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History of The Common Carrier Railroad

As a common-carrier the B&O, under license/authority provided to it by a regulatory body (originally the state legislature but later more stringent federal laws and agencies were formed to govern the railroad industry), was tasked with handling any freight or passenger traffic without discrimination. In other words, in most circumstances a railroad could not deny the transportation of legal freight and/or law-abiding citizens. Following the B&O and D&H operations numerous early railroads sprang up during the 1820s and 1830s with names like the Mohawk & Hudson (later New York Central) and Camden & Amboy (acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad).

Due to the 950-foot Moosic Mountain a railroad was needed at the western end between Olyphant and Honesdale. From this point a 25-mile canal ran along Lackawaxen Creek, then crossed the Delaware River using a aqueduct suspension bridge (still in use today), and finally wound its way along the river for 23 miles to Port Jervis. It spanned 108 miles and entered service in 1828 but as competition for surrounding traditional railroads increased it would close in 1899.

In the U.S. the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company would earn the distinction as the country’s first to operate a steam locomotive when it put the Stourbridge Lion, an English-built locomotive, into service on August 8, 1829. The 7-ton locomotive proved too heavy for the line (in particular was the bridge spanning Lackawaxen Creek designed only to handle only 3 tons), which had been built by chief engineer John B. Jervis using strap-iron rails lain atop wooden stringers.

In a general sense it refers to any entity (railroad, person, or otherwise) which serves the public at the large, transporting goods or people (in regards to freight the company or person is responsible for any losses during transport). The first railroad to provide such services in the United States was the acclaimed Baltimore & Ohio, earning such a distinction despite the fact that it was neither the first chartered nor the first put into operation.

The early D&H was an interesting operation; it was designed largely as a canal system, specifically to handle anthracite coal destined for New York City. During the early 19th century canals were hailed as the future of modern transportation, which would use a combination of newly constructed waterways that connected with larger rivers and creeks to offer a through route transporting people and goods from Point A to Point B. However, canals were not without their limitations; they were generally quite slow and, in northern regions, would freeze during the winter months shutting down all operations for months at a time. On April 23, 1823 the Pennsylvania and New York legislatures granted merchants (and brothers) Maurice and William Wurtz permission to construct the D&H and it was chartered that same day.

Despite its early start the D&H, being chartered as a canal system, was not the first common-carrier railroad (it later did flourish into a successful railroad connecting Montreal, Quebec with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). Many waterway owners, such as those in control of the mighty Erie Canal which stretched 364 miles from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, along with stagecoach lines saw railroads (and rightfully so) as a threat to their future well-being.

The railroads’ efficiency eventually outweighed these obstacles although they were many and unproven people would die in accidents, in particular, during the 19th century. As a port city it was in competition with others such as Charleston, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York which were already planning or had completed a railroad or canal.

The first railroad to provide such services in the United States was the acclaimed Baltimore & Ohio, earning such a distinction despite the fact that it was neither the first chartered nor the first put into operation. The first publicly operated railroad was England’s Stockton & Darlington, which officially opened for service, using steam locomotives (its first piece of motive power, according to the book “Railroads In The Days Of Steam” was referred to as Locomotion No. 1), on September 27, 1825.
Despite its early start the D&H, being chartered as a canal system, was not the first common-carrier railroad (it later did flourish into a successful railroad connecting Montreal, Quebec with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). Many waterway owners, such as those in control of the mighty Erie Canal which stretched 364 miles from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, along with stagecoach lines saw railroads (and rightfully so) as a threat to their future well-being. Following the B&O and D&H operations numerous early railroads sprang up during the 1820s and 1830s with names like the Mohawk & Hudson (later New York Central) and Camden & Amboy (acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad).

The term “common carrier” in regards to this article will refer specifically to railroads although it generally relates to all transportation types, including pipelines and even telecommunication companies. The first publicly operated railroad was England’s Stockton & Darlington, which officially opened for service, using steam locomotives (its first piece of motive power, according to the book “Railroads In The Days Of Steam” was referred to as Locomotion No. 1), on September 27, 1825.
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Railroad in the 1930s

With the creation of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on April 24, 1827 the common-carrier railroad (or a company whose intent and chartering was established to serve the public at large, handling both freight and passenger business) was born and so was an industry. A month later the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company tested its own design the Best Friend of Charleston.

Aside from the B&O (which connected Baltimore with Ellicott Mills and Washington, D.C.) and the South Carolina Railroad (which connected Charleston with Hamburg) other railroads being developed during the 1830s included the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, which connected Albany to Schenectady on a 17-mile that opened in 1831 (the railroad used the famous Dewitt Clinton steam locomotive for power, one of the first ever tested in the U.S.); the Camden & Amboy opened in 1834 connecting New York harbor with Camden, New Jersey near Philadelphia; the New York & Erie Railroad of 1835 (predecessor to the Erie Railroad); and lines around Boston which connected the city with surrounding suburbs and also reached Providence, Rhode Island opening in 1835.

Canal owners and the cities they served feared railroads would put them out of business while some of the public worried about the safety of pressurized steam boilers, collisions and other dangers associated with it. These fears were other but well justified more ridiculous assertions claimed railroads were a “device of the devil” and could cause a “concussion of the brain”.

The beginning of railroads in this country date back to as early as the latter 18th century but the first noted commercial railroad which would become a common-carrier operation was the Granite Railway in Massachusetts dating to 1826. By most accounts railroading in this country kicked off in 1829 when the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (which would later become the Delaware & Hudson Railway) tested a British-built steam locomotive called the Stourbridge Lion in August of that year.

Railroads could cut the distant it took between cities by steamboat in half. Following the development of systems like the B&O, South Carolina Railroad and others new lines were rapidly built, so much so that by the 1840 mileage had reached almost 3,000 as compared to a few hundred in the early 1830s. During the 1840s even more railroads would be chartered, some which would become quite famous, and the decade would see improved technology in both equipment and infrastructure.

The beginning of railroads in this country date back to as early as the latter 18th century but the first noted commercial railroad which would become a common-carrier operation was the Granite Railway in Massachusetts dating to 1826. By most accounts railroading in this country kicked off in 1829 when the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (which would later become the Delaware & Hudson Railway) tested a British-built steam locomotive called the Stourbridge Lion in August of that year. After further success of the steam locomotive as a reliable means of hauling goods and people by the end of the 1830s railroads were here to stay and would soon begin to sprawl westward.

With the creation of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on April 24, 1827 the common-carrier railroad (or a company whose intent and chartering was established to serve the public at large, handling both freight and passenger business) was born and so was an industry.

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Railroad History in the United States

Railroads in America can be traced back to 1815 when Colonel John Stevens gained the first charter in North America to build the New Jersey Railroad Company, although it was not constructed until 1832. The NJRR later went on to become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s far-reaching network. Colonel Stevens also tested the first type of steam locomotive in 1826, when he showcased his “Steam Waggon” (basically a steam-powered horse carriage) on a small circular track he had built at his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.

A month after this event the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company (SCC&RR) tested its Best Friend of Charleston. The railroad was chartered on April 24, 1827 to solidify Baltimore’s standing as one of America’s important ports and provide competition against New York’s Erie Canal. Shortly after B&O’s creation merchants in Charleston, South Carolina chartered the aforementioned South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company intended to link Charleston with Hamburg (along the Savannah River).

By 1840, states east of the Mississippi River boasted over 2,800 miles of track and a decade later that number had more than tripled to over 9,000. During these early years much of the trackage was still disconnected and largely concentrated in the Northeast. There were also a variety of different gauges in service, ranging from 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (which later became standard) to six feet. Unfortunately, traveling could be a tricky, proposition as railroads saw no need to develop safe operations. Even after development of modern “T”- rail, old strap-iron rail was still used for many years. This led to cases of deadly “snake heads” where iron straps came loose from their attached wooden planks and tore into the under-frame of cars, injuring or killing passengers. In addition, cars themselves were not reinforced to better withstand the carnage during derailments. Railroads used their power to influence politicians and avoid infrastructure improvement and safety enhancements, such as knuckle-couplers and air brakes. Such things only cost money. In their greed they even refused to interchange freight with one another. This arrogant attitude eventually led to extreme regulatory oversight.

During the Civil War railroads once more proved their worth as they quickly transported men and material to the front lines at speeds not previously possible. With the creation of the Pacific Railway Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862, authorizing construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The new legislation formed the Union Pacific Railroad to build west from the Missouri River at Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific struck out eastward from Sacramento, California.

After several years of hard work, particularly for the Central Pacific, the two met at Promontory Point, Utah during a formal ceremony held on May 10, 1869. Without the Pacific Railway Act our country’s history would likely be very different as rail travel opened the west to new economic opportunities. After the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion the industry exploded; by the 1890s there were more than 163,000 miles in operation. Eventually, four major railroads established direct lines from the Midwest to West Coast including the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) while others worked together in linking both points. The era also saw many other advances as the late historian Jim Boyd notes in his book, “The American Freight Train.” After several years of distrust a standard track gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches was adopted during the 1880s along with development of the automatic coupler and air brake. All three initiatives proved revolutionary, allowing for greater efficiency and much safer operations. From the late 19th century though the 1920’s railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability; in particular was the year 1916, which saw mileage peak at over 254,000 and railroads carried virtually 100% of all interstate traffic.

During the 1930s the streamliner era hit the nation, all in an attempt to sway patrons back to the rails. These fast, sleek new machines provided a new perk; color and modernity never before seen. The industry’s transportation dominance ended after World War II, as a long decline followed thereafter. In response, the so-called mega-merger movement was launched in the 1950s in an attempt to cut costs through consolidation. At the time the move was only partially successful as railroads slipped into despair by the 1970’s. The common observer could see this for themselves as tracks became weed-choked while trains were dilapidated. For carriers like the Rock Island and Penn Central, both on the verge of complete shutdown, barely operational and dirty equipment was not uncommon. What happened in the 1970’s has many causes although it can arguably be traced back to expanded powers placed upon the Interstate Commerce Commission following the passage of the Elkins Act (1903) and, in particular, the Hepburn Act (1906) and Mann-Elkins Act (1910). The latter two legislative actions gave ICC the authority to set freight rates and force railroads to explain why any rate change should be implemented.

The expanded federal oversight was all brought about to limit railroads’ power as many executives had grown arrogant and forgetful of their ultimate purpose, to serve the public interest. Its failure led to others as neighboring railroads filed for reorganization. A few years earlier, also partially in response to PC’s downfall, another government-sponsored railroad was born, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).

Before Penn Central was folded into Conrail, Federal Railroad Administrator John Ingram highlighted the difficulty for any railroad to abandon an unprofitable branch. While touring the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Delmarva Peninsula trackage he said this during a speech highlighting the PC’s plight:

I drove to the area, checked my maps, and simply couldn’t find anything that looked like a railroad. At another point the highway department had covered the tracks with at least eight inches of pavement. That line had been completely forgotten, yet grown men were arguing before the ICC that stretch of track was vital to the Nation’s economy!”

Railroads of today would likely be very different if it wasn’t for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia. The bill brought a great level of deregulation as railroads regained their footing thanks to renewed freedom in setting freight rates and abandoning unprofitable rail lines. We have also seen a renaissance in rail travel as folks look to escape the highway gridlock.

The new legislation formed the Union Pacific Railroad to build west from the Missouri River at Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific struck out eastward from Sacramento, California. From the late 19th century though the 1920’s railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability; in particular was the year 1916, which saw mileage peak at over 254,000 and railroads carried virtually 100% of all interstate traffic.

A few years earlier, also partially in response to PC’s downfall, another government-sponsored railroad was born, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). Before Penn Central was folded into Conrail, Federal Railroad Administrator John Ingram highlighted the difficulty for any railroad to abandon an unprofitable branch.