Trains Arrive in America - dummies

By Steve Wiegand

On September 18, 1830, a nine-mile race on the outskirts of Baltimore pitted a horse pulling a carriage against a noisy contraption on wooden wheels called a steam locomotive engine. The horse won after the engine broke down, but it was a relatively short-lived victory for Old Paint, because the railroad had arrived in America.

Although trains had been operating in England for some years, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) line’s Tom Thumb was the first in the United States. By the end of 1830, the B&O had carried 80,000 passengers along a 13-mile track.

In South Carolina, a 136-mile line between Charleston and Hamburg opened in 1833. By 1840, 409 railroads had laid 3,300 miles of track, and by 1860, America had close to 30,000 miles of rail.

Early trains had their flaws. Sparks caused fires along the tracks and in the rail cars, and the rails themselves had a nasty habit of coming up through the bottoms of the cars. Trains were also subject to the occasional explosion, which hardly ever happened with horses.

But trains had an enormous impact. The demands for labor to build tracks encouraged immigration, and the demand for capital to finance the lines attracted foreign investment. The ability to transport large amounts of goods and agricultural products opened new markets and linked old ones. Communications improved vastly, and going from here to there got a whole lot easier.

Even philosopher Henry David Thoreau conceded,

“When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort, like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet and breathing fire and smoke … it seems the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.”