Railroad History

Its all about the rails


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steam engine

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.

Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833) was a British inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, England, UK. The son of a mining captain, and born in the mining heartland of Cornwall, Trevithick was immersed in mining and engineering from an early age. He performed poorly in school, but went on to be an early pioneer of steam-powered road and rail transport. His most significant contribution was the development of the first high-pressure steam engine. He also built the first full-scale working railway steam locomotive. The world's first locomotive-hauled railway journey took place on 21 February 1804, when Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

Oliver Evans' Non-condensing High Pressure Stationary Steam Engine

In 1803, visitors to Evans' Philadelphia workshop were witness to a non-condensing high pressure steam-powered engine.

The stationary engine that could drive 12 saws through a hundred feet of marble in a 12 hour period. Unlike the low-pressure steam engines of the day, Evans's machine was portable. A portable engine could power a wagon to transport 100 barrels of flour from Lancaster to Philadelphia in two days instead of three, tripling profits. 

James Watt Steam Engine

Scotsman James Watt built first useful stationary steam engine. Watt truly put all his efforts into the production of the engine and is credited with several patents that improved the steam engine.

Once the engine was completed and proven in the middle of 1777, Beelzebub, as it was affectionately known, was used to pump water out of flooded mines. Over the next four to five years, all the mines in England and Scotland were supplied with Watt's fire engine pump.

The pump was next used to power factories and mills. The first factory engine was supplied to drive a corn mill in 1782.

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