THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE
BALTIMORE & OHIO R.R.
Engineering NewsJuly 14, 1892
Address of President Mendes Cohen at the Annual Convention
of the American Society of Civil Engineers
April 1, 1832, the line was opened to the Potomac River at
the Point of Rocks, a distance of 70 miles from Baltimore, and
was regularly worked throughout by horse power. It had been contemplated
to effect with inclined planes the crossing of Parr's Ridge, the
summit of which was 800 ft. above tide and the eastern foot of
which was reached at about 40 miles from Baltimore. The placing
of the machinery for working the planes was, however, deferred
from year to year and the traffic carried across the ridge by
horse power, until the development of the engines powerful enough
led to their being tested on the heavy grade of the Inclined planes.
At the very outset work along the Potomac was stopped by litigation
resulting In favor of the Canal Company; a compromise was sought
and finally effected in the spring of 1833. The immediate difficulty
was the passage of the several spurs of the Blue Ridge, which
are cleft by the river with bold and rocky slopes, are first encountered
by the road in the Catoctin Mountain, at the Point of Rocks, and
continue at intervals for 12 miles to Harper's Ferry. The compromise
arranged need not be considered here. It was onerous enough, but
could not be avoided, and under it the work was completed to a
point opposite Harper's Ferry by December, 1834. During these
years of obstruction, authority had been obtained to construct
a branch road to Washington, and in 1831, Mr. B. H. Latrobe was
appointed an assistant and assigned to the reconnaissance. This
was followed up without delay by a more definite and careful examination.
Mr. Knight takes a most comprehensive view of what he says must
become a great national highway. He urges that no grades exceeding
20 ft. per mile, nor any curve of less radius than 1,500 ft.,
or in extreme cases 1,000 ft., be tolerated if avoidable at any
reasonable expense, so that light locomotives may make the run
regularly In two hours, and indicates the possibility of a "message
being made to pass the whole distance from Washington to Baltimore
in one hour."
The surveys were continued with great minuteness so that, as
the President expresses it, "the route finally adopted should
leave no better one available to a rival corporation."
In July, 1833, Mr. Knight submits his report and analyses of
twelve alternative lines with a degree of elaboration and care
that I venture to say has rarely been equaled. The line recommended
by him was at once placed under contract and under Mr. B. H. Latrobe,
as the engineer in charge, was completed and opened Aug. 25, 1835.
At its point of divergence from the main stem, seven miles from
Baltimore, it crosses the Patapsco by a masonry viaduct of eight
arches, each of 58 ft. chord, some 70 ft. in height above the
water and of a total length of 707 ft. This was designed by Mr.
Latrobe and stands to-day a monument to his taste and professional
skill. The superstructure of the branch road was intended to be
a great improvement on the various forms used thus far on the
main stem. It consisted of longitudinal sills 6 ins. square and
from 12 to 40 ft. in length, laid in trenches so cut for their
reception that the upper surface of the sills will be from two
to five Inches below the graded surface of the roadbed. On this
were laid cross ties 4 ft. from center to center and cut out to
receive stringer pieces of yellow pine 6 ins. square on which
were laid the first heavy T rails
used on the road. This rail weighed 40 lbs. per yd., as proposed
by the Chief Engineer and modified in the shape of its face or
surface by Mr. Ross Winans.
I must now
say something of the progress made in coaches, cars and car wheels.
The coaches were at the outstart made about as comfortable as
the stage coach of the day, and were built on much the same pattern;
but, of course with cast iron wheels. The "Ohio," of
which I am able to show you a lithograph, was all improvement
on these which had preceded it. You will see that it is provided
with Mr. Winans' anti-friction boxes. So long as horse-power alone
was used nothing better was required. As soon, however, as the
locomotive appeared upon the road, there came with it the necessity
for modification in the carriages. The wheels, at first light
to save weight, were made heavier, to give needed strength with
increased speed. Mr. Knight improved the shape of the tread and
flange, while John Edgar and Ross Winans developed its chilled
features and Phineas Davis further improved and perfected the
whole by altering the disposition of the metal in the tread and
angle of the flange and by introducing within the wheel a wrought
iron ring of five-eighths or ¾ in. round iron which, not
only perfected the chill, but increased the strength of the wheel.
So satisfied was Mr. Knight with the result that he observes at
quite an early stage "the cast iron wheel has probably attained
the utmost perfection of which it is capable." Thousands
of these wheels were made at Mr. Winans' shops, not only for use
in various parts of this country, but for some of the German and
Swiss roads, which used them extensively up to 1851. Mr. Knight,
in his report for 1836, states that the chilled wheels had run
30,300 miles and more at the high speed used on the Washington
branch without the failure of a single wheel, and he had every
reason to believe that 50,000 miles might be accomplished by them.
The increase of speed due to the use of steam made greater
steadiness desirable in the coach than was possible in the four-wheeled
car. The long stringers and sills for the track, some of them
as long as 40 ft., had been heretofore carried over the finished
road on two of the ordinary four-wheel platform cars coupled by
a long pole. On the platform of each of these cars there rested
transversely a bolster with a vertical pin, or king bolt, passing
through its middle point and so connected to the platform of the
car as to permit the bolster to swivel freely. On these bolsters
of the two connected platform cars and stretching from one to
the other, the track timbers referred to were laid. Vertical stakes
secured to the ends of the bolsters prevented the timber from
rolling off. This contrivance, a very familiar and natural one,
and not even then used for the first time, answered its purpose
perfectly and from its steadiness of motion suggested to the active
mind of Ross Winans, the carrying of passengers on a car constructed
on the same principle. His experiments soon followed and in the
annual report of Oct. 1, 1833, the Superintendent of Machinery
notes that he is building three car bodies to form one coach on
eight wheels to carry 60 passengers. This was the birth of the
eightwheel car which was patented by Mr. Winans and, though the
courts after long litigation decided adversely to his claim on
the ground, I believe, of prior use, as in the case of the timber
car and similar one for transporting large blocks of granite at
Quincy, Mass., yet I have always believed that to Ross Winans
we are Indebted for this great improvement. Very soon thereafter
eight-wheel cars were used throughout the line for both passenger
and freight traffic and special cars were provided for baggage,
which had theretofore been carried on top of the coaches.
I have stated
that the road was opened to Harper's Ferry in December, 1834.
The portion of the line crossing Parr's Ridge, located for inclined
planes, with stationary engines at a maximum grade of 270 ft.
per mile, was still worked by horses, as were also the 12 miles
between Point of Rocks and Harper's Ferry. The latter section
was so worked on account of the opposition of the canal company
to the use of locomotives because they frightened the canal horses.
Trials of the new Davis engine, having been made on the planes
of Parr's Ridge, and the ability of the engine to overcome even
a grade of 270 ft. having been fully demonstrated, the road across
the bridge was re-located to adapt it for locomotive power. This
was done with grades of about 80 ft. per mile, increasing the
distance less than one mile, and was put in operation in June,
1839. A pecuniary consideration to the canal company having meanwhile
steadied the nerves of their horses, the whole line as far as
completed was in operation with locomotives.
The increasing demand for these machines was partly met by
replacing the engines at work on the Washington branch by others
built by Mr. William Norris, of Philadelphia, having horizontal
boilers and one pair of driving wheels of four feet diameter,
with a truck in usual form, cylinder of 10½ ins. in diameter
and 18-ins. stroke and weighing nine tons with 5½ tons
on the drivers. It was a form of engine much better adapted to
the fast passenger service of that line, and in its day a most
efficient machine. These engines used wood fuel and were followed
by others on the same general plan, using the same fuel, which
was found less costly than the anthracite coal supplied to the
The crossing of the Potomac at Harper's Ferry was effected
by a timber bridge, designed by Mr. B. H. Latrobe and built by
Wernwag. It was a noted structure in its time, being modeled somewhat
upon the plan of a celebrated bridge over the Rhine at Schaafhausen.
A peculiarity of the line at this point necessitated a bifurcation
of the bridge at its western end, forming two branches of a Y, the one arm connecting by a single
span to the south with the Winchester & Potomac R. R., then
just completed to meet it; the other by two spans to the west,
being the prolongation of the main stem of the railroad.
This arrangement, involving the use of switches midway of the
bridge, was necessarily somewhat complicated, but it has been
continued to this day, although the rapidly increasing weight
of the locomotives and trains caused the replacing of the timber
bridge at a later date, 1852, by an iron truss, patented by Mr.
Wendell Bollman, the details of which were arranged by Mr. J.
H. Tegmeyer and which has been claimed as the first iron truss
of the line from Harper's Ferry westward to Cumberland, a distance
of 96 miles, was now being pressed forward with his characteristic
energy by Mr. Latrobe, the engineer of location and construction,
and was opened to Cumberland in November, 1842. The engineering
features do not call for special comment here, beyond reference
to the track superstructure, which still adhered to the subsill.
It consisted of a wooden under-sill and stringer piece with cross
ties and blocks between them, the whole fastened by wooden plus.
The iron rail was of the bridge form, weighing 51 lbs. per yd.,
with cast iron chairs at the ends and in the middle of the bars,
which were held firmly down to the stringer piece by screw bolts
at the ends and hook-headed spikes at intermediate distances.
The whole rested on a bed of broken stone one foot in depth.
A marked stage in the development of the engines for this extension
must now be noticed. In 1836 Ross Winans constructed two engines
for the road with the Cooper vertical boiler and with the cylinders
placed horizontally at the rear end of the frames and connecting
by the spur wheel and pinion through the independent shaft to
four driving wheels, as in the "Grasshopper" engines.
This arrangement enabled the boiler to be depressed, and lowered
the center of gravity of the whole machine some 12 ins., thereby
giving greater stability at high velocity. This plan was further
developed in 1842, in seven engines, built for the. Western R.
R. of Massachusetts, which had eight drivers instead of four.
These were powerful machines, but were not a success. They were
entirely unsuited to the use of wood, and as anthracite could
not be furnished on that line at any reasonable price, the engines
were soon laid aside. On reaching Cumberland the Baltimore &
Ohio tapped for the first time the bituminous coal region and
a locomotive was wanted to burn that fuel. Mr. Winans, to meet
this demand, designed all engine with horizontal boiler and horizontal
cylinders of 16 x 22 ins., connecting with eight driving wheels
33 ins. in diameter through a spur wheel and pinion, as heretofore,
and weighing 23½ tons. Of these engines, 12 were placed
in service between 1844 and 1846, and were a great advance upon
anything which had preceded them. They burned bituminous coal
and handled the coal trade in its incipiency. They led the way
in the development of the coal burning engine, the next step in
which was the building in 1847 by Mr. Winans of four engines for
the Philadelphia & Reading R. R. with horizontal boilers,
horizontal cylinders, and eight driving wheels of 46 ins. diameter,
the use of spur gearing being dispensed with. I mention these
engines, for they have no equivalent on the Baltimore & Ohio
R. R., and yet mark the stage to the next machine known as the
"Camel." The first of this class of engines was placed
on the road in 1848 in response to specifications prepared by
Mr. Latrobe and limiting the weight to 22 tons. It had 17-in.
cylinders of 22-in. stroke placed horizontally and eight 43-in.
drivers; the firebox was larger and wider than ever before. In
distributing the weight of this engine on its four pairs of driving
wheels, it became necessary to remove the large dome from over
the firebox to a point well forward of the middle of the boiler,
where also the throttle valve and engine man were placed. This
humped feature suggested the name "Camel," which was
given to the first engine of this form, and the name has since
adhered to the type. These engines were developed in the next
few years by increase in size of boiler, firebox and cylinders,
which latter were 19 x 22 ins. with a total weight of engine of
28 tons, They were most efficient and enabled the heavy grades
of the new road west of Cumberland to be worked successfully.
In fact they were designed for these grades, and there was no
other engine then available for the purpose. This engine has been
further developed and improved upon since, largely in the shops
of the Philadelphia & Reading R. R., to which road many of
them were supplied, where its crudities have been removed and
its deficencies supplied by the skill of the several engineers
of machinery of that great corporation, notably by the late James
Milholland and by Mr. J. E. Wootten; but many of its characteristics
and important features can readily be tracedthe horizontal
cylinders, the large and wide firebox, the flat connecting and
side rods; the latter arranged with fixed bushings incapable of
adjustment, a feature much reviled at the time, but now recognized
and adopted by the best builders.
The progress of the road beyond Cumberland was delayed for
five or six years by many and peculiar causes. While the original
charters granted by Maryland and Virginia were perpetual, yet
there were limitations as to time of completion which were already
exceeded and which now operated to require further legislation,
while a limitation in the Pennsylvania charter operated to annul
Maryland had a very large amount of money invested in the canal,
which had not yet reached Cumberland, where it now rests, and
still cherished the hope of its further extension, so that the
railroad location must still be subservient thereto.
Virginia endeavored to couple with her grants of extended time
onerous stipulations limiting the terminal point to Wheeling.
The railroad company would have preferred to locate its line
to a more southern point on the Ohio, preferably to Parkersburg,
at the mouth of the Kanawha, and was not insensible to the advantages
of a terminus at Pittsburg, but was evidently averse to Wheeling.
The well known diplomatic skill of President Louis McLane had
full scope in reconciling the difficulties, and with some measure
of success, for though the act of Virginia of March, 1847, stipulated
Wheeling as the terminus, yet the conditions were less onerous
than certain earlier acts, under which the company declined to
It contained a section which seems to have been designed to
facilitate connection with a branch to Parkersburg. This was so
promptly availed of that the North Western Virginia R. R., now
the Parkersburg Branch R. R., was well under way before the road
was opened to Wheeling, and was completed a few years thereafter.
The definitive location of the whole line from Cumberland west
was now pushed forward by numerous parties.
At the west end three alternative lines of approach to the
Ohio presented themselves, after avoiding the southwest corner
of Pennsylvania, distant from Wheeling some 40 to 50 miles.
The first reached the Ohio at the mouth of Fish Creek, the
most southern point permitted by the act of 1847, and then followed
the river 25 miles to Wheeling.
The next touched the river at the mouth of Grave Creek, 12
miles below Wheeling.
The third, via Wheeling Creek, only reached the river at the
city of Wheeling.
The first, although the longer, had light grades and no heavy
work, and was the choice of Mr. Latrobe.
The second and third crossed several divides involving much
heavy work, each of the two, including Board Tree Tunnel, of 2,300
ft. with 80 ft. grades on either side.
Wheeling, fearing an attempt to deprive her of the benefits
of the actual terminus, protested against the adoption of the
Fish Creek line as contrary to the spirit of the act of 1847 and
a subsequent agreement between the city and the company. She called
to her aid Jonathan Knight and Charles Ellet, Jr., as engineer
Mr. Knight had resigned from the Baltimore & Ohio R. R.
and had been succeeded by Mr. Latrobe in 1842, about the time
of the completion of the road to Cumberland, and brought all the
knowledge and skill acquired. In the company's service during
his 15 years' connection with it to bear in opposition to its
plans and to the views of its Chief Engineer, his former assistant.
The situation may well have been embarrassing to Mr. Latrobe,
whose notions of professional ethics were, I take it, of a different
It will be too long a story to enter here into the details
of the controversy. It was skillfully managed on both sides. Reams
of paper were filled with the calculations and discussions of
the engineers and with the arguments of counsel, amongst whom
were Daniel Webster, Reverdy Johnson and J. H. B Latrobe.
The matter was finally adjusted by arbitration in the autumn
of 1850, resulting in the adoption of the Grave Creek line, having
caused a further delay of three years.
The question of location having been settled, the construction
of the 200 miles from Cumberland to Wheeling was pressed at all
points with energy by able assistants, Wm. H. Small, George Hoffman,
Thomas Rowles, James L. Randolph, George McLeod, Charles P. Manning,
Benjamin D. Frost, Alfred F. Sears and Albert Fink, the latter
a Past President of the Society, are names most of which are familiar
The track from Cumberland westward was laid throughout with 60-lb.
rails on cross ties with a wrought iron H
or lip chairs of boiler plate. The latter, though better than
anything which preceded it, was very unreliable. The graded road
was ballasted ahead of the track with broken stone, sand or gravel,
as might be obtainable. The track was not yet perfect, but a great
step in advance was made when there was no longer a subsill to
churn away in the mud beneath a real or pretended ballast.
Mr. Latrobe's adoption of the 116-ft. grades in crossing the
mountains was deemed bold and hazardous, but he had been trained
in a school which was self-reliant. He made his calculations of
what he required and what he felt sure could be accomplished,
and found in Ross Winans the man who recognized the occasion and
undertook the task of designing an engine that should perform
the work. Well do I remember accompanying Mr. Winans on his first
test of the new engine on the grade for which it was designed.
The occasion was the opening of the new road in July, 1851, to
Piedmont station, 28 miles west of Cumberland. Here begins the
116-ft. grade, which continues for 17 miles to the top of the
Alleghany Mountains. The tracklaying force was busily engaged
some three or four miles beyond, and this short distance was all
that was available to see what the engine could do. As a test
of its fall power it did not amount to much, but there were attached
to the engine, in addition to the passenger cars of the excursionists,
a number of carloads of iron rails, all that were available, and
with these the engine started at the foot of the grade and made
its run at the rate of 10 or 12 miles per hour with a large surplus
of steam, which was cut off at half stroke. On arriving at the
end of the track with steam blowing off, there was much congratulation.
It was realized that the question of ability to work this grade,
of which great doubt had been expressed, was clearly demonstrated
with a large reserve of power in the engine and from that time
forward no more was said of impossibilities.
In the following winter and spring the track was carried to
and across the slopes of Cheat River. Here the deep ravines of
Tray Run and Buckeye Hollow were crossed on grades of about 105
ft. to the mile, at an elevation of some 160 ft. above the bed
of the ravine by trestle work, soon replaced by permanent structures,
the detail of which was executed by our Past President, Albert
Fink then assistant of Mr. Latrobe.
The next great feature was Kingwood tunnel of 4,100 ft. in
length. This work not being ready in time to pass the track layers
through without much delay, Mr. Latrobe determined to grade a
track over the tunnel and passing the iron over it, to continue
the work of tracklaying beyond. The maximum grade involved in
this work was 10%, which, though intended for horse power, was
worked by the "Camel" engine, which pushed over it one
car of rails without any serious difficulty. At a later period,
after the opening of the road, when the arching of the tunnel
was in progress, this temporary line was revised with a maximum
grade of 5% and the whole traffic of the road was carried over
it for some months. The crossing of this tunnel effected, the
progress of the road lay on easier lines for some 80 miles. The
Monongahela River was crossed by a bridge of three spans of 200
ft. each, The masonry of the piers and the abutments of this bridge
were intrusted to our late member, Mr. James L. Randolph, who
was the division engineer the superstructure being designed by
Mr. Fink. At Broad Tree Tunnel, about 164 miles west of Cumberland,
was encountered another temporary delay by reason of the failure
or inefficiency of the contractors. Here Mr. Latrobe again determined
to avail of a temporary crossing over the top of the hill. This
time the maximum gradient was 6%. The crossing was effected by
a series of zig-zags, or switchbacks, two on one side of the hill
and five on the other. The topography was such that there were
two curves on the line of 180 degrees and more of continuous curvature
in one direction; the radius was 300 ft. Mr. Latrobe has himself
so well described this crossing I will not repeat it here at length.
This temporary road was most successfully worked for some five
or six months. Beyond this point for 36 miles to its terminus
at Wheeling there are no features of special interest which I
now recall. The last rail completing the track to that point,
was laid an the eve of Christmas, 1852, and early in the next
month, January, 1853, the formal opening of the road to Wheeling
And now ere I conclude an address which has, I fear, already
taxed your patience, a word or two of the man who brought this
great work to a conclusion.
Mr. Latrobe was identified with the Baltimore & Ohio R.
R. almost from the very beginning. He had been intended for the
law, but after completing his course of study, and being admitted
to the Maryland bar, concluded that railway engineering was more
to his taste.
He entered the service as an assistant to Mr. Knight, and I
am quite satisfied that Mr. Knight, in all his career, never had
a more faithful one. None could have been more loyal than he,
and when he was no longer an assistant, but himself the Chief,
his modesty was as marked as before.
Whilst his was the mind which planned and directed all, one
might have supposed that the Ideas emanated from the assistants,
so ready was he to give them credit for their well executed details.
He took pride in the work with which he had been so long identified.
He never could have accepted a retainer to oppose its interests,
whether he was on its pay-roll or not. He left behind him in that
portion of the Baltimore & Ohio R. R. which he built a monument
to his professional skill, and in the hearts of his assistants,
a loving remembrance not soon to he effaced.
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