Chartered in Maryland on February 28, 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) was the first common carrier railroad in the United States.
At the time, Baltimore was the second largest city in the country. Not only was the city large, but it possessed a grand vision of the future, which it was convinced would arrive on rails.
Twenty-five visionaries, mostly Baltimore merchants, along with Maryland and Baltimore officials, were certain of the railroad’s potential. So, on July 4, 1828, the first stone for the B&O track was laid. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a wealthy landowner, and one of the founding directors of the group, officiated the ceremony before members and a lively Baltimore crowd. “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing of the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that,” Carroll, a sprite 90-year-old, said.
With that, Carroll dug the first hole for the stone for the first B&O track. And the rest, as they say, is railroad history.
All of which can be found in the B&O Railroad Museum, home to the oldest and most comprehensive American railroad collection in the world. The museum is situated on a 40-acre site called Mt. Clare at 901 W. Pratt St., near the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore. Three buildings on the site were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961: Mt. Clare Station (1851), the Annex (1891) and the Roundhouse (1884). Commercial passenger and freight service began here on May 20, 1830. As the first railroad manufacturing facility in the U.S., the Mt. Clare Shops became a leading innovator in locomotive technology – and the railroad became one of the most significant players in the socio-economic development of the country.
Over almost 200 years, the railroad has contributed greatly to boosting the U.S. economy, travel and development, the advancement of civil rights and labor unions, the introduction of time zones, advancements in communications (telegraph), and innovations in technology.
Staff members like to say the train museum, which was created in 1953, tells the “story of America through the lens of the railroad because every car is connected to a significant historical event, person, or place with a story,” Kris Hoellen, Executive Director of the museum, said
The Roundhouse and the North Car Shop chronicle the journey from steam locomotives to the diesel-electrics – an almost two-century journey. To appreciate that technological trek, it helps to understand the design of a steam engine. A basic steam engine works like a pressure cooker or a tea kettle.
“Steam, produced from heating water in the boiler part of the engine, builds pressure and is admitted to the cylinder through a valve,” Jonathan Goldman, the museum’s Chief Curator, said. “As the steam expands, it pushes the piston in the cylinder to move the crank on a flywheel to move the wheels of the locomotive.”
After beginning railroad construction in 1828, steam technology took a few years to perfect in the U.S. Originally, trains were pulled by horses. In the Roundhouse, which showcases many of the most significant American locomotives of the 19th century, you can view the horse-drawn “Pioneer” built by Richard Imlay in 1830, one of the first railroad cars produced in the U.S., and the first passenger car on the B&O.
On May 22, 1830, the “Pioneer” carried the B&O directors on the railroad’s inaugural trip from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills – a 13-mile trip that took about an hour. The coach, basically a box with flanged wheels, offered little in passenger comfort. The driver sat in front outside in the cab area on a hard plate.
By 1836, the B&O stopped using horse-drawn coaches. The animals tired easily on lengthy journeys. The first American-made locomotive to successfully run on the U.S. railway system, the “Tom Thumb,” was designed and constructed in 1830 by Peter Cooper in the Mt. Clare Shops and nearby Canton. It burned coal and had a vertical boiler, was pint-sized, and weighed less than a ton. On August 28, 1830, it carried the B&O directors to Ellicott Mills from Baltimore, but unlike the “Pioneer” which traveled 9 miles per hour, the “Tom Thumb,” moved 10 to 14 miles per hour, amazing its passengers.
According to the museum’s archivist, Anna Kresmer “It hauled passengers until at least March 1831, but was never placed into regular service. The ‘Tom Thumb’ was salvaged for parts in 1834.” The operating replica in the Roundhouse was built for the 100th anniversary of the B&O Railroad for the 1927 Fair of the Iron Horse.
From such humble beginnings, train technology and the railroad’s influence grew exponentially. Wood was replaced by coal in higher-capacity horizontal boilers to fuel larger, more powerful locomotives. Coal gave way to the revolutionary diesel-electric locomotives.
Standardized time zones in the U.S. and Canada were instituted in November of 1883 by the railroads. The railroad also provided countless jobs for minorities. From the 1860s to early 1920s, the Pullman Company became the largest employer of African-Americans in the country and contributed to the rise of the Black middle class. Working conditions, however, were poor. In 1925, renowned labor organizer and civil rights advocate, A. Philip Randolph, formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first African American labor union in the U.S.
The B&O Railroad forever changed the course of the nation and its people in innumerable ways.
You can learn much more about the birthplace of American railroading by going to the B&O Railroad Museum website: www.borail.org.