the first american railroad -- 4/11/22

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. Railroads, which had gotten their start in Britain, would transform and supercharge the economies of Europe and America as perhaps no other invention before or since. Though they appeared first in Britain, their introduction in America followed almost immediately, thanks to the traders and bankers of Baltimore’s Brown family, who were trying to counter the advantage canals had conferred upon New York and other cities to its north:

“[The] railroad would have come to America sooner or later, but … the first major line was born in Baltimore, care of Brown Brothers.

"In February 1827, a few dozen men gathered at the home of George Brown to mull ‘the best means of restoring the City of Baltimore, that portion of Western Trade, which has lately been diverted from it by the Introduction of Steam navigation, and by other causes.’ George had arranged at the meeting for a presentation by Philip Thomas and his brother, who had recently returned from a trip to England where they had seen the Stockton line in person. They made the case that Baltimore was too late to the canal game and that a railroad would be cheaper to build and would convey men and materials faster. Judging from the speeds of the Erie Canal, it would take ten days to ship goods using a canal that stretched from Baltimore to central Ohio. A railroad, they promised, would take only three. While the capital required was significant, faster would eventually mean cheaper, and that would lower the cost of transporting goods, which would then make Baltimore that much more attractive.

"So was the promise and the hope. In the era, promise and hope were their own form of currency. The men who gathered at George Brown’s house shared a particular sensibility of their time, prevalent in England, France, Germany and the new United States. It was a sensibility that progress was the inevitable outcome of technology, and that mankind, led by a few select nations, was on the cusp of solving the essential problems of hu­man existence from time immemorial. With the revolutions and upheavals of  the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century receding into the past, there was a widespread belief that a new era had dawned and that the age-old challenges of transport, food and the sheer obstacles of the physical world were soon to be conquered. That sense was still nascent in the 1820s, but it was palpable in that room in Baltimore.

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad system map, circa 1961

"Canal building and railroads were emblems of that spirit. In France, the utopian followers of Henri de Saint-Simon avidly pursued canal building and railroad schemes in the belief that those would not only make it possible to supply everyone with the food and clothing and materials needed to be prosperous and secure but also would heal the divisions between nations. They believed that the separation of bodies of water had kept societies from realizing their full potential. In addition to this airy metaphysical belief, they were also convinced that by connecting sundered waters and distant lands, canals and railroads would unleash a new wave of progress. Canals were relatively straightforward feat of engineering and had been made since antiquity. Railroads, however, were entirely new, a pure manifestation of human ingenuity and creativity. In the words of Thomas Gray, one of the earliest apostles of building the lines that would crisscross England, railroads ‘would revolutionize the whole face of the material works and society.’ Canals and rails epitomized the era’s heady fervor that the peoples of Europe and North America were on the verge of something great, of technological and industrial revolutions that would transform everything. Not all went as planned, but canals were dug and railroads soon covered continents. It was an intoxicating vision, one that lured Alexander and his sons and captivated the age. Progress meant that not only would the Brown family get right, but their city, their state, their country and the world would all be better for it. Progress meant that the growth of their fortunes could be inextricably linked to the growth of the fortunes of their adopted counties, England and the United States. While many of Baltimore’s great families feared that the success of New York and Philadelphia would leave Baltimore lessened, they also hoped that it would not be a zero-sum game. The West was vast, and, in theory, there were more than enough opportunities for everyone to prosper.

"The attendees that February night had been debating what to do for several months, which may explain how they were able to commit so quickly and emphatically to constructing a railroad that would far surpass in scope and length anything like it at the time. In fact, they committed to building a railroad with the hopes that it would eventually connect Baltimore to the Ohio Valley and traverse the mountains without any actual evidence that a railroad was either financially or technically feasible. And they committed without knowing whether steam-powered locomotives would work, and planned on horse-drawn trains as a fallback option. Other than the experiments in England over short distances and flat ground that were prone to blowing up and maiming or killing their operators, there were no railroads whose cars were pulled by engines.

"The leaders of Baltimore, however were undeterred. They were galvanized by a potent mix of ambition, vision, naivete and desperation. They agreed that evening in 1827 to form a smaller committee to report back to the larger group by the end of the month, and Alexander Brown wrote to his son William in Liverpool requesting a copy of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway charter that had recently been granted. The elder Brown was particularly interested in any advances being made in ‘the application of Steam to land Navigation.’ A few days later, the same group reconvened and decided to form the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. That company would be responsible for building a double-track railroad over hundreds of miles on a route to be determined.

"Within weeks, the group had obtained a charter from the Maryland legislature for a company capitalized at about $3 million, which was much less than the estimates for a canal. Philip Thomas was elected president, George Brown treasurer, and Alexander one of the directors. The stature of the men involved made obtaining that charter an easy affair. No one questioned the urgency of doing something when every other major municipality appeared to be ahead. The vision for a revolutionary form of transportation connecting the coast to the West was praised fulsomely in the press as 'a plan for making a railroad from the city of Baltimore to some point on the Ohio River ... considered and adopted by certain of our most intelligent, public spirited and wealthy citizens.' Local newspapers maintained no pretense of objectivity on matters so significant: the owner of one of the city's primary papers, Hezekiah Niles of Niles’ Weekly Register, was an unabashed booster of the city's fortunes.

"The favorable press also aided the novel means of funding. Given that the project was meant benefit the city as a whole, the Browns and the other founders decided to finance it through a public offering. What is commonplace now -- turning to the community for funds to build needed public works -- was novel then."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


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