Like most of the tales told by Simon Winchester in his book The Men Who United The States – America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible (2013 – HarperCollins), the story of American railroads does not begin with trains. One has to go back a little further in time and talk about the development of steam power and steam powered river travel before tackling the topic of travel by rail. The concept of steam as a power source goes back much farther in time, back to the days of Hero’s Engine. In the 1st century of the Christian Era (CE), a Greek-Egyptian mathematician and engineer named Hero of Alexandria described the device, also known as Hero’s aeolipile. It is considered to be the first steam engine (or reaction steam turbine) and consisted of a spherical ball containing water. As the sphere was heated, the steam generated would flow out of two right angle tubes on either side of the sphere. The escaping steam caused it to spin around a central axis.
The aeolipile was not a practical source of power, did no real work, and was not a direct predecessor of the industrial type of steam engines to come, but it did demonstrate the concept well. The volume of steam is 1,600 times that of the water it is made from. The spinning of Hero’s engine certainly showed the escaping steam produced force when directed out of the sphere. One of the earliest champions of steam power in the Americas happened to be Irishman Christopher Colles. His first claim to fame was producing America’s first highway map in 1789. Fifteen years before, just after he arrived on these shores from Limerick, he built steam powered pumps for water works in Philadelphia and New York, but neither worked very well. Colles the map maker did, ironically, begin the trend that would compete with the roadways he had mapped, and in his wake, other inventors were entering the game.
Ten years before Colles, Robert Watt invented the condensing steam engine. When a watch and button maker/silversmith from Connecticut named John Fitch built a paddle boat powered by a Watt-type steam engine in 1787, it chugged along the Delaware River not far from the site of Washington’s famous crossing. Not able to attract investors to his idea of steam powered water transportation, he faded from the historical record. He always felt his pioneering work would be recognized one day and sadly, in his despair, took a fatal overdose of opium in 1798, never receiving his due for having an idea ahead of its time. In 1807, Pennsylvanian Robert Fulton would likewise use a Watt engine to power dual fifteen foot paddlewheels on his craft called the North River Steamboat Clermont (later shortened to just the Clermont). It is Fulton who is remembered in the history of steam powered travel. The boat began making regular trips between New York and Albany in a remarkable thirty-two hours, regardless of the wind or weather. Ten years later, the first steam powered paddle wheeler would push its way up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Cincinnati. Within the next two years, there would be sixty vessels plying the waters of the Big Muddy. The trip up the Mississippi took 25 days in 1817 and ten years later, that number had been lowered to a week. John Fitch must have been turning over in his grave.
The first steam locomotive (aptly named Locomotive No. 1) chugged out of the station in northeast England in 1825. It took two hours to pull the thirty coal cars containing 700 passengers the twelve miles between the mining town of Stockton and the port of Darlington. The first American locomotive hauled nothing and went nowhere – it didn’t even have a name. It was built by a rich elderly New Yorker named John Stevens. Its journey around a small circular track in Hoboken, New Jersey is, like John Fitch, a forgotten piece of American transportation history. Stevens’ role as the father of the American railway was inspired by him hearing the sad story of John Fitch’s 1787 experiment. The American National Biography said of Stevens, “From that moment [hearing Fitch’s story] until his death he devoted himself and his fortune to the advancement of steam-propelled transportation both on water and on land.” As Winchester says, “Steam, in other words, became John Stevens’ religion, in which he had unwavering faith.”
Stevens’ progress toward using steam powered watercraft on the Hudson River was slow developing. He drew up plans for a ferry system, a bridge, and a tunnel to cross the Hudson. Stevens was a century and a half ahead of time as these would all come to pass in the future.
As he aged, he lost his interest in boats and turned his attention to railroads. His first plan was a timber rail line from New York City through the Hudson-Mohawk Gap in 1815, a full decade before the Erie Canal would utilize the same route. Carriages and wagons with flanged wheels would be propelled along these rails by steam engines. The circular demonstration railway he built was his last-ditch effort to convince the legislature his plan would work. His plan still did not get the backing he sought, but his idea set off the widespread development of steam powered railroads. Only two years after his demonstration, there were a number of full-size railways springing up in the American East.
It would be Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, who would turn over the first shovel of sod to start construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Carroll said, “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that.” Stevens died in 1838 as things began to move at a more rapid pace. His two sons became the directors of a lucrative route built between New York and Philadelphia with one also being credited with inventing the cowcatcher that would famously grace the front of American locomotives.
The pace of railway building was furious between 1828 and 1868. The Civil War and the Long Depression of 1873-79 slowed things for a while but picked up shortly after. Winchester demonstrates the rapidity of railway construction by stating, “When Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, he traveled to the White House in a horse-drawn carriage. When he left office after his second term, he boarded a steam train for home. At the start of his presidency, there were less than twenty miles of track laid in the country and eight years later, the number had increased to nearly three thousand miles. Still, it took a while to get things moving properly. When the B&O Railroad opened, the wagons and carriages were pulled by horses as no locomotives had been built. The first models were built in England and with their own railroad boom in progress, it took some time to obtain them. By 1939, however, American manufacturing had gotten into gear and produced more than three hundred locomotives of varying designs and sizes. Part of the rub was that the standard four-foot, eight and a half inch ‘gauge’ for tracks was not formalized until 1886. In 1839, there were six different gauges in use.
The American economy certainly felt a surge caused by railroads and by 1870, they were the second largest employer in the country after agriculture. Conversion from wood to coal fired locomotives stimulated mining and a whole industry grew up to fill the need for ties, rails, cars, and locomotives. Carloads of ore and grain could now be moved vast distances in short periods of time. The industrial revolution in the American East put the country, as Winchester sees it, “On its way toward global economic supremacy.”
Social changes were also spurred by the spread of rails and iron horses. Travelers began carrying pocket watches because time zones were yet to be invented. Rapid travel to different cities on a relatively rigid schedule meant they needed to account for each railway keeping its own standard time. Clocks at the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Pittsburgh, for example, had many faces and multiple hands to keep track of the trains that made connections there with as many as fifty ‘railroad times’ in use in the East. New skills were in demand – the industry needed to train boilermakers, foundry workers, civil engineers, and business managers geared to expand railroads and business was chugging along quite nicely (sorry, had to get one RR joke in there). The era of vacations and leisure time were concepts spurred on by railroads – families could travel to vacation homes, lodges, and resorts quickly and cheaply.
Flying into Chicago gives one a bird’s eye view of the enormous railyards that helped the Windy City grow. Sitting at the crossroads of northeastern rail traffic, the switching yards performed a daily dance getting raw materials and finished goods sorted out. Shipping on the Great Lakes combined with multiple rail lines meeting in the Chicago hub ensured products like lumber, coal, wheat, corn, mineral products, and any number of manufactured items could be directed to their rightful destinations. All these factors made the American Northeast attractive to industry and the people needed to make them go. The South, however, was not so fortunate. Southern railways were smaller and more localized than their kin in the North. The economic imbalance caused by this unequal development was instrumental in the rise of the Confederacy and the Civil War. The supremacy of the Northern railways ended up being a major factor for the Yanks as troop and supply movements aided their war effort and gave them a major advantage over the Rebs.
It took but thirty years to have more than 27,000 miles of track criss-crossing America, but they were concentrated in the northern Midwest and East. Even though the idea of a transcontinental railroad was first mentioned in 1838, it would not be realized until Theodore Judah laid out the route in 1860. The young 24 year old easterner had made enough of a name for himself in the East to be hired to bring the first rail line in the West, one that would connect Sacramento with the newly opened Sierra Nevada goldfields. Judah soon realized the impact it would have on the nation to have a railway connection from coast to coast. He convinced an ailing President Buccanon to set the wheels in motion, so to speak. Route planning was proved to be a roadblock due to the sticky situation called ‘slavery’ – several proposed routes to the West were turned down because they crossed so called ‘slave states’. President Lincoln had more pressing things on his mind when he signed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862 (like defending the capital from the Confederate troops who were massing on the outskirts of town and writing the Emancipation Proclamation).
It took nearly a year just to sort out the gauge question. Lincoln passed a second railroad act in 1863 which set the gauge to the standard used at the time in Britain’s Liverpool to Manchester line (which was also adapted throughout the United Kingdom). Though authorized and begun during the American Civil War (1861-1865), rapid progress was delayed until the conclusion of the conflict. Two companies were handed this monumental task. The publicly chartered Union Pacific Railroad Company was authorized to, “Lay out, locate, construct, furnish, maintain, and enjoy a continuous railroad and telegraph . . . from a point on the one hundreth meridian of longitude west from Greenwich, between the south margin of the valley of the Republican River and the north margin of the valley of the Platte River, to the western boundary of Nevada Territory.
A privately financed company out of San Francisco, the Central Pacific Railroad, was tasked to, “Construct a railroad and telegraph line from the Pacific coast . . . to the eastern boundaries of California. . .” Section 10 of the act goes on stating, “The Central Pacific Railroad Company, after completing its road across said State, is authorized to continue the construction of said railroad and telegraph through the Territories of the United States to the Missouri River . . . until said roads shall meet and connect.” The shorter Central Pacific line was started first with (a ceremonial shovel of dirt in January 1863) due to the monumental task of carving a railbed through the mountainous west. Ted Judah’s plan called for the railroad to follow the Donner Pass, the route made infamous for the doomed Donner Party who had become stranded there some fourteen years earlier. Judah’s persistence and planning made the Transcontinental Railroad possible, but he would not live to see its completion. He was bitten by a mosquito in 1863 on one of his many crossings of Panama and died in the autumn of that year.
When the big day arrived, after a two day weather delay, the May 10, 1869 joining of the two massive projects was celebrated in grand fashion. As Winchester describes the event, “The Union Pacific’s gleaming black-and-brass train No. 119 drew up to the most westerly end of the eastern line; The Central Pacific’s great workhorse, the Jupiter, drew up, decorated with flags and buntings, to the easterly end of its line from the Pacific. Thousands waited in the sunshine, millions more around the country, promised the news by telegraph the instant that it happened.” “It” being the driving of the so-called ‘Golden Spike’ to mark the completion of the line – but there was more to it than just the one ‘Golden Spike’.
There was, of course, the 18 ounce pure golden spike donated by a wealthy San Francisco contractor. It was inscribed with, “May God continue the Unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the World.” There was another spike made of pure silver, and a third made of an alloy of precious metals. These were too soft to be driven so they were to be placed in pre-drilled holes and ‘tapped’ into place. The fourth spike was made of iron with a small copper plate attached to the top which was connected to the telegraph lines laid in both directions during the construction. When former governor and senator of California, Leland Stanford (and yes, founder of the college that bears his name) struck the iron spike, a wire attached to his silver-plated maul would complete the circuit and send a message to both coasts: The line was complete. Just to be sure the message went through, a local telegraph operator had warned stations around the country that he would follow up the strike with three dots to confirm Stanford’s completion of the ‘Ceremony of the Golden Spike’.
The cacophony of cannon fire, church bells, rockets, mortars, and marching bands marked the joining of both coasts by rail. The decorative ‘last rail’ (finally polished by a billiard table maker in the Bay City) was removed almost immediately, bound for a museum, as were the ceremonial spikes. So many of the other ‘last rails’ were torn up and carted away as souvenirs, guards had to be posted. The hub-bub in Promontory, Utah Territory wasn’t the true final coast-to-coast connection. It would be four more years before a bridge would span the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa and passengers would no longer need to take a ferry to reboard the west bound trains in Omaha, Nebraska.
Fifty years after the ‘Golden Spike’, 250,000 miles of railway criss-crossed the nation with more to come. Unfortunately, the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad removed the tracks between Rockland and Ontonagon after the closure of the paper mill in the latter. Perhaps an up-tick in the local economy will see this 12 mile section back in service one day. Stay tuned.
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