History of rail transport in the United States

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The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series.

Railroads played a large role in the development of the United States from the industrial revolution in the North-east 1810–50 to the settlement of the West 1850–1890. The American railroad mania began with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 and flourished until the Panic of 1873 bankrupted many companies and temporarily ended growth.

Although the South started early to build railways, it concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions to oceanic or river ports, and the absence of an interconnected network was a major handicap during the Civil War. The North and Midwest constructed networks that linked every city by 1860. In the heavily settled Midwestern Corn Belt, over 80 percent of farms were within 5 miles (8 km) of a railway, facilitating the shipment of grain, hogs and cattle to national and international markets. A large number of short lines were built, but thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall Street and oriented to railway bonds, the majority were consolidated into 20 trunk lines by 1890. State and local governments often subsidized lines, but rarely owned them.

The system was largely built by 1910, but then trucks arrived to eat away the freight traffic, and automobiles (and later airplanes) to devour the passenger traffic. The use of diesel electric locomotives (after 1940) made for much more efficient operations that needed fewer workers on the road and in repair shops.

A series of bankruptcies and consolidations left the rail system in the hands of a few large operations by the 1980s. Almost all long-distance passenger traffic was shifted to Amtrak in 1971, a government owned operation. Commuter rail service is provided near a few major cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the District of Columbia. Computerization and improved equipment steadily reduced employment, which peaked at 2.1 million in 1920, falling to 1.2 million in 1950 and 215,000 in 2010. Route mileage peaked at 254,251 miles (409,177 km) in 1916 and fell to 139,679 miles (224,792 km) in 2011.[1]

Freight railroads continue to play an important role in the United States' economy, especially for moving imports and exports using containers, and for shipments of coal and, since 2010, of oil. According to the British news magazine The Economist, "They are universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world." [2] Productivity rose 172% between 1981 and 2000, while rates rose 55% (after accounting for inflation). Rail's share of the American freight market rose to 43%, the highest for any rich country.[3]

Chronological history

Early period (1826–1860)

In 1826 Massachusetts incorporated the Granite Railway as a common freight carrier[4] to primarily haul granite for the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument; operations began later that year.

Other railroads authorized by states in 1826 and constructed in the following years included the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company's gravity railroad; and the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, to carry freight and passengers around a bend in the Erie Canal. To link the port of Baltimore to the Ohio River, the state of Maryland in 1827 chartered the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), the first section of which opened in 1830. Similarly, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was chartered in 1827 to connect Charleston to the Savannah River, and Pennsylvania built the Main Line of Public Works between Philadelphia and the Ohio River.

The Americans closely followed and copied British railroad technology. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first common carrier and started passenger train service in May 1830, initially using horses to pull train cars.[5]:90 The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company was the first to use steam locomotives regularly beginning with the Best Friend of Charleston, the first American-built locomotive intended for revenue service, in December 1830.

The B&O started developing steam locomotives in 1829 with Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb.[6] This was the first American-built locomotive to run in the U.S., although it was intended as a demonstration of the potential of steam traction rather than as a revenue-earning locomotive.[5]:96 Many of the earliest locomotives for American railroads were imported from England, including the Stourbridge Lion and the John Bull, but a domestic locomotive manufacturing industry was quickly established, with locomotives like the DeWitt Clinton being built in the 1830s.[7] The B&O's westward route reached the Ohio River in 1852, the first eastern seaboard railroad to do so.[8]:Ch.V

By 1850, 9,000 miles (14,000 km) of railroad lines had been built.[9] The federal government operated a land grant system between 1855 and 1871, through which new railway companies in the uninhabited West were given millions of acres they could sell or pledge to bondholders. A total of 129 million acres (520,000 km2) were granted to the railroads before the program ended, supplemented by a further 51 million acres (210,000 km2) granted by the states, and by various government subsidies. This program enabled the opening of numerous western lines, especially the Union Pacific-Central Pacific with fast service from San Francisco to Omaha and east to Chicago. West of Chicago, many cities grew up as rail centers, with repair shops and a base of technically literate workers.[citation needed]

Railroads soon replaced many canals and turnpikes and by the 1870s had significantly displaced steamboats as well.[citation needed] The railroads were superior to these alternative modes of transportation, particularly water routes, because they lowered costs in two ways. Canals and rivers were unavailable in the winter season due to freezing, but the railroads ran year-round despite poor weather. And railroads were safer: the likelihood of a train crash was less than the likelihood of a boat sinking. The railroads provided cost-effective transportation because they allowed shippers to have a smaller inventory of goods, which reduced storage costs during winter, and to avoid insurance costs from the risk of losing goods during transit.[10]

Likewise, railroads changed the style of transportation. For the common person in the early 1800s, transportation was often travel by horse or stage coach. The network of trails along which coaches navigated were riddled with ditches, potholes, and stones. This made travel fairly uncomfortable. Adding to injury, coaches were cramped with little leg room. Travel by train offered a new style. Locomotives proved themselves a smooth, headache free ride with plenty of room to move around. Some passenger trains offered meals in the spacious dining car followed by a good night sleep in the private sleeping quarters.[11] Railroad companies in the North and Midwest constructed networks that linked nearly every major city by 1860. In the heavily settled Corn Belt (from Ohio to Iowa), over 80 percent of farms were within 5 miles (8.0 km) of a railway. A large number of short lines were built, but thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall Street and oriented to railway securities, the majority were consolidated into 20 trunk lines by 1890.[12] Most of these railroads made money and ones that didn't were soon bought up and incorporated in a larger system or "rationalized". Although the transcontinental railroads dominated the media, with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 dramatically symbolizing the nation’s unification after the divisiveness of the Civil War, most construction actually took place in the industrial Northeast and agricultural Midwest, and was designed to minimize shipping times and costs.[13] The railroads in the South were repaired and expanded and then, after a lot of preparation, changed from a 5-foot gauge to standard gauge of 4 foot 8 1/2 inches in two days in May 1886.[14]

With its extensive river system the United States supported a large array of horse-drawn or mule-drawn barges on canals and paddle wheel steamboats on rivers that competed with railroads after 1815 until the 1870s. The canals and steamboats lost out because of the dramatic increases in efficiency and speed of the railroads, which could go almost anywhere year round. The railroads were faster and went to many places a canal would be impractical or too expensive to build or a natural river never went. Railroads also had better scheduling since they often could go year round, more or less ignoring the weather. Canals and river traffic were cheaper if you lived on or near a canal or river that wasn't frozen over part of the year; but only a few did. Long distance transport of goods by wagon to a canal or river was slow and expensive. A railroad to a city made it an inland "port" that often prospered or turned a town into a city.[15]

Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861–1877

A mortar mounted on a railroad car used during the Civil War

Rail was strategic during the American Civil War, and the Union used its much larger system much more effectively. Practically all the mills and factories supplying rails and equipment were in the North, and the Union blockade kept the South from getting new equipment or spare parts. The war was fought in the South, and Union raiders (and sometimes Confederates too) systematically destroyed bridges and rolling stock — and sometimes bent rails — to hinder the logistics of the enemy.[16]

In the South most railroads in 1860 were local affairs connecting cotton regions with the nearest waterway. Most transport was by boat, not rail, and after the Union blockaded the ports in 1861 and seized the key rivers in 1862, long-distance travel was difficult. The outbreak of war had a depressing effect on the economic fortunes of the railroad companies, for the hoarding of the cotton crop in an attempt to force European intervention left railroads bereft of their main source of income.[17] Many had to lay off employees, and in particular, let go skilled technicians and engineers. For the early years of the war, the Confederate government had a hands-off approach to the railroads. Only in mid-1863 did the Confederate government initiate an overall policy, and it was confined solely to aiding the war effort.[18] With the legislation of impressment the same year, railroads and their rolling stock came under the de facto control of the Confederate military.

Conditions deteriorated rapidly in the Confederacy, as there was no new equipment and raids on both sides systematically destroyed key bridges, as well as locomotives and freight cars. Spare parts were cannibalized; feeder lines were torn up to get replacement rails for trunk lines, and the heavy use of rolling stock wore them out.[19] In 1864-65 the Confederate railroad network collapsed; little traffic moved in 1865.

The Southern states had blocked westward rail expansion before 1860, but after secession the Pacific Railway Acts were passed in 1862,[20] allowing the first transcontinental railroad to be completed in 1869, making possible a six-day trip from New York to San Francisco. Other transcontinentals were built in the South (Southern Pacific, Santa Fe) and along the Canadian border (Northern Pacific, Great Northern), accelerating the settlement of the West by offering inexpensive farms and ranches on credit, carrying pioneers and supplies westward, and cattle, wheat and minerals eastward.

Strikers in Baltimore confronting the Maryland National Guard, July 1877.

During the Reconstruction era, Northern money financed the rebuilding and dramatic expansion of railroads throughout the South; they were modernized in terms of track gauge, equipment and standards of service. The Southern network expanded from 11,000 miles (17,700 km) in 1870 to 29,000 miles (46,700 km) in 1890. The lines were owned and directed overwhelmingly by Northerners. Railroads helped create a mechanically skilled group of craftsmen and broke the isolation of much of the region. Passengers were few, however, and apart from hauling the cotton crop when it was harvested, there was little freight traffic.[21][22][23]

The Panic of 1873 was a major global economic depression which ended rapid rail expansion in the United States. Many lines went bankrupt or were barely able to pay the interest on their bonds, and workers were laid off on a mass scale, with those still employed subject to large cuts in wages. This worsening situation for railroad workers led to strikes against many railroads, culminating in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The Great Strike began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the cutting of wages for the second time in a year by the B&O Railroad. The strike, and related violence, spread to Cumberland, Maryland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Midwest. The strike lasted for 45 days, and ended only with the intervention of local and state militias, and federal troops.[24]:112[25][26] Labor unrest continued into the 1880s, such as the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, which involved over 200,000 workers.

Expansion and consolidation (1878–1916)

J.P. Morgan.
1879 cartoon depicting William Henry Vanderbilt as "The Modern Colossus of (Rail) Roads."

By 1880 the nation had 17,800 freight locomotives carrying 23,600 tons of freight, and 22,200 passenger locomotives. The US railroad industry was the nation's largest employer outside of the agricultural sector.[27] The effects of the American railways on rapid industrial growth were many, including the opening of hundreds of millions of acres of very good farm land ready for mechanization, lower costs for food and all goods, a huge national sales market, the creation of a culture of engineering excellence, and the creation of the modern system of management.[28][29]

New York financier J.P. Morgan played an increasingly dominant role in consolidating the rail system in the late 19th century. He orchestrated reorganizations and consolidations in all parts of the United States. Morgan raised large sums in Europe, but instead of only handling the funds, he helped the railroads reorganize and achieve greater efficiencies. He fought against the speculators interested in speculative profits, and built a vision of an integrated transportation system. In 1885, he reorganized the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, leasing it to the New York Central. In 1886, he reorganized the Philadelphia & Reading, and in 1888 the Chesapeake & Ohio. He was heavily involved with railroad tycoon James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway.[30]:331–2

Industrialists such as Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould became wealthy through railroad ownerships, as large railroad companies such as the Grand Trunk Railway and the Southern Pacific Transportation Company spanned several states. In response to monopolistic practices and other excesses of some railroads and their owners, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act and created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887.[24]:123–4[31] The ICC indirectly controlled the business activities of the railroads through issuance of extensive regulations.

Morgan set up conferences in 1889 and 1890 that brought together railroad presidents in order to help the industry follow the new laws and write agreements for the maintenance of "public, reasonable, uniform and stable rates." The conferences were the first of their kind, and by creating a community of interest among competing lines paved the way for the great consolidations of the early 20th century.[30]:352–96 Congress responded by enacting antitrust legislation to prohibit monopolies of railroads (and other industries), beginning with the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.[32]

The Panic of 1893 was the largest economic depression in U.S. history at that time. It was the result of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing, which set off a series of bank failures. One-quarter of U.S. railroads had failed by mid-1894, representing over 40,000 miles (64,000 km). The failed lines included the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Acquisitions of the bankrupt companies led to further consolidation of ownership. As of 1906, two-thirds of the rail mileage in the U.S. was controlled by seven entities, with the New York Central, Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), and Morgan having the largest portions.[24]:125–6

James J. Hill
A Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad wagon at a level crossing, circa 1900.

James J. Hill joined forces with Morgan and others to gain control of the Northern Pacific. Hill formed the Northern Securities Company to consolidate the operations of the Northern Pacific with Hill's own Great Northern, but President Theodore Roosevelt, a trust-buster, strongly disapproved and took it to court. In 1904 the federal courts dissolved the Northern Security company (see Northern Securities Co. v. United States) and the railroads had to go their separate, competitive ways. By that time Morgan and Hill had ensured the Northern Pacific was well-organized and able to survive easily on its own.[30]:352–96

In 1901 the Union Pacific Railroad acquired all of the stock of the Southern Pacific. The Federal government charged UP with violating the Sherman Act, and in 1913 the Supreme Court ordered UP to divest itself of all SP stock.[33] This ruling was received with considerable alarm throughout the industry, as UP and SP were widely considered at that time not to be significant competitors.[34] (Later in the 20th century, with different economic conditions and changes in the law, UP successfully acquired the SP. See Resurgence of freight railroads.)

Continuing concern over rate discrimination by railroads led Congress to enact additional laws, giving increased regulatory powers to the ICC. The 1906 Hepburn Act gave the ICC authority to set maximum rates and review the companies' financial records.[35]

Nationalized management (1917–1920)

The United States Railroad Administration (USRA) temporarily took over management of railroads during World War I to address inadequacy in critical facilities throughout the overall system, such as terminals, trackage, and rolling stock. President Woodrow Wilson issued an order for nationalization on December 26, 1917.[36] Management by USRA led to standardization of equipment, reductions of duplicative passenger services and better coordination of freight traffic.[24]:175 Federal control of the railroads ended in March 1920.[37]

Railroads in the early automobile era (1921–1945)

In the early 20th century, some members of Congress, the ICC, and some railroad executives developed concerns about inefficiencies in the American railroad system. Memories of the 1893 panic, the continuing proliferation of railroad companies, and duplicative facilities, fueled this concern. To an extent the need to nationalize the system during the war was an example of this inefficiency. These concerns were the impetus for legislation to consider improvements to the system.[38] The 1920 Esch-Cummins Act directed the ICC to prepare and adopt a plan for the consolidation of the railroad companies into a limited number of systems.[37] In 1929 the ICC published its proposed Complete Plan of Consolidation, also known as the "Ripley Plan," after its author, William Z. Ripley of Harvard University.[39][40] The agency held hearings on the plan, but none of the proposed consolidations was ever implemented. Many small railroads failed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of those lines that survived, the stronger ones were not interested in supporting the weaker ones.[41] In 1940 Congress formally abandoned the Ripley Plan.[42]

Modern era (1946–date)

Lines to be taken over by Conrail in 1976 (in the event, Conrail took over EL and RDG as well)

During the post-World War II boom many railroads were driven out of business due to competition from airlines and Interstate highways. The rise of the automobile led to the end of passenger train service on most railroads. Trucking businesses had become major competitors by the 1930s with the advent of improved paved roads, and after the war they expanded their operations as the Interstate highway network grew, and acquired increased market share of freight business.[24]:219 Railroads continued to carry bulk freight such as coal, steel and other commodities. However, the ICC continued to regulate railroad rates and other aspects of railroad operations, which limited railroads' flexibility in responding to changing market forces.

In 1966 Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration, to issue and enforce rail safety regulations, administer railroad assistance programs, and conduct research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail transportation policy. The safety functions were transferred from the ICC. The FRA was established as part of the new federal Department of Transportation.[43]

Two of the largest remaining railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, merged in 1968 to form the Penn Central. At the insistence of the ICC the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad was added to the merger in 1969; in 1970 the Penn Central declared bankruptcy, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history until then.[24]:234 Other bankrupt railroads included the Ann Arbor Railroad (1973), Erie Lackawanna Railway (1972), Lehigh Valley Railroad (1970), Reading Company (1971), Central Railroad of New Jersey (1967) and Lehigh and Hudson River Railway (1972).

In 1970 Congress created a government corporation, Amtrak, to take over operation of Penn Central passenger lines and selected inter-city passenger services from other private railroads, under the Rail Passenger Service Act.[24]:234[44] Amtrak began operations in 1971.[45]

Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (sometimes called the "3R Act") to salvage viable freight operations from the bankrupt Penn Central and other lines in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and midwestern regions, through the creation of the Consolidated Rail Corporation (ConRail), a government-owned corporation.[46] Conrail began operations in 1976.[47] The 3R Act also formed the United States Railway Association, another government corporation, taking over the powers of the ICC with respect to allowing the bankrupt railroads to abandon unprofitable lines.

Amtrak acquired most of the right-of-way and facilities of the Penn Central Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston, under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (the "4R Act") of 1976.[24]:238[45]

In addition to freight railroads, Conrail inherited commuter rail operations from several predecessor railroads in the northeast, and these operations continued to be unprofitable. State and local government transportation agencies took over the passenger operations and acquired the various rights-of-way from Conrail in 1983.[47][48]

The National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-profit advocacy group, was organized in the late 1960s to support operation of passenger trains.

Beginning in the late 1970s Amtrak eliminated several of its lightly-traveled lines. Ridership stagnated at roughly 20 million passengers per year amid uncertain government aid from 1981 to about 2000.[49][50] Ridership increased during the first decade of the 21st century after implementation of capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and rises in automobile fuel costs.

Resurgence of freight railroads

File:Cajon Intermodal.jpg
The use of double-stack rail cars and intermodal containers, facilitated by deregulation, has improved railroads' competitiveness

In 1980 Congress enacted the Staggers Rail Act to revive freight traffic, by removing restrictive regulations and enabling railroads to be more competitive with the trucking industry.[51] The Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981 authorized additional deregulation of northeast railroads.[52] Among other things, these laws reduced the role of the ICC in regulating the railroads and allowed the carriers to discontinue unprofitable routes. More railroad companies merged and consolidated their lines in order to remain successful. These changes led to the current system of fewer, but profitable, Class I railroads covering larger regions of the United States.[24]:245–252

Since the beginning of the current deregulatory era, the following Class I railroads have been involved in mergers:

In 1995, when most of the ICC's powers had been eliminated, Congress finally abolished the agency and transferred its remaining functions to a new agency, the Surface Transportation Board.[53]

In the early 21st century, several of the railroads, along with the federal government and various port agencies, began to reinvest in freight rail infrastructure, such as intermodal terminals and bridge and tunnel improvements. These projects are designed to increase capacity and efficiency across the national rail network.[54][55] See Heartland Corridor and National Gateway.


Rail profiles used in the 19th century

The B&O established its Mount Clare Shops in Baltimore in 1829. This was the first railroad manufacturing facility in the U.S., and the company built locomotives, railroad cars, iron bridges and other equipment there.[5]:208 Following the B&O example, U.S. railroad companies soon became self-sufficient, as thousands of domestic machine shops turned out products and thousands of inventors and tinkerers improved the equipment.

Rail manufacturing

In general, U.S. railroad companies imported technology from Britain in the 1830s, particularly strap iron rails, as there were no rail manufacturing facilities in the United States at that time. Heavy iron "T" rails were first manufactured in the U.S. in the mid-1840s at Mount Savage, Maryland[56] and Danville, Pennsylvania.[57] This improved rail design permitted higher train speeds and more reliable operation. Discovery of high-quality iron ores in the mid-19th century, particularly in the Great Lakes region, led to fabrication of better-quality rails.[58][59]

Steel rails began to replace iron later in the 19th century. Several railroads imported steel rails from England in the 1860s, and the first commercially available steel rails in the U.S. were manufactured in 1867 at the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. By the mid-1880s U.S. railroads were using more steel rails than iron in building new or replacement tracks.[60]

Track gauge

Through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, not only local projects, but long-distance links, were completed, so that by 1860 the eastern half of the continent, especially the Northeast, was linked by a network of connecting railroads. However, although England had early adopted a standard gauge of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm), once Americans started building locomotives, they experimented with different gauges, resulting in the standard gauge, or a close approximation, being adopted in the Northeast and Midwest U.S., but a 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge in the South, and a 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) gauge in Canada. In addition, the Erie Railway was built to 6 ft (1,829 mm) broad gauge, and in the 1870s a widespread movement looked at the cheaper 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge. Except for the latter, gauges were standardized across North America after the end of the Civil War in 1865.[61]


File:Santa Fe FT locomotive 1941.JPG
EMD F-unit locomotives were widely used in the early years of dieselisation

In the early years American railroads imported many steam locomotives from England. While the B&O and the PRR built many of their own steam locomotives, other railroads purchased from independent American manufacturers. Prominent among the early steam manufacturers were Norris, Baldwin and Rogers,[62] followed by Lima and Alco later in the 19th and 20th centuries.[63]

Diesel locomotives were first developed in Europe after World War I, and US railroads began to use them widely in the 1930s and 1940s. Most US roads discontinued use of steam locomotives by the 1950s. A diesel engine was expensive to build, but was less complex and easier to maintain than a steam locomotive, and required only one person to operate. This meant reduced costs and greater reliability for the railroads.[24]:213–14 Several companies developed fast streamliner trains, such as the Super Chief and the California Zephyr during the 1930s and 1940s. Their locomotives used either diesel or similar internal combustion engine designs.

Though electric railways expanded in Europe, they never reached the same popularity in North America. They were built primarily in the north-west and the north-east beginning in the late 19th century. While some railroads used electric locomotives for both freight and passenger trains, by the end of the 20th century most freight trains were pulled only by diesel locomotives. See Railroad electrification in the United States.

Signalling and communications

File:Hall disc signal 1909.jpg
Hall disc signals were used in block signal systems beginning in the 1870s.

Early forms of American railroad signaling and communication were virtually non-existent. Before telegraphs, the American railroads initially managed their train operations using timetables. However, there were no means of communication between drivers and dispatchers, and occasionally, two trains were sent on a collision course, or "cornfield meets."[64] With the advent of the telegraph in the 1840s, a more sophisticated system was developed that allowed the dissemination of alterations to the timetable, known as train orders. These orders overrode the timetable, allowing the cancellation, rescheduling and addition of trains. The earliest recorded use of train orders was by the Erie Railroad in 1851.[65]

The development of the electrical track circuit in the 1870s led to the use of systems of block signals, which improved the railroads' speed, safety and efficiency. Mechanical interlockings, which prevent conflicting movements at rail junctions and crossings, were also introduced in the U.S. in the 1870s, after their initial development in Britain.[66]

Industrial organization

As the railways grew larger they devised increasingly complex forms of management. They invented the concept of middle management, set up career paths for promotion of aspiring employees, and established uniform bureaucratic rules for hiring, seniority, firing, promotions, wage rates and benefits.

The large-scale problems of management became obvious in the middle of the 19th century with the rise of the great railroad systems, such as the PRR and the B&O. New methods had to be invented for mobilizing, controlling, and apportioning capital, for operating a widely dispersed system, and for supervising thousands of specialized workmen spread over hundreds of miles. The railroads solved all these problems and became the model for all large businesses. The main innovators were three engineers, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, II of the B&O, Daniel McCallum of the Erie Railroad, and J. Edgar Thomson of the PRR. They devised the functional departments and first defined the lines of authority, responsibility, and communication with the concomitant separation of line and staff duties which have remained the principles of the modern American corporation.[67]

Labor relations and worker safety

Railways changed employment practices in many ways. Lines with hundreds or thousands of employees developed systematic rules and procedures, not only for running the equipment but in hiring, promoting, paying and supervising employees. The railway system of management was adopted by all major business sectors. Railways offered a new type of work experience in enterprises vastly larger in size, complexity and management. At first workers were recruited from occupations where skills were roughly analogous and transferable, that is, workshop mechanics from the iron, machine and building trades; conductors from stagecoach drivers, steamship stewards and mail boat captains; station masters from commerce and commission agencies; and clerks from government offices.[68]

In response to the strikes of the 1870s and 1880s, Congress passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to issue non-binding arbitration awards.[69] The Act was a complete failure: only one panel was ever convened under the Act, and that one, in the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike, issued its report only after the strike had been crushed by a federal court injunction backed by federal troops.

Automatic couplers were required by the 1893 Safety Appliance Act.

Congress attempted to correct these shortcomings in the Erdman Act, passed in 1898.[70] This law likewise provided for voluntary arbitration, but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal court. It also outlawed discrimination against employees for union activities, prohibited "yellow dog" contracts (employee agrees not to join a union while employed), and required both sides to maintain the status quo during any arbitration proceedings and for three months after an award was issued. The arbitration procedures were rarely used. A successor statute, the Newlands Act, was passed in 1913 and proved more effective,[71] but was largely superseded when the federal government nationalized the railroads in 1917.

As railroads expanded after the Civil War, so too did the rate of accidents among railroad personnel, especially brakemen. Many accidents were associated with the coupling and uncoupling of railroad cars, and the operation of manually operated brakes (hand brakes). The rise in accidents led to calls for safety legislation, as early as the 1870s.[72]:2–4 In the 1880s, the number of on-the-job fatalities of railroad workers was second only to those of coal miners.[72]:5 Through that decade, several state legislatures enacted safety laws. However, the specific requirements varied among the states, making implementation difficult for interstate rail carriers, and Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act in 1893 to provide a uniform standard.[72]:6–7[73] The law required railroads to install air brakes and automatic couplers on all trains, and led to a sharp drop in accidents.

The Esch–Cummins Act of 1920 terminated the nationalization program and created a Railway Labor Board (RLB) to regulate wages and issue non-binding proposals to settle disputes. In 1921 the RLB ordered a twelve percent reduction in employees' wages, which led to the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, involving rail shop workers nationwide, followed by a court injunction to end the strike.[74] Congress passed the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to rectify the shortcomings of the RLB procedures.[75]


There is no question about the importance of railroads in American history. Churella finds that back in the 1950s business and economic historians, led by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and Robert Fogel, made railroads the centerpiece of advanced historiography.[76] That era has passed as graduate programs have faded away, courses on railroad history do not make the curriculum, and the historiography has shifted away from professional historian to the "rail fans"—very well informed amateur writers fascinated by the memorabilia, technology and locomotives of the steam era. Looking at the voluminous output of rail fan authors, Klein says The vast bulk of this work is devoted to minute descriptions of power, rolling stock, obscure short lines, and technical subjects.... But few address the larger questions of railroad history or place their topic in broader contexts."[77][78] The result is a multiplicity of histories of specific railroads, large and small. Typically they deal with standard topics: the builders and their organizational, legislative and financial dealings; colorful construction crews laying down wood ties and steel rail; the development of locomotives and passenger cars; boosters who sought a stop in their little town else it would die; the 1880-1920 golden age of the passenger long-distance travel and local excursions; the steady erosion of passenger service during the automobile age; the freight agent and the small-town depot. They end with the more recent saga of retrenchment, merger, and abandonment.[79][80] Klein, Churella, Roth, and Franham all find that the popular writers show little interest in the development of managerial and organizational complexity of the sort that Chandler studied, or the economic impact that concerned Fogel's cohort.[81] From outside the field of railroad history, academic labor historians now deal with the culture of the workers, strikes, the careers for blue collar and white collar men, and racial discrimination. Academic political historians deal with the Granger, Populist and Progressive attacks, and in federal or state regulation.[79]

Appendix: Railroad active mileage by region

Source: United States Census Bureau, Report on Transportation Business in the United States at the Eleventh Census 1890, pg. 4.
Railroad Active Mileage by Region
Region 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890
New England
(ME, NH, VT, MA, RI, CT)
30 513 2,596 3,644 4,3273 5,888 6,718
(NY, PA, OH, MI, IN, MD, DE, NJ, DC)
  1,484 3,740 11,927 18,292 28,155 40,826
(VA, WV, KY, TN, MS, AL, GA, FL, NC, SC)
10 737 2,082 7,908 10,610 14,458 27,833
(IL, IA, WI, MO, MN)
  46 4,951 11,031 22,213 35,580
South Central
(LA, AR, OK/Indian Territory)
  21 107 250 331 1,621 5,154
(ND, SD, NM, WY, MT, ID, UT, TX, AZ, NE, KS, TX, CO, CA, NV, OR, WA)
      239 4,578 15,466 47,451
TOTAL USA 40 2,755 8,571 28,920 49,168 87,801 163,562

See also

Further reading

Scholarly studies

  • Chandler, Alfred D., ed. (1981). The Railroads: The Nation's First Big Business - Sources and Readings. Arno Press. ISBN 9780405137686.
  • Chandler, Alfred D. (1977). The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674940529.
  • Churella, Albert J. The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917 (2012) excerpt and text search; 976pp
  • Deverell, William (1994). Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850–1910. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). ISBN 9780520205055.
  • Ducker, James H. (1982). Men of the steel rails: Workers on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, 1869-1900.
  • Fish, Carl Russell (1917). "The Northern Railroads, April, 1861," The American Historical Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jul., 1917), pp. 778–793 JSTOR 1836240; old but still valuable
  • Frey, Robert J. (1988). Railroads of the Nineteenth Century. Volume 2 of "Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography." (New York: Facts on File). 490pp. ISBN 9780816020126.
  • Gallamore, Robert E.; Meyer, John R. (2014). American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674725645.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Grant, H. Roger. Railroads and the American People (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Hayes, Derek. Historical atlas of the North American railroad (2010); 400 historical maps
  • Hubbard, Freeman H. (1981). Encyclopedia of North American railroading: 150 years of railroading in the United States and Canada. (New York: McGraw-Hill). ISBN 9780070308282.
  • Jenks, Leland H. (1944). "Railroads as an Economic Force in American Development," The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (May, 1944), 1-20. JSTOR 2113700.
  • Kirkland, Edward Chase (1948). Men, Cities and Transportation, A Study of New England History 1820-1900. (2 vol.) Harvard University Press.
  • Klein, Maury (1997). The Life and Legend of Jay Gould Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801857713.
  • Klein, Maury (2000). The Life & Legend of E. H. Harriman (2000) University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2517-4. Online edition.
  • Marrs, Aaron W. Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society (2009)
  • Martin, Albro. James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Martin, Albro. Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (1992) excerpt and text search; wide ranging overview
  • Marrs, Aaron W. Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society (2009) excerpt and text search
  • Meyer, Balthasar H. History of Transportation in the United States before 1860 (1917) online
  • Middleton, William D. ed. (2007). Encyclopedia of North American Railroads. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253349163.
  • Miner, Craig. A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862 (University Press of Kansas; 2010) 325 pages; Documents the enthusiasm that accompanied the advent of the railroad system
  • Nice, David C. Amtrak: The History and Politics of a National Railroad (1998) online edition
  • Nock, O.S., ed. Encyclopedia of Railways (London, 1977), worldwide coverage, heavily illustrated
  • Riegel, Robert Edgar. The Story of the Western Railroads 1926 online edition
  • Riley, C. J. The Encyclopedia of Trains & Locomotives (2002)
  • Saunders, Richard. Main lines: Rebirth of the North American railroads, 1970-2002 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).
  • Stover, John. The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads (2001)
  • Stover, John. History of the Illinois Central Railroad (1975)
  • Stover, John. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s (1978)
  • Turner, George E. Victory rode the rails: the strategic place of the railroads in the Civil War (1953)
  • Ward, James Arthur. J. Edgar Thomson: master of the Pennsylvania (1980) 265 pages
  • Ward, James A. "Power and Accountability on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846-1878." Business History Review 1975 49(1): 37-59. in JSTOR
  • White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Wolmar, Christian. The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America (2012), survey to 2012; emphasis on 19th century; 448pp excerpt and text search

Old studies

  • Clarke, Thomas Curtis (1889). The American Railway: Its Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons). 456 pp. online
  • Davis, John Patterson (1894). Union Pacific Railway: A Study in Railway Politics, History, and Economics. (Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Company). 247 pp. online
  • Dozier, Howard Douglas (1920). A History of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. (New York: Houghton Mifflin). 197 pp.
  • Flint, Henry M. (1868) Railroads of the United States: Their History and Statistics. (Philadelphia. PA: John E. Potter Co.) 452 pp.
  • Johnson, Emory Richard (1908). American Railway Transportation. 2nd rev. ed. (New York: D. Appleton & Co.) 434 pp.
  • Moody, John. The Railroad Builders: A Chronicle of the Welding of the States (1919) online edition; popular history
  • Raper, Charles Lee. and Arthur Twining Hadley. Railway Transportation: A History of Its Economics and of Its Relation to the State, (1912) 331 pages; complete online at Google


  • Churella, Albert J. "Company, State, and Region: Three Approaches to Railroad History," Enterprise & Society (2006) 7#3, pp. 581–591
  • Klein, Maury. "The Unfinished Business: of American Railroad History," in Unfinished Business: The Railroad in American Life (1994) pp 166-86


  • Railroads in U.S. History (1830-2010) (2010), set of 4 DVDs, directed by Ron Meyer; #1, "Railroads come to America (1830 - 1840);" #2, "The First Great Railroad Boom (1841- 1860)"; #3, "A New Era in American Railroading (1861 - 1870)," #4, "The Second Great Railroad Boom (1871 - 2010)" link


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External links