The earliest forms of railroads in America were used in mines and quarries; heavy loads were transported by horse-drawn carts running on wooden or iron tracks. Much of the initial work on self-contained steam engines was done in England, but imitators soon appeared in America.
Several short rail lines were built in the U.S. in the 1820s and competed directly with the canals. Efforts were made to protect the canals by passing state or local laws that prohibited rail lines from certain areas or restricted them from carrying freight. Support for the railroads was impossible to stop, largely because of their ability to deliver people or products at all times of the year. The problem with the canals in many areas was that they froze in cold weather.
Despite the obvious advantages of rail traffic for farmers and manufacturers, not everyone was supportive. Some clergymen thought this form of transportation was outside of God’s plan and some physicians warned about the impact of high speeds on the human body.
During the 1830s, rail lines appeared in many sections of the country, particularly in New England and the Middle States. Most of these lines were local and often simply connected one body of water to another. No true system existed—there was no scheduled service and no uniform track width; cargo had to be reloaded when changing from one line to another.
The Baltimore & Ohio was one of the first lines to switch from horsepower to steam. It slowly inched its way westward, reaching Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1853.
1840 is usually regarded as the watershed date for the ascendancy of railroads over the canals. Huge track-laying increases began to occur. The Great Lakes were reached in 1850, Chicago in 1853 and the Mississippi River was crossed in 1856.
The greatest problem for railroad developers was money. Building a line was very expensive—purchasing right of way, paying wages for large work forces, and buying rail and rolling stock. State and local governments offered what financial assistance they could in the hope of attracting railroads to their areas. It was the federal government, however, which was to play the most important role through the use of land grants.
The economic impact of railroads was immense. By the 1850s, the network of railroads linked the major industrial and agricultural areas east of the Mississippi, and had shown the ability to bring down costs of transportation compared with canals and rivers. The prospect of achieving a transcontinental rail connection as tempting. In an 1852 report to Congress, the potential benefits were outlined. After estimating the cost of transport by road at $.15 per mile, the report stated:
But we find that we can move property upon railroads at the rate of
15 cents per ton per mile, or for one-tenth the cost upon the ordinary
road. These works, therefore, extend the economic limit of the cost of
transportation of the above articles to 3,300 and 1,650 miles respectively.
At the limit of the economical movement of these articles upon the
common highways, by use of the railroads wheat would be worth $44.50
and corn $22.20 per ton, which sums respectively would represent the
actual increase of value by the interposition of such a work.
The first railroad reached Chicago in 1854. Six years later, there were fifteen lines into Chicago and the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River had been built. Between 1850 and 1860, total railroad mileage jumped from 9,000 to 30,000. The increase was more than the economy could bear, and bankruptcies were frequent.
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