RAILROADS 1820-1860
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Merriam-Webster defines the word "Railroad" as a permanent road having a line of rails fixed to ties and laid on a roadbed and providing a track for cars or equipment drawn by locomotives or propelled by self-contained motors. Such few words define such a massive, as well as effective, development in transportation throughout history, specifically from 1820-1860.

Railroads played no more than a secondary role in the nation's transportation system in the 1820s and 1830s, but railroad pioneers laid the groundwork in those years for the great surge of railroad building in midcentury. Eventually, railroads became the primary transportation system for the United States, and they remained so until the construction of the interstate highway ststem in the mid-twentieth century.

They emerged from a combination of technological and enterpreneurial innovations. The technological breakthroughs included the invention of tracks, the creation of steam-powered locomotives, and the development of railroad cars that could serve as public carriers of passengers and freight. By 1840, both English and American inventors had experimented with steam engines for propelling land vehicles. In 1820, John Stevens ran a locomotive and cars around a circular track on his New Jersey estare. And in 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railroad in England opened a short length of rrack and became the first line to carry general traffic.

American entrepreneurs, especially those in northeastern cities that sought better communication with the West, became interested in the English experiment. The first company to begin actual operations was the Baltimore and Ohio, which opened a thirteen-mile stretch of track in 1830. In New York, the Mohawk and Hudson began running trains along the sixteen miles between Schenectady and Albany in 1831. By 1836, more than a thousand miles of track had been laid in eleven states.

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Multiple Sources Of Conflict

However, there was not yet a true railroad system. Even the longest of lines was comparatively short in the 1830s, and most of them served to connect water routes, not to link one railroad to another. Even when two lines did connect, the tracks often differed in gauge, so that cars from one line were unable to fit onto the tracks of another. Schedules were erratic, and wrecks happened frequently. Despite this, railroads made some important advances in the 1830s and 1840s. The introduction of heavier iron rails brought massive improvements to the roadbeads. Steam locomotives became more flexible and more powerful. Redesigned passenger cars became stabler, more comfortable, and larger.

Railroads and canals soon engaged in a bitter competition. For a time, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company blocked the advance of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad through the narrow gorge of the upper Potomac, which it controlled; and the state of New York prohibited railroads from hauling freight in competition with the Erie Canal and its branches. But railroads had so many advantages that when they were able to compete freely with other forms of transportation, they almost always prevailed.

The Triumph of the Railroads
After 1840, railroads gradually supplanted canals and all other modes of transport. In 1840, there were 2,818 miles of railroad tracks in the United States. By 1850, there were 9,021. An unparalleled burst of railroad construction followed in the 1850s, tripling the amount of trackage in just ten years. The most comprehensive and efficient system was in the Northeast, which had twice as much trackage per square milke as the Northwest and four times as much as the South. But the expansion of the rails left no region untouched. Railroads were even reaching west of the Mississippi, which spanned at several points by great iron bridges. One linme ran from Hannibal to St. Joseph on the Missouri River, and another was under construction between St. Louis and Kansas City.

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An important change in railroad development, one that would profoundly affect the nature of sectional alignments, was the trend toward the consolidation of short lines into longer lines; trunk lines. By 1853, four major railroad trunk lines crossed the Appalachian barrier to connect the Northeast and the Northwest. Two of which, the New York Central and the New York and Erie, gave New York City access to Lake Erie's ports. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were linked by the Pennsylvania railroad, and the Baltimore and Ohio connected Baltimore and the Ohio River at Wheeling. From the terminals of these lines, other railroads into the interior touched the Mississippi River at eight points. Chicago became the rail center of the West, served by fifteen lines and more than a hundred daily trains. The appearance of the great trunk lines tended to divert traffic from the main water routes, the Erie Canal and the Mississippi River. By decreasing the dependence of the West on the Mississippi, railroads helped to further weaken the connection between the Northwest and the South.

Sources and Ways of Funding
Finances for the railroad boom came from many diverse sources. Private American investors provided a portion of the necessary funding, while railroad companies borrowed large sums from abroad. Local governments (states, counties, cities, towns) also contributed capital, because they were eager to use railroads for their benefit. Support came in the form of loans, subsidies, stock subscription, and donations of land for rights-of-way. The railroads obtained substantial additional assistance from the federal government. This came in the form of public land grants. In 1850, Senator Steven A. Douglas of Illinois and other railroad-minded politicians convinced Congress to grant federal lands to aid the Illinois Central, which was building from Chicago towards the Gulf of Mexico. Many other states, as well as their railroad promoters, demanded the same privileges. By 1860, Congress had allotted over thirty million acres to eleven states in an attempt to assist railroad construction.


Technological breakthroughs that contributed to railroad development: invention of tracks, creation of steam powered locomotives, and the development of railroad cars that could carry human beings and freight.
1804: American and English inventors experiment with steam engines for propelling land vehicles.
1820: John Stevens runs locomotive around circular track.
1825: Stockton and Darlington Railroad (England) open first line to carry traffic.
1830: Baltimore and Ohio Company becomes first to begin actual operations.
1831: Mohawk and Hudson begin running lines between Schenectady and Albany.
1836: 1,000 miles of track laid in 11 states.
1830s and 1840s: Heavy iron rails improve roadbeds, steam locomotives become flexible and powerful, redesigned passenger cars are stable, comfortable, and larger.
Railroads and Canals competed, but railroads always prevailed due to advantages.
Consolidation of short lines into longer lines, known as trunk lines.
1853: Four major trunk lines connect Northeast to Northwest; New York Central, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore and Ohio.
Chicago becomes rail center of the West.
Weaken connection between Northwest and South by lessening dependence of the West on the Mississippi.