Railroad History

Its all about the rails


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Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb Rail Steam Engine

In the 1820s the port of Baltimore was in danger. The threat came from the newly opened Erie Canal (see "Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836") and the proposed construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that would parallel the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. These new water routes promised to provide a commercial gateway to the West that would bypass Baltimore's thriving harbor and potentially hurl the city into an economic abyss. Something had to be done.

The local entrepreneurs looked across the Atlantic to England and found an answer in the newly developed railroad. In 1828, the Maryland syndicate, led by Charles Carroll - a signer of the Declaration of Independence - broke ground for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The railroad's objective was to connect Baltimore with the Ohio River and the West. Initially, the railroad's power was to be provided by horses. However, it soon became obvious that animal muscle was no match for the long distances and mountainous terrain that would have to be traveled. The solution lay with the steam engine.

By 1830, the B&O Railroad had extended its track from Baltimore to the village of Ellicott's Mills thirteen miles to the west. The railroad was also ready to test its first steam engine - an American-made locomotive engineered by Peter Cooper of New York.

It was a bright summer's day and full of promise. Syndicate members and friends piled into an open car pulled by a diminutive steam locomotive appropriately named the Tom Thumb with its inventor at the controls. Passengers thrilled at the heart-pumping sensation of traveling at the then un-heard speed of 18 mph. The outbound journey took less than an hour. On the return trip, an impromptu race with a horse-drawn car developed. The locomotive came out the loser. It was an inauspicious beginning. However, within a few years the railroad would become the dominate form of long-distance transportation and relegate the canals to the dustbin of commercial history.