The History of America’s First Commercial Railroad | History Hit

The History of America’s First Commercial Railroad

On 28 February 1827 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first common-carrier (public use) railroad in the United States when it was chartered by a group of Baltimore businessmen. The railroad was devised to help Baltimore compete with other big American cities for trade.


Map of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1897. Image Credit: Public Domain

Opinions at the time, led by President John Quincy Adams, favoured the construction of canals to provide new transport links. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, linking the Hudson River (and thereby New York City) to the Great Lakes, and a new Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, was also on the horizon.

In 1826, Baltimore businessmen Philip E. Thomas and George Brown travelled to England to examine the concept of a commercial railway. They brought their findings back to America and gathered a group of twenty-five investors from the city.

There were still skeptics who doubted that a steam engine could work along steep, winding grades, but the ‘Tom Thumb’ locomotive, designed by Peter Cooper, put an end to their doubts.

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The new railroad received its charter on 28 February and the new Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company set about planning their route from the port of Baltimore to the Ohio River. Construction began at Baltimore harbour in July 1828.

The first stone was laid during a special ceremony attended by Charles Carroll, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

The Founders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Image Credit: Public Domain

The first 13 miles of line, from Baltimore to Maryland opened in 1830. Peter Cooper’s steam locomotive ran over this line and demonstrated to doubters that steam traction was feasible on the steep, winding grades.

In 1852, the railroad was extended to Wheeling, Virginia reaching a total distance of 379 miles. By 1860s and ’1870s it had already reached Chicago and St. Louis.

While the Railroad did actually go bankrupt in 1896, it was very shortly re-organised and went through a series of inoovations, takeovers and technilogical improvements throughout the 20th century. It was in the 1970’s that the Baltimore and Ohio long-distance passenger trains were discontinued following a takeover of the railroad by Amtrak.

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