up other parts of the world to settlement and trade, just as they had opened up western North America. Argentina and Brazil developed rapidly after they built extensive rail networks in the late 1800's. Railroads were also built across South America's towering Andes Mountains. One such railroad, the Central Railway of Peru, was begun in 1870. It is the world's highest standard-gauge railroad, climbing to 3 miles above sea level.

Also in the late 1800's, Britain, France, and Germany built railroads in their African and Asian colonies. Britain, for example, helped construct nearly 25,000 miles of railroad track in India during the late 1800's. Russia started work on its 5,600-mile Trans-Siberian railroad in 1891 and completed it in 1916. The Trans-Siberian is the world's longest continuous railroad line. Australia started building a railroad across its southern plains in 1912. The line, completed in 1917, extends 1,108 miles from Port Pirie to Kalgoorlie.

Engineering improvements. Engineers gradually increased the power and speed of steam locomotives. By the late 1800's, many trains easily reached speeds of 50 to 60 mph (80 to 97 kph). Engineers also developed electric locomotives in the late 1800's. In 1895, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began operating an electric train through a 3-mile tunnel under the city of Baltimore. The Baltimore and Ohio thus became the first railroad to provide electric main-line service. Many European railroads electrified their main lines after 1900. But almost all American railroads continued to use steam locomotives. By the mid-1900's, some steam locomotives could reach speeds of up to 100 mph (160 kph) in regular passenger service. Nevertheless, in the 1930's U.S. railroads began to switch to diesel-electrics, which were more fuel efficient and easier to maintain than steam locomotives. The regular use of steam locomotives on U.S. railroads all but ended in the 1950's.

After the mid-1800's, railroads started to use steel for rails and cars. Steel rails last up to 20 times longer than iron rails, and so they gradually replaced iron rails. Early freight and passenger cars were made largely of wood. All-steel passenger cars were first put into regular service in 1907 and gradually replaced most wooden cars. All-steel freight cars had almost completely replaced wooden freight cars by the late 1920's.

Several important inventions after the mid-1800's helped improve railroad safety. In 1869, the American inventor George Westinghouse patented a railroad air brake. Trains could stop or slow down much more quickly with air brakes than with the earlier hand brake. In 1873, an American amateur inventor named Eli Janney patented an automatic car coupler. Before Janney's invention, coupling had to be done manually. Many brakemen and switchmen lost fingers or hands while coupling cars. But air brakes and automatic couplers were not widely used until after 1893. That year, Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act, which required air brakes and automatic couplers on all trains.

The building of electric telegraph lines in the mid-1800's made block signaling possible. Manual block systems became common before the end of the 1800's. American engineer William Robinson patented the track circuit used in automatic block signaling in 1872. But track circuits were not widely used until after 1900.

Meanwhile, more and more people traveled by train. The railroads themselves did much to attract passengers. In 1867, an American businessman named George Pullman organized the Pullman Palace Car Company. The company manufactured a sleeping car that Pullman had designed. Other sleeping cars were already in use, but Pullman's car improved greatly on the others. By 1875, about 700 Pullman sleeping cars were in service. Railroads also introduced luxurious parlor cars and elegant dining service for wealthy travelers.

Government regulation and control. During the 1870's and 1880's, railroad expansion continued in the Western United States, even though a financial panic in 1873 cut deeply into railroad profits. Financial leaders battled for control of the richest companies. Dishonest promoters made fortunes selling worthless railroad stock. The companies themselves fought bitterly for freight business. Some railroads combined to eliminate competition and raise rates. Others offered bargain rates to favored shippers. These and other unfair practices led Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. The act set up guidelines to regulate competition between railroads and to ensure reasonable railroad rates. The act also established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to help carry out the terms of the act.

The United States entered World War I in 1917. In December 1917, the federal government took over wartime control of U.S. railroads. The war ended in November 1918, but the government kept control of the railroads until after Congress passed the Esch-Cummins Act of 1920. This legislation, also called the Transportation Act, increased the ICC's control over railroad rates. It also encouraged railroads to merge if mergers would increase their operating efficiency. The government returned the railroads to private control in March 1920.

The 1920's and the Great Depression. Railroads in the United States made record profits during the 1920's. But there were signs of approaching trouble. Automobiles, buses, trucks, and finally airplanes began carrying traffic once carried by trains. Disputes with labor also troubled the railroads during the early 1920's. These disputes led Congress to pass the Railway Labor Act in 1926. The act set up means to settle disputes and so prevent strikes that might hurt the nation's economy.

Like most other industries, the railroads lost huge sums of money during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Some companies went into bankruptcy. But others spent large sums of money to win back passenger business with sleek, new diesel-electric trains.

The first commercial diesel-electric locomotive in the United States began service in 1925. It was used as a switch engine. The Burlington Zephyr, the world's first main-line train powered by a diesel-electric locomotive, began regular passenger service in 1934. The year before, the first of the new streamlined passenger trains, the Union Pacific's City of Salina, had begun operation. Other railroads soon put similar trains into service. These trains included the Santa Fe's Super Chief and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford's Comet. The Santa Fe put the first regularly scheduled diesel-electric freight train into service in 1940. By 1960, these trains had entirely replaced steam locomotives on main-line railroads in the United States.

Economic recovery -- and decline. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the nation's railroads handled more business than ever before. Passenger and freight trains ran day and night, and almost every train was packed to capacity. During the war, the government left the railroads under private control.

When the war ended in 1945, much railroad equipment was nearly worn out from overuse. During the late 1940's and early 1950's, the railroads spent billions of dollars to replace worn-out equipment. But they continued to have difficulty meeting the ever-increasing competition from other forms of transportation. The financial condition of the industry worsened. In 1958, Congress passed legislation enabling the railroads to discontinue hundreds of unprofitable passenger runs. But some railroads continued to lose money during the 1960's.

Railroads today. In 1970, the U.S. government established Amtrak to run the nation's intercity passenger trains and so save the railroad companies millions of dollars yearly in losses. But the financial condition of some railroads -- especially those in the Northeast -- continued to worsen. The Railroad Reorganization Act of 1973 was designed to help reverse the huge losses of several railroads and to guarantee continued rail service. In 1976, six bankrupt Northeastern railroads were reorganized by the federal government as a private corporation called the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). In this reorganization, the federal government became the corporation's chief stockholder. In 1987, the government sold its Conrail stock to private investors.

In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which was designed to help railroads increase their profits. The law greatly reduced regulation of rates and various other aspects of railroad operations. It helped railroads become more competitive with other forms of transportation, and the financial health of major U.S. railroads improved in the 1990's.

Contributor: William L. Withuhn, M.B.A., Curator of Transportation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Additional resources

Level I

Fisher, Leonard E. Tracks Across America: The Story of the American Railroad, 1825-1900. Holiday Hse., 1992.

Flatley, Dennis R. The Railroads: Opening the West. Watts, 1989.

Miller, Marilyn. The Transcontinental Railroad. Silver Burdett, 1986.

Spangenburg, Ray, and Moser, D. K. The Story of America's Railroads. Facts on File, 1991.

Level II

Armstrong, John. The Railroad--What It Is, What It Does. Rev. ed. 1990. Reprint. Simmons-Boardman, 1993.

Drury, George H., comp. The Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads. 2nd ed. Kalmbach, 1992. The Historical Guide to North American Railroads. Rev. ed. 1991.

Jane's World Railways. Jane's, published annually.


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