The concept of wagons drawn over rails, usually wooden stringers, was applied in European collieries for several hundred years prior to the invention of the steam locomotive. In the United States, the early part of the nineteenth century saw the installation of several “rail roads.” One of these was the “Granite Railway,” a horse-drawn railroad built to haul granite used for the construction of the Bunker Hill monument from a quarry in West Quincy to a wharf on the Neponset River from which it could be lightered to Boston. But even this road, which was opened in October 1826, was predated by so-called “railtracks.” Coincidentally, one of these, on the estate of the artist John S. Copley at Beacon Hill in Boston, was built in 1800 to carry earth removed from the site of his dwelling to the shoreline marshes below. Another, on the same hill, was operated by Silas Whitney in 1807. A short railtrack was built in Pennsylvania in 1809 to carry quarry stone, and another was installed to carry ice from the Delaware River. Others, geographically diverse, were also built. These localized “rail roads” or tramways, employing animal-or humandrawn cars, were crude affairs that cannot be considered as true railroads in the modern sense because they lacked an essential defining element, namely, a mobile, mechanical means of locomotion. The steam engine provided the missing element, although not for some time after its invention. (Electric locomotives, which appeared later, can be considered a mechanical means of locomotion in the sense that an electric motor is a machine.) The world's first public railroad, the Stockton and Darlington Railway in England, combined the three necessary elements—rails, wagons, and a steam locomotive—for the first time in 1825.1 As an indication of the prejudice that existed, in the same year the English Quarterly Review pontificated thus:
We scout the idea of a railroad as impracticable! What
can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than
the prospects held out of locomotives travelling
twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon ex-
pect the people … to suffer themselves to be fired
off on … “a” rocket, as to put themselves at the
mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate.2
Before the railroad beginnings could be developed into a versatile transport system connecting centers of population or industry, the ability to haul goods or passengers over relatively long distances reliably, faster, and more economically than the prevailing road or water transport network had to be proven. In the United States, early in the nineteenth century, railroads were often mentioned as possible links between cities or regions, but in any competition for investment dollars they were measured against formidable rivals—canals, packet and stage lines, and turnpike companies. These competitors were popular, proven, relatively safe, understandable systems with powerful supporters. In fact, economic support for canals continued even after the railroad became a proven and reliable means of transportation. In New York State, where the Erie Canal was a large factor in the transport of goods between Albany and Buffalo, a protective tariff was established in the form of a tax on freight shipped by railroad over any portion of the distance served by the canal, even in the five months of winter when the canal was closed. This tax, which was levied as late as 1850, could amount to as much as 25 percent of the cost of moving the goods. In general, water transportation on canals, rivers, and along the coast, remained the most important transport medium until midcentury. Until that time, most railroads were local ventures, connecting centers of commerce to each other or to a port from which people and goods would continue their journey by ship.3
The railroad locomotive, on the other hand, was newly invented, poorly understood (for it represented a high degree of technical sophistica
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Publication information: Book title: Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century. Volume: 1. Contributors: Anthony J. Bianculli - Author. Publisher: University of Delaware Press. Place of publication: Newark, DE. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 15.
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