|This Week in History
January 10-16, 1853
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Reaches the Ohio River at Wheeling
It was with a great sense of triumph that the citizens of Wheeling on the Ohio River celebrated the arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on Jan. 12, 1853. It had been a long, 25-year battle against mountainous terrain and a major national depression, but there was finally a railroad line that linked Baltimore and Washington, D.C. with the Ohio, and to the West ran a series of railroads that provided access to Chicago and the Mississippi. Wheeling, already known as the "Nail City," was eager to begin manufacturing rails and other supplies for the railroad in her many iron foundries.
In 1818, the National Road had reached Wheeling, a strategic location which had been a major river crossing point used by the Indians, due to the large island which divided the broad Ohio into two narrow sections. George Washington, searching for the easiest passage to the Ohio Valley, had invested in lands in the area and encouraged settlers to move there. Washington was familiar with ironmaking through his father's work with the Principio Iron Works, and encouraged the building of iron forges in each new settlement.
The Conestoga Wagons which travelled the new National Road carried both passengers and produce, but as both agriculture and manufacturing grew, there was a need for faster transportation which could carry heavier loads. On July 4, 1828, two different modes of transportation began a race from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio. The first was the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, whose cornerstone was laid by President John Quincy Adams. It was to be the fulfillment of Washington's Potomac Canal project to build a transportation corridor along the Potomac River and through the mountains.
The second form of infrastructure was the newly developed railroad. In February of 1825, inventor John Stevens had constructed a half-mile circular track on his land in Hoboken, New Jersey, and whisked his guests around it at six miles an hour on a railroad car powered by a steam engine. The Stockton & Darlington Railroad in England ran its first demonstration in September of that same year. Two years later, a group of Baltimoreans sponsored a bill in the Maryland Legislature authorizing a railroad line to be built from Baltimore to Wheeling.
Laying the Cornerstone
The ceremony laying the cornerstone for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad attracted tens of thousands of people. The celebration began with a grand parade, which featured 5,000 participants. In addition to Revolutionary War veterans and members of Congress, the parade contained representatives of almost all the occupations of the areafarmers, carpenters, millers, bakers, blacksmiths, weavers, stonecutters, printers, steam-engine makers, sailmakers, and ship captains. Many of the trades were highlighted on floats. For example, dairy workers churned butter, blacksmiths pounded anvils, and the printers' float had a press which turned out copies of the Declaration of Independence.
The cornerstone was dedicated by 91-year-old Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll's presence at the dedication also had another significance: His father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, had worked with the Principio Ironworks in colonial days, as had George Washington's father. Charles Carroll of Carrollton had also invested heavily in iron production in Maryland, utilizing ore from the Arundel Formation, which runs southwest from Baltimore into Virginia. The forges and iron foundries near this formation would be used to supply the rails and cars for the new railroad.
The stone which Carroll dedicated that day said that the new railroad would perpetuate the "happy Union of these Confederated States." The Baltimore Gazette reported that the projected railroad would "make the East and the West as one household, in the facilities of intercourse and the feeling of mutual affection."
In addition to the investments by private individuals, the City of Baltimore, the State of Maryland, and later the state of Virginia also contributed to the railroad's funds. A report written just before the Civil War explained how these investors viewed the functions of infrastructure such as railroads: "The great object of the companies has not been so much to derive a direct profit from the investment, as to cause the construction of a highway, which should by its operation increase business, enhance the value of property, and swell the floating capital of the country by making available considerable productions of industry, which before were not marketable, since the influence of a railroad in a new district is perhaps, if not to create, at least to bring into the general stock more capital than is absorbed in its construction.
"Thus in the last twenty-five years, a thousand millions of dollars have been spent in the construction of roads, and yet capital is proportionally more abundant now than before this vast expenditure, and land has, in railroad localities, increased by a money value greater than the cost of the roads! We have seen that before the operation of canals, land transportation was, and is now, remote from these works, one cent per mile per hundred. If a barrel of flour is then worth in market five dollars, a transportation of 300 miles would cost more than its whole value; but by rail it may be carried from Cincinnati to New York for one dollar. Thus railroads give circulation to all the surplus capital that is created by labor within their circle. It is on this principle that may be explained the immense prosperity that has been seen to attend the enormous expenditure for railroads, particularly during the last ten years."
The Baltimore & Ohio was authorized to raise five million dollars in capital, and could begin work with one million. In the summer of 1828 it employed several officers from the U.S. Army's Topographical Corps to map out part of the road. Then members of the Army Corps of Engineers were loaned to the company to ensure successful construction. The first section was completed to Ellicott's Mills, and was extended to Point of Rocks in 1832. But work was halted for several years at the gorge where the Shenandoah and Potomac meet, for both the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad claimed the narrow space between the cliffs and the waters of the Potomac.
Peter Cooper's 'Tom Thumb'
During the period of negotiations, the railroad extended a branch line to Washington, D.C., which was opened on Aug. 25, 1835. But up to this time, the railroad cars had been pulled by horses. The company wanted to switch to steam locomotives, but there were none that could handle the sharp curves necessary to navigate the hilly Potomac country. In stepped Peter Cooper, the New York manufacturer and inventor, who put together the little locomotive "Tom Thumb" which made its first successful run in August of 1830. Due to pressure from the stagecoach companies, his locomotive ran a famous race, memorialized in a print by Currier & Ives, with a horse-drawn car. Due to the temporary failure of the engine's blowing device, the horse won.
When the "Tom Thumb" was later retired from service, The B&O offered a prize of $4,000 for a locomotive of American manufacture which would burn coal, not wood. Phineas Davis of York, Pennsylvania won the prize with an engine that ran 15 miles per hour on short curves and 30 miles per hour on a straight line. By 1834, the railroad had seven locomotives, 34 passenger cars, and 1,000 freight cars which ran as far as Harper's Ferry.
The state of Maryland then subscribed over $3 million for the extension to Wheeling, and in 1830, the state of Virginia, over which the last part of the route would run, subscribed over $1 million. The railroad made it to Cumberland in 1842, but the Panic of 1837 had so deranged the American economy that construction of both the canal and railroad was temporarily halted. The C&O Canal stopped at Cumberland and never succeeded in passing the Allegheny Front. The B&O Railroad eventually bought the C&O and ran it, and traffic on the waterway lasted into the 1930s.
But the B&O was enabled to reach the Ohio when state bonds were granted to the company in 1849, and Benjamin Latrobe, the son of the architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, succeeded to the post of chief engineer. Latrobe directed a working team of 5,000 workers and 1,250 horses as the track climbed the forbidding Alleghenies. The road crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and then, for four miles, it clung high to the side of a chasm, supported by masonry walls. Seven miles further west, Latrobe and his men had to construct a tunnel 4,100 feet long. To bring the railroad into Fairmont, they had to construct an iron bridge 650 feet long.
Latrobe designed feats of railroad engineering never achieved before, and his crew laid the final rails into Wheeling on Christmas Eve of 1852. Then the line had to be checked before the heavy trains bearing the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the B&O officials, and other dignitaries could travel to Wheeling. The actual welcoming celebration therefore took place on Jan. 12, 1853. The Wheeling Intelligencer wrote that "Yesterday morning dawned upon thousands who had come by steamboats, by coaches, on horses and on foot, from near and far, to participate in the commemoration of one of the greatest works of the agethe completion of the unbroken iron link connecting the Chesapeake with the waters of the Ohio."
The Pennsylvania Railroad had been completed to Pittsburgh on Dec. 10, but its trains had been pulled by cable over the Alleghenies by the state-owned Portage Inclines, and it would take another year before that railroad ran completely on rails. In 1853, the same year the B&O reached Wheeling, the New York Central Railroad consolidated all the small railroads which followed the general course of the Erie Canal, thus providing a direct route from Albany to Buffalo. By 1860, it was possible to travel from Maine to New Orleans by railroad. The railroad grid of the Eastern states almost approximated the easy city-to-city travel of the early and middle 20th Century, until deregulation destroyed a network which had been so beneficially and painstakingly built.