Railroads: How It All Began.

NOTE: For each of the next few postings, I’m going to pull a few paragraphs from the 5th edition of my book, ALL ABOARD–The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, due to reach the bookstores about mid-February.

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Railroads have been around for a long time. As far back as the 16th century, they were used to haul coal out of mines in England and Wales. Really, those were hardly what we would call railroads—just horses and mules pulling wagons along crude tracks—but they had the same fundamental advantage that modern railroads offer. By reducing friction, more weight could be moved with less energy. The people who ran those coal mines understood the concept in even simpler terms: the easier it was for a horse to pull one of their carts, the more coal they could put into it.

The potential of steam power had been understood for a long time; in fact, steam engines had been used for years to pump water out of those same coal mines. The big breakthrough came about 1803 when Richard Trevithick, an English mining engineer, figured out how to mount a steam engine on a movable platform. Within a few years, the very first steam locomotives were being used to haul coal from mines to seaports, where it was shipped all over the world. In 1825, the first passenger rail service began, and word of this new means of transportation started spreading beyond England’s shores. It found fertile ground in America.

A Mobile Society Is Created

America’s first railroad was the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), which started service in 1830 and immediately captured the imagination of the country. That’s hardly surprising. Up to that time, no American had ever traveled faster than a horse could run. Almost overnight, ordinary people were traveling for greater distances at higher speeds than had ever been possible. Other railroads followed on the heels of the B&O.

For the average American in the early 19th century, it all took some getting used to. Individual families and entire communities had always been pretty much self-sufficient. The railroads changed all that in a matter of a few years, first by linking towns, then states, and finally the entire continent. Suddenly Americans had mobility; almost anyone could go almost anywhere. It’s an interesting paradox that while railroads were bringing Americans together as one people, they also made it possible for the country itself to expand.

(More to Come)