Chapter II

Early Railroads


MANY persons, otherwise well-informed upon general topics, believe that railroads were constructed especially for locomotives, as the best-adapted road for the accommodation of that peculiar machine and its train of cars.

They never call to mind that a locomotive is a modern invention, and, for want of access to works such as we have referred to, they are not informed that a railroad is an ancient institution (if we may apply such a term to such a subject). They never have dreamed nor ever imagined that this peculiar kind of road was invented and in use several centuries ago, but, like the great auxiliary, the locomotive, was very defective and simple in its primitive state, and since that time, like the latter, has been subject to vast and continued improvements.

Before, however, we enter upon the subject for which these pages were designed—"the history of the first locomotives in America"—it will not, we trust, be deemed inappropriate here to devote a small space in our work in describing the peculiar kind of road upon which the locomotive travels, now known universally as the railroad; and to such information as we have gathered of its origin and early progress.

Various devices have been employed, from the period when wheel-carriages were first used, for facilitating the movement over the ground in transportation. These devices, however, were mostly limited to the smoothing, leveling, and hardening the surface of the way. The early Egyptians, in transporting the immense stones they used in the erection of the vast pyramids from the quarries, learned the advantage of hard, smooth, and solid track-ways, and the remains of such, formed of large blocks of stone, are said to have been found on the line of the great road they constructed for this purpose.

The ancient Romans made also some approach to the invention of railroads, in the celebrated Appian Way. This was constructed of blocks of stone fitted closely together, the surface presenting a smooth and hard track for the wheels. In modern times such tracks or roadways were constructed in several European cities—London, Pisa, Milan, and many others. The first instance on record of rails being used on highways was as early as the year 1630, over two and a quarter centuries ago. They were invented by a person named Beaumont, and built and used for the transportation of coal from the mines near Newcastle, in England.

Old Roger North alludes to railways as being in use in the neighborhood of the river Tyne in the year 1676, and he thus describes them: The rails of timber were placed end to end and exactly straight, and in two lines parallel to each other. On these bulky carts were made to run on four rollers fitting these rails, whereby the carriage was made so easy that one horse would draw four or five caldrons of coal at a load. We read of railways existing in Scotland in 1745, at the time of the Scotch rebellion. These railways were laid down between the Tranent coal-mines and the harbor of Cockenzie, in East Lothian. Improvements were made on these roads and continued until 1765, when they began to assume the forms of our present roads, even to the use of flanges upon the wheels; but up to this period no iron surface was ever heard of The mode of constructing a railroad at that period was as follows: After the surface was brought to as perfect a level as possible—or incline, as the case might be—square blocks of wood, called sleepers, about six feet long, were laid two or three feet apart across the track; upon these two long strips of wood, six or seven inches wide and about five inches deep, were fastened by pins to the sleepers, and parallel to each other, but about four feet apart. Upon this wooden rail was spiked a projecting round moulding of wood, and the wheels were hollowed out like a pulley to fit upon the round surface of the wooden molding upon the rails.

The first iron rails that we find any written account of were used at Whitehaven. They were cast-iron moldings, similar in shape to the wooden molding just described, and, like them, they were spiked down upon the wooden rail to receive the weight and pressure of the hollowed-out wheel, which, pressing entirely upon the molding of wood, soon rendered it unfit for use. This iron substitute was a wonderful saving in this respect.

Thirty years after, in 1767, five or six tons of the same description of rails were cast at the Coalbrook Dale Ironworks, at Shropshire. St. Froud, a French traveler, describes these roads as being far superior to all other kinds of roads; that one horse, with perfect ease, could draw a wagon loaded with five or six hundred bushels of coal.

In 1776, the first iron rails we have any written account of were cast with a perpendicular ledge upon the outer side, in order to keep the wheels from running off the track, and after a while the ledge was changed to the inner side of the rail.

A railway of this kind was laid down at the Duke of Norfolk's colliery, near Sheffield. The road was torn up and destroyed by the laboring men of the colliery in a riot, and Mr. Curr, its builder and projector, had to save his life by concealing himself in a wood three days and nights to escape the fury of the excited rioters.

Objections were soon discovered in rails with flanges either on the outside or inside, from their liability to obstruction by stones or dirt, which would impede the progress and endanger the safety of the carriages. A great step in advance was made in 1789, by William Jessop, in the construction of a railway in Lough borough, in Leicestershire, with the first cast-iron edge rail, with flanges cast upon the wheels, instead of upon the rail, as had been done a short time before. In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, in Derbyshire, introduced stone props, instead of timber, for supporting the ends or joinings of the rails. Taking the name from the projector, this kind of road was distinguished as the Outram road, and since that time, for brevity, all roads of this kind are called Tram roads; as this plan was afterward applied to wooden roads, where long stringers were used, with the iron molding as before described, and in our time the flat iron bar nailed upon the stringers, these roads are all a familiarly known as Tram-roads. Edge rails, as made by Jessop, were laid down in 1801, at the slate-quarry of Lord Penrhyn. The tire of the wheel was hollowed out to fit the projecting curve of the edged rail, but as the fit became soon too tight by wear, it was afterwards changed to a flat surface and rim of the wheel, and a flange around each a edge of it. So great was this last improvement, that it was found that ten horses would do the work that had employed four hundred to do upon common roads. Edge rails were soon after introduced at the collieries in England. They were made thin at the base and spread in thickness at the top. These rails, introduced in 1808, continued in use until 1820, when the machinery was invented for rolling iron into suitable shapes for rails. This was a great improvement, for, as cast-iron rails could only be made three or four feet-long, requiring frequent joints, the material was more liable and subject to break, especially with heavy weights passing over it.

Up to this time the motive power was the horse. Many projects and schemes were talked of and proposed for propelling the wagons. Sails were suggested, and various other means were experimented upon, and speedily abandoned, but steam was the most favored, yet how to apply it was to be found out.

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