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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.

 

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