The road to Ellicott's Mills was opened on May 24, 1830. Trains of cars like the above were called brigades, and were continued until Ross Winans, Esq., placed upon the track the first eight-wheel car ever built for passengers, and called it by the appropriate name of "Columbus." This car was a large box, such as any carpenter could make; it had a truck of four wheels at either end, the same as the eight-wheel cars of the present time; it also had seats on the top, like the other cars hitherto used, which were reached by a ladder at one of the corners. This was followed by several odd-shaped contrivances; one was nicknamed the " Sea-serpent," another was known by the sobriquet of the "Dromedary;" next came the Winchester pattern; and this was followed by the "Washington," each an improvement on its predecessor. The latter resembled three coach bodies combined in one, and divided in the interior into three separate apartments, and entered by doors on each side of each apartment. The author remembers well, as if but yesterday, riding in cars of this construction, in October, 1833, upon the railroad between South Amboy and Bordentown, which connected by steamboats both with New York and Philadelphia. As the passengers landed and approached the cars to take their seats, each car appeared surmounted with the letter A, B. C:, etc., in order, and each apartment was numbered 1, 2, or 3. Thus the passenger, on examining the ticket furnished to him on the steamboat, entered the car and apartment designated thereon. These carriages continued on all the roads then operating between the principal cities—as Boston and Providence, Philadelphia and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and Baltimore and Washington—until the eight-wheel passenger car was brought into use, with the passage-way the entire length between the seats, which were placed on the sides, as at present.

When the design for this style of car came before the board of directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, there was quite a discussion whether there should be an aisle in them, with entrances at each end, and seats as at present, or whether the cars should be in compartments, with entrances at the sides, with a ledge outside for the conductor; and one of the arguments against the aisle, verified by the result, as we know, was the apprehension that it would often be one long spittoon! The possibility of this was admitted; but other considerations prevailed in favor of the aisle, which has continued to the present day.

Horatio Allen, Esq., in one of his letters to the author, once said, in alluding to the improvements in every department of railroad machinery, locomotives, cars, etc.:

"It is generally believed that the railroad system was imported into this country from England, full grown, but such is not the case. This will be exemplified in no better instance than the fact that in September, 1832, steel springs were first placed upon the locomotive 'York' and tender, as an experiment only, and they demonstrated their utility and necessity in regulating the motion and greatly diminishing the jar and consequent injury to the road. This also suggested the propriety of making a further experiment, by placing some of the burden-cars on springs, by which it was found that they admitted of one-third more loading, without any increase of the size to the road or car."

Two years earlier than this, however, other and important improvements had been made. One of the great desideratums in the beginning of railroad enterprise in this country, and to which no example could be applied, was a plan to reduce the large amount of friction.

In the early period of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, when no one dreamed of steam, horses were expected to do the work, and to reduce the friction of the axles in the boxes was the object to be achieved. In this extremity, Ross Winans, Esq., now living, a venerable citizen of Baltimore, came to the rescue with his inventive genius. Dr. William Howard, an accomplished and scientific gentleman, had already patented the application of the ordinary friction-wheel to a car, where the main journal revolved on the exterior periphery; but Mr. Winans suspended his wheel by a projecting flange, on the interior periphery of which the main axle revolved. This was the new plus ultra of the friction-wheel, and Mr. Winans became immortalized. B. H. Latrobe, Esq., describes a scene in one of the upper rooms of the Baltimore Exchange, where the venerable Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, who was the great man, on all important occasions, was seated in a little railroad car, drawn by a small weight attached to a string passing over a pulley and dropping into the hall below. Around him were all the prominent men of Baltimore; all were as much pleased as children with a new toy. In fact, there was a verdant freshness about all railroad objects in those days which it is wonderful to conceive in this period of advance and improvement.

Not only was friction sought to be avoided, but all sorts of experiments were tried, to improve the road.* To ride in a railroad-car, in those days, was literally to go "thundering" along. The roll of the wheel was hammering the iron rails out of existence. When this became known, after tens of thousands of dollars had been thrown away, one of the directors, a man, too, of general information, proposed to lay a thin slab of lead between the iron and the stone, to relieve the concussion. Luckily, this costly experiment, which would have furnished the sportsmen of the interior with slugs and bullets without cost, was not carried into effect. We only mention this now, to show how crude were the notions of the wisest men, touching railroads in their infancy, in this country, and to indicate the obstacles our forefathers had to contend with in the early days of their construction. With no example before them to follow, with no experience before them to govern, every thing had to be tested by actual experiment.

* Iron strips were laid, for miles and miles, on stone curbs, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The first locomotive ever built in the United States was constructed to determine a principle, at that early period, susceptible of a great diversity of opinions, even among the engineers and scientific men of that day, viz. the ability of a locomotive to keep upon the track in running a curve. When steam made its appearance on the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, in England, it attracted much attention in this country, and the question of its early adoption became the subject of a great deal of speculation and argument. There was this difficulty in the way of introducing an English engine upon an American road: In England the roads were virtually straight, or with very long curves; but in America they were full of curves, sometimes of as small a radius as two hundred feet. There was not capital enough in the United States applicable to railroad purposes, to justify engineers in setting Nature at defiance in their construction. If a tunnel through a spur could be saved, in an American railroad, by a track round it, the tunnel would be avoided, and a circuitous route adopted, although the distance was increased for miles in consequence; so, if embankments could be saved by heading valleys in place of crossing them, it was done. This led to sharp curves upon the American roads, where there would be straight lines in England.

No better illustration of this is to be seen than near the Relay House, or Washington Junction, of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, where the curve, as the road turned into the gorge of the Patapsco, was originally located, with less than three hundred feet radius, to avoid the necessity of the cut that has since been made through the rocky northern jaw of the gorge. A tunnel, too, is now cut at the Point of Rocks, through the hard intractable material which is there met with, in a spur.

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