On February 28, 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. railway chartered for the commercial transportation of freight and passengers. Investors hoped that a railroad would allow Baltimore, the second largest U.S. city at that time, to successfully compete with New York for western trade. New Yorkers were profiting from easy access to the Midwest via the Erie Canal.
Put in your water, shovel in your coal,
Put cha head out the window and watch the drivers roll
I’ll run her ’til she leaves the rail
For I’m eight hours late with the western mail.
“Casey Jones.” 1 California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center
The initial line of track, a thirteen-mile stretch to Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland, opened in 1830. The Tom Thumb, a steam engine designed by Peter Cooper, negotiated the route well enough to convince skeptics that steam traction worked along steep, winding grades.
On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse used the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad right of way to send the first telegraphic message from the Supreme Court room in the Capitol at Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore.
Baltimore and the Ohio River were connected by rail in 1852, when the B&O was completed at Wheeling, West Virginia. Later extensions brought the line to Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
Rapid development of rail power propelled westward expansion. As early as 1852, six lines carried passengers and freight across the Appalachian mountain range. By 1869, the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific line joined to create the first transcontinental railroad. Although pioneers continued to travel west via covered wagon, settlements grew quickly as rail transport increased the frequency and speed with which people and supplies could move across the vast continent.
In the 1890s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad commissioned William Henry Jackson to photograph a series of scenic views along the B&O route in western Maryland. Search Detroit Publishing Company on Baltimore & Ohio railroad to explore these spectacular views of the Allegheny Mountains.
- Search Today in History on the term railroad to learn more about the importance of railroads in the shaping of the nation.
- Search the collection Railroad Maps, 1828 to 1900 on Maryland, or any other state, to view maps related to the development of transport in that state. This collection illustrates the growth of travel and settlement as well as the development of industry and agriculture throughout the United States. Search on other terms such as Union Pacific to see, for example, a map from the 1850s showing the lines of the proposed Pacific Railroad.
- Search on railroad or railroads in the Library’s Image collections to find a wide array of images documenting the development of railroads and the railroad industry.
- Search California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell on railroad songs to retrieve six traditional songs. Results include several versions of “Casey Jones” celebrating American engineer and folk hero John Luther Jones.