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article number 240
article date 06-06-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
You Can Get Now Get Manufactured Goods to Your Town … We Develop Railroads
by Walter Bannard & Waldemar Kaempffert

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention. Original chapter title, “FROM STEPHENSON TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED —THE STORY OF AMERICAN RAILROADING.”

BEFORE the invention of the railway, the principal manufacturing towns both of Great Britain and the United States were situated on or near the coast-line or navigable streams. This was natural enough, for in the development of commerce sailing vessels were the chief, and perhaps the only, progressive means of transportation. Inland, goods and foodstuffs had to be carried or hauled over the wretched roads.

According to Lardner, the eminent British historian of the early nineteenth century, “the internal transport of goods in England was performed by wagon, and was not only intolerably slow, but so expensive as to exclude every object except manufactured articles, and such as—being of light weight and small bulk in proportion to their value—would allow of a high rate of transport.” Lardner found that the charge for carriage by wagon from London to Leeds was at the rate of about $63.31 a ton, being 27 cents per ton-mile. Between Liverpool and Manchester it was $9.60 a ton, or 30 cents per ton-mile.

“Heavy materials such as coal could only be available for commerce where their position favored transport by sea, and consequently, many of the richest districts of the kingdom remained unproductive, awaiting the tardy advancement of the art of transport.”

Not until 1833 was a daily mail established between London and Paris, and the charge on foreign letters, in addition to the ship’s postage and the expense in foreign countries, varied from twenty-eight to eighty-four cents. The postage on a letter sent from one point in England to another amounted to about twenty cents a sheet. Hence letters were usually intrusted to some person bound for the city in which the addressee lived.

Bad as they were in England, conditions in the American colonies were worse. Here the roads were nothing but trails, thick with dust in summer, heavy with mud in winter, often completely impassable, and deviating miles out of the way to avoid a mountain or river. As late as 1780 the roadways of Pennsylvania were still narrow paths which had been made through the woods by Indians and traders. Brissot de Warville, a Frenchman who travelled in the United States in 1788, thus describes part of a journey which he took from Philadelphia to Baltimore:

“From thence (Havre de Grace) to Baltimore are reckoned sixty miles. The road in general is frightful; it is over a clay soil, full of deep ruts, always in the midst of forests, frequently obstructed by trees overset by the wind, which obliged us to seek a new passage through the woods. I cannot conceive why the stage does not often overset. Both the drivers and their horses discover great skill and dexterity, being accustomed to these roads.”

Horses and Wagons could not deliver goods any distance … and the United States was becoming large compared to European countries.

Such were most of the roads of the United States even for many years after the founding of the Republic. The only reasonably good roads were those connecting the principal towns. On the maps of 1800 only a few roads are shown in northern New England, northern and western New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, and in the South; there are none in eastern Maine.

The South was particularly indifferent to the condition of its roads, probably because the plantations were situated on the banks of rivers, making it easy to market produce by boat. So rich a region as that along the Susquehanna was cut off from the outer world up to 1786.

One of the reasons urged for the removal of the State capital from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, in 1799, was the cost of travel, which bore heavily on the legislators. In a country with few roads, carriages and wagons were therefore seen chiefly in the cities. Before the Revolution a man travelled by horse or by boat—preferably by boat.

As the population increased, turnpike and stage-coach companies were organized, but it was not until 1783 that Levi Pease started the first stage-coach line between Boston and New York. Washington died on December 14, 1799, and it took ten days for the news of such an important event to reach Boston by stage-coach. Two days was the usual time in which this lumbering vehicle covered the distance between New York and Philadelphia, although the road was the best in the country— an engineering masterpiece of wood resting on mud or “on a soil that trembled when stepped upon.” And the stage-coach itself was not the imposing carriage which we associate with Mr. Pickwick’s journeys or our modern fashionable four-in-hands; it was an open wagon, with curtains which could be raised or lowered, and it contained four benches to accommodate twelve miserable passengers.

Little wonder that, when possible, most Americans preferred to travel by water in the more roomy sloops. All the towns along the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to New York were connected by these sailing vessels. The fare from Providence to New York by sloop was six dollars. Meals, however, were charged for at such high rates that their cost for the trip exceeded the fare.

If you lived along the coast, you may be in luck.

Without roads, industry remained at a standstill. Wilbert Lee Anderson in his ‘Country Town’ states that “merchandise and produce that could not stand a freight charge of fifteen dollars a ton could not be carried overland to a consumer 150 miles from the point of production.” Hence each State was its own producer, and also its own consumer. Nearly every American in Washington’s time who did not live near a town raised his own wool and flax, did his own spinning and weaving, and made his own clothing. It cost twenty dollars to haul a cord twenty miles, and five dollars to haul a barrel of flour 150 miles. So great were transportation charges that every community had to be more or less self-supporting.

In less than a century all this was changed. The United States was transformed from a wilderness of forest and prairie into a land of active industry; this astonishing transformation is due chiefly to the invention of the locomotive engine and its development to meet American conditions.


The steam locomotive is so much more picturesque than the track on which it runs that in most histories of invention scant attention has been paid to the road-bed. A house has its foundations, and a locomotive must have its tracks. Indeed, without the track there would be no locomotive.

Have you ever ridden a bicycle over a fine, new, concrete road and suddenly passed on to a stretch of worn-out country road? On the concrete you were spinning along with little effort at twelve to fifteen miles an hour; now your machine begins to bump and crash among the holes and loose rocks; you labor hard, but your speed drops to six or eight miles. The reason for this is that instead of moving along on a smooth and level line you are now lifting your weight over a series of obstacles. This takes more leg power.

If you were the size of a small beetle crawling across the road, and a wagon looked proportionately big to you, its wheels rolling over the rough surface would appear to be alternately climbing hills and dropping into valleys, as it crashed noisily by. If you asked the driver of the wagon, he would tell you that he could haul five times as great a load on the smooth concrete as he could on the country road, with its humps and hollows, rocks, sand, and mud.

One-half of the success of the steam railroad is due to those two shining strips of smooth, hard, and unyielding steel rail, securely held in place upon broad, solid ties and the broken-stone road-bed.

Could James Watt’s steam engine be used in an engine on tracks?

For the first attempt to build tracks for loaded vehicles, we must go back several centuries—the sixteenth-century days of coal-mining in England. The loaded coal-carts were heavy, the roads were poor, and the wheels cut deep ruts in them. Eventually the miners laid heavy planks in the bottom of the ruts, and at once found the going much easier for the horses. Then they laid crosspieces, or “ties,” as we now call them, along the roads, and upon them fastened longitudinal timbers. This was better, but the wood surface of the “tramway” did not last long.

Some one suggested in the eighteenth century that flat strips of iron be spiked down on the timbers. For many, many years thereafter tracks were so laid. But the iron wore away the wooden wheels of the little wagons, so that early in the eighteenth century iron wheels were substituted. Sometimes in place of wood, granite blocks were used, about eight inches square and five feet long, laid end to end, and on these, toward the close of the eighteenth century, the flat strips of iron, or “plates,” were fastened. In England the men who lay rails are still called “plate-layers.”

The first railway to be built in America was of this character. It was particularly constructed to bring heavy blocks of granite from the Quincy quarries to Boston for the Bunker Hill Monument. The line, three miles long, was opened in 1828, and a granite monument, standing alongside the New Haven tracks, six miles south of Boston, marks the site of this first American wagon railroad. It was a crude piece of work, yet it taught the American people of that day how vastly superior was an iron track for transporting heavy freight.

A railroad track, however, must possess a certain amount of spring or elasticity, and it was found that granite was too rigid. The concussion of the iron wheels of the loaded wagons worked loose the rails, especially at the ends, and it was realized that granite was not the thing to use.

THE STONE BLOCKS USED BY THE PHILADELPHIA AND COLUMBIA RAI LWAY. Part of the road-bed of the Old Portage Railroad near Gallitzin, Pa. Frost split and even shifted the stone blocks, and the rails were consequently twisted out of place. Courtesy of Ike Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1789 William Jessop introduced in England the system of fastening cast-iron “chairs,” or sockets, to the sleepers, and of securing the rails in the chairs. It was Jessop, too, who invented the modern flanged wheel—that is, a wheel with a rim on the inside to prevent it from slipping from the track. He is also credited with having fixed the gauge of to-day—four feet eight and one-half inches.

What appears to have been most difficult was the construction of a track foundation that would remain stable. As late as 1841 the president of the Erie Railroad ordered piles driven for one hundred miles on dry land to provide a substantial support for the stringers and rails. The expedient failed. There was no elasticity to the structure, and it was pounded to destruction by the heavy trains. Then came cross-ties.

Of course on early American railroads, as on those in England, the hauling was done by horses. David Stevenson, who came to this country about 1836 to study our railways, wrote:

“I travelled by horse-power on the Mohawk and Hudson Railway from Schenectady to Albany, a distance of sixteen miles, and the journey was performed in sixty-five minutes, being at the astonishing rate of fifteen miles an hour. The car by which I was conveyed carried twelve passengers, and was drawn by two horses, which ran stages of five miles.” Clearly, the old horse-cars were not so slow as might be supposed.


The first American railroad to be constructed with the intention of using steam locomotives only was the South Carolina Railroad, commenced in 1827; but the first road to be opened was the Baltimore and Ohio, which was partly put in operation for service in 1830. Their first rail was laid on July 4, 1828, by Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, the only then surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The promoters of the Baltimore and Ohio decided to build a model railroad, and they sent their engineers to England to report on the roads of that country. Acting upon the report submitted, the use of granite was still retained, and a track was built, consisting of granite sills, eight by fifteen inches in lengths of six to ten feet. These rested on broken stone ballast, laid in two parallel trenches, and the flat iron strips of rail, five-eighths of an inch thick and two and one-half inches wide, were spiked into wooden plugs inserted in holes drilled in the granite.

Mr. Hasell Wilson, one of the best of the American engineers of that day, said of this track: “It was an entire failure; it was found impracticable to maintain an even surface; the track spread apart; and the iron rails worked loose, causing frequent accidents.” It was the fond hope of the early railway-builders that they could construct a road to last forever, and to this end it was thought that a substance like granite was absolutely necessary. But frost split and even shifted the stone blocks, and the rails were consequently twisted out of place. Experiment followed experiment; all without success.

PLATE-RAIL AND STONE SLEEPER, SURREY IRON RAILWAY, 1804. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

But the pioneers were not daunted. On the line in course of construction between Philadelphia and Columbia, 163 miles of single track, they tried three different systems. Six miles were laid with granite sills, as on the Baltimore and Ohio; eighteen miles with wood instead of granite sills; and the remainder with stone blocks, eighteen inches square, placed three feet apart. On these stone blocks they laid “edge-rails,” so called because the flanged wheel ran on the upper edge of the rail. They were from nine to fifteen feet long, and had been imported from England.

Early iron rails were of two kinds: the plate-rail and the edge-rail. The plate-rail was L-shaped. The wheels ran on the flat base of the L, and were prevented by the vertical flange from running off the track. The edge-rail also had a flat base, but from the centre of it projected a vertical flange. The wheel ran on the top of this flange. With this rail, however, although it was stiffer and more serviceable than the plate-rail, it was necessary to have a projecting flange on the wheels. At first the flange was on the outside of the wheel; later Jessop put it on the inside, and in that position it has remained ever since.

The railway was now utterly dependent on the iron-maker. Not until the founder learned how to roll rails that would endure, could railway travel be safe and speedy. It was a great advance when wrought iron was substituted for cast iron, an innovation that followed the patenting, in 1820, of a method of rolling wrought-iron rails by John Birkinsaw, who operated the Bedington Iron Works, of Durham, England. George Stephenson used Birkinsaw’s rails on the famous Stockton and Darlington road, and also on the Liverpool and Manchester.

The edge-rail and the inside-flange wheel led to the system which is in use to-day. A remarkable American, Robert Livingston Stevens, the son of Colonel John Stevens, was the inventor of this system, and its principal feature is the T-rail. While Stevens was on his way to Europe, in 1830, to order for the Camden and Amboy Railroad the locomotive that has passed into history as the “John Bull,” he thought much about tracks and their defects. Out of wood he whittled models of rails, one of which was the forerunner of the modern broad-based T-rail, so called from its cross-section, and it was eventually laid by Stevens himself on the Camden and Amboy Railroad.

The rail-rollers of England thought Stevens a “crank.” He had to assume full responsibility for failure, pay all extra expenses, and to put up a bond to pay for any damages that might be inflicted on the rail works. Although regarded as a dangerous innovation, the T-rail was in use on many roads by 1840. Stevens’s rail had a wide, flat base, by which it was secured to the tie with hooked spikes. It weighed thirty-six pounds to the yard. To-day, rails weigh from ninety to 130 pounds.

PLATE—RAIL OF THE TICKNALL TRAMWAY IN ENGLAND. This tramway was constructed in 1799 by Benjamin Outram. A line 4.25 miles in length connected with the Ashby Canal, Leicestershire. It is still occasionally used. The metals arc of cast iron and are of angled section, the raised flange being arranged on the inside of the track. The switch shown has a wrought-iron tongue, provided with a stem which drops into a hole into the casting, but no mechanical device is provided for moving the tongue. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

The early rails of America were of British manufacture, and were often carried as ship ballast. By removing the duty on railroad iron, the government made it possible to lay the rails down in New York at a cost not much greater than the English purchase price. It was largely for this reason that we did not roll our own rails until about 1840.

When we began to roll rails of steel, something like perfection was attained. A steel rail is from eight to fifteen times more durable than one made of iron, and is much less liable to break. In the chapter on iron and steel the development of this rail is more fully described. “Probably no other single influence was so effective in reducing the cost of transportation and improving the general conditions of the railroads as the substitution of steel for iron rails.” This is the verdict of Bogart in his ‘Economic History of the United States.’

It was the steel rail that brought the Western wheat-growing regions into direct competition with the agricultural industry of the East; consequently it soon had a profound effect on farming in the British Isles. After it was introduced, railroad companies began to move passengers and freight at a minimum expense. The steel rail has, therefore, been the principal factor in enabling the American railroad to populate the West by distributing the hordes that migrated from Europe.

A road-bed must be well drained. This is secured by finishing the surface of the natural ground (the sub-grade) with a slight slope from the centre to the sides, so that rain-water, passing through the ballast, will run off into the side ditches. On the sub-grade are laid about eighteen inches of broken stone, upon which are laid the cross-ties, preferably of oak. The ballast is frequently filled up flush with the top of the ties, and banked up against their ends. By this means a firm and yet elastic foundation is provided.

To increase the bearing surface, steel tie-plates are inserted between the base of the rails and the ties, and the hooked spikes pass through square holes in these plates, and thus enable the spikes to offer resistance to any lateral spreading of the rail. The abutting ends of the rails are held in true alignment and level by two splice-bars or angle-bars, one on each side of the joint, which are held against the rail by four or six bolts.

The ties are spread about two feet, centre to centre, the two ties at each joint being brought closer together, to afford additional support at this, the weakest point in the rail. The heaviest rails to-day are of 130 pounds to the yard on certain sections of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and 135-pound rails are being experimented with on the Lackawanna road.

JESSOP EDGE—RAILS. These rails were laid down by William Jessop in 1789. This is believed to have been a first instance of a narrow rail being used on its edge, and therefore marks a great advance upon the earlier wooden ways and plate ways. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.


As soon as the great James Watt had perfected the steam-engine, it occurred to many practical men that here was a machine which would supersede horses for hauling loads on tramways. The first of these seems to have been the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick, who was born in 1771, and died penniless in 1833.

Trevithick, a giant of a man, who could beat the whole countryside in wrestling and feats of strength, was so capable an inventor that he must be regarded as one of the originators of the modern automobile, although he used steam instead of gasoline as the propelling power. He was one of Watt’s few formidable and successful rivals in the development of the steam-engine, although there is good reason to believe that he saw the earlier plans for such an engine drawn by Oliver Evans.

Too much credit cannot be given to the American, Oliver Evans, for his conception of a locomotive engine. In the chapter on the steam-engine his engineering skill has been sufficiently dwelt upon, and some of the more important events of his embittered life have been noted. Horatio Allen, who imported and ran the first locomotive in America, said that his engine had all the elements of a permanent success. “Had Evans a Boulton, as Watt had a co-operating Boulton . . . the high-pressure steam-engine would have had a position from that time of great interest to the country, and, through this country to the world.” Evans was probably the first to invent the multi-tubular boiler, now a distinguishing feature of the locomotive, although his was a water-tube and not a fire-tube boiler.

After he had built and operated half a dozen “road locomotives”, or steam automobiles, Trevithick, in 1804, built a real steam locomotive that ran on rails and hauled twenty tons of iron ore in Wales. Although horse-power was cheaper than steam for such work, he not only built another locomotive for a coal mine, but also constructed a little circular passenger-railway near Euston Square, London, which attracted the curiosity and interest of many people.

MODEL OF TREVITHICK’S LOCOMOTIVE OF 1804. Courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Trevithick, in his turn, had some aggressive competitors. In 1811 John Blenkinsop built a coal-hauling locomotive that propelled itself by a cog, which engaged a rack attached to the tramway. Then there was William Hedley, whose “Puffing Billy” and “Wylam Dilly,” built in 1813, also hauled coal.

But the foremost of all these pioneers and the man to whom the modern railroad owes most was George Stephenson (who was born in 1781, and died in 1848). His was the typical career of an inventor, except that he amassed a fortune by the exercise of more business sense than that displayed by most inventors. After working as a cowherd and driving a gin-horse for a coal-mine, he became a pumping-engine attendant. A boy of seventeen, naturally imaginative and inventive, could hardly be brought face to face with Watt’s great engine without wanting to fathom its mysteries.

There were books enough on steam-engines, but he could not read. So he went to night-school, learned his letters, and then read about engines to his heart’s content. From then on, his life was devoted to the steam-engine. He was so fascinated by Hedley’s experiments with “Puffing Billy” that he induced the owners of the Killingsworth colliery to authorize him to build a locomotive which was to run on a railroad between the mine and a shipping port, nine miles distant. His first engine, the “Blucher,” drew eight loaded wagons weighing thirty tons up a grade which rose one foot in every 450 feet.

BLENKINSOP’S LOCOMOTIVE, PATENTED IN 1811. A racked or tooth rail was laid alongside the road; into this rack the toothed wheel of the locomotive worked. The engine had two cylinders, an innovation due to Matthew Murray, of Leeds. The connecting-rods gave motion to two pinions by cranks at right angles to each other; these pinions communicating the motion to the wheel which engaged the rack. Blenkinsop’s engines began running in 1812, and were the first to be regularly engaged for commercial purposes. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

Stephenson became engineer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, authorized by Parliament in 1821. Horses were to be used for hauling the cars, but Stephenson successfully urged the adoption of steam locomotives. The line, thirty-eight miles long, was opened in 1825, with Stephenson driving an engine that hauled thirty-four tiny wagons or cars, constituting a load of ninety tons. A man on horseback rode in advance of the train, and on the easiest section of the line he had to gallop at the rate of fifteen miles an hour to keep in front.

Although the Stockton and Darlington Railway was built primarily as a freight road, there was such a demand for passenger accommodation that the company soon made arrangements to run a daily coach with six seats inside and fifteen outside. The “Experiment,” as this first passenger-car was called, was little more than an ordinary stagecoach with iron wheels running on iron rails.

It might be supposed that after the Stockton and Darlington success, England was prepared for a revolution in transportation. Far-sighted men were convinced that the steam road was destined to carry goods and people with undreamed-of swiftness. On the other hand, conservative opinion pointed out, and very properly, that the engines lacked power and were expensive. A bookkeeper by a simple comparison of cost of horses and engines could easily dispose of any arguments in favor of steam.

Allied to this objection was the opposition of the stage-coach lines, the canal companies, and the landed gentry, who resented the invasion of their estates by the smoking, roaring locomotives and their noisy trains of cars. In fact the charter of the Liverpool and Manchester road was obtained only with difficulty. It cost Huskisson, a skilled politician, seventy thousand pounds to carry it through.

The construction of this Liverpool and Manchester line was the turning-point. It was destined to prove, slowly but surely, the advantages of steam over horse-power, and the national benefits that would result from a smoothly operated steam railroad.

THE “PUFFING BILLY” LOCOMOTIVE. “Puffing Billy” locomotive was constructed at Wylam colliery in 1813 by William Hedley, assisted by the engine-wrights, one of whom, Timothy Hackworth, subsequently became locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. It worked between the colliery and the Staithes at Lennington-on-Tyne. The boiler is a wrought-iron cylinder with one egg end and has an internal return furnace flue as used by Trevithick. The engine usually hauled about fifty tons at a speed of five miles an hour. The fender consists of a wooden frame supported on four wheels, carrying a water-tank and coal-box. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

George Stephenson, his Stockton and Darlington experiences behind him, was engaged to build it. There were many obstacles in his path. To begin with, differences of opinion as to the tractive power to be employed sprang up amongst the officials. Some of them were in favor of the old, reliable horse, others advocated the use of fixed engines which could haul the cars by cables; in fact the best engineering opinion of the day was in favor of these fixed engines. George Stephenson, however, insisted upon steam locomotives.

Urging the merits of the locomotive at every opportunity, he pointed out the serious inconvenience that would arise to the whole line if one of the fixed engines should break down, and he dwelt on the large amount of capital that would have to be sunk in hauling-engines and engine-houses. If the locomotive was not yet economical, it was because inventors had not been given sufficient encouragement, he argued. Great improvements could be made.

He offered to build a locomotive himself which would haul heavy loads with speed, regularity, and safety. This persistence and earnestness led the directors to offer a prize of £500 for the best engine that would haul six tons at ten miles an hour, or twenty tons at ten miles, with a pressure of steam on the boiler not exceeding fifty pounds to the square inch. There were other conditions, not immoderate as we look back at them now, but considered hopelessly difficult of fulfilment in 1830.

With the assistance of his son Robert, George Stephenson built a locomotive called the “Rocket.” In his earliest engines Stephenson had used the system of exhausting the spent steam into the smoke-stack. Thus he found that the draft was increased, with the result that a hotter fire could be maintained under the boiler. The steam-blast was so essential to the generation of high-pressure steam that Stephenson used it in the “Rocket.”

Foremost of the railway pioneers was George Stephenson (left), who was born in 1781 and died in 1848. As an illiterate pumping-engine attendant of seventeen, he learned how to read in order that he might be able to familiarize himself with principles of steam-engine construction as they were disclosed in books of the day. With him really begins the development of the modern locomotive. Robert Stephenson (right) assisted his distinguished father, George, in building the famous “Rocket” locomotive that won the Rainhill contest. He was born in 1803 and did in 1859. Unlike his father, he was a highly educated engineer. He built the London and Birmingham Railway, the first to run into London. He was even more distinguished as a civil than as a mechanical engineer.

To meet the conditions of the prize offer, he had to provide a very large heating surface. He decided to adopt what we now call a multi-tubular boiler in which the fire was carried through a great many small tubes surrounded by water, rather than through the usual single flue. The idea was old, although Stephenson did not know it.

The complete “Rocket” had two cylinders, eight inches in diameter by sixteen and one-half inches stroke, direct-connected to driving-wheels measuring four feet eight inches in diameter, which were placed in front below the smoke-stack. The engine weighed four and one-quarter tons and the tender three and one-fifth tons. The steam pressure was fifty pounds.

On the day when the great competition for the prize was to be held, four locomotives were on hand. One was the “Rocket.” Another was the “Novelty,” designed by Ericsson, who was later destined to play a part in our Civil War as the builder of the Monitor. There were also Hackworth’s “Sanspareil,” and Burstall’s “Perseverance.”

Samuel Smiles, who knew Robert Stephenson, thus describes the contest in his ‘Life of George Stephenson and of His Son, Robert Stephenson’:

“The contest was postponed until the following day (October 7); but before the judges arrived on the ground the bellows for creating the draft in the ‘Novelty’ gave way, and it was found incapable of going through its performance. A defect was also found in the boiler of the ‘Sanspareil,’ and some further time was allowed to get it repaired. The large number of spectators who had assembled to witness the contest were greatly disappointed at this postponement; but to lessen it, Stephenson brought out the ‘Rocket,’ and attaching it to a coach containing thirty persons, he ran them along at the rate of from twenty-four to thirty miles an hour, much to their gratification and amazement. Before separating, the judges ordered the engine to be in readiness by eight o’clock on the following morning, to go through its definite trial according to the prescribed conditions.”

THREE LOCOMOTIVE ENGINES WHICH COMPETED AT RAINHILL IN 1829. This is an announcement of the prize of £500 offered by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway for the engine which would best fulfil its conditions. From a lithograph, Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

On the next day the “Rocket” surpassed all expectations. “It was the simple but admirable contrivance of the steam-blast and its combination with the multi-tubular boiler,” says Smiles, “that at once gave locomotion a vigorous life and secured the triumph of the railway system.”

But the railroad engineers were poor prophets. After Stephenson’s dramatic success they confidently predicted immediate speeds of seventy-five and even a hundred miles an hour. On the other hand, they failed to appreciate the steam locomotive’s ability to haul great weights cheaply. Nor did they realize that the railroad could successfully compete with the waterway.

The “Rocket” is regarded as the forerunner of the modern locomotive because it had the following four modern fundamental elements of efficiency:

1. The fire-box was surrounded by the water of the boiler.
2. The boiler was horizontal, and the hot gases were led from the fire-box to the smoke-box through tubes which passed through the boiler, and which were surrounded by the water to be heated.
3. The steam exhausted into the smoke-stack, thereby greatly increasing the draft and making a very hot fire.
4. The power of the steam was exerted through the piston-rods and connecting-rods directly upon the driving-wheels, to which the connecting-rods were attached without any intervening parts.



Oliver Evans and Colonel John Stevens had proposed steam railways for the United States before the Stockton and Darlington experiments were made. Evans, as the chapter on the steam-engine recounts, was the inventor of the high-pressure steam-engine, and the builder of the first steam automobile, a vehicle which travelled not only on land but also in water. Again and again Evans advocated steam locomotion, first on turnpikes, then on rails after they were invented. Stevens was more concrete in his ideas, and more energetic. He applied for and received from the State of New Jersey, in 1815, the first American railway charter, although as early as 1810 he had been preaching the gospel of the steam railway.

While Stephenson was still experimenting with steam on the Stockton and Darlington, Stevens built a rack-rail engine that propelled itself by a cog-wheel engaging a rack bolted to the ties. Constructed in 1825 to run between Philadelphia and Columbia, the engine had a vertical boiler—a multi-tubular boiler. Hence Stevens actually anticipated Stephenson in the use of fire-tubes, although both fire-tube and water-tube boilers were patented before Stevens’ or Stephenson’s day. The wheels of Stevens’ engine were kept on the track not by the usual flanges but by small side horizontal friction-wheels.

America was no more favorably inclined to such experiments than was England. The idea of a boiler and engine mounted on wheels as a substitute for horses was received with doubt and derision. When, in 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was opened with horse and rail cars, Daniel Webster expressed grave doubts as to the ultimate success of the railroad, saying among other things that the frost on the rails would prevent a train from moving, or if it did move, from being stopped, which shows that whatever may have been Webster’s ability as a lawyer, his knowledge of mechanics was not even rudimentary.

THE FIRST STEAM LOCOMOTIVE IN AMERICA. On this private track, built in Hoboken, Colonel John Stevens in 1826 (he was then seventy-six years old) operated an experimental locomotive with a multi-tubular boiler of his own invention. Courtesy of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

In view of the work that had been done in England it was natural that the early American promoters of railroads should look to that country for their motive power. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company sent Horatio Allen to England to buy iron rails and two locomotives. The “America,” built to Allen’s order by George Stephenson, was practically a duplicate of the famous “Rocket,” but the four wheels were coupled to give better adhesion and a greater tractive power—the first stage in the development of the many-coupled American locomotive.

There is no known record of the “America’s” performance in this country. The other locomotive ordered by Allen, the “Stourbridge Lion,” built at Stourbridge, England, was the first locomotive that ran in commercial service in America. In August, 1829, with Horatio Allen at the throttle, the engine made its trial trip. It had two vertical cylinders operating two overhead walking beams, from which connecting-rods ran to the driving-wheels, and must have appeared like a marine engine on wheels.

Allen tested the “Stourbridge Lion” with some trepidation. He had specified a locomotive weighing three tons; he received one weighing seven. On August 9, 1829, the engine was placed on the tracks at Honesdale. Allen knew that the track was too light, but he determined to take the risk. Nobody accepted his invitation to ride with him. Bidding good-by to the onlookers he dashed off and, probably to his own surprise, quickly found himself out of sight. In 1884 Mr. Allen wrote the following humorous account of the first American trial of the “Stourbridge Lion”:

“When the time came, and the steam was of the right pressure, and all was ready, I took my position on the platform of the locomotive alone, and with my hand on the throttle-valve handle, said: ‘If there is any danger in this ride it is not necessary that the life and limbs of more than one be subjected to danger.’

“The locomotive, having no train behind it, answered at once to the movement of the hand; . . . soon the straight line was run over, the curve was reached and passed before there was time to think as to its not being passed safely, and soon I was out of sight in the three miles ride alone in the woods of Pennsylvania. I had never run a locomotive nor any other engine before; I have never run one since.”

The engine proved satisfactory enough on the coal docks of the Delaware and Hudson Company, but it was too heavy for the regular tracks. It was withdrawn from service after a short time.

THE STOURBRIDGE LION. This was the first locomotive that ran in commercial service in the United States. The locomotive was tested in 1829 by Horatio Allen, and proved to be too heavy for the light American tracks of that period. It was imported by the Delaware and Hudson Company from England. Courtesy of the Delaware and Hudson Railway Company.

The truth was that the English locomotives were not adapted to run on the flimsy American tracks; moreover they burned coke and not wood. Yet these poorly laid, light rails proved to be the incentive needed for America to design and build her own locomotives and introduce characteristically American improvements. Peter Cooper, Long and Norris, and Rogers were especially prominent among those who struck out along new lines.

The earliest American locomotive was Peter Cooper’s “Tom Thumb,” which had a brief existence on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830—so brief, in fact, that it deserves no extended description. The “Best Friend,” built at the West Point Foundry in 1830 for the South Carolina Railroad Company, is really the patriarch of American locomotives.

MODEL OF PETER COOPER’S “TOM THUMB.” Peter Cooper was one of the pioneers of the American railroad. His “Tom Thumb” locomotive had a short career on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830. All the locomotives of the early thirties were but little larger than a modern fire-engine. They were too light to haul heavy loads. Courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The “Best Friend” was what railway engineers call “four-coupled”; that is to say the four wheels were connected by outside coupling-rods; it was also “inside-connected,” meaning that the cylinders were inside the frames and coupled to two cranks on the driving-axle. The cylinders were six inches by sixteen-inch stroke; the driving-wheels were four feet nine inches, and the weight was four and one-half tons.

The West Point Foundry, New York, will always possess strong historical interest, since here were built the first practical American locomotives. Following the “Best Friend,” this shop turned out the “West Point,” which had a horizontal boiler, and conformed more to the type which has survived. It hauled 117 passengers in four cars, and between the locomotive and the cars was a “barrier car.”

This “barrier car” was an interesting innovation, invented solely and simply to ease the anxiety of the passenger. It was a car loaded with bales of cotton, which, says Angus Sinclair in his ‘Development of the American Locomotive’, was widely advertised as a good protection to the passengers “when the locomotive exploded.” The boiler of the “Best Friend” had exploded, and this little weakness seems to have been generally accepted as unavoidable.

THE “BEST FRIEND.” The “ Best Friend” was built at the West Point Foundry shops in New York City for the South Carolina Railroad, arrived by the ship Niagara, October 27, and after experimental trials, in November and December, 1830, made the first excursion trip here pictured, on Saturday, January 15, 1831. The “Best Friend” was the first locomotive built in the United States for actual service. Courtesy of the Southern Railway Company.

Following the “West Point” came the most famous of all pioneer American locomotives, the “De Witt Clinton.” Built at West Point in 1831 for the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad it made its first run on August of that year from Albany to Schenectady, and with a load of three coaches it attained a speed of fifteen miles an hour. Alone, the “De Witt Clinton” made a speed of forty miles an hour. The cylinders were five and one-half inches in diameter by sixteen inches stroke, direct-connected to coupled wheels four feet six inches in diameter. The boiler contained thirty copper tubes, and the weight of the engine was six tons.

A full-size model of this early train was shown at the Chicago Exposition of 1893; and in 1921 it was run under its own steam on various stretches of track throughout the country, before being exhibited in Chicago. Millions of people looked with wonderment at this curious example of how our forefathers attempted to solve the problem of transportation. The influence of the early stage-coach is seen in the construction of the passenger-cars—a subject to which reference will be made later on.

Riding behind the “De Witt Clinton” or any of its contemporaries was not an unmixed blessing. William H. Brown, one of the passengers hauled by the “De Witt Clinton” when the Mohawk and Hudson was opened on August 9, 1831, gives this description of his experiences:

“John T. Clark, as the first passenger-railroad conductor in the North, stepping from platform to platform outside the cars, collected the tickets which had been sold at hotels and other places through the city. When he finished his tour he mounted upon the tender attached to the engine, and sitting upon the little buggy seat, gave the signal with a tin horn, and the train started on its way. But how shall we describe that start?”

“There came a sudden jerk that bounded the sitters from their places, to the great detriment of their high-top, fashionable beavers from the close proximity to the roofs of the cars. This first jerk being over, the engine proceeded on its way with considerable velocity, when compared with stage-coaches, until it arrived at a water station, when it suddenly brought up with jerk number two to the further amusement of some of the excursionists. Mr. Clark retained the elevated seat, thanking his stars for its close proximity to the tall smoke-pipe of the machine in allowing the smoke and sparks to pass over his head.”

THE “DE WITT CLINTON.” The “ De Witt Clinton” was the first American passenger-locomotive. It hauled its first train on August 9, 1831, over the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, now a part of the New York Central system. The trip between Albany and Schenectady, a distance of seventeen miles, was made in one hour and forty-five minutes. The maximum speed attained was thirty miles an hour. Upon arrival at Schenectady the train was greeted by bands and the roar of cannon. The “De Witt Clinton” made the return trip from Schenectady to Albany with five coaches in thirty-eight minutes. After fourteen years of service the “ De Witt Clinton” was then stored at Karner, near West Albany, from which place it was moved in June, 1920, and placed on exhibition in the Grand Central Terminal. The old locomotive is here shown on the tracks of the present New York Central Railroad. Courtesy of the New York Central Lines.

These locomotives of the early thirties were little larger than modern fire-engines. The weight of the first Baltimore and Ohio regular locomotives was only three and one-half tons. The companies soon found that locomotives weighing less than ten tons were too weak for hauling heavy loads, and that small cars had too much dead weight relatively to the paying load.

There came a demand for greater hauling power, and to meet it Robert L. Stevens imported the “John Bull” for the Camden and Amboy line. The cylinders were nine inches by twenty inches, and the weight was ten tons—a big advance in power and size. Isaac Dripps of the Camden and Amboy road, finding the English locomotive too rigid for the sharp curves of American roads, removed the coupling-rods of the wheels, gave one and one-half inches side play to the leading axle, and attached in front a two-wheeled pilot or cowcatcher, which relieved the leading driving-wheels of some of the superimposed weight; characteristics that distinguish the American locomotive of to-day. Indeed, the “John Bull,” as improved by Dripps, was not only the first to have a cowcatcher, but it also introduced the bell and the headlight.

THE “JOHN BULL.” To meet the demand for greater hauling power, Robert L. Stevens imported the “John Bull” for the Camden and Amboy line, now part of the Pennsylvania system. Finding the English locomotive too rigid for the sharp curves, Isaac Dripps, of the Camden and Amboy, removed the coupling-rods of the wheels, gave one and one-half inches play sidewise to the leading axle, and attached in front a two-wheeled pilot or cowcatcher, which relieved the leading driving-wheels of some of the superimposed weight—characteristics of American locomotives to this day. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Some extraordinary designs were produced during all this pioneer work—locomotives of such fantastic shape that they were given the name their shape suggested. One does not usually associate a locomotive with a grasshopper, and yet the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the early thirties used several “Grasshoppers,” whose advantage over the insect lay principally in the matter of size and noise. A vertical boiler, two vertical ten-inch cylinders, a pair of rocker-shafts, a pair of connecting-rods, some gear-wheels, outside cranks and coupling-rods served to transmit the power to the wheels.

It is important that the steam in a locomotive be properly controlled in the cylinders, and the year 1832 is notable for the invention of the “link-motion” by William T. James of New York. It was one of the simplest, most efficient, and most enduring of inventions. Hitherto, valve-gears were crude, complicated, and inefficient. James connected the eccentric-rod ends by a curved and slotted link carrying a sliding block, to which was fastened the valve-stem. By means of a hand-lever, the engineer lifted or depressed the link, thereby throwing the gear into forward or reverse operation.

WILLIAM JAMES’S LOCOMOTIVE. The steam in a locomotive’s cylinders must be properly controlled. The locomotive invented by William James, of New York (of which this is a reproduction made by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad), is historically important. It incorporated for the first time the modern “link-motion,” one of the simplest and moat enduring of inventions. Courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
THE “HERCULES” OF HARRISON. Rough tracks inspired Joseph Harrison to invent the equalizing-lever—a flat bar pivoted at its centre through a spring to the frame, with its ends resting upon the journal-boxes of the adjoining driving-wheels. The lever distributed the shock or “hammer-blow” due to bumps or hollows of the track. The locomotive in which Harrison incorporated this invention in 1837 was the “Hercules,” of which this is a reproduction made by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.


Some mechanics drifted into engine-building in queer ways. There was Matthew Baldwin, for example, founder of the famous Baldwin Locomotive Works, a jeweller by trade, who was engaged in the manufacture of bookbinder’s tools and calico-printing machinery in 1825. Needing an engine that would occupy the least possible space in his shop, he proceeded to design it himself. This engine attracted so much attention that he received orders for duplicates.

Thus he was launched as an engine-builder, a career of which he probably never dreamed in the days when he was a jeweller. Franklin Peale, proprietor of the Philadelphia Museum, asked Baldwin to construct a working miniature locomotive for exhibition. Baldwin had never seen a locomotive. With the aid of inadequate sketches of the “Rocket,” which had won the Liverpool and Manchester contest, he succeeded in producing a little engine which hauled two cars seating four passengers. Peale did a thriving business with this little train.

Thus was Baldwin fairly started as a locomotive-builder. In 1832 he was asked to build a locomotive for the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad. He studied the imported Camden and Amboy locomotives, and constructed the “Old Ironsides,” which marked an advance on the “John Bull.” The cylinders were nine and one-half inches by eighteen, and the boiler contained thirty copper tubes.

“OLD IRONSIDES.” Matthew Baldwin studied the locomotives imported from England in the early thirties and proceeded to construct the “Old Ironsides,” of which this is a reproduction made by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The engine weighed eight tons, and could haul thirty tons on a level road. Courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

American builders soon abandoned copper for the tubes, though the English retained the practice. The engine weighed eight tons, and could haul thirty tons on a level road. “Old Ironsides” was the first steam-engine to be built by a firm destined to become known all over the world for its construction of locomotives.


Pioneer railroad-builders in England were justified in spending more money in constructing their roads than we could afford to spend in America. That country was settled; passengers and freight were abundant; the new roads were certain to pay good dividends from the very start. So the roads were built straight and level, with masonry or iron bridges. In the United States the new roads were built largely through sparsely settled country where freight and passengers were comparatively scarce. In England, the country developed the railroads; in the United States the railroads developed the country.

Our early roads had so many sharp curves and heavy grades that, eventually, the American locomotive was designed to meet them. It had to be flexible to run around sharp curves and over rough track; it had to be powerful to surmount heavy grades; it had to be heavy, with many driving-wheels, to be able to haul heavy loads. For this reason our trains have grown to be far heavier and our locomotives more powerful than those of the older countries.

The credit for designing the first locomotive with a swivelling truck, capable of turning horizontally about a centre-pin, goes to John B. Jervis, chief engineer of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, who in 1832 placed the “Experiment” in service. The cylinders were coupled to single driving-wheels, and the weight was over seven and one-half tons.

MODEL OF JOHN B. JERVIS’S “EXPERIMENT.” The “Experiment” was built in 1832 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This was the first locomotive that had a swivelling truck capable of turning horizontally about a centre-pin, an invention made necessary by the sharp curves and rough tracks of the time. The cylinders were coupled to single driving wheels, and the weight was over seven and one-half tons. Courtesy of the Baltimore asd Ohio Railroad.

It became apparent that if the locomotive was not to cause the track to sink the weight must be distributed over the rails. The principle is much the same as that applied in the snowshoe or the ski. A man on snow-shoes can stand on the surface of loose snow because his weight is distributed over several square feet; in boots he would sink in. Horatio Allen was the first to suggest this principle in locomotives, although it remained for John Jervis to carry it out.

Jervis ordered from H. R. Campbell for the Germantown railroad, the first eight-wheel locomotive—a type that has prevailed for over half a century. It was called the “Experiment.” Weights and power were going up. This engine had cylinders fourteen by sixteen inches, and it weighed twelve tons.

The roughness of the track led to another valuable improvement: the equalizing-lever. It was a strong flat bar, pivoted at its centre to the locomotive frame, with its ends resting upon the journal-boxes of the adjoining driving-wheels. The new device distributed the shock or “hammer-blow,” due to passing over bumps or hollows of the track, evenly over the two wheels. The “Hercules” of 1837 was the first to embody the equalizing-lever, and to Joseph Harrison goes the credit for this notable engine, a full-size model of which is in the Field Museum, Chicago.


The famous Rogers Locomotive Works of Paterson, N. J., was responsible for many improvements, notably the placing of a balance weight at the rim of the driving-wheel to counteract the back-and-forth surging and hammering effects of the piston, connecting-rods, etc. This was done in the “Sandusky.” Rogers also placed the cylinders outside the frames, used bar iron in opposition to the English plate-frames, and by combining these features with the equalizing-lever and a forward truck, he produced the typical American outside-connected, eight-wheel engine, which remained the standard passenger-engine for fifty years. This locomotive, with cylinders eleven and one-half inches by eighteen, and five-foot drivers, was built in 1845 for the New Haven and Hartford road.

The increased length and weight of American passenger-trains demanded powerful engines. They were an absolute necessity. Hence in locomotives we find first the four-coupled, then the six-coupled, and finally in the latest Rock Island locomotive, the eight-coupled.

EARLY TIME-TABLE. Courtesy of the New York Central Lines.


Bear in mind the modest dimensions of the early locomotives above described, and compare them with the following figures for the Rock Island Locomotive—the most powerful passenger locomotive in the world in 1921:

- Length over all 90 feet
- Weight 270 tons
- Diameter of boiler 80 inches
- Boiler pressure per square inch 200 pounds
- Diameter of cylinders 28 inches
- Stroke of cylinders 28 inches
- Draw-bar pull 25 tons

This engine has hauled sixteen Pullman cars, weighing twelve hundred tons, at a speed on level track of slightly more than sixty miles an hour.

THE MOST POWERFUL PASSENGER LOCOMOTIVE (ROCK ISLAND LINE). Length over all, 90 feet; weight, 270 tons; diameter of boiler, 80 inches; boiler pressure per square inch, 200 pounds; diameter of cylinders, 28 inches; stroke of cylinders, 28 inches. Courtesy of the American Locomotive Company.


Freight-trains, also increasing their weight, called for more power, and this in turn demanded larger boilers and cylinders; these again required additional weight on the drivers to prevent their slipping on the rails. The problem was met by adding yet another pair of wheels and coupling all six together. The first of this type known as the “Mogul” was built in 1863 at the Rogers Works. A two-wheel pony truck took the place of the four-wheel truck. The cylinders were large, seventeen inches by twenty-two, and the weight went up to thirty-five tons.

The next step in weight and power was taken by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. They added another pair of drivers, and in 1866 produced the first “Consolidation”—a type which, like the “Mogul,” was to endure to our day. The cylinders were twenty inches by twenty-four, and the weight went up to forty-five tons, about one-tenth the weight of the largest locomotive of to-day.

Hitherto the main efforts of locomotive-builders had been directed toward an increase of power; if engines pulled the load, that was sufficient. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century they aimed at an economical machine that would have the maximum of hauling power with the least possible consumption of fuel. The builders of steamship engines had already found that a given amount of steam would do more work if it were first used in a high-pressure cylinder, and then exhausted to a larger, low-pressure cylinder.

The locomotive-builders began to use this method. In the period 1890 to 1910 thousands of compound locomotives were built, some with one high-pressure cylinder and one low-pressure, some with two high and one low, and others with two high and two low. Some economy resulted, but the gain was not so marked as in the steamship engines, where first compound, then triple-expansion, and finally quadruple-expansion engines, in which the steam passed through four successive cylinders, proved very economical.

In general, compounding failed to show a sufficient saving in steam, and therefore in coal, to justify its general adoption. A better way has been found in superheating. In this method, the steam in its passage from the boiler to the cylinders, is led through tubes around which pass the hot gases from the fire-box. The steam is thereby dried, and its temperature is raised several hundred degrees. Heat is power, and the heat drawn from the hot gases represents an equivalent gain of power in the cylinders. Now, this heat is a clear gain; but without the super-heater it would have passed out through the smoke-stack and been lost.

Locomotive engineers estimate that the use of super-heaters represents a saving of about twenty-five per cent in coal. In other words, if a simple locomotive does a certain amount of work for every ton of coal burned, a super-heater locomotive will do the same work on about three-quarters of a ton.

It would take more than a volume to trace in detail the growth of the freight locomotive from the fifties to the present day. We have seen how its essential features came, one by one, to be incorporated; from then on growth was in the direction of size, weight, and power. The true measure of a locomotive’s power is the size of its boiler, and American engineers have never lost sight of this fact; in fact our locomotives have always carried a much larger boiler than those of any other country. Moreover, we have consistently used higher steam pressures.

It should be remembered that a sufficient number of wheels must be coupled together and a sufficient part of the weight of the freight locomotive be carried by them, to prevent the power of the cylinders from slipping the wheels. Hence, as boilers and cylinders grew in size, more pairs of wheels had to be coupled together. In the freight-engine, there was first the “Mogul” (six-coupled); then the “Consolidation” (eight-coupled), followed by the “Decapods” (ten-coupled). This was the limit.

A way of gaining further adhesion was found in using the invention of the Frenchman, Mallet, who provided two separate trucks below the boiler, each of which carried a pair of cylinders coupled to a set of drivers. This opened up great possibilities of power. Longer boilers could be used, more drivers could be utilized, and the adhesion and tractive power increased.

The accompanying illustration of the “Virginian” shows the most powerful freight steam locomotive in the world. Its proportions are enormous:

Length over all … 107 feet
Weight … 450 tons
Diameter of boiler … 103 inches
Boiler pressure per square iich … 215 pounds
Diameter of cylinders:
High pressure … 30 inches
Low pressure … 48 inches
Stroke of cylinders … 32 inches
Total heating surface… 10,725 square feet

This engine during a test hauled a coal train weighing 17,600 tons up a long two-tenths of one per cent grade. The American Locomotive Company built this mastodon.

THE MOST POWERFUL FREIGHT LOCOMOTIVE, THE “VIRGINIAN” (MALLET COMPOUND). Length overall, 107 feet; weight, 450 tons; diameter of boiler, 103 inches; boiler pressure per square inch, 215 pounds; diameter of cylinders: high pressure, 30 inches; low pressure, 48 inches; stroke of cylinders, 32 inches; total heating surface, 10,725 square feet. Courtesy of the American Locomotive Company.


The first passenger-car that ran on the Baltimore and Ohio was described by an eye-witness as “a little clapboarded cabin on wheels, for all the world like one of those North Carolina mountain huts, with the driver perched on top of the front portico—driver, because the motive power then was one horse in a treadmill-box.”

A glance at the “De Witt Clinton” steam train shows that the more comfortable early passenger-car was the body of a stage-coach mounted upon four iron wheels. Some of the passengers sat upon the roof, stage-coach fashion, where they were not only exposed to wind and rain but also to the smoke and hot sparks of the wood fuel with which the locomotive was fired. Later, to provide the passengers with better shelter and comfort, closed box-like cars were introduced; but these brought discomforts of their own.

That a railway journey in the early days of the steam locomotive was something to be dreaded may be gathered from this extract from the diary of pessimistic Samuel Breck of Boston:

“July 22, 1835. This morning at nine o’clock I took passage on a railroad-car (from Boston) for Providence. Five or six other cars were attached to the locomotive, and uglier boxes I do not wish to travel in. They were made to stow away some thirty human beings, who sit cheek by jowl as best they can. Two poor fellows who were not much in the habit of making their toilet, squeezed me into a corner, while the hot sun drew from their garments a villainous compound of smells made up of salt fish, tar, and molasses.”

“By and by just twelve—only twelve—bouncing factory girls were introduced, who were going on a party of pleasure to Newport. ‘Make room for the ladies!’ bawled out the superintendent. ‘Come, gentlemen, jump on the top; plenty of room there!’ ‘I’m afraid of the bridge knocking my brains out,’ said a passenger. Some made one excuse, and some made another. For my part I flatly told him that since I had belonged to the corps of Silver Grays I had lost my gallantry and did not intend to move. The whole twelve, how ever, were introduced and some made themselves at home, sucking lemons and eating green apples. . . . The rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the polite and the vulgar, all herd together in this modern improvement in travelling and all this for the sake of doing very uncomfortably in two days what would be done delightfully in eight or ten.”

THE “DE WITT CLINTON” AND A PACIFIC LOCOMOTIVE. The combined weight of the “De Witt Clinton” and its tender was 12,098 pounds. This was less than the weight of a pair of driving-wheels of a Pacific locomotive, which weigh 13,000 pounds. The standard Pacific-type locomotive shown weighs 276,000 pounds, which is about eleven times the weight of the entire “De Witt Clinton” train. The tender of a Pacific locomotive when loaded weighs 158,000 pounds, so that the total weight of engine and tender is 434,000 pounds, a little more than seventeen and one-half times the total weight of the “De Witt Clinton” train. The “De Witt Clinton” locomotive is 12 feet long; the length of the tender is 10 feet 11 inches. Each coach is 14 feet long, so that the train is 65 feet 9 inches long. A Pacific-type locomotive without its tender is 78 feet 2 3/8 inches long, or 12 feet 5 3/8 inches more than the total length of the “De Witt Clinton” train. Courtesy of the York Central Lines.

The cars in which Breck and his contemporaries had to ride were little more than wooden vans on wheels, slightly smaller than the old-fashioned street-car. It was bad enough to be herded in these smelly vehicles and compelled to sit on hard wood, but as soon as the locomotive started, passengers were choked with smoke and stung with road dust and flying sparks. At night, the few flickering candles were apt to fling their dripping tallow on to the best of clothes. During the winter the cars were not ventilated, and the air was vitiated by a wood-burning stove that only made a pretense of furnishing heat.

Ross Winans introduced about 1832 a car mounted on two four-wheeled trucks. The sharp curves of the early roads brought about the use of the swivelling locomotive truck. Winans applied the idea to cars. His first car had seats inside and outside, arranged like those of stage-coaches. It was followed by a car which looked like three stage-coach bodies in one, divided into three compartments and entered by doors on the side of each compartment. The next improvement resulted in something more like the modern car—a vehicle with doors only at the ends, and with an aisle between seats extending through the car. Thanks to Winans the cars gradually grew in width, height, length, and weight. In Europe the separate-compartment idea prevailed, but in the United States the cars were open from end to end.

Thus was born the long, easy-riding typical American car, the most distinctive contribution of America to the convenience and safety of railroad travel.

Affecting the safety of passengers, a most important step was the introduction of the all-steel car. The wooden car was liable, in collision or derailment, to burst apart and splinter. In such accidents, the sharp broken timbers had caused frightful lacerations. Moreover, the whole car had burst into flame and the imprisoned passengers had been roasted to death. Now the steel car, with its greater strength, rarely telescopes, and though it may bend it will not break easily. It cannot catch fire. Passengers may be bruised, but even in severe collisions they are not likely to be killed.

Thus, from the small, uncomfortable, noisy boxes on wheels in which our forefathers travelled in the thirties, have developed the huge steel cars of to-day, eighty to ninety feet in length and weighing from eighty to ninety tons—cars in which we may travel for days and nights, surrounded with many of the comforts of a city hotel.


The first trains were so slow and the distances to be covered so great that as early as 1836 the Cumberland Valley Railroad of Pennsylvania inaugurated a sleeping-car service between Harrisburg and Chambersburg. An ordinary day-coach was divided into four compartments fitted with bunks against the side. In the rear the heavy-eyed passengers, who had vainly tried to sleep while the car bumped its way during the night over the uneven track, might wash themselves as best they could with the aid of the basin and towel there provided.

To undress was out of the question; there were no bedclothes. Men threw themselves down on mattresses and piled over them their coats and shawls. For almost a generation these “bunk” cars were all in the way of sleeping accommodation the various railway companies offered the public. Bedding was furnished after a time, each passenger proceeding to a closet at one end of the car, selecting the cleanest sheets and blankets he could find and making his own bed. At irregular intervals the bedclothes were washed.

INTERIOR OF A PULLMAN “BUNK” CAR. Harper’s Weekly of May 28, 1859, published this conception of sleeping-car comfort before George Pullman determined to make a night journey on a railroad somewhat more restful than it was in the days when he bumped over the tracks in the State of New York. These “bunk” cars were all that the travelling public could count upon for nearly a generation after the first railway was built in America. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.

One who often tossed about in “bunk” cars on his journeys between Buffalo and Westfield was a young contractor named George Mortimer Pullman. Westfield knew him at one time as a clerk in the country store, but lost sight of him when he joined his brother, a cabinetmaker, of Albion, N. Y. Business was dull in Albion, and young Pullman cast about for moneymaking opportunities. He took the contract of moving some buildings to the banks of the newly widened Erie Canal, and thus it was that he acquired a first-hand knowledge of sleeping-car misery in the early fifties.

Since Pullman was born in 1831, he was still in his twenties when the terrors of a railway night were thrust upon him. On one of these journeys he thought of a car in which it was actually possible to sleep, but it was not until 1855, after he had moved to Chicago, whither his boundless energy and restlessness had urged him, that he put his ideas to the test. He made some money by contracting to elevate some wretched sunken streets and raising buildings to the new level.

In 1858, three years after his arrival in Chicago, then an overgrown country town of about 100,000 population, he built his first sleeping-cars for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. He simply remodelled two old coaches, built into them ten sleeping sections, a linen-closet, and two wash-rooms. Pullman even then had notions about interior decoration. He finished his remodelled cars in cherry. Plans . . . . there were none. Pullman and a few men worked out the details and the measurements as they came to them.

The two cars cost Pullman not more than $2,000, or $1,000 each. They were upholstered in plush, lighted by oil lamps, heated with box stoves, and mounted on four-wheel trucks. There was no porter in those days; the brakeman made up the beds. So little accustomed were the passengers to the luxuries provided that on the first night they had to be asked to take off their boots before entering their berths. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that the upper berths were of the swinging type ever since built into American sleepers—the invention of Pullman. Curtains, and not wooden partitions, divided the sections.

PULLMAN’S EARLY SLEEPING-CAR. One of the oldest sleeping-cars, built on the style of the Erie Canal packet, with three tiers of bunks on one side of the car only. This preceded Pullman’s No. 9 (his first modern car). Courtesy of the Pullman Company.

The cars proved a success after a few months’ trial. To Pullman, however, they were merely old cars slightly improved, an experiment, and certainly not the luxurious bedrooms on wheels of which he had dreamed on his rough nightly journeys through the State of New York. It was not until 1864 that he built the first real Pullman car. Into it he put practically all the money that he had saved—over $20,000.

Twenty thousand dollars for a single car! Railroad men stood aghast at such extravagance. They had reluctantly spent $5,000 after Pullman had shown them the way with his two experimental cars. It seemed impossible to make money out of the “Pioneer,” as this $20,000 venture was fittingly called. Moreover, the “Pioneer” was higher and larger than existing cars; the question was how to get it under the old bridges and past the more protruding platforms.

But luck was with Pullman. The government engaged the “Pioneer” to carry the body of President Lincoln from Chicago to Springfield, for which reason one railroad had to adapt itself to Pullman’s ideas of what cars should be. Later General Grant used the “Pioneer” for a journey from Detroit to Galena, Illinois, and another road adapted itself to Pullman’s car.

The increased dimensions of the “Pioneer” meant greater weight; hence Pullman added a third wheel to each truck. This introduced the three-wheel truck which has since become the standard for all Pullmans and heavy passenger-cars. While our modern cars are longer than was the “Pioneer,” their width and height are the same. By standardizing construction, Pullman helped to bring about the system which makes it possible for a man to travel in the same sleeping-car from one end of the country to the other.

The immediate successors of the “Pioneer” cost Pullman about $24,000. It was not yet proved that such an expenditure was justified by possible earning power. Pullman argued that any sensible traveller would be willing to pay two dollars a night for comfort, attractive surroundings, and the greater safety his cars afforded through their stanch construction. The railway managers were convinced that the prevailing rate of $1.50 was the maximum that the public would pay.

But at Pullman’s suggestion the new sleeping-cars were coupled with the old in the same train, and it was left to the passengers to render a decision. Render it, they did. Only those who grumbled because all berths had been sold out for the new cars, travelled in the old. Such was the demand for accommodations in the new Pullmans that the Michigan Central Railroad, convinced by the experiment, was forced to abandon the old-fashioned sleeper.

These early cars of the “Pioneer” type had all the characteristics of the modern Pullman sleeper. By day there was no sign of berth or bed. Every night the linen was changed. Enthusiastic reporters commented on the “window-curtains looped in heavy folds,” “the French plate mirrors suspended from the walls,” and the “beautiful chandeliers with exquisitely ground shades” which hung from a ceiling “painted with chaste and elaborate design upon a delicately tinted azure ground.” The old cars had bare floors. In the Pullmans the traveller’s feet sank in Brussels carpet.

OLD NO. 9, THE FIRST PULLMAN SLEEPING-CAR. A Chicago and Alton day-coach remodelled at Bloomington, Illinois, by George M. Pullman, and first operated from there to Chicago in 1859. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.

In 1867 Pullman owned forty-seven cars, all of them manned by negro porters and crews in accordance with a system that has since become part and parcel of the American railroad. He now introduced arrangements for serving cooked food. His first restaurant experiments were conducted in what he called “hotel” sleeping-cars, in reality sleeping-cars with kitchens at one end. Meals were served at tables which could be quickly mounted in place and as quickly taken down.

The idea of cooking and serving meals with hotel ceremony on a train originated with Pullman, and was first carried out in 1867 on the Great Western Railroad of Canada. These “hotel” cars cost $30,000 each, and out of them developed the Pullman dining car without sleeping accommodations. The first of these “diners” was introduced in 1868 and was fittingly named the “Delmonico.” Meals were served at one dollar each. Later came “parlor” cars and smoking-cars.

The necessity of passing through several coaches to the “diner” suggested the need for a safe, covered passageway. In 1887 the vestibule Pullman train appeared, in which the problem of allowing cars to sway and to round curves without tearing away the covered passage was solved. The patentee was not Pullman himself, but H. H. Sessions, one of his employees. Thus was the “solid-vestibule train” introduced, now the standard equipment of every self-respecting American railroad. The abutting faces of the vestibules terminate in flat, broad, steel frames, held against each other by stout springs. The vestibules not only tend to steady the cars, but also to shut out drafts, cinders, and dust. Moreover, in case of collision they prevent telescoping, and thus add to the safety of travel.

THE DINER “AMERICA” EXHIBITED AT THE CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR IN 1893. A perfect specimen of the rococo period of Pullman interior decoration. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.
PULLMAN’S “PACIFIC” COMBINATION SLEEPER AND OBSERVATION-CAR. The “Pacific” was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 by the Pullman Company. A rococo tempered by time. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.
INTERIOR OF A MODERN PULLMAN SLEEPING-CAR. The bunk, or upper berth, of a modern Pullman sleeper ready for occupancy. The passenger’s entrance or exit will not disturb the man below, the curtains being distinct. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.
The gaudiness of the early Pullman sleepers has given place to a more pleasing simplicity. But the old principles which were invented by Pullman have been retained. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.
RIVETING THE I-BEAMS OF A PULLMAN CAR. The four I-beams (two at the vestibule end, as shown, and two directly behind at the entrance) are of such strength as to make “telescoping” an impossibility. Like the willow, they give but do not break. In the case of an impact the adjoining car might climb but could not telescope this car. Courtesy of the Pullman Company.


The American freight-car is as distinctive as the passenger-car in respect of size, weight, and carrying capacity. The larger the single unit of transportation, the lower the cost per ton of the freight carried, and the great size of our freight-car is one of the reasons why American railroads can profitably move freight at a lower rate than the European roads.

American cars are of three principal types: the flat car, the closed box car, and the coal car; although each of these include subtypes, designed for special service. The most notable growth in size is found in the coal cars, particularly those of the hopper type, with hopper bottoms, closed by hinged doors or gates, which on being released, instantly discharge the whole contents. During the past forty years these have increased, successively, to capacities of 25, 50, 75, 100 and, during the past year, to 120 tons of coal—the last-named being carried on three-wheel end trucks.

Of the special cars, none has shown a more remarkable development than the refrigerator-car, designed for the carrying of dressed meat from the great Western packing-houses to the various cities throughout the Eastern States—a development mainly due to the foresight and enterprise of Mr. G. F. Swift, the founder of Swift and Company.

Before the introduction of the refrigerator-car, live stock was shipped “on the hoof” from the distant Western ranches to the packing-houses in Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities. Swift realized that if the animals were slaughtered, say in Chicago, and the dressed beef were shipped from there to the Eastern cities, there would be a considerable reduction of freight expense, meaning cheaper meat to the consumer, and the ill-conditioning of live stock by a long, overland journey would be avoided.

INTERIOR OF A SWIFT REFRIGERATOR-CAR. An invention that enabled the packing industry to centralize the killing of cattle and to reduce the cost of meat. Courtesy of Swift and Company.

So in 1875 he developed a box car of special construction in which the dressed beef and pork were hung from the roof, and the floor space was filled with other products such as lard in tubs. To keep the meat at a constant low temperature, he provided end compartments, or bunkers, in which was placed cracked ice and salt. The chilled air flowed downward to the floor and then up through the car to the roof, where it passed out through ventilators.

The refrigerator-car was a success from the first. But the railroads refused to build the cars themselves and the packers had to construct their own rolling-stock. To such proportions has this enterprise grown, that Swift and Company alone employ 8,000 refrigerator-cars to transport their products.

MODERN AMERICAN LIVE-STOCK CAR. The American freight-car is as distinctive as the passenger-car in respect of size, weight, and carrying capacity. The present tendency is toward steel construction. This standard live-stock car has a steel underframe. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad.


The loud protests against the danger of railroad travel, with which the first proposals to carry passengers at the unheard-of speeds of from fifteen to thirty miles an hour were received, were not so unreasonable then as they seem to us to-day. It was one thing to start a train and speed it up to thirty miles an hour—it was quite another thing to stop the train when some obstacle ahead, some defect in the track, threatened destruction.

A train of the twentieth century, made up of a 250-ton locomotive and 10 cars of 75 tons each, running at 60 an hour, in a collision would strike a blow equal to that delivered against armor-plate by the 2,450-pound projectile from our biggest army gun—the 16-inch coast-defense gun which was tested at Aberdeen, Maryland, in 1922.

So, having learned how to start and speed up a train, the next thing to learn was how to stop it in the face of danger, and stop it in the least possible distance.


Robert Stephenson, the gifted son of George Stephenson, realized this, and in 1843 he devised a steam-brake, in which a steam-cylinder, acting through levers, pressed two wooden blocks against the driving-wheels. The invention was ahead of its day, but the principle, with air substituted for steam, is in use on all modern engines.

The early braking arrangements, both in England and America, were very crude. On the New Castle and Frenchtown road in the United States the trains were stopped by main physical strength with an enormous hullabaloo on approaching the station at the signal of the engineer. He raised his safety-valve, and the sudden loud hissing noise thus produced summoned negro slaves who rushed to the train, seized it, and tried to hold it back while the station agent thrust a stick of wood through the wheel spokes. Better than this was the more commonly used hand-brake for passenger-trains, and the foot-brake for freight-trains. But even with these, the shock of stopping was enough to shake every bone in the body of a passenger or a trainman.

Later, the rotating axles of the cars were made to wind up chains which pulled on the brakes. Next, the motion of closing up the cars as they thrust in the draw-heads by which cars were coupled, was utilized to wind up the chain brakes. Then the steam-brake and the vacuum-brake were tried. All of this experimental work led up to the conviction that any effective braking system must be ‘continuous’—that is to say, every wheel of the train must be braked simultaneously by one man from one point on the train. This man, of course, was the engineer in his cab.


The problem was solved by the genius and perseverance of that great American inventor, George Westinghouse. The facts of his stirring life and the underlying principles of his invention are given in the chapter “Putting Air to Work.” On the locomotive Westinghouse provided a steam-driven air-pump, which maintained a constant air-pressure of seventy pounds in an air-reservoir also located on the locomotive. From this air-reservoir an air-pipe led up to a control-valve near the engineer’s hand.

From the control-valve an air-pipe, now known as the “brake-pipe,” was led beneath the floor of the cars for the whole length of the train. Also, attached below the floor of each car, was a brake-cylinder. The piston-rod of this cylinder was so connected to the brake rods and levers—”brake-gear”—that when air was admitted, the movement of the piston, acting through the brake-gear, would set the brakes. When the engineer wished to slow down the train or stop it altogether, he opened his valve. The air rushing through the brake-pipe entered the brake-cylinders on each car and set the brakes.

So far, so good. But it took time for the air to fill all these cylinders. Those next to the engine were filled first, and on a test, it was found that the last car was not braked until eighteen seconds later. This was too slow for an emergency.

Then Westinghouse did a very clever thing. He placed an air-reservoir on each car and kept it filled at all times with air. Between this reservoir and the brake-cylinder he placed a most ingenious device known as the triple valve. He maintained the train-pipe under air-pressure. The triple valve formed the passageway between the auxiliary air-reservoir on each car and its brake-cylinder, and this valve, normally, when the brakes were “off,” was closed and was kept closed by the pressure in the brake-pipe. It was so adjusted that when the brake-pipe pressure was reduced it would open, permitting air to pass from the reservoirs on the cars to the brake-cylinders. This action was instantaneous.

Westinghouse Airbrake Patent Drawing.

Now see how beautifully the device operated. All the engineer had to do to set the brakes simultaneously throughout the train was to open his controlling-valve and let air out of the brake-pipe, lowering its pressure throughout the whole train. This caused the triple valves instantly to pass air from the car-reservoirs to the brake-cylinders, so that there was a practically instantaneous application of the brakes throughout the train.

To demonstrate his brake George Westinghouse equipped a train of 50 freight-cars and ran it 3,000 miles around the country. In comparative tests, hand-brakes stopped the train when running 20 miles an hour in 794 feet. The air-brakes stopped the same train in 166 feet.

The next improvement provided an extra or emergency reservoir on each car, which could be opened so as to add an additional brake pressure for a quick stopping of the train in an emergency.

Finally, it was considered important to secure an equal pressure on all brakes throughout the train. Unequal pressures produce heavy surging and jerking effects, which are destructive to the cars and extremely annoying to the passengers. This was accomplished by the introduction of the automatic straight air-brake. With this brake a coal train of 100 cars weighing with the engine about 9,000 tons, was taken down a mountain grade at a predetermined low speed, without any jerking or surging of the cars.


A railroad must not only have a method of stopping its trains, but it must know when to stop them. The necessity for signals, both to warn the engineman of dangers ahead and also to tell him whether the track is clear, was realized from the very first. Stephenson sent a man ahead with a flag to warn vehicles and foot-passengers, and the early trains, here and in England, utilized the horn of the stage-coach guard. In America this was eventually superseded by the bell and steam-whistle; but the former is more ornamental than necessary to-day.

Signals are of two kinds: those which protect switches, junctions, and railroad crossings, and those which preserve a safe interval between trains running on the same track. The latter are known as “block-signals.”

In the days of the single-track road the “staff” signal was used. There was a single staff for each stretch of road between any two stations A and B. No train was allowed on that “block” without the staff that travelled back and forth and never left the block. A train reached Station B. The station master handed the staff to the engineer. He carried it to A and handed it to the master there. It was carried back to B by the first train running in that direction. Since there was but one staff, two trains could never be in the same block at the same time. The method was safe but crude. By that arrangement a collision between stations was avoided, since two trains could not be in possession of the same staff at the same time.

The first system of fixed signals was introduced in 1834 on the Liverpool and Manchester. It consisted of a post with a rotating disk at its top, showing red for danger. The absence of the red by day or the glow of a white light at night indicated that the road was clear. Sir Charles Gregory in 1841 designed and erected at New Cross the first semaphore signal. There was no communication between stations; each signalman displayed his danger-signal after the passage of a train until a certain time had elapsed.

MODEL OF LIVERPOOL AND MANCHESTER RAILWAY DAY AND NIGHT SIGNALS. This represents the earliest form of fixed signal, introduced on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway about 1834. It consisted of a rectangular frame on which a red flag was stretched, fixed to a vertical rod which was mounted in bearings attached to a wooden post. By means of a handle near the bottom, the flag could be turned so as to face the engine-driver, when indicating danger, or set parallel with the rails to indicate safety. Red and white lights placed on posts served the same purpose at night. Courtesy of the South Kensington Museum.

It is said that the modern method of operating semaphores by wires or shift-rods was the offspring of laziness. About Gregory’s time, an unknown English railway “pointsman,” who had to attend to two station signals, decided to save himself the trouble of walking to and fro between them by fastening the two levers together with a long piece of wire. A broken chair served as the counterweight. The wire ran into his hut, where he sat by his fireside and worked the two signals without setting foot outside. When his method was discovered he was reprimanded by the railway authorities, promoted, and rewarded for his ingenuity.

But it was evident that the semaphore system considered only the time interval between trains. The signalman had no means of knowing whether the train had stopped or not before it had reached the next signal. The telegraph remedied this defect.

Sometimes the signalman would not act promptly enough, and sometimes he failed to act at all. The consequent collisions led to the installation of devices to give advance information to the engineman of the position of the signal that he was to obey, and this was the inception of the block-signal system of our day. Next to the automatic air-brake the block-signal system is the greatest safety device of the modern railroad.

The “Bell Code,” as it was called, was introduced on the Southwestern Company of England by C. V. Walker—the first audible method of communication between signal-stations. This was supplemented by electric visual signals, the glowing of a light informing the signalman whether a signal had been displayed.

Here we have a suggestion of space interval between trains, something better than the untrustworthy time interval. By 1858 the positive block system, based on the space interval, was established in England. In the block system the road is divided into “blocks” of various lengths, the minimum length being that within which the brakes will stop the train. No two trains are allowed in the same block at the same time.

The United States proceeded along different lines. Ashbel Welch, chief engineer of the United New Jersey Canal and Railroad Company, devised and installed in 1863 the first block system of signals in this country on the double-track line between Philadelphia and New Brunswick. He made use of telegraphic communication. The signalman did not remove the red danger-signal after a train had thundered by until he had been advised by telegraph that the next station had been passed.

This telegraph block system, with modifications, is still generally used. The addition of track circuits for locking and indicating purposes, and for interlocking between stations, was effectively brought about by the Coleman block instrument in 1896, and from this was developed the controlled manual block system used to-day.

The development of interlocking prevented the display of conflicting signals. In the interlocking system the entire control of switches and signals in a large terminal is assigned to one man equipped with a machine that cannot possibly indicate conflicting routes. In this England, as usual, led. Ashbel Welch, after convincing himself of the advantages of interlocking as practised in England, recommended its adoption here, and thanks to his efforts the system was introduced in the United States in 1874. Power-operated interlocking systems followed, and the more recent development of power-operated interlocking systems has made it possible for larger railroads to consolidate control in a central station.

MODERN ELECTRIC SIGNAL BRIDGE. The electric signal over the right-hand track reads “Stop.” This means that the westbound train here shown, near Rosemont, Pa., has just entered a “block” of 3,500 feet in length. The signal will remain at “Stop” until the train enters the next block, when it will go to “Caution,” with the diagonal, instead of vertical, row of lights lighted on the upper half. On the adjoining westbound track, shown in the picture, the signal reads “Proceed,” which means that at least three blocks ahead are clear. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But signalmen are but human. What was really wanted was a method of making the train itself operate the signals. The need was early recognized. In 1867 Thomas S. Hall patented an electric signal which was used in connection with a switch or a drawbridge. It was defective because a break in the circuit gave no indication of danger. Thereupon he devised a closed-circuit system. In 1870 William Robbins hit upon the plan of having the wheels of the locomotive push down a track-lever which closed the circuit and cleared the signal, unless there was a break in the line.

It was Hall who introduced the first American automatic electric block system and installed it on the New York and Harlem Railroad. The wheels struck a lever to complete a circuit and set the danger-signal, and held it in that position until the train had reached the next signal or “block.”

But there were disadvantages in causing a train moving at high speed to strike a lever; the blow delivered was terrific. So, F. L. Pope devised a system in which the track itself acted as the electric conveyer, the wheels and axles completing the circuit and throwing the signal to danger. In 1879 this invention was introduced in service, and to some extent is still in use.

Then followed systems in which both electricity and compressed air were used. In these electro-pneumatic systems the signalman threw over a little lever or switch and immediately, by means of magnets at the far-distant semaphore, the control-valve of an air-cylinder was opened and moved the signal-arm.

The latest safety device is the automatic train-stop. So many are the inventors who have devoted their lives to this phase of railway signalling that it would be impracticable to enumerate them here. Each contributed something, so that the modern automatic stop is hardly to be credited to a single man. All these systems operate on much the same principle. A downwardly projecting contact rod is mounted on the locomotive so as to touch a short length of raised rail in the middle or at the side of the track. This short rail is in electrical circuit with the signal. When the signal is at “danger” an electrical impulse passes through the rail and locomotive contact rod and sets the brakes. The automatic stop is not fully perfected, but already it has probably saved thousands of lives.


In the expansion of the country westward of the Alleghenies, more formidable than the bloody opposition of the Indians was the lack of means of adequate transportation. It was in this development of the West that the railroad was destined to play a conspicuous part. At first the settlers were almost entirely dependent on wagons and such navigable streams as the Ohio and the Mississippi.

A few products, such as hides, furs, and ginseng, could be sent East by pack-horses and wagons; hogs, cattle, and horses could be driven “on the hoof” over the mountains; but most produce had to be circuitously transported by water. The population of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa had increased from 50,240 in 1800, to 792,719 in 1820, and to 2,967,840 in 1840. “We are great,” said Calhoun in 1817, “and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing.

It was vitally essential that the railroad should bring this rapidly growing population in contact with the Eastern seaboard. The steamboat had done well, but at its best it was indirect transportation down rivers and round by way of the sea. The United States has seen three periods of transportation which are thus classified by Bogart in his ‘Economic History of the United States’: the turnpike period; the river and canal period; and the railroad period. By 1850, however, the railroad had assumed the ascendancy, and the development of the Far West was now assured.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 drove home to the American people the importance of transcontinental transportation. When stories drifted East that one man, with the help of a few Indians, cleared a dollar a minute; that “panners” earned as much as $5,000 a day; that nuggets worth thousands of dollars were being picked up by boys, the rush to the West began.

There were just two ways of reaching California: by a rough and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn, or by the still rougher and still more dangerous overland route in canvas-covered wagons drawn by mules or oxen. Probably never in history had so many people been eager to travel to an unsettled land. Thousands who journeyed by wagon died of hunger or hardship, or were killed by Indians. The overland trail was marked by the white bones of gold-seekers.

San Francisco Harbor. Many preferred the long voyage around South America to overland travel across the United States.

Those who arrived in the Promised Land found it harder to earn a living than they had been led to believe. Spades and shovels cost $10 each. Flour sold for $400 a barrel. Even a wooden bowl for washing gold cost $16. A San Francisco restaurant charged $3 for a cup of coffee, a slice of ham, and two eggs. A month-old newspaper was worth a dollar.

There was a crying need for transportation. The canvas-covered “prairie-schooner” was introduced, an improvement over the older ox-drawn wagons, a huge vehicle drawn by six or twelve animals, the whole costing from $3,600 to $7,000. But it took from May to November to cross the prairie to California in these wagons. For the carrying of mails, express packages, and passengers, stage-lines were organized. In the stage-coach of 1858, eleven passengers, by travelling night and day, could reach San Francisco from St. Louis in a little more than three weeks at a cost that varied from $100 to $600.

Even this faster method of transportation was too slow for important despatches. At the suggestion of Senator Gwin, the pony-express was established in 1859, with 500 horses, 190 relay stations, 200 hostlers, and eighty first-class riders, among whom the famous “Buffalo Bill” was soon numbered. Letters had to be written on tissue-paper, and the postage at first was five dollars for less than half an ounce. Yet even these expert, lightly armed riders took ten days to travel from Missouri to the Pacific coast.

The need for transportation across the continent became so urgent that the idea of a railroad stretching from coast to coast took ready root. The government authorized extensive surveys. For years Frémont and others explored the mountains seeking the most favorable roadway. Congress received petitions, memorials, and letters urging the establishment of a railroad. The bitter feeling that finally brought on the Civil War retarded progress; for the North wanted a northern route; the South, a southern route.

Yet so pressing was the need that even in the midst of the war the project of a transcontinental line was not entirely forgotten. After a lengthy debate Congress, in 1862, voted in favor of incorporating the Union Pacific Railway Company. This was to be the eastern company to connect with the western Central Pacific Railroad of California. President Lincoln lent his powerful support to the enterprise, and chose Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the eastern terminus. The Central Pacific Company began work at the California end and turned its first sod on Washington’s Birthday, 1863.

GENERAL GRENVILLE M. DODGE. Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad during its construction. Courtesy of the Union Pacific Lines.

After the Civil War the energies of the country were re-doubled in opening up the unsettled portions of the West and
in linking the Atlantic with the Pacific. General Sherman became an ardent advocate of the railroad, and General Dodge, a great soldier-engineer, took charge of the work. It was harder to build the eastern than the western end of the line because of lack of material. For two years building material, workmen, equipment, had to be brought up the Missouri River by steamer or across the plains by prairie-schooner. Indian tribes frequently descended on the railway-builders, but meat at least was plentiful. General Sheridan states that on one occasion he rode for three days, in 1868, through a single herd of buffalo.

Unfortunately, progress was so slow that at the end of one year the Union Pacific had laid but 40 miles of track, and after five years the Central Pacific had completed only 136 miles To stimulate the companies Congress offered a bounty of from $64,000 to $96,000 a mile for work done in the mountainous country. Then began a contest between the Western and the Eastern companies. In 1868 the Union Pacific had built 425 miles, and Central Pacific 363 miles. The following spring the road was complete—all but the actual meeting of the two branches.

Congress failed to designate where the roads should join; so the rival companies, to earn the rich bounty, simply kept on building, although their lines were paralleling each other. The Central Pacific had built eighty miles beyond Promontory Point, near Ogden, Utah, the junction finally agreed upon, and the Union Pacific had spent a million dollars in needlessly pushing on beyond Ogden.

The last ties were laid on the 10th of May, 1869, by the Chinese of the Western company and the Irishmen of the Eastern company. The final tie was of polished California laurel, to which the rails were secured by spikes of silver from Nevada and Idaho, spikes of gold, silver, and iron from Arizona, and a spike of gold from California, all driven in by a silver sledge-hammer. The blows of that hammer were heard in the East by the aid of telegraph wires attached to the rails.

BUILDING THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD. Driving the last spike in the transcontinental system in August, 1883, under the direction of Henry Villard, at that time president of the Northern Pacific. Courtesy of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Such was the public excitement that according to one writer: “Chicago made a procession seven miles long; New York hung out bunting, fired a hundred guns, and held Thanksgiving services in Trinity; Philadelphia rang the old Liberty Bell; Buffalo sang the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and many towns burnt powder in honor of the consummation of a work which . . . gives us a road to the Indies, a means of making the United States a half-way house between the East and the West, and last, but not least, a new guaranty of the perpetuity of the Union as it is.”

Eighteen hundred miles of track from the Mississippi to California had been laid through a wilderness, and a vast amount of tunnelling and bridge-building had been completed, the whole at an expense to the government of $830,000,000. The building of this transcontinental railroad is the greatest feat in the history of American engineering, with the possible exception of the construction of the Panama Canal.

WHERE THE UNION AND CENTRAL PACIFIC MET. Completion of the work which united the Union and Central Pacific lines. The engineers shake hands. Courtesy of the Union Pacific Lines.


This, then, is the story of the American railroad. Like most American enterprises it is a story of big things, done in a big way, by big men. If we could unravel the network of the shining steel rails which cover the forty-eight States of the Union, stretch it out to a single line, and wind it around this earth, we could circle the globe ten times and still have 20,000 miles to spare. If we could assemble all the 69,000 locomotives, 57,000 passenger-cars, and 2,500,000 freight-cars and couple them up, end to end, they would fall only I,000 miles short of forming a complete girdle around the earth at the equator.

Finally, if we were to assemble all the railroad employees for a grand parade in New York, we would have an army almost the size of the one we sent to France in the war, roughly 2,000,000 men. If that parade, in ranks stretching from curb to curb, or sixteen abreast, passed a reviewing-stand in New York, it would take fully three days and nights before the last rank had gone by.

To build this stupendous system has cost $20,000,000,000, or as much as the whole cost of the war. There are men living to-day who can remember the time when not a mile of this track and not a locomotive or car was in existence, for the American railroad is only ninety years old.

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