National Railroad Museum
Green Bay, Wisconsin

The following text has been prepared by the National Railroad Museum Staff as an education packet for use by school teachers who are planning field trips to the museum and/or who wish to prepare lesson plans about railroad history. Permission is hereby granted to make copies of this document for that eduicational purpose only. No other rights are granted for any other purpose. Copyright, 1999, National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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Like so much of present day society, the railroad, as we know it, was a product of the industrial revolution. However, the idea of a special "track" for hauling goods dates back about 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks built roads paved with stone blocks that had grooves cut in them. Wagons that had wheels the widths of the grooves were pulled over the roads by horses. The grooves kept the wagons on the road, and the stone paving was much smoother than dirt roads so heavier loads could be handled. These ideas were the beginnings of modern railroading.

By about 1550, German miners had adopted the idea of using a guided wagon to haul coal, iron, silver and lead from the mines. Instead of grooves, the miners used wooden rails that were raised slightly above the ground. Small wooden carts full of ore were pushed out of the mines by hand. The wheels of the carts had flanges, a raised inside edge, which kept the wheels on the track and guided the cart around the curves.


Figure 1
Horse drawn rail cart and wooden wheel with a flange.

By the early 1700’s iron was replacing wood for the rails and wheels on the carts. By 1800 tramways were in widespread use throughout Europe. There were also one or two examples in America. Even so, tramways had limited capacity and only a few carts could be handled at a time. The most efficient tramways were designed to allow loaded carts to roll downhill from the mine. They were assisted by gravity. A man rode in each cart and applied a brake to stop the carts. Empty carts were then pulled back uphill by horses.


England was the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the 1700's. This revolution depended on a source of power for the new machines being developed. Originally water power was used, but as more power was needed new sources became necessary. The most efficient source of power was steam.

In 1705, Thomas Newcomen invented a steam powered pump for removing water from mines. In 1763 James Watt greatly improved Newcomen’s engine. Today, James Watt is often referred to as the father of the steam engine.


One day in 1803, a man named Samuel Homfray and several companions were watching a horse pull three loaded wagons along a tramway in Wales. Talk turned from the quality of the horse to speculation about the suitability of steam for the same purpose. Homfray bet the others 1000 guineas ($5,250) that a steam powered vehicle could pull 10 tons of iron over the nine miles of the Pen-y-Darran tram line. They accepted.

Homfray turned to Richard Trevithick to develop that vehicle. Trevithick already had a reputation for building reliable steam engines, and he did not disappoint Homfray. On February 22, 1804, the world’s first steam locomotive hauled a load of 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five extra wagons the 9 miles between the ironworks at Pen-y-Darron and the town of Merthyr Tydfil. It took about two hours.

Trevithick’s locomotive worked. It showed that smooth metal wheels could pull a great deal of weight over equally smooth rails. But the locomotive was not really practical, and it was never used again. Nonetheless, Trevithick’s locomotive contained several inventions that were still in use 150 years later.


By 1813, the three elements for the railroad were in place:

  1. The idea for a permanent roadbed made of smooth iron rails;
  2. Flanged wheels to keep the train on the tracks;
  3. A practical steam locomotive.

Railroads were still being used for mines, but it was only a matter of time before the idea for using trains to transport passengers and other materials spread.

English inventors kept spreading the idea of railroads into other areas. They used trains to transport goods and moved on to carrying people. In September of 1825, the world's first true railroad traveled 9 miles. The Stockton & Darlington was designed to carry goods and passengers on regular schedules. In a little over an hour, it pulled six loaded coal cars and 21 passenger cars with 450 passengers.



Figure 2
Railroads of the United States in 1890.

Historians sometimes suggest that the railroad somehow sprang up almost magically, simply because it was a fascinating new machine. In reality it was a specific response to a specific economic need.

Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in Baltimore, Maryland. By 1825, Baltimore was in fierce competition with Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Boston. All of these places were seaports and each struggled with the others for the traffic moving to and from the rapidly expanding western territories.

New York had the advantage of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. It linked New York with Lake Erie at Buffalo New York, which opened its port to the remainder of the Great Lakes. Philadelphia was also developing an extensive canal and roadway system. Baltimore was in a different situation. The land to the west was too rough for canals. The National Road that stretched to the west was slow and often difficult to travel because of poor weather conditions. Overland freight rates were expensive and could not compete with the canals.

The leading businessmen of Baltimore felt that unless they could develop a way of competing with the Erie Canal, Baltimore would soon be an unimportant port. A group of men was sent to England to study the growing rail network. The reports they brought back were favorable. On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The first 13 miles from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills were completed by 1830. Horse drawn carts moved freight and passengers over the line. Peter Cooper, a wealthy man, often watched the carts. He figured there should be an easier way and wanted to use steam power.

However, the only steam locomotives came from Britain. These were too heavy and could not operate on the sharp curves of the B&O’s track. Cooper set out to prove that steam power would cause the B&O to grow. He constructed a smaller locomotive. Because of its size, it was nicknamed the "Tom Thumb."

On August 25, 1830, the "Tom Thumb" pulled a train of B&O officials from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills. A race between "Tom Thumb" and a horse took place on the return trip. Although the locomotive lost, the officials became convinced of the usefulness of steam power. They began use of this "new power" on the B&O.

However, there were many who were against rail development. Those who operated stage coaches, taverns, canals, and toll roads and bridges tried to interfere with the progress of railroading. Railroads that ran beside canals had to pay special taxes. A New York town required the train to stop at one end of the town. Passengers had to leave the train and walk to the other side of the town to get on to the next train. There was even a school board in Ohio that labeled the railroad as "a device of Satan to lead immortal souls to hell." Nevertheless, the idea caught on and railroads kept growing.

YEARS OF GROWTH: 1835-1860


In 1830, there were 23 miles of railroad in the United States. By 1840 this had grown to 2,808, and by 1860 there were 30,626 miles. Just eight years after the start of the B&O in 1836, the first track was laid in the State of Michigan. In 1848, the "Pioneer" became the first locomotive to operate west of Chicago (figure 3). In 1853 the first all rail route was opened between Chicago and the East Coast.

The Mississippi River was reached in 1854 and the first railroad bridge crossed the river in 1856. That same year the first railroad was opened on the west coast. It ran from Sacramento to Folsom, California. By 1859, shortly before the start of the Civil War, the first railroad reached the Missouri River and St. Joseph, Missouri.


Figure 3
The Chicago & North Western's Pioneer was the first locomotive in Chicago (1848).

As impressive as numbers are, they do not give a real sense of the impact of railroads on American society. America was fast becoming a nation apart from its European roots, and was developing its own way of doing things. The railroad played a major role in many of those developments.

  1. The railroad changed our perception of time, space and distance. Travel that once took days or weeks could be accomplished in hours. No longer did distance keep people from traveling easily or being able to buy or sell goods in cities far away. People were also able to send and receive information much more quickly.
  2. The railroads were responsible for developing technology that was often used by other industries. The rest of society benefited from railroading advancements, much as modern America has benefited from our space program.
  3. The railroads were the first companies to conduct business on a national scale. Railroads had to control their growing business activities that were often spread over hundreds or even thousands of miles.
  4. The railroads were instrumental in helping to develop safer jobs, higher pay, and better working conditions for all Americans, not just for those working for the railroads. This was done through the development of labor unions.
  5. Settlement of much of the middle and western part of the country was defined by the railroad. This was in contrast to Europe, which was mostly settled prior to the coming of the railroad. In America, the railroad many times made settlement possible.
  6. The railroads offered employment to a large number of immigrants. For many, the railroad was their first job in the New World. The railroads provided them with good jobs and a chance for economic security at a time when they were not accepted in many parts of society. They developed a fierce loyalty to the railroad. It is not uncommon to find families of fifth and sixth generation railroaders. The railroad was a major employer in many communities.
  7. Unlike in Europe, American railroads helped to bring the classes of people together. More than 90% of Americans that traveled by rail in the 1800’s traveled in the same class accommodations. At the same time, however, railroads reflected America’s prejudices. There were separate waiting rooms for men and women and separate facilities for blacks and whites.



With the discovery of gold in California, the nation turned its attention to the far west. A railroad was needed to connect the east coast with the West. In 1854 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who later became President of the Confederacy, sent out survey parties to look for a railroad route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. Five possible routes were examined; one northern, three central and one southern. Davis favored the southern route.

These surveys gave vivid descriptions of the West including observations about plants, animals, weather, land formations, and settlements of native people. The surveyors also located likely routes to the Pacific, both for the original transcontinental route and for the railroad lines that would follow.

But before construction could begin, the slavery question that had been brewing for decades came to a head. The American Civil War (1861-1865) has been called the first railroad war. Battles were fought over rail junctions and repair facilities. The side that could use the railroad most effectively, and keep the other side from its use, had the advantage.

Figure 4
Driving the golden spike to complete
the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

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