In looking for the origin of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, we are carried back as far as the year 1826. At about that period attention was aroused in Baltimore to the fact that the public works of Pennsylvania and the Erie Canal of New York had diverted from Baltimore a large portion of the trade she had built up with the West. It is a well-known fact that long before the steamboat plowed its wake across Lake Erie, or even a stage route existed between Buffalo and the Ohio or Mississippi valleys, emigration and traffic had marked a path across the mountains from Philadelphia and Baltimore to Cincinnati and beyond. To Baltimore, especially, this trade became an important element of prosperity and wealth; but when the Alleghanies were turned by the long circuit of the Lake Shore she lost the greater portion of that commerce, which Philadelphia and New York found and appropriated.

In 1826, Philip E. Thomas, an intelligent Quaker merchant philanthropist, president of the Mechanics Bank of Baltimore, and George Brown—son of the distinguished merchant Alexander Brown—a director in the same institution, took up the subject for careful consideration. The result of their conferences and deliberations was the conviction that, unless early and adequate means could be devised to recover this trade, it would be ultimately lost to their city forever.

Previous to this time no railroad had been constructed either in Europe or America for the conveyance of passengers, produce, or merchandise between distant points. A few railroads had been constructed in England for local purposes, such as the transportation of coal, iron, and other heavy articles from the mines or places of production to navigable waters; but for general purposes of travel and trade they were still an untried experiment, and so crude was public information on the subject, that the question had not been settled whether stationary steam-engines or horses would be preferable as the motive power. . . .

The construction of the road was commenced on the 4th of July, 1828, accompanied by one of the most magnificent processions of military and civic associations, trades, and professions, ever witnessed in the United States. The "first stone" was laid by the venerable Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, then over ninety years of age, on the southwestern line of the city. After he had performed this service, addressing himself to one of his friends, he said, "I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that." To the end of his life he continued a firm, unwavering friend of the work, ready at all times, upon every emergency, to sustain it. . . .

The board of directors of the railroad company soon discovered that if they proceeded with the work it must be upon their own resources, without any governmental assistance. Having full confidence in the practicability of the undertaking, they determined to go on with renewed energy. This determination was clearly evinced by the president and several of the directors, who advanced $200,000, to meet an extraordinary expense, beyond the estimates of the engineer (required for the great cut of 78 feet depth, extending 1,300 yards, encountered a few miles from the city), which at first threatened a suspension of the progress of the work. The construction of a railroad being an untried experiment, they of course had many difficulties to encounter; but the energy of President Thomas and his board of directors inspired all with confidence, and the enterprise continued to meet with general favor from all classes of their fellow citizens. A perusal of the early reports of President Thomas will cause the reader to wonder that the formidable obstacles almost daily encountered did not crush the energies of the company and induce them to abandon the work as hopeless and futile. . . .

During the fall of the year 1829, the laying of the rails was commenced upon the division of the road within the city of Baltimore. The first rails were laid upon wooden sleepers at the eastern end of the Mount Clare premises, near the intersection with Poppleton Street, which was not then laid out. The first division of the road was opened for the transportation of passengers on the 22d of May, 1830, being but a little more than eighteen months from the commencement of the work upon it; but the preparation of the necessary cars was not effected until the early part of June following, from which time the traveling on this division, extending to Ellicott's Mills, continued constant and uninterrupted, horse and mule power being used for drawing the cars. Locomotives at this period were in their infancy, and until the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad during this same year, the utmost speed in travel obtained by locomotives did not exceed six miles an hour; the question, indeed, had not then been decided as to what kind of motive power would prove most advantageous.

During the first few months after the road was opened, the people of Baltimore continued to throng to the depot, to try this novel mode of travel; and Ellicott's Mills became as familiar to them as if within the corporate limits of the city. The number of cars was, however, very limited, and but one track was completed, not-withstanding which, the receipts up to the first of October, four months from the time of putting the cars on, amounted to $20,012.36. The merchandise and produce offered was ten times more than could be conveyed with all the means of transportation in possession of the company. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, being the first road in operation in the country, and almost in the world, for the transportation of passengers and merchandise, of course attracted visitors from almost every section of the United States, as well as from some parts of Europe. . . .

On the 1st of April, 1832, the first train of cars, bearing produce, which had descended the Potomac to the Point of Rocks, arrived in Baltimore. The trade with that point continued to increase rapidly, and warehouses, dwelling and public houses, were erected there, so that quite a town soon formed. The travel and trade to Frederick, and the increasing business of that portion of the main stem between the Monocacy and the Point of Rocks, were soon found to constitute no unimportant item in the general receipts of the company. . . .

In the spring of 1836 the board deeming that the time had arrived for the adoption of vigorous measures toward the prosecution of the road from Harper's Ferry westward, to the points of its original destination, an engineer force was organized for the purpose of making detailed surveys and examinations between Harper's Ferry and the summit of the Alleghanies, with the view of continuing them afterward to Pittsburgh and Wheeling. Benjamin H. Latrobe, Esq., was appointed to the post of engineer of location and construction on the 1st day of July, 1836, and took immediate charge of the surveys, and the direction of the several corps upon field-duty. The rough and mountainous country over which the surveys had to be carried, and the importance of leaving no practicable route, of the many that presented themselves, unexamined, rendered the labors of the engineers necessarily very tedious and prolonged.

There was a project of a railroad from Cincinnati to St. Louis as early as 1832, for a portion of which a charter was obtained, while some subscriptions were actually paid. Those who are most familiar with the trials and struggles attendant upon the progress of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad do not hesitate to accord to Henry D. Bacon the highest praise for his extraordinary efforts in furthering the interests of this great undertaking.

The completion of the Northwest Virginia arm of the Baltimore and Ohio Road—from Grafton, on the main line, to Parkersburg on the Ohio—and the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad, from a point near Parkersburg to Cincinnati, formed the very shortest line between that city and the seaboard, and also with the Ohio and Mississippi Road, the shortest line between the seaboard and the city of St. Louis. . . .

The three great works whose varied history we have thus narrated were complete at last—affording a direct and continuous line westward from Baltimore to St. Louis—and were ready for public inauguration as one grand whole. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad Company took the initiative, and, acting independently of the other companies named, proceeded to make arrangements for a celebration worthy the occasion which saw their own line in full and perfect operation from the Ohio to the Mississippi. It was determined that the chief feature of the celebration should be a grand railroad excursion of guests from Eastern cities, over the line of the road, to St. Louis.

Public interest in the contemplated excursion soon became very general in New York, and the rush of applicants for tickets was far beyond reasonable possibility of supply. The papers of the day teemed with anticipatory notices, and the favored recipient of an invitation to the fete was looked upon by his friends as a lucky individual. Many of these guests from New York and points east of that city started a week before the date of the excursion, proceeding by the northern lines of railroad, touching and halting briefly at Niagara, and various other points of interest easily taken in their route. In the West, meantime, ample preparations were making to receive and entertain the expected strangers. At St. Louis and Cincinnati the citizens and public authorities vied with each other in arrangements which should favorably impress their visitors, enhance their enjoyment, and give due éclat to the occasion. At Marietta, Chillicothe, and other places the citizens also prepared themselves for such exhibitions of Western hospitality as the time of the excursionists would enable them to accept. One of the most gratifying incidents of this entire affair was the heartiness with which the people all along the line of the roads about to be opened thus practically exprest their interest in the enterprise, and the generosity with which they arranged for the reception of their stranger-friends from the East.

The only regular excursion party from an Eastern city to Cincinnati was arranged under the auspices of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, leaving Baltimore at six o'clock in the morning of Monday, the 1st of June, 1857. A large and jovial company fairly filled the train of neat, comfortable, and commodious cars provided for the occasion. Upon the assistant-master of transportation especially devolved the duty of looking after the social comfort of the guests, and "Captain" George A. Rawlings, "the model conductor," was put in charge of the train. A magnificent and powerful locomotive, under the care of an experienced engineer, furnished the power.

When all was ready, the train moved out of the station amid the parting cheers of quite an assemblage of spectators, whose salute was eloquently answered by the "Independent Blues" band of Baltimore under Professor Holland, which occupied the front car, having been engaged by the Marietta Company to contribute their excellent musical performances to the pleasures of the trip. The band accompanied us all the way to St. Louis, availing themselves of every suitable occasion to afford us new and grateful evidence of their taste and skill. . . .

A special time-table had been issued for the trip by Dr. Woodhouse, the master of transportation, securing perfect safety, and enabling us to run at a high speed, without fear of meeting sudden danger. To guard against accidents to the motive power, extra locomotives were stationed at convenient and most distant points, ready to supply the place of any which should become disabled. These precautions, and a free use of the magnetic-telegraph line belonging to the railroad company, and by which the movements of their trains are continually regulated, rendered accident or delay almost impossible.

It was nearly midnight of Thursday when the regular excursion train reached the Mississippi River, at Illinoistown, directly opposite St. Louis; but hundreds of pine torches, which had been planted in the ground on each side of the track for several hundred yards, brilliantly illuminated the scene. Our arrival was instantly announced to the citizens across the stream by the firing of cannon from the bluffs.

Four large and elegant Mississippi River steamers—the Reindeer, Baltimore, Illinois, and the Vernon—had been moored to the levee on the Illinois side of the river, near the point at which the cars stopt. These, brilliantly illuminated, presented a very pretty spectacle, in the darkness of the evening. The guests were immediately escorted on board, and provided with staterooms for the night. In a few minutes a sumptuous supper was served on board the boats, to which ample justice was accorded by the wearied travelers, who then betook themselves to rest. During the night the St. Louisians celebrated the occasion by plentiful displays of fireworks, of which the strangers, who chose, obtained a fine view, as well as of the great city across the river, lighted up by its thousands of gas-burners, and its long levee brilliant with the glare of torches, Roman candles, Grecian fires, or other pyrotechnic devices.

1 From Smith's "Book of the Great Railway Celebrations of 1857."
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman