In October of 1603 or 1604 Huntingdon Beaumont built one of the first railways known to history. It was built to serve his coal mine near Nottingham, England. This and other early railways consisted only of rectangular wooden beams "laid end to end over roughly- levelled ground, over which teams of horses drew the loaded waggons."1 The use of wooden rails kept wagons from sinking in the mud and greatly increased the load a given number of horses could pull. Although such rails had doubtless been used earlier to bridge muddy or soft spots in roads, this was one of the first times they were used as part of a permanent transportation system. The railway had been born.
A legal development which complemented these early technological developments was the extension of the power of eminent domain to the railways. The first railways, located in Britain, were owned and operated by coal mines. To operate the railway over property not owned by the coal mine, the railway had to purchase "way-leaves" from the landowners. As the price of coal rose, so did the cost of the way-leaves. The mine owners sought a less costly method for obtaining such privileges. By converting the private railway into a public thoroughfare, the railway--like the canals and turnpikes--could invoke the Crown's power of eminent domain and thereby secure rights of way at a lower cost. In return for this privilege, the companies had to accept a greater degree of governmental regulation, most often in the form of charter restrictions. The result was a dual usage of the railway: used both for the private purposes of the owner company and for public transportation.2
The culmination of these legal and technological developments was the Surrey Iron Railway, opened to the public in May of 1801.3 It was the first purely commercial railway--built solely for public use and not owned by a canal, coal mine, or other interest. Its promoters advertised that "the carriages fit for a railway may also be used in the streets of a town, or on a common highway."4 Individuals could drive their own wagons over the railway upon payment of a toll, and the railways provided an alternative