Making History: The American Railroad

Making History: The American Railroad

Railroads played a key role in our country’s history and continue to be vital today. Here is a look at this history, from the railroad’s inception to the modern industry.

The Beginning

In 1826, John Stevens, known as the “father of American Railroads,” combined the technologies of steam engines and railroads in a steam-powered horse carriage – considered to be the first steam locomotive in the country.

John Stevens was granted the first railroad charter to build the New Jersey Railroad company, which he completed in 1832. As additional grants to others followed, the first operational railroads began to take shape. Best Friend of Charleston, built by the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company, was the first railroad to carry passengers on December 25, 1830.

The railroad industry faced several challenges in its early stages, including little oversight and unsafe working conditions. Soon, however, railroads were established as efficient means of transportation. It took railroads half the time of steamboats to travel between cities, and by 1850, there were over 9,000 miles of railroad track east of the Mississippi.

The Transcontinental Railroad and the Golden Age

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Railroad Act, which put federal support behind the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad, beginning at the Missouri River, and the Central Pacific Railroad, beginning in California, met at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, completing the transcontinental railroad and ushering in the “Golden Age” of railroading.

During this time, the railroad saw many advances, including the establishment of a standard track gauge, the invention of the automatic coupler and air breaks, and increases in safety. Railroads dominated the transportation industry, both for passengers and freight. By 1916, there were 250,000 miles of track providing almost 100% of interstate transportation.

The Decline of the Railroad Industry

As automobiles became cheaper and more widespread during the 1930’s, the railroad industry began to decline. World War II hit the railroad industry hard, and despite the railroad’s best efforts, the decline continued at the end of the war and through the 1950’s. Many railroads merged during this time and cut maintenance and passenger trains in the 1960’s. Trains and tracks were neglected, equipment decayed, and the industry faded.

The 1970’s saw no improvement, with many large railroad companies going out of business. In April, 1976 the government developed Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in an attempt to revive the business in this region. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, was developed in 1971 to bring back passenger trains as an option for travel

The Comeback

Thanks to legislation allowing deregulation of the railroad industry passed in the 1980’s, railroads have made a comeback. Since the 1990’s, there has been a return to using rail to transport goods and materials. With unstable gas prices, trains offer a more economical, efficient alternative to transporting freight by truck.

Passenger travel has also increased, largely due to passengers’ environmental concerns. Trains emit fewer pollutants and can take the place of hundreds of cars. As roads become more congested, trains become a less stressful and more efficient means of travel.

The railroad industry has a long and storied past in the United States. Trains have survived both boom and bust and will continue to shape the path of this country into the future.

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