American Railroads

American Railroads

by John F. Stover

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Few scenes capture the American experience so eloquently as that of a lonely train chugging across the vastness of the Great Plains, or snaking through tortuous high mountain passes. Although this vision was eclipsed for a time by the rise of air travel and trucking, railroads have enjoyed a rebirth in recent years as profitable freight carriers.

A fascinating account of the rise, decline, and rebirth of railroads in the United States, John F. Stover's American Railroads traces their history from the first lines that helped eastern seaports capture western markets to today's newly revitalized industry. Stover describes the growth of the railroads' monopoly, with the consequent need for state and federal regulations; relates the vital part played by the railroads during the Civil War and the two World Wars; and charts the railroads' decline due to the advent of air travel and trucking during the 1950s.

In two new chapters, Stover recounts the remarkable recovery of the railroads, along with other pivotal events of the industry's recent history. During the 1960s declining passenger traffic and excessive federal regulation led to the federally-financed creation of Amtrak to revive passenger service and Conrail to provide freight service on bankrupt northeastern railroads. The real savior for the railroads, though, proved to be the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which brought prosperity to rail freight carriers by substantially deregulating the industry. By 1995, renewed railroad freight traffic had reached nearly twice its former peak in 1944.

Bringing both a seasoned eye and new insights to bear on one of the most American of industries, Stover has produced the definitive history of railroads in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226776606
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2008
Series: The Chicago History of American Civilization
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 324
File size: 3 MB

Read an Excerpt

American Railroads

By John F. Stover

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77660-6


"A Perfect System of Roads and Canals"

After the close of the war with England in 1815, Americans turned their attention from the Atlantic to domestic problems at home. The rich agricultural production of the country, the small but expanding factories of eastern cities, and the largely untapped natural resources of the nation—all of these called for improvements in transport. In the half-dozen years after the Treaty of Ghent nearly every state and large city started to agitate for an expanded system of internal improvements. Taverns and exchanges across the land heard the warm arguments of farmers, merchants, and politicians as they advanced the rival claims of canals and turnpikes, of steamboats and railroads. The domestic and western trade increased, even with the internal improvements still in the dream stage, and there was a relative decline in the importance of foreign trade. This was to be expected for the growing population, which was increasing roughly a third each decade, was on the march to the interior. The center of population, which in 1810 had been but a few miles up the Potomac from Washington, had moved by the eve of the Civil War to a spot west of Athens, Ohio. While in 1815 only four of the states had lacked a seacoast, the new states of the next half-century were nearly all in the interior.

The expansion and growth were more than sectional. As John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), at the time a nationalist leader, said in 1817: "We are greatly and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing. This is our pride, and our danger; our weakness and our strength ... Let us, then, bind the Republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals." Even before the nation had its roads and canals, Oliver Evans (1755–1819), the frustrated Philadelphia inventor and steam engine builder, was having a bigger dream. In 1812 Evans foresaw the day when "carriages propelled by steam will be in general use, as well for the transportation of passengers as goods, travelling at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, or 300 miles per day." The country first had to build its turnpikes, dig its canals, and fill its rivers with steamboats before it could construct its railroads. But it was the dream of Oliver Evans that was to bring much of the material progress gained in the new century. Farmers, factory owners, and merchants were soon to become impatient with the interruptions and delays of the slow-moving wagons and boats that were typical even with completed turnpikes and canals. They did not like to wait upon late winters, spring freshets, or muddy roads. They desired a form of land transport that was fast, cheap, and dependable. By the standards of the early nineteenth century even the first railroads soon were to provide that kind of transportation.

With peace the nation quickly turned to internal improvements. Less than a month after the Battle of New Orleans, Colonel John Stevens (1749–1838) of Hoboken obtained from the New Jersey legislature the first railroad charter in America, a grant to build a railroad between the Delaware and Raritan rivers. In 1817, when the longest completed American canal extended less than 28 miles, the New York legislature authorized the building of the Erie Canal, a 364-mile project. The next year saw the completion of the Cumberland, or National, Road to Wheeling, Virginia, an event which made westward migration to the new states of Indiana and Illinois much easier. The average western emigrant in 1818 probably floated down the Ohio River from Wheeling in a flat-boat, but in that year at least a dozen small, wheezing steamboats were already plying western rivers, a number destined to increase tenfold in a decade. Late in 1825 the westward movement was stimulated by the completion of the Erie Canal. Much earlier in that year Colonel Stevens had confounded his critics, who were pointing to his chartered but unbuilt railroad, by operating the first locomotive to run on rails in America. His sixteen-foot "Steam Waggon" carried hardy house guests around circular track on the grounds of his Hoboken estate at the rate of 12 miles an hour.

For half a generation after Ghent the roads and canals desired by Calhoun made most of the significant transportation headlines in America. Much progress in the construction of improved toll roads had been made before the War of 1812. Generally built by private-stock companies with charters from the state legislatures, the turnpikes were built along the major travel routes. The companies were allowed to gain a return on their investment by charging tolls on the traffic using the new road. The early success of the well-built Lancaster Turnpike, completed from Philadelphia to Lancaster in 1794, resulted in a widespread demand for more roads. Dozens of turnpike companies planned and built roads in New England in the first years of the nineteenth century, and by 1825 a number of major roads criss-crossed southern New England. The record amount of land carriage caused by the blockade during the war with England made all sections of the country increase their road-building activity. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1816–17 granted state aid to 46 separate internal improvements, most of them turnpikes. By 1821 some 150 turnpike companies had been chartered in Pennsylvania, with state aid accounting for 35 per cent of the total subscribed capital of $6,401,000. Of the 1,807 miles of completed roadway, about two-thirds was well constructed with stone surfacing. In the same year New York could boast of 4,000 miles of completed roads, but the absence of any large amounts of state aid probably explained the lighter construction and lower cost or capitalization per mile in the Empire State ($3,500 per mile in Pennsylvania and $2,750 per mile in New York).

The rage for turnpikes was also present in the Old Northwest during the 1820s and 1830s, but few roads were ever completed, except in Ohio. In the southern states, except for Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, there was more promotion and planning than accomplished construction. Few of the turnpikes, North or South, ever achieved the profits promised by their promoters. New England was probably typical; only half a dozen of the 230 turnpike companies in the New England states ever returned their owners a reasonable dividend on investment.

The National Road was the greatest of all the turnpikes. Despite its extension to Wheeling in 1818 and to Columbus, Ohio, in 1833, this broad artery to the West had its problems. Although the federal government had spent $1,300,000 on the road in the preceding six years, Postmaster General Return J. Meigs, Jr. (1764–1824), complained to Congress in January, 1823, that on a recent inspection trip he found "the western (being the newest) part of the road ... in a ruinous state, and being rapidly impaired." Along the route he saw rockslides and erosion so bad "that two carriages cannot pass each other."

Even with the advantage of turnpikes, freight rates were expensive. At the conclusion of the War of 1812 the lowest wagon freight rates averaged thirty cents per ton-mile and often were twice that. But farm produce was seldom carried overland. The reason was simple: transportation costs from Buffalo to New York City in 1817 were three times the market value of a bushel of wheat and six times that of corn. Wagon freight rates westward to Pittsburgh fell perhaps 50 per cent by 1822, but this was brought about as much by a general deflation as by an increase in the number of turnpikes or the growing competition of cheaper canal transportation. Nor was wagon freight fast transportation. When a Conestoga wagon drawn by four horses traveled the ninety miles from New York City to Philadelphia in three days, it became known as the "flying machine." Even though it was slow and costly, wagon traffic was heavy. In a two-and-a-half-day stage trip from Chambersburg to Pittsburgh in the fall of 1817, the Englishman Henry Bradshaw Fearon noted that his coach overtook 103 freight wagons headed for Pittsburgh.

Stagecoach traffic, too, was extensive. Sharing the road with the Conestoga wagon, the stagecoach, designed primarily as a passenger vehicle, offered a much faster means of transportation than the slow-moving freight wagon. The advantage of speed was offset, however, by the disadvantage of a rough ride. This was even true in the case of the Concord coach, which was far from comfortable. Of a trip through Pennsylvania, George Sumner (1817–63) wrote: "For two days and two nights was my body exposed to the thumps of this horrid road, and when I got to Pittsburgh (after having broken down twice, and got out three times during one night and broken down rail fences to pry the coach out of the mud) my body was a perfect jelly—without one sound spot upon it, too tired to stand, too sore to sit."

Both Albert Gallatin (1761–1849) in 1808 and John Calhoun a decade later stressed canals, as well as improved roads, in their plans for internal improvements. Canals are built slowly, and in 1817, when Calhoun made his plea for a perfect system of transportation, only about 100 miles of canals had been constructed, the longest single canal being just over 27 miles in length. But in that year Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828) prodded the state of New York into starting a 364-mile canal from Albany to Buffalo, a project that would require $8,000,000, eight years, and unprecedented engineering feats. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was an immediate financial success. The canal craze was on.

By 1830 at least 10,000 miles of inland waterways were projected and 1,277 miles had been built. More than 2,000 additional miles were constructed during the thirties, and in 1840 the total canal investment in the nation stood at $125,000,000. Although in 1840 every state east of the Mississippi, with the exception of Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Tennessee, had canals in operation, 70 per cent of the total mileage was to be found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Since canals were much more expensive than turnpikes, generally costing from $20,000 to $30,000 per mile, most of the total investment in them, perhaps 60 per cent, was direct state aid. The Panic of 1837 revealed that several states had extended their credit too far in supporting internal improvements and were on the verge of bankruptcy.

In addition to the major waterways, several minor types of canals were built. These included short canals designed to avoid some river obstacle, such as that at the falls of the Ohio near Louisville; canals connecting two busy rivers, lakes, or bays, such as the Wabash and Erie in Indiana or the Chesapeake and Delaware in the East; and anthracite tidewater canals, such as the Lehigh or Morris canals in Pennsylvania. The most important type, however, was that intended to draw western business to some eastern city. Nearly every coastal city from Portland to Savannah had dreams of reaching the back country by canal, but frequently these dreams were thwarted by mountains or by lack of money. Only three westward-looking canals followed the Erie pattern: the "Pennsylvania System," the Chesapeake and Ohio, and the James River and Kanawha. The last two were stopped by mountains, the 184-mile Chesapeake and Ohio at Cumberland, Maryland, and the 200-mile James River and Kanawha at Buchanan, Virginia. The state of Pennsylvania eventually built its 395-mile Main Line to the Ohio River, but only with the assistance of 174 locks and several inclined-plane railroads (near Hollidaysburg) that rose 2,200 feet above sea level.

Whether canal projects brought profit or ruin to their sponsors, they all succeeded in greatly reducing the costs of freight carriage. Even on the difficult Pennsylvania Main Line rates were down to 8 cents a ton-mile in 1833, as contrasted to 20 cents by wagon. On the Erie, freight rates ranged from 1.6 cents to 3.4 cents per ton-mile in the thirties and forties and were down to a penny a mile by mid-century. Although the canal lineboat and the freighter took much business away from the Conestoga wagon, the stagecoach suffered less severely from the competition offered by canal packets or passenger boats. The packet could offer a smooth, leisurely trip, often with surprisingly good meals. Its five and a half by two foot bunks for overnight travelers were so closely spaced that Charles Dickens (1812–70) found it best to roll directly from the floor into his lower berth. For many the novelty of canal travel soon wore off. In 1830 Albany's five daily stage lines going westward up the Mohawk Valley often had to add extra coaches. The stage lines could also offer year-round service, while most canals were closed from three to five months each winter.

River transportation had always been vital in the United States, with its vast distances and extensive hinterland. By the early nineteenth century, eastern and western rivers alike were crowded with a variety of "bullboats," canoes, flatboats, and keelboats. Shortly before the War of 1812 the steamboat was added to this assortment. In 1811 the 371-ton Pittsburgh-built "New Orleans" successfully reached New Orleans, and four years later the "Enterprise" proved the feasibility of upstream travel with a round trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. By 1821 seventy-two boats were employed on western waters, and frequently a dozen could be seen together down in New Orleans. By 1830 the average steamboat was giving freight service faster than the canal boat and cheaper than the wagon.

For the passenger, steamboat accommodations were faster and more luxurious than those found on the canal boat and both cheaper and more comfortable than those of the stagecoach. Cabin passage, including meals, for the 2,064-mile trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans cost only $45 in 1839. Most Americans could find little fault with the luxuriously appointed craft and were proud when European visitors like Count Francesco Arese admitted that "the finest ones we have in Europe are much inferior to the smallest, the wretchedest ferry-boat over here." Steamboat travel offered not only luxury but also danger. Old wrecks lined every river by mid-century, and the newspapers were filled with stories of explosions, collisions, fires, and snagged boats. Accidents on western rivers in 1853 claimed 78 boats and 454 lives. The optimistic traveler could take satisfaction in the claim of Niles' Weekly Register that "with moderation and care steamboats are not so very dangerous." River travel was less dangerous in the East, and on the Hudson River a five-year experiment with safety barges (passenger boats towed behind steamboats) ended in failure in 1830 when the barges "Lady Clinton" and "Lady Rensselaer" were offered for sale as freight towboats. But even on eastern rivers the natural factors of ice and low water could halt all navigation. Between 1818 and 1859 ice closed the Hudson at Albany an average of four months a year, and at Pittsburgh ice, plus seasons of low water, made a comparable reduction in commerce.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century many of the needs for better transportation were fulfilled as well-constructed roads, a host of new canals, and faster steamboat travel appeared. In the years after the War of 1812 nearly every ambitious American city was the center of a radiating network of turnpikes, either planned or already built. In 1826 Boston had eighty stage lines with more than two hundred scheduled arrivals and departures each day. The toasts, processions, transparencies (illuminated banners), and kegs of river water from around the world that were employed to mark the opening of Governor Clinton's Erie Canal in the autumn of 1825 initiated a series of canal celebrations which continued for years. High- and low-pressure steamboats brought prosperity to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis and dreams of the same to the remote upriver towns of Knoxville and Indianapolis.

Wagon freight never became really cheap, and the best Concord coaches were still slow and uncomfortable. Canals were stymied by mountains and were certain to freeze over in winter. Steamboats, although they were fast and luxurious, were also dangerous. Moreover, Henry Miller Shreve (1785–1851), veteran steamboater and inventor of the "snagboat," which became known as "Uncle Sam's tooth-puller," could not always remove hazardous obstructions from river channels, even for the record shallow-draft "Orphan Boy" (169 tons, 22-inch draft). Some new form of transportation, year round in regularity, safe and cheap, overland and unlimited in route, was obviously needed. Americans in the 1820s did not have long to wait.


First Rails

The iron rail, flanged wheel, and puffing locomotive appeared in America by 1830. In the next twenty years the railroad brought a new dimension and added a new flavor to American transportation. The first railroads frequently helped American cities (and in turn were aided themselves) as they sought a larger share of western markets.

In the first third of the nineteenth century the commercial rivalry among major eastern American cities was as intense as the competition among the various transportation facilities that served them and the nation. Already first in population by 1810, New York City increased her lead after 1815 through a combination of natural geographic advantages and a series of aggressive measures pushed by an energetic citizenry. Encouraged when the British chose New York as a market for surplus British goods after the War of 1812, the merchants of that city increased this trade advantage in 1817 by creating an attractive auction system for the sale of imports and by establishing dependable and regular packet service across the Atlantic.


Excerpted from American Railroads by John F. Stover. Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Editor's Foreword to the Second Edition
Editor's Foreword to the First Edition
1: "A Perfect System of Roads and Canals"
2: First Rails
3: Early Maturity: Expansion and War
4: The Rails Move West
5: Corruption, Discrimination, and Regulation
6: Uniformity and Consolidation
7: Railroads at War
8: Railroads in Decline after World War I
9: Troubles in the 1960s and 1970s
10: The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 Brings Prosperity and Many Mergers
Important Dates
Suggested Reading

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