Railroading has been referred to as “the biggest business of 19th century America.” Animal and gravity-powered rail transport had been used by quarry companies in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast in the early 1800s. The United States quickly adopted the steam railway once reliable locomotives suited to long-distance public transportation were available.
After 1830, and the creation of better locomotive types, railroad investment in both England and the United States accelerated almost simultaneously. Britain’s first true public railroad, the Liverpool & Manchester, began operations in 1830, as did the first such American railway, the South Carolina Railroad.
In the 1830s and ’40s America’s railroads were small private affairs of limited mileage, scattered along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Georgia, with a few enterprising companies pushing westward into the Appalachians. By 1852, thanks to merchants demanding faster and more reliable means of transporting their goods, more than 9,000 miles of track had been laid, mostly in the New England and Middle Atlantic states. During the next decade, American railroads grew into a coordinated iron network of more than 30,000 miles serving all the states east of the Mississippi River.
Railroad construction slowed during the Civil War (the first American conflict in which railroads played a major role as movers of troops and supplies), but resumed on a large scale immediately afterward. By 1880 the United States had 94,000 miles of track binding the country together; 20 years later it had 193,000. By the end of World War I in 1918, the country could boast more than 254,000 miles of track and 65,000 steam locomotives.
As the railroads expanded, so did the country. Between the Civil War and World War I, the United States was transformed from an agricultural to a manufacturing nation, thanks largely to the railroads. They brought raw materials like coal, oil, iron ore, and cotton to the factories and carried away steel, machines, cloth, and other finished products. They moved livestock, grain, and produce from farms to the cities. And they carried people everywhere. Most of the immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley traveled there by train, just like the immigrants who settled Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas in the 1870s and 80s.
The railroads shortened the time it took to travel great distances, thus bringing cities closer together. In 1812, for example, a trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia took six days by stagecoach. In 1854, the same journey took 15 hours by train. By 1920, the trip was down to five hours. Rail deliveries of freight and passengers were generally faster and more reliable than those by stagecoach, wagon, steamboat, or canal packet. The railroad drove many canal companies out of business and lured away most potential passengers from river boat and stagecoach lines.
Until the end of World War I, railroads carried the bulk of all freight and passengers. After 1918, they faced increased competition from automobiles and trucks. By the 1950s railroads were hauling less freight, had reduced passenger service, and abandoned some lines altogether. By then the railroads had undergone dramatic changes, beginning in 1925 with the introduction of the diesel-electric locomotive. Within 30 years, the diesel locomotive, with its great reduction in labor needs, its operational flexibility, and its relative cleanliness, had replaced the coal-burning steam locomotive.
CSX rails, in sepia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains on a foggy day…
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