The horse-drawn railroad: lumbering toward new technology


THE BALTIMORE AND OHIO Railroad began taking in money on Jan. 7, 1830. On that day it opened its first few miles of line to the public. It wasn't that much of a ride, a little excursion from Mount Clare on Pratt Street out to and through the Carrollton Viaduct over Gwynns Falls.

Four cars with a capacity of 120 were to run five hours a day, only in good weather, to satisfy a rising curiosity about the strange idea of rolling on long iron rails. Tickets sold for 9 cents one way, or three for 25 cents. It was a technological wonder in its day, attracting visitors from New York and Washington and points between. These trips, which lasted for weeks, were the first in the United States on a railroad operated for public use.

Of course, these were clip-clop horse-drawn rides, not the belching steam marvels of the future. Railroad officials first tried the exciting short trips as the road slowly moved out from Pratt Street. The frail Last Signer, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, had his thrill on a ride that took him over a bridge named in his honor.

On a mild Jan. 1, "the Honorable, the Postmaster-General" made headlines as he went out for a voyage along with a party of 24 elegant ladies and gentlemen in a fancy new rail carriage. The Baltimore American gushed about how all were drawn "to the viaduct by one horse in actually a little less than six minutes!" More amazing, the return trip was made "at the extraordinary rate of 15 miles an hour!"

That news account also told of three carriages attached to each other, carrying "80 persons" and weighing eight and a half tons being pulled by a single horse at the speed of 8 m.p.h. It was noted that the horse seemed to suffer no apparent distress or show uncommon exertion.

The vision for the B&O; at its birth was that of a horse and carriage line from the city to the banks of the Ohio. Relays of horses would be stationed at key points along the line. The rails themselves were to to be as level as possible, one smooth line all the way to the Point of Rocks on the Potomac.

There was uncertainty over how the mountains in the west were to be crossed. John H. B. Latrobe, one of the brilliant pioneer planners, examined some schemes with comment:

"A double track of road was to be constructed up and down them (the mountains), as straight as an arrow, care being taken that the upper end of one of the tracks should be close to a stream which was to be used to fill water cars, whose weight, as they descended on one track, was to be used to drag up the passenger and burden cars on the other, the two tracks being connected by a rope passing around a pulley at the summit."

Latrobe wondered why the author of this plan had not provided a way to get those cars back up the mountain for the next trip.

Four inclined planes were actually planned and built but never used.

Surveying for the line began a few days after the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1828. For the first 12 miles, from the city to Ellicotts Mills, construction contracts were subdivided into 26 different sections. The task was formidable. The costliest construction problems were the deep cuts required through some of the hills. Work was painfully slow. A shortage of labor because of the large number of major canal and rail projects hampered contractors. New money had to be raised as costs escalated.

Accidents also slowed work. In the first accident, four laborers were killed instantly when a high bank of earth under which they were working collapsed. The four were Patrick Hackett, Edward McCreary, Thomas Hughes and Daniel Ragan. Two others were seriously injured in the same disaster. Quarrels between contractors and workers were common. Workers battled workers liquor was "freely sold" and "as freely consumed" at their camps. In that first hot August of digging, a riot killed one man and wounded several others. One contractor's house was sacked. Some of the fighting was sparked by a ban on on-the-job use of liquor.

Engineers quarreled over how to build the many necessary bridges. Caspar Wever, the construction chief, insisted on masonry construction. Lt. Col. Stephen H. Long thought that was much too expensive. He favored wooden bridges wherever possible. When Wever won the support of the company officers, Long accused him of being both "arrogant and obnoxious in regard to his authority." Long was allowed to build one wooden bridge where the Washington and Baltimore Turnpike was carried over the new railroad lines. He put up a masterpiece of a bridge, 40 feet above the level of the line and 109 feet long. Unlike the masonry bridges that lasted more than a century, Long's wooden wonders had no longevity.

The simple problem of the width or the gauge between the rails found many answers in early American railroads. The English had one standard, a wagon width the same as it had been in Roman times, that measured 4 feet, 8.5 inches. The B&O; first planned its own gauge at 4.5 feet. But it soon switched to the English standard when it actually began laying down rails. But every new railroad set its own standards. The Erie had a 6 foot gauge, the Baltimore and Susquehanna chose 4 feet 9.25 inches. The first South Carolina line picked a 5-foot gauge. English visitors laughed at the undisciplined Americans. By the time of the Civil War, there were 11 different gauges in the North. Between Philadelphia and Charleston, there were eight changes the width of the track.

The horse-drawn rail car did have one early challenger. Evan Thomas, the brother of Philip Thomas, the first president of the B&O;, tinkered with the idea of a rail car powered by sails. An experimental car, named the Aeolus, with a sailing master from Chesapeake Bay, made one successful run. On the next try, De Witt Clinton, the builder of the Erie Canal, rode the sailing car, which was moved by a brisk wind. It breezed over the Carrollton Viaduct and continued off the end of the line into a bank. The skipper couldn't strike his sails in time.

As silly as that was, the horse-propulsion model was worse. A horse on a treadmill provided the power with gears and belts attached to the wheels. It actually ran for a few miles but encountered one brave cow parked on the tracks. In the crash, the cow won with horse and treadmill overturned due to "cowing." The new railroads were ready for another source of power -- steam, and so were inventors.

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