Transportation: the Great Railways

How did the railway system start?

The earliest known rail transport began with horses or mules pulling carts and carriages along rails.  The use of cast iron wheels on cast-iron rails made the pulling of the carts faster.  Some of the carts were filled up and ran downhill with a driver who had a hand brake.

At the bottom of the hill, the cart was emptied, and a horse-pulled it back to the top to fill and then run down to the bottom again.  When steam engines were invented, the horses were replaced by steam engines.

Colonel John Stevens is thought to be the father of railroads in America.  In 1825 he invented a steam engine.  He tested it on a circular track on his estate.

The first railroad in North America was started in 1827.  It was called the Baltimore and Ohio.  A passenger service railroad was started in 1830.

Many people did not want railroads.  They thought they were dangerous, and they liked canals and coaches better.  Horatio Alan went to England in 1828 to look at the steam engine designed by the Stephenson family.

The Delaware company he worked for wanted to buy some steam engines.  He bought a steam engine from the Stephensons and another three engines from a company in Stourbridge.  This engine was known as the Stourbridge Lion. It was only used on a trial run and then put into storage because it was too heavy.

Another well know steam engine imported from England was named the John Bull after a make-believe character in the English farming world, called John Bull.  This engine was built in 1831 and ran for thirty-five years.  It could run at 25 – 30 mph.  It carried passengers between Philadelphia and New York.

In 1830 another engine, called the Tom Thumb, was designed by Peter Cooper.  This engine was more successful.  On its first journey, it traveled at a speed of 18mph. The engine went from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills.  It was decided to use the engine in a race against the horse that pulled the carriages.

The race was set up, and the horse started in the lead while the steam engine warmed up.  Then steam made the train go faster, and it overtook the horse.  Unfortunately, in the end, the horse won because one of the bands that drove the engine came off. The steam train slowed down, and the horse won the race!

Other engines were being invented, and the first real passenger steam train to be built in America left on Christmas day 1830 to take passengers from Charleston to Dorchester.

The engine was called ‘Best Friend of Charleston.’ In 1831 Best Friend was the first train to carry passengers, mail, and freight.  Sadly in 1831, the Best Friend engine was in an accident, and it blew up.  The engine was rebuilt and renamed the Phoenix, after the bird that rises out of the flames.

The railway industry was growing, and businessmen saw the value of faster and cheaper transport.  The Western Railroad of Massachusetts was completed in 1843, and this showed how much cheaper and easier it was to transport goods by rail.

It was faster too.  In 1849 gold was discovered in California.  This meant that people wanted to get to the gold quicker. The need for railroad transport increased.

In the 1850s, a man called Theodore Judah became obsessed with the idea of one railway line crossing America.  His idea was investigated, and a survey started to approve the joining of two tracks—the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

President Abraham Lincoln finally signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862.  The joining of these two main railroads opened up the whole of America for trading and passengers.

How did the railroad system affect America at that time?

The railroad system brought some good and some bad outcomes to America.  It was good because it opened up trade from the West coast to the East coast.  It made traveling faster and cheaper for everyone.  While the railways were being developed, small towns began to grow along the railway line.  This was all part of developing a new nation.

Unfortunately, there were some sacrifices.  The forests were used to cut down for rails, and a great deal of wood was taken.  The Native Americans feared the ‘Iron Horse’ and attacked railway workers.  The wild plains were disrupted, and many bison killed by hunters who had no regard for animal conservation.

Facts about the early railway system.

  • The first steam engines burned coal to make steam.  The coal burned in a container called a ‘firebox.’  The steam made rods called pistons go up and down, and the pistons attached to the wheels made the wheels go round and round.
  • In 1841 a man called Thomas Cook started to organize tours by rail.  Tickets and a meal were included.  This was the start of Thomas Cook travel agencies that still run today.
  • In 1833 Andrew Jackson was the first president to ride on the railroads. Andrew Jackson was the 6thpresident of America and was the president at that time.
  • The early American trains were fitted with ‘spark arrestors’ to catch sparks that flew out of the top of the smokestack.  They also had a fitting in front of the engine called a ‘cowcatcher.’   The ‘cow catcher’ had to sweep anything that landed on the rails out of the way.
  • By 1850, in just twenty years, steam trains could travel at 50mph or 80kms per hour.
  • Creating a railroad system turned America into a World power.
  • When Peter Cooper made the Tom Thumb steam engine, he used borrowed parts from other sources.  He made the boiler tubes out of rifle barrels.
  • The first rail track built in the USA was only thirteen miles long.

What did you learn?

How were the first trains pulled before steam engines?
The first trains were pulled by horses.

Who is known to be the father of railroads in America, and what did he do to get this name?
John Stevens is called the father of railroads in America.  He built the first steam train and ran it on a track on his country estate.

What was the name of the engine designed by Peter Cooper?
This engine was called Tom Thumb.

What happened to the steam train called ‘Best Friend of Charleston,’ and what was its new name?
The steam engine ‘Best Friend’ blew up in an accident.  It was rebuilt and renamed Phoenix.  The name of the fantasy bird that flew out of the fire.

What was fitted at the front of the steam train to push things off the track?
A grid was fitted at the front of the train called a ‘cow catcher’ to push anything that had fallen on the track off.

What did railway owners want to see happen to the two main railway lines.  One on the West Coast and the other on the East coast?
They wanted to see the two lines join together to make a rail service that crossed the whole of America.