Railroads In The United States

Railroads in the United States have a rich lineage, dating back to the early 19th century. These humble beginnings sparked the American industrial revolution, which propelled the country into a significant industrialized power. With railroads soon stretching throughout the country, connecting every small town and large city, rail travel solidified its importance into the American landscape. Through the implementation of the railroads, the young country experienced vast economic and political change at a rapid pace.

According to Christopher Chant’s book “The History of North American Steam”, The earliest form of railroads in the United States date back to 1764, when British engineer Captain John Montressor constructed a “gravity road”, in which coal wagons with wooden wheels would coast down a grade. During this time, the aim of these primitive railroads was to reduce friction by utilizing the wooden rails. Similar to Britain, the United States had tram roads that carried coal from mines to the various canals. This practice began in 1809, when plans were drawn for Philadelphia based Thomas Leiper, who proposed a tram road that spanned Chester county from Crum Creek to Ridley Creek, to haul stone from quarries to access the waterways.

However, the reliance on gravitational forces to move the wagons down the tracks limited the weight and speed of the wagons. Thus, it was not until the steam engine was adopted by Colonel John Stevens from British engineer James Watt, that railroads truly became feasible. Stevens, a wealthy steamship builder, experimented upon the technology of the steam engine and demonstrated its feasibility at his Hoboken, NJ estate in 1826.

In the early 19th century, the young country had recently gained its independence and was beginning to thrive economically,as over 8 million people now resided in the United States. Spearheaded by the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the budding manufacturing industry began to thrive, as products were not being imported due to excessive tariffs, and the country now had to manufacture its own goods for its consumer base. Products began being produced domestically, and at a rapid pace. Furthermore, the rapidly expanding manufacturing companies began establishing a broader domestic market.

Farming in particular had a profound impact on the country’s economic growth, however, farmers and other manufacturers sought larger plots of land to increase production, thus, many looked towards the untouched land of the west. High taxes in the north and infertile soil in the south further encouraged westward migration, as the cost of living in the eastern portion of the country was increasing rapidly.

Land travel was inevitable during the trek westward, as travelers could only migrate as far as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, via the link between the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, via paddle-wheel steamships. The Erie Canal proved a vital link for transporting goods to the eastern seaboard, and made New York a vital trading center in the northeast. For those traveling by stagecoach, the route westward was treacherous, as there were few paved and maintained roadways, such as the “National Road to Wheeling”, which paralleled the mighty Ohio River. Unpaved roads were simply dirt with tracks from previous travelers that passed through the trails.

Ben Sutton

The westward migration was spearheaded by farming families, who sought fertile land to sustain their way of life. These primitive western settlements sought consumer goods, and thus expanded the market of the northeast to cater to other regions of the newly developed country. Due to the vast amounts of fertile land in the west, produce and raw materials were being produced in greater quantities than what the small western towns could consume. Thus, it was soon realized the profit that could be made by transporting the materials westward, however, a lack of sustainable transport prevented its profitability, especially for perishable food items.

Prior to the railroads, canals were ever popular, most notably, the route traversing rivers through New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, and through towards the eastern seaboard. Land travel was just as time consuming, although more treacherous, as vast mountain ranges and other obstacles had to be crossed, with unstable wagons with wooden wheels.  With the incompetence of the canals and stagecoaches to transport goods, the search began for alternatives, and competitors to the canals in the 1820’s.  The country began to consider rail travel as a viable mode of transport, however, years earlier in 1815, a charter had been given to later Camden & Amboy president John L. Stevens, although, the railroad did not come to fruition until 1830.

Railroads in the United States gained practicality after the success of the Stockton & Darlington in the United Kingdom, and the further construction of the world’s first intercity railway, the Liverpool & Manchester. The concept of railroads were attractive, as they were less costly to construct as opposed to canals, and were capable of transporting goods at speeds of up to 15 mph. Interestingly, the route of the railroads were to be dictated by the wagon trails of the routes already recognized as ideal by those migrating westward.

As railroads began to progress westward, land grants were given to railroads to construct their route, however, various terms were agreed upon, such as the government’s request to move military traffic over their right-of-way. Furthermore, many railroads were financed with government loans which had to be repaid with interest, of which, many were repaid promptly due to the stark success of the commercial railroad.

Roger Puta

The procurement of the railroads introduced the country to some of the most noteworthy figures of the 19th century such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ruthlessly pioneered the New York Central Railroad, and James J. Hill, who’s business expertise assisted in constructing the thriving Great Northern Railway. These magnates were some of the country’s first socioeconomic elite, and amassed quite a fortune in their railroad dealings.

Humble Beginnings

The steam hauled railway originated in the United Kingdom in 1804, when Richard Trevithick operated his steam locomotive in South Wales, at the Pen-y-daren tramway. During the early 19th century, railways in Britain were built to move coal from the mines to the canals, until the first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington, built by storied engineer and “father of the railway”, George Stephenson, was opened in 1825.

Many American industrialists visited Britain to examine their locomotive manufacturing and railway construction. With much interest in steam locomotion, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company sent civil engineer Horatio Allen to Britain to asses the feasibility of steam traction in the U.S. Furthermore, if Allen was convinced of their capabilities, he was permitted to place orders for locomotives. Allen met with both the Stephenson’s, and John Urpeth Rastrick, who was a well-known locomotive builder in the English town of Stourbridge. Thus, Allen contracted Rastrick’s firm, Foster, Rastrick, and Company, to construct three locomotives, and Robert Stephenson & Company to construct a single locomotive.

Upon delivery in the U.S., one locomotive manufactured by Rastrick, named “Stourbridge Lion”, became the first locomotive to operate in North America, traveling six miles round trip, beginning and ending at Seelyville, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Thus, with this first primitive run of the locomotive, the American railroad was born.

Railroads Shape the American Landscape

With steam locomotive technology proven in Britain, the U.S. was quick to follow suit when ground was broken on the first chartered railroad in North America, the Baltimore & Ohio. Interestingly, 91 year old signer of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carrol, broke ground for the railroad. However, much debate ensued as whether horse or locomotive haulage would be utilized for the railroad.

In 1827, the American railroad came into fruition, when the Baltimore and Ohio began operation on a short stretch of track in Maryland. The railroad expanded from a small stretch of track in Ellicot City, Maryland, to a large railroad with branches traversing Cumberland, Relay, and Blandensburg, Maryland, with various branches stretching into Virginia and Washington D.C. The budding railroad performed substantially during its first two years of service with horse drawn wagons, thus, wanting to improve their service and expand further, the directors held a contest for the best steam locomotive, with first prize of $4,000, second prize $3,500.

John Bull during the World’s Columbia Exposition 1893 in Chicago

Thus, industrialist, philanthropist, politician, and Baltimore & Ohio shareholder, Peter Cooper constructed his “Tom Thumb” locomotive, to demonstrate to the railroad that locomotive haulage was far superior to horse and wagon. Cooper’s locomotive was persuasive, as the B&O agreed to utilize steam locomotives on their railroad. Tom Thumb was a simple design, as it was developed with various makeshift parts such as barrels for cylinders.

The result of this competition saw the rise of the highly successful “grasshopper” type locomotive developed by Phineas Davis, a watchmaker from Philadelphia. According to Chant, the locomotive could haul a train amassing fifty tons with ease. The simplicity and power of the Grasshopper locomotive earned a place on the B&O roster until the type was finally retired in 1893.

After the B&O began operation, railroads began to spread rapidly throughout the country.With the impressive performance of these early steam locomotives, various companies began to recognize the profit that could be accrued, such as New York’s West Point Foundry, who began manufacturing locomotives for various early railroads. In the south, the South Carolina Railroad and Canal Company was formed to transport goods to the canals from other remote parts of the state. Thus, the West Point Foundry in New York City constructed The Best Friend of Charleston, which was the first American built steam locomotive sold to a railroad for revenue service.

With the West Point Foundry becoming reputable for locomotive building, many others followed suit, as the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad replaced a draconian canal, and operated a locomotive constructed by the foundry named after governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton. Similar to any new technology, many were skeptical of its safety and feasibility, especially turnpike and canal owners, who viewed the railroad as a viable competitor. However, there was no doubt the railroad had various economic, social, and safety benefits, and was a far superior mode of transport.

Roger Puta

New Jersey, being located between Philadelphia and New York, played a vital role in the transport of goods between the two metropolises. However, goods were being produced more rapidly than they could be shipped, as slow canals and poor turnpike roads plagued shippers. Oftentimes, products would arrive damaged after wagons had overturned, it was evident that an alternative was duly needed. Robert L. Stevens, a notable steamship builder, realized the need for an alternative mode of transport, and proposed that a railroad be built to connect Philadelphia and New York.

The Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company was chartered in February 1830, establishing the state’s first railroad company. It was decided that steam traction would be utilized on the route, however, locomotives were not yet being mass produced in the United States. Therefore, Stevens approached Robert Stephenson & Company of Newcastle, England in 1830, and placed an order for a locomotive, which was later named the “John Bull”, after an English cartoon publicist. The locomotive was shipped from Liverpool and arrived in Philadelphia, were it was tested and placed in storage until the railroad opened in 1833.

The John Bull locomotive was quite unique looking for its time, as it was the first locomotive to include a snowplow, headlight, and cab protecting the crew. Due to the rigidity of the infrastructure on the railroad, front pilot wheels were added to assist in navigating turns. These traits quickly became the standard for steam locomotives for over a century, while vastly improving locomotive design.

Many were keen on the expansion and advancement of railroads, and the economic and social advantages they would impart on the young country. Railroad expansion in the north was encouraged by the growth of the Erie Canal, and the opportunity to work in tandem with the maritime traffic. In the southern states such as South Carolina, the growth of the railroads was sparked with the anticipated commerce of the ports of Charleston and Savannah.

Ben Sutton

However, the expansion of the railroads was fraught with much turmoil, as various railroad schemes were deemed unprofitable, thus, the responsibility of their loans were now in the hands of the taxpayer. However, through various fraudulent dealings, the money was lost, unfortunately, this was a common occurrence during the era known as “railroad mania”. These fraudulent dealing made the government wary of loaning money to these various railroad ventures, therefore, private investors became commonplace.

The entrance of private investors into the sprawling railroad market caused a further divide between the northern and southern states, as wealthy investors were few in the south, causing the construction of railroads to be dominated by the wealthy magnates in the north. Therefore, much of the railroad investments were funneled towards the north, leaving the southern states with dilapidated railroad systems.

Although railroads experienced various shortcomings during their financing and construction, they continued to grow, most notably, connections with eastern seaboard states with Chicago. Additional railroads such as the famed Louisville & Nashville Railroad, stretched into the states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the early 1850s, effectively serving various coal mines throughout its route.

The creation of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad came to fruition with the establishment of a need for a route between two major Pennsylvania cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With the construction of this route, the gravity railroad over the Allegheny Mountains was taken from service, as the famous Horseshoe Curve was constructed to navigate the terrain. With the route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh established, the route soon expanded to Chicago by 1856.

Links west of the Mississippi began to expand, courtesy of the Rock Island Railroad, which spanned west of Chicago linking the windy city to areas in western Illinois. The expansion of railroads west of Chicago gave yield to an important way of funding. Beginning with the Illinois Central in the 1850s, the railroad was awarded land grants on either side of the right-of-way, thus, estimating the cost of its construction. This was crucial to the financing of railroads, as many of the subsequent railroads were financed similarly.

Roger Puta

The Transcontinental Route

With many lines now stretching far into Iowa, along with the acquisition of California from Mexico, the country was beginning to acquire a western presence. However, transportation to the far west was difficult, as travelers could only access the Pacific Coast by steamship or horse by land. Thus, a transcontinental railroad was proposed to link the eastern seaboard with the west coast.

The transcontinental railroad was the brainchild of New England trader Ava Whitney, who realized the advantages of its economic growth and prosperity. Although Whitney’s proposal was turned down in court in 1848, it helped fellow railroad entrepreneurs realize the importance of a transcontinental route. Multiple prominent individuals devised their ideal route for the railroad, such as Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who proposed three routes across the country. When the transcontinental railroad was being constructed, the Union Pacific was to complete the eastern portion, beginning at Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific completed the western portion, beginning at Sacramento, California.

The Central Pacific Railroad of California was chartered in 1861, and began their trek eastward headed by Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington, beginning at the eastern bank of the Sacramento River. Entrepreneur Charles Crocker played a vital role in the western portion of the railroad’s construction, as he ensured ample equipment was available for the laborers in Sacramento. The majority of the workers who constructed the Central Pacific’s portion of the transcontinental railroad were of Chinese descent, as they were efficient and became increasingly skilled at their craft. Crocker later became the railroad’s general superintendent, who was responsible for bridging various gaps in its construction, such as bridges and preparing roadbed.

The Union Pacific was initially led by Thomas Durant, however, due to insufficient progress, General Greenville Dodge was appointed. With both railroads making steady progress, it was agreed upon that the two would converge at Promontory Point, Utah. On May 10, 1869, the two railroads met at Promontory Point, with grand celebration, as the ceremonial golden spike was driven, marking the completion of the country’s first transcontinental railroad.

Central Pacific #60, known as “Jupiter”, on its way to the Golden Spike ceremony, with Leland Stanford on board.

Upon its completion, the eastern seaboard now had a gateway to trading and settling in the west. Journeys across the country now lasted only days instead of months by either horse or steamboat, the railroad had truly revolutionized transportation in the young country.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th and early twentieth century, the nation’s rail system continued to expand. In 1883, the Southern Pacific and the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway Company (GH&SA), constructed the southern transcontinental railroad, which met near the Pecos River on the border of Texas and New Mexico. The need for a southern route was evident, as snow and other harsh conditions on the northern route hindered the operations of trains, especially through the brutal winters in the Rocky Mountains.

Vanderbilt, Fisk, and Gould

Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the most ruthless railroad magnates, is responsible for the creation of the New York Central Railroad. Vanderbilt owned the New York & Harlem Railroad, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, additionally, he was present on the Erie Railway, CNJ, the New Haven, and the Harlem. Vanderbilt is well-known for his dispute with Daniel Drew in 1870, who was treasurer of the Erie Railway. To counter Drew, Vanderbilt attempted to corner the Erie stock, however, well-known financiers, James Fisk and Jay Gould had recently joined the Erie board, and fought Vanderbilt in court. Vanderbilt was short-changed in court, and became enemies in their business dealings.

In the early 20th century, primarily between the year 1900-1913, the railroad had more than doubled its traffic and earnings, as the railroad was in its heyday. However, this prosperity would be short lived, as a depression between the years 1913-14 decreased earnings and traffic dramatically. Additionally, with the U.S. involvement in World War I, the government took control of the nation’s railroad as the United States Railroad Association. This would prove to be the only instance that the nation’s railroads were nationalized.

Bill Johnson

Nationalization of the nation’s railroad proved quite controversial. Many believed that the government operated railroads reduced efficiency, and diminished the capabilities of private enterprise. However, the opposing argument was that the railroad system was operated more efficiently than ever before.

Although nationalization ceased after the war, it ushered in a new era in American railroading, as the magnates such as Vanderbilt, Fisk, and Gould became history. In a sense, the railroad monopolies were deemed harmful to the nation’s railroads, which led to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC), standardization of freight rates, which lasted until 1980.

The twenties and thirties gave way to various mergers at the command of the ICC, as they sought to have various larger railroads that encompassed the potential to earn similarly. Thus, various holding companies were formed throughout this period, however, the ICC allowed the railroads to sustain their routes, which subsequently led to a boom in the late twenties.

Age of the Streamliner

The ‘golden age” of the railroad is considered to be the period between 1890-1920. When the age of the automobile came into fruition in the 1920s, in tandem with the Great Depression, both cut into the railroad’s profits significantly. Furthermore, the Pullman Company had a stark monopoly on the construction of railcars, especially sleepers for long distance routes.

The golden age of railroading yielded slow trains as well, as most routes averaged 20-30 mph, with the exception of select routes which would average 40 mph. With the advent of the automobile, many turned away from the railroads as the convenience of a personal vehicle was preferred. Although passenger rail experienced a boom in the 1920s, these events coupled with the genesis of the automobile, resulted in a steady decline of rail usage that would span decades.

Russ Porter /Public Domain

To combat the automobile and additional financial challenges, the railroads began introducing modern trains called “Streamliners”. The aim of the Streamliners was to attract people back to the railroad by introducing this state-of-the-art equipment, which encompassed both form and function. These new streamliner services offered climate controlled passenger cars, comfortable seats and various additional amenities. Similarly, the futuristic look of the streamliner was built to encompass the allure of speed. However, the streamlined design was primarily for aesthetics, as it only improved aerodynamics after surpassing 80 mph, a speed rarely reached.

The first streamliner was introduced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which introduced the Burlington Zephyr. The Burlington Zephyr operated between Kansas City, Missouri and Lincoln, Nebraska. The streamliner era lasted until 1971, when Amtrak assumed control of most of the nation’s passenger rail.


Throughout the streamliner era in the 1930s, various railroads began experimenting with diesel-electric and gas turbine cars. The gas-turbine was largely unpopular, however, the diesel-electric locomotive gained traction with various railroads. Most notably, with the introduction of the Electro-Motive Company’s (EMC), E-series of locomotives, which would soon be seen leading the nation’s most esteemed trains, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Broadway Limited”, and the Santa Fe “Super Chief”.

Throughout the thirties and forties, diesels began to quickly replace steam, as they were deemed more efficient and easier to maintain. Maintenance turnaround times were much quicker with diesel locomotives, as routine maintenance is performed in a matter of hours, compared to a steam locomotive, which could be shopped for weeks on end for routine maintenance. Furthermore, diesel locomotives could be started and utilized almost immediately, whereas, bringing a steam locomotive to life could span hours.

During the transition period from steam to diesel, Electro-Motive Division (EMD) of La Grange, Illinois, solidified itself as the nation’s premier locomotive builder, after the success of their F units, which could be seen throughout any railroads network, hauling anything from the premier passenger trains to the heaviest coal drags. The versatility of the diesel-electric locomotive was attractive to the nation’s railroads, therefore, steam locomotion was nearly extinct from the rails by 1957.

Mergers and Deregulation

The last thirty years of the 20th century resulted in much change for the nation’s railroads. The seventies saw the creation of Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which consisted of various bankrupt northeastern railroads into one entity. Furthermore, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) now commanded the country’s passenger trains, excluding a few private trains that continued into the eighties.

Twenty railroads participated in Amtrak, in which they would donate locomotives, rolling stock, and capital, in return to be relinquished from their passenger services. Furthermore, in return, the railroads received various tax breaks. The early years of Amtrak are known as the “colorful” years, as the various stock of different railroads were oftentimes found on one train.

Due to the decrepit state of the nation’s railroads during the sixties and seventies, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), determined it was time to deregulate the railroads in account of mergers, shipping rates, the abandonment of lines. Further actions were taken in 1980, when the Staggers Act was passed, which further deregulated shipping rates, and included various ownership and contractual advantages.

The Nineties and Beyond

The nineties gave rise to a significant bout of newly developed safety systems, including the introduction of the wide cab, which significantly improved crew comfort and safety. Although initially an options from locomotive manufacturers, the wide cab design would become the standard on subsequent locomotives. Ditch lights became the standard during this time, as they were soon mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Furthermore, the mid-nineties commenced the horsepower race, when EMD and GE, the two premier diesel-electric locomotive manufacturers, competed with each other to develop a locomotive than exceeded 5,000 horsepower. EMD developed its SD90MAc, which had 6,000 horsepower, while GE developed its 6,000 hp AC6000CW. While both received orders from various railroads, it was evident that lower horsepower locomotives were preferred, such as the EMD SD70MAc, and the GE AC4400CW.

Jonathan Lee

The notion of high speed trains garnered much interest during the nineties, as Amtrak began to upgrade its vital Northeast Corridor route between Washington D.C. and Boston. During this time, Amtrak experimented with various high speed train designs, such as the German ICE train and the Swedish X2000. However, Amtrak landed a contract with Bombardier for twenty high speed train sets, dubbed the “Acela Express”. To accommodate the new trains, the entire Northeast Corridor saw numerous upgrades, such as upgraded signal and safety systems, including the electrification of the section between New York and Boston.

The railroad remains an important concept in the history of the United States, as it promoted substantial growth and prosperity to the entire country. In every small town there was a train station where people could travel, ship items, or just gaze at the power that the locomotive evoked. In the modern era, the railroad plays an imperative role in the transportation of freight, as the country encompasses the largest freight rail network in the world. With the rapid advancement of technology in the modern era, the future of the railroad is looking bright.


For further information about railroads in the United States, these links are vital resources that focus directly on the American railroad industry and its operations:

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

Association of American Railroads


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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