THE first railroad built in the United States was three miles in length, extending from the granite-quarries of Quincy, Massachusetts, to the Neponset River. This road was commenced in 1826, and completed in 1827. It was built with granite sleepers, seven and a half feet long, laid eight feet apart. The rails, five feet apart, were of pine, a foot deep, covered with an oak plate, and these with flat bars of iron.

The second railroad was commenced in January, 1827, and completed in May of the same year, extending from the coal-mines in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, to the Lehigh River, a distance of nine miles. From the summit of the road, and within half a mile of the mines, the descent by a plane was nine hundred and eighty-two feet, inclined two hundred and seventy-five feet to the river, and thence seventy-five feet in a shoot to the spot where the cars were discharged into the boats. The cars descended by gravity with the loaded wagons, and were drawn up again by mules. The rails of the road were of timber, laid on wooden sleepers, and strapped with fiat iron bars.

In 1828 the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company constructed a railroad from their coal-mines to Honesdale, the termination of their canal. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the South Carolina Railroad were also commenced in the same year.

It is said that at the time (1812) when De Witt Clinton was urging the passage, through the Legislature of New York, of the act for the construction of the Erie Canal, Colonel Stevens, of Hoboken, astonished that body by announcing that he could build a railroad at a much less cost than the proposed canal, and on which the transportation, by means of cars drawn by steam locomotives, could be carried on at a considerably cheaper rate, and at a much higher degree of speed than was possible on any canal. He laid before them the results of his numerous and long-continued researches, but his enemies openly laughed at him, and called him a maniac, and even some of his best friends regarded him as a man who had lost himself in experimental science. Had he lived in the days of poor Solomon de Cause or of Friar Bacon, he would probably, like those eminent men, have been consigned to a dungeon. The nineteenth century contented itself with sneering at him as a visionary, and refused to entertain his propositions. His distinguished, wise, and sensible friend, Chancellor Livingston, in a letter addressed to Stevens, dated at Albany, March 20, 1811, only a year before, expresses his opinion of the railroad locomotive schemes of which his friend was so strenuous an advocate. The chancellor thus writes:

"I had before read of your very ingenious proposition as to railway communication. I fear, however, on mature reflection, that they will be liable to serious objections, and ultimately prove more expensive than a canal. They must be double, so as to prevent the danger of two such heavy bodies meeting. The wall on which they are placed must be at least four feet below the surface, to avoid frost, and three feet above, to avoid snow, and must be clasped with iron, and even then would hardly sustain so heavy a weight as you propose moving at the rate of four miles an hour on wheels. As to wood, it would not last a week. They must be covered with iron, and that, too, very thick and strong. The means of stopping these heavy carriages without a great shock, and of preventing them from running on each other—for there would be many running on the road at once—would be very difficult. In case of accidental stops or necessary stays to take wood or water, etc., many accidents would happen. The carriage of condensing water would be very troublesome. Upon the whole, I fear the expense would be much greater than that of canals, without being so convenient."

And yet, only fourteen years afterward, such was the rapid development of the steam locomotive, the Legislature of the same State granted a charter incorporating the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, a line, seventeen miles long, running between Albany and Schenectady; and there are now no less than three thousand one hundred and ninety-five miles of railway in the State of New York alone.

Next to Colonel Stevens, and as early as 1819, we have in the United States another advocate for railroads, with steam locomotion. We learn, by an extract from the current news of that day, copied from a literary paper called The Villager, that the following memorial was presented to Congress at the previous session, which was referred to the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures. The following is a copy of the document:

"The memorial of Benjamin Dearborn, of Boston, respectfully represents that he has devised in theory a mode of propelling wheel-carriages in a manner probably unknown in any country; and has perfectly satisfied his own mind of the practicability of conveying mails and passengers with such celerity as has never before been accomplished, and with complete security from robberies on the highway.

"For obtaining these results, he relies on carriages propelled by steam, on level railroads, and contemplates that they be furnished with accommodations for passengers to take their meals and their rest during the passage, as in packets; that they be sufficiently high for persons to walk in without stooping, and so capacious as to accommodate twenty, thirty, or more passengers, with their baggage.

"The inequalities of the earth's surface will require levels of various elevations in the railroads; and your memorialist has devised means which he believes will be completely effectual for lifting the carriage, by the inherent power of its machinery, from one level to another, as also for the passage of carriages by each other, on the same road; and he feels confident that whenever such an establishment shall be advanced to its most improved state, the carriages will move with a rapidity at least equal to a mile in three minutes.

"Protection from the attacks of assailants will be insured; not only by the celerity of the movement, but by weapons of defense belonging to the carriage, and always kept ready in it to be wielded by the number of passengers constantly traveling in this spacious vehicle, where they would have liberty to stand erect, and to exercise their arms in their own defense.

"The practicability of running steam-carriages on the common road was long since advocated in a publication, by that ingenious and useful citizen, Oliver Evans: your memorialist, therefore, does not assume the merit of originating the idea of steam-carriages, but only of modifying the system in such a manner as to produce the results here stated, which could not be effected on a common road.

"Relying upon the candor of the national council, this memorial is laid before them with the desire that ingenious and scientific artists, in the different sections of our country may be consulted, by direction of Congress, on the probability of accomplishing the purposes here anticipated; and that an experiment be made, if sanctioned by their favorable opinions; for if the design can be put into successful operation by the Government, a great revenue would eventually be derived from the establishment, besides the advantages before enumerated."

We never have heard that any report was made by the committee respecting it; yet all these results have been signally realized within a little more than a third of a century.

Table of Contents | Antebellum Page | Site Contents

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery