Railroad History

Railroad history spans more than 250 years, with origins stemming from England during the height of the coal mine era. American railroad history begins a little later as advanced technology traveled fast after initial invention. And with such a convenient, heavy-duty mode of transportation at their feet, of course America embraced and improved upon it. American railroad history begins with the first steam engine utilized for pumping out mass amounts of water inside working mines. But it isn’t really until 1825 that the history of America’s historic steam railroads began.

American skill and ingenuity in the transportation field was first demonstrated by the powerful engines of steam boats. In 1793, a Delaware River boat succeeded in moving via steam-powered paddles, propelled by a steam engine invented by the ingenious John Fitch. It didn’t take long before this revolution caught on and dozens of steamboats were taking to American waters, a development which subsequently led into the beginning of railroad history. Today, Delaware & Ulster Railroad and Wilmington & Western Railroad are two of the only historic railroads left in the state. Not far to the east the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is also one of the oldest operating railways in the country.

Colonel John Stevens arguably takes first place on the rails of America’s historic steam railroads. In 1825, he constructed a wagon, based on steam power, that he put on show in his front yard in Hoboken, New Jersey (only about a two-hour drive west from Pennsylvania’s historic Strasburg Railway). Today Stevens’ previous home is a major tourist destination named Hudson Terrace. Proven to be quite an intellectual, he inherently knew Americans couldn’t rely on water transportation as well as ground transport and based his inventions on what he was certain would prove to be the needs of the people.

Around the 1830s, railroads were in place, but not yet trains. The tracks were traveled by cars drawn by horses via the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, close to today’s venerable Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Horse-drawn cars regularly traveled at a speed of about fourteen miles per hour until the installation of America’s historic steam railroads. During this time, hundreds of inventors toured England, plying Englishmen for information and studying train systems across England, furthering their knowledge of steam technology.

In Pennsylvania in 1827, Switch Back Gravity Railroad began initial operations, making it the second railroad to operate, and labeling it the one of the most historic rail routes in the US. The mines at Honesdale were laid in 1828 by the Delaware Hudson Canal Company and in 1829, a culminating point arrived when the first steam engine was put to work in the United States. Shipped from England and called Stourbridge Lion, it ended up being so hefty and unmanageable it was taken off the tracks. At this point technology was honed over myriad tracks and multitudes of steam train inventors.

Railroad history in the US gained speed during the later part of the 1800s when the Santa Fe Railroad, the Central Pacific, and the Southern Pacific Railroads were all completed. Today, the Santa FE Southern Railroad still offers train rides aboard now-vintage train coaches and is only six hours south of Pikes Peak Cog Railway, another vintage gem. The Durango Silverton Railroad and the Rio Grande are two more of Colorado’s top three unforgettable seasoned railways.

Diesel electric engines came into play in 1917 when a prototype by General Electric was introduced. During the next few decades, diesel electric train technology was perfected and gas-electric rail cars are ushered in, yet steam was still widely used. Today, important American railroad history is featured at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. Train enthusiasts can see the very first enclosed passenger cars (running on Diesel electric power) that ran the Baltimore and Ohio lines.

A surprising number of America’s historic steam railroads are still in operation today. The Grand Canyon Railway and the Yosemite Railroad feature steam powered locomotives taking scenic rides through some of the top destinations in the country. Railroad history is predominant at historic museums such as Niles Canyon Railroad where visitors can see rare, restored equipment and enjoy both a steam and diesel powered train ride. Some of the best railroad trips in the US today are aboard historic railroads like Pennsylvania’s Strasburg Railroad, Alaska’s White Pass & Yukon Railroad, and Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona.

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