History of Railroad Travel
If you have had the pleasure of traveling on a train pulled by an early 1900s steam locomotive, then you have an idea of what it must have been like in the glory days of railroad travel. As a young boy I can remember the first time I saw a steam-powered locomotive. I was standing on a siding in a switching yard when I began to sense the ground rumbling around me. I turned to see a monstrous locomotive pushing toward me through an enormous cloud of steam. I knew right then I wanted to know everything about railroads.
That first encounter with a steam locomotive along with other early railroad experiences sent me on a life-long path to find out more about the history of railroad travel.
Earliest Beginnings: Wagonways and Tramways
The history of railroad travel, as we understand it today, has its beginnings in the early 14th century. As early as 1550, horses pulled carriages, wagons and carts along wooden rails placed on dirt roads in Germany. These "wagonways" were the precursor to the modern day railroad.
By the late 1770's, those sometimes flimsy and easily worn out wooden rails were replaced with more durable iron rails. These "tramways," which were still essentially carriages or carts on rails pulled by horses, began to spread throughout 18th century Europe.
First Railroad Innovations Have Origins in England
Along with iron rails, a new wheel was developed by William Jessup in England. This new wheel was a revolutionary design for it's time. Jessup's wheel had a groove in the middle that created an edge which provided a surer grip on the iron rails. This "flanged" wheel would be an early innovation that would continue throughout the history of railroads - right up to today's modern railroads.
The original width between rails was about seven feet. The standard width (or gauge) would eventually become four feet, eight inches between rails - the same standard gauge used by modern railroads.
In 1803, Samuel Homfray provided funds to Richard Trevithick for development of the first steam-powered vehicle. This vehicle was designed to take the place of horses on the many tramways throughout Europe. In 1804, Trevithick's tramway steam engine took two hours to haul 70 men, 10 tons of ore and five extra wagons over nine miles from an ironworks foundry to a town in Wales. Later in 1821, Julius Griffiths patented a passenger locomotive in England.
By 1825, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company became the first railroad in England to run regularly scheduled rail service using a true railroad steam locomotive designed by George Stephenson. The first steam locomotive he built for the S&DRC was aptly named the Locomotion. Railroads spread throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia over the next century.
Notable Railroads from Around the World are Part of Railroad History
Notable railroads or trains outside the US were the Orient Express which ran from Paris to Constantinople (modern day Instanbul) and operated from 1883 until 2009.The Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which is different than the original, is till in operation today.
The Trans-Siberian Express is perhaps one of the longest railroad lines in the world with 91 stops over 5,778 miles. Established in 1862, the Flying Scotsman still runs between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. The Indian Pacific railroad runs from Sydney to Perth, Australia - a distance of over 2,460 miles.
High speed trains are the standard in Europe and Asia today. Some of these new high-speed railways handle trains which travel at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. The French TGV is an electric train system that makes runs from Paris to several other cities around Europe. The TGV reached 320 mph in trial runs back in 1990.
American Railroad History Begins in Hoboken
About three years before Stephenson built and perfected the first railroad locomotive in England, Colonel John Stevens had built his own steam locomotive and tested it on a circular track he built on his vast estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.
He demonstrated the locomotive in 1826 and railroads were officially born in America.
What it was like to "Lay Down Tracks"
The first American locomotive to actually pull a train was the Best Friend of Charleston steam locomotive in Charleston, South Carolina on Christmas Day in 18230.
Tom Thumb was the first American-made steam locomotive to begin service on a common-carrier railroad. Innovations and improvements came quickly and the new technology developed.
Railroads Continue to Grow in 19th Century America
Between 1860 and 1870, America had built more than 53,000 miles of railroad track. The Transcontinental Railroad had been completed in 1869. By 1900, over 207,000 miles of railroad track were in operation throughout the United States. Total track mileage would continue to increase to around 430,000 total track miles in 1930. The US railroad system was massive. Everything from food and passenger to heavy equipment and military troops were transported quickly and easily from coast to coast over this huge railroad network.
The Decline of Railroads in America
In the 1930s - the heyday of American railroad history - there were more than 1.5 million Americans working for the railroads - that's about 1 in 10 people in the US at that time. American railroads provided employment and were a huge contributor to the economic growth in America during these years.
By the 1940s US railroads were in decline due to the improvement of national roads, automobiles and the introduction of air travel. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, steam locomotives were being replaced by more efficient diesel locomotives. By the 1970s, the glory days of railroads in the US had come to an end.
Railroads in America Today
Today, there are about 233,000 miles of railroad track in the US. Amtrak is the only remaining national railroad to serve passengers in the U.S. Most railroads primarily handle freight service throughout the country's national rail network. One of the most notable is the produce train which hauls perishable produce and other food items non-stop across the US in 64-foot long refrigerated railcars.
Also known as the "Ice Cold Express" or "Fresh Express," these long loaded trains head east five days a week throughout the year to deliver fresh produce and other items to cities on the East Coast. The amount of produce carried by just one of these trains is equivalent to about 200 semi-truck loads.
Find out more...
- HowStuffWorks: Early Twentieth Century Railroads
Early 20th-century railroads saw major improvements in safety and comfort, as well as new regulations. Learn more about railroads in the early 1900s.
- Railroads Facts, information, pictures
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