If the American of today could transport himself to one of the first railroad lines built in the United States it is not unlikely that he would side with the canal enthusiast in his argument. The rough pictures which accompany most accounts of early railroad days, showing a train of omnibus-like carriages pulled by a locomotive with upright boiler, really represent a somewhat advanced stage of development. Though Stephenson had demonstrated the practicability of the locomotive in 1814 and although the American, John Stevens, had constructed one in 1826 which had demonstrated its ability to take a curve, local prejudice against this innovation continued strong. The farmers asserted that the sparks set fire to their hayricks and barns and that the noise frightened their hens so that they would not lay and their cows so that they could not give milk.
On the earliest railroads, therefore, almost any other method of propulsion was preferred. Horses and dogs were used, winches turned by men were occasionally installed, and in some cases, cars were even fitted with sails.
Of all these methods, the horse was the most popular: he sent out no sparks, he carried his own fuel, he made little noise, and he would not explode. His only failing was that he would leave the track, and to remedy this defect the early railroad builders hit upon a happy device. Sometimes they would fix a treadmill inside the car; two horses would patiently propel the caravan, the seats for passengers being arranged on either side. So unformed was the prevalent conception of the ultimate function of the railroad, and so pronounced was the fear of monopoly that, on certain lines, the roadbed was laid as a state enterprise and the users furnished their own cars, just as the individual owners of towboats did on the canals. The drivers, however, were an exceedingly rough lot; no schedules were observed and as the first lines had only single tracks and infrequent turnouts when the opposing sides would meet each other coming and going, precedence was usually awarded to the side which had the stronger arm. The roadbed showed little improvement over the mine tramways of the eighteenth century, and the rails were only long wooden stringers with strap iron nailed on top. So undeveloped were the resources of the country that the builders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 petitioned Congress to remit the duty on the iron which it was compelled to import from England. The trains consisted of a string of little cars, with the baggage piled on the roof, and when they reached a hill they sometimes had to be pulled up the inclined plane by a rope. Yet the traveling in these earliest days was probably more comfortable than in those which immediately followed the general adoption of locomotives. When, five or ten years later, the advantages of mechanical as opposed to animal traction caused engines to be introduced extensively, the passengers behind them rode through the constant smoke and hot cinders that made railway travel an incessant torture.
Yet the railroad speedily demonstrated its practical value; many of the first lines were extremely profitable, and the hostility with which they had been first received soon changed to an enthusiasm which was just as unreasoning. The speculative craze which invariably follows a new discovery swept over the country in the thirties and the forties and manifested itself most unfortunately in the new Western States–Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. Here, bonfires and public meetings whipped up the zeal; people believed that railroads would not only immediately open the wilderness and pay the interest on the bonds issued to construct them, but that they would become a source Of revenue to sadly depleted state treasuries.
Much has been heard of government ownership in recent years; yet it is nothing particularly new, for many of the early railroads in these new Western States were built as government enterprises, with results which were frequently disastrous. This mania, with the land speculation accompanying it, was largely responsible for the panic of 1837 and led to that repudiation of debts in certain States which for so many years gave American investments an evil reputation abroad.
In the more settled parts of the country, however, railroad building had comparatively a more solid foundation. Yet the railroad map of the forties indicates that railroad building in this early period was incoherent and haphazard.
Practically everywhere the railroad was an individual enterprise; the builders had no further conception of it than as a line connecting two given points usually a short distance apart. The roads of those days began anywhere and ended almost anywhere. A few miles of iron rail connected Albany and Schenectady.
There was a road from Hartford to New Haven, but there was none from New Haven to New York. A line connected Philadelphia with Columbia; Baltimore had a road to Washington; Charleston, South Carolina, had a similar contact with Hamburg in the same State. By 1842, New York State, from Albany to Buffalo, possessed several disconnected stretches of railroad. It was not until 1836, when work was begun on the Erie Railroad, that a plan was adopted for a single line reaching several hundred miles from an obvious point, such as New York, to an obvious destination, such as Lake Erie. Even then a few farsighted men could foresee the day when the railroad train would cross the plains and the Rockies and link the Atlantic and the Pacific. Yet, in 1850 nearly all the railroads in the United States lay east of the Mississippi River, and all of them, even when they were physically mere extensions of one another, were separately owned and separately managed.
Successful as many of the railroads were, they had hardly yet established themselves as the one preeminent means of transportation. The canal had lost in the struggle for supremacy, but certain of these constructed waterways, particularly the Erie, were flourishing with little-diminished vigor. The river steamboat had enjoyed a development in the first few decades of the nineteenth century almost as great as that of the railroad itself. The Mississippi River was the great natural highway for the products and the passenger traffic of the South Central States; it had made New Orleans one of the largest and most flourishing cities in the country; and certainly the rich cotton planter of the fifties would have smiled at any suggestion that the “floating palaces” which plied this mighty stream would ever surrender their preeminence to the rusty and struggling railroads which wound along its banks.
This period, which may be taken as the first in American railroad development, ended about the middle of the century. It was an age of great progress but not of absolutely assured success. A few lines earned handsome profits, but in the main, the railroad business was not favorably regarded and railroad investments everywhere were held in suspicion. The condition that prevailed in many railroads is illustrated by the fact that the directors of the Michigan and Southern, when they held their annual meeting in 1853, had to borrow chairs from an adjoining office as the sheriff had walked away with their own for debt. Even a railroad with such a territory as the Hudson River Valley, and extending from New York to Albany existed in a state of chronic dilapidation; and the New York and Harlem, which had an entrance into New York City as an asset of incalculable value, was looked upon merely as a vehicle for Wall Street speculation.