The Great American Railroad
- Wednesday, November 08, 2006
"May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world." --Engraved on the golden spike of the first transcontinental railroad
I've been working on this railroad article, for certainly not "all my live-long day," but I have made an important discovery! People everywhere are enthusiastic about every aspect of train lore. Adults and small children are fascinated with trains. My children learned the word choo choo probably in close proximity to the words Mama and Dada. I remember my nephew at around age 2 running out back of Grandma's house to see the train each day at noon, pointing and shouting, "da boo!" This of course, was his excitement at seeing the caboose.
Once you are hooked on trains, you are hooked for life! There are people out there doing historical research whose hobbies are modeling trains, collecting railroading ephemera, drawing, painting, or photographing trains, or dreaming of holding the highly coveted position of engineer. No matter what the draw, these aficionados of the railroad kind are a dedicated bunch. After riding the rails myself, through a little research, I can see why!
But how did all this locomotion get started, anyway? Well, now that your ticket is in hand, a-a-a-all aboard! Let's take a little trip and see what we can learn together!
The history of the train and the railroad system is as complex as the World Wide Web, it seems. One thing leads to another. In order for civilizations to grow, people and things must be moved from one place to the next. In the natural progression from walking to riding horses to hauling entire households on Conestoga wagons across the wilderness, people have always found more innovative ways to get from here to there.
Sometimes technological advances are not accepted with open arms. Many people perceived the railroad as bringing threats and dangers. Some folks even objected to the railroad on religious grounds, saying that the iron beast was from the devil himself. Even though some of their worries were far-fetched, such as the idea that the speed of the train would take your breath away or make you go insane, some perceived dangers were real. Cars lurched and jolted passengers, and sparks flying from a train's own smokestack sometimes started fires. Bridges and tracks were unstable, and numerous train accidents occurred in the 1850s, according to Richard Wormsier's book The Iron Horse.
Some of the first railroads were used in mines. Horses or mules pulled cars with wooden wheels running on wooden rails back in sixteenth-century England. The wheels were actually built to ride the rails like modern train wheels are now, with a flange. One of the earliest turbine devices that used steam, dating to 1629, is attributed to Giovanni Branca (University Society Encyclopedia, 1975 edition). According to the same resource, Richard Trevithick built and tested a steam locomotive in 1801. A steam-power "explosion" occurred around that time, with Robert Fulton's steam-powered boat heading up the Hudson River from New York to Albany in 1807. Excitement and experimentation were taking place on both sides of the world!
The Rocket, George Stephenson's famous engine, pulled the world's first passenger train on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. Stephenson created the standard track gauge used worldwide. In the United States in that same year, Peter Cooper invented the Tom Thumb in Baltimore. It raced a horse-drawn coach and lost because a belt broke. The first steam locomotive to carry passengers in America was reportedly the Best Friend of Charleston in 1830. In the 1850s, trains become increasingly popular and efficient and put other means of transport out of business. In 1865, George Pullman unveiled his sleeping car. After it was attached to the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, the demand for them multiplied and Pullman's business boomed.
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