Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first long-distance railroad line in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio line began slowly but helped to launch a national mania for railroad construction that within a few decades revolutionized transportation throughout the country.

Summary of Event

The quickening pace of American life achieved a new momentum during the early national period. The westward movement acquired a national character as New Englanders pushed into the Ohio Valley and Virginians filled up Kentucky and Tennessee. The eastern seaboard, with its cities and port facilities, turned to the West for its food, and the grain-producing hinterland responded with increased production. Improved forms of transportation were required to bring the produce of the interior to the coast. Enterprising businessmen, pooling their capital resources, engaged in canal building and railroad construction. Private initiative, in the absence of a consistent government policy of promoting public works, laid the foundation of a national transportation system. This transportation system began with canals, Canals but regions without navigable waterways had to find another method. Railroads provided the answer. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Railroads;Baltimore and Ohio Railroads;U.S. Maryland;Baltimore and Ohio Railroad [kw]Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens (Jan. 7, 1830) [kw]Ohio Railroad Opens, Baltimore and (Jan. 7, 1830) [kw]Railroad Opens, Baltimore and Ohio (Jan. 7, 1830) [kw]Opens, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Jan. 7, 1830) Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Railroads;Baltimore and Ohio Railroads;U.S. Maryland;Baltimore and Ohio Railroad [g]United States;Jan. 7, 1830: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens[1530] [c]Transportation;Jan. 7, 1830: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens[1530] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 7, 1830: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens[1530] [c]Engineering;Jan. 7, 1830: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens[1530] Thomas, Philip Evan Thomas, Evan Cooper, Peter Howard, John Eager Knight, Jonathan Long, Stephen Harriman Carroll, Charles

The development of transportation in the early national period took three forms: canals, roads, and railroads. Built in areas of accessible rivers and lakes, canals were by far the cheapest transportation system. Horsedrawn canal Horses;and canals[Canals] barges could move heavy bulk commodities inexpensively, and the cost of canal maintenance was negligible. After the Erie Canal Erie Canal opened in 1825, Buffalo and New York City became entrepôts for western trade. The Morris Company Canal, under construction from 1824 to 1832, eventually connected New York Harbor to the mouth of the Lehigh River and served to bring Lehigh coal to the seaboard. Other canals were enthusiastically promoted, with the expectation of reaping huge profits from the western trade. Smarting from the success of New York’s Erie Canal, Pennsylvania Pennsylvania;canals constructed the Pennsylvania Portage and Canal System between 1826 and 1840. However, this elaborate system of cable portages and short canals was a dismal failure. High construction costs and competition from railroads rendered this bold scheme obsolete before it opened.

The construction of roads had a much longer history. The Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike, completed in 1794, encouraged road building in other areas. In New England and the middle states, where distances between towns were relatively short, toll roads were constructed feverishly during the 1790’s and early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, road transportation was more expensive than canal transportation. High freight costs precluded the movement of bulk commodities, and overland transportation declined rapidly with the rise of canals. Canals By 1821, six hundred miles of new turnpike construction had been authorized, and nearly four thousand miles stood completed. The old National Road, National Road (U.S.);decline connecting Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, on the Ohio River, fell into neglect after the opening of the Erie Canal. By 1825, the turnpike boom had passed.

Railroads, the third form of transportation, required the assistance of more advanced technology. In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in England. Great Britain;railroads Stockton and Darlington Railway The railroad’s potential for the United States quickly was recognized. Within a few years, railroad construction in the United States surpassed that in Great Britain. Short-line railroads were first, but with the incorporation of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827, long-distance rail transportation for goods and passengers became a reality in the United States.

Baltimore’s Baltimore;commerce decision to sponsor a railroad into the interior was, in essence, a manifesto in its struggle with New York City for commercial supremacy on the East Coast. By 1827, Baltimore boasted a population of eighty thousand people, of whom nearly two-thirds earned their livings in commerce and related industries. The completion of the Erie Canal threatened Baltimore’s prosperity. Other planned canals, such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, were also threats to the port of Baltimore. The National Road, which had played a significant role in Baltimore’s commercial success up until that time, could not compete with New York’s all-water route. Hence, the idea of a railroad, an ambitious and fiscally dangerous scheme at best, soon found influential supporters in Baltimore’s business community.

Discussion preceded organization. At a dinner party held at the Baltimore home of Colonel John Eager Howard Howard, John Eager in 1826, the scheme for a railroad linking Baltimore with the Ohio Valley was first discussed. Evan Thomas Thomas, Evan , an influential member of Baltimore’s business elite, who was to become the first president of the new railroad, had just returned from England, where he had viewed the operations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Stockton and Darlington Railway . Thomas was enthusiastic about the new enterprise, and he succeeded in arousing the interest of a few business leaders with his vivid descriptions of the English railroad. Most business leaders, however, remained reticent, and their cautious attitude prevented immediate action. Evan’s brother, Philip Evan Thomas Thomas, Philip Evan , now took up the cause. As a prosperous merchant who felt threatened by New York City’s ascendancy, Philip Thomas began pushing the idea at every available gathering. When New York City appeared to be running away with the western trade, Baltimore businessmen began to panic. The ideas of the Thomas brothers, so quietly received in 1826, aroused unbridled enthusiasm during the early months of 1827.

At a dinner party held at the home of George Brown on February 2, 1827, the Thomas Thomas, Evan Thomas, Philip Evan brothers presented a discourse on the relative advantages of a railroad trade route to the West. Twenty-five businessmen attended this affair, representing a good portion of Baltimore’s business elite. After the discourse, a committee was appointed to investigate the feasibility of the scheme. One week later, the committee reported that immediate steps should be taken to construct a railroad between the city of Baltimore and a suitable point on the Ohio River. The report further suggested that a company be formed and a charter of incorporation be obtained from the legislature. Business leaders received the report and took action immediately. A large edition of the report was published in pamphlet form and distributed publicly. News of the plan quickly spread beyond city limits, and throughout the state of Maryland tongues were wagging. When a formal petition for a charter of incorporation was submitted to the Maryland State legislature on February 27, 1827, little opposition arose. The bill for incorporation passed easily the next day, and America’s first significant experiment in railroad building was under way.

The charter of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company provided for a capital stock of three million dollars to be raised by the public sale of fifteen thousand shares at one hundred dollars per share. Ten thousand shares were reserved for subscription by the state of Maryland, and five thousand for subscription by the city of Baltimore. When ten thousand shares had been purchased, the corporation would be declared established and all its rights and privileges would take effect immediately. The fiscal organization of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad transformed the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland into a private corporation, and the citizens of the state into a public enterprise.

When the stock offer was made, an enthusiastic public responded. Money flowed into the company coffers. Parents took out stock in their children’s names, and a wave of speculation swept the state. The stock books were opened on March 20, 1827, at the Farmers Branch Bank in Frederick and the Mechanics Bank in Baltimore. Twelve days later, the books were closed. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad stock was distributed among twenty-two thousand individuals; almost every white family in the state had a stake in the company. Private enterprise had created a public utility. In effect, the building of the Erie Canal forced the leaders of Baltimore to accept the challenge of an experimental mode of transportation, whereas other cities pursued abortive and costly experiments with canal construction in inappropriate locations.

The actual construction of the line awaited the solution of many engineering problems. Americans were novices in railroad building, but what they lacked in practical experience they more than made up for with energy. The federal government possessed the only major repository of engineering knowledge, and the management of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad raided the government for talent. Colonel Stephen Harriman Long Long, Stephen Harriman was recruited from the Army, and Jonathan Knight Knight, Jonathan , a well-recognized mathematician, came from the National Road project. Engineers were sent to England to study the British system, and preliminary surveys were made to determine the best route to follow. Problems arose, but public impatience goaded the bureaucracy to action.

By the summer of 1828, enough progress had been made to allow a symbolic gesture. The historic significance of America’s first long-distance railroad was clearly seen. The citizens of Maryland believed themselves to be upon the threshold of a new era. To ensure a conspicuous place in later history books, the management of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad sought to commemorate the occasion with the laying of a cornerstone. To perform this symbolic act, they chose Charles Carroll Carroll, Charles , the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. In a ceremony preceded by parades and speeches on July 4, 1828, Carroll laid the cornerstone for the first interstate railroad in the United States.

Two years later, on January 7, 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened its line from Pratt Street through to Carrolton Viaduct for public riding. Four rail cars, pulled by teams of horses, Horses;and railroads[Railroads] with a total seating capacity of 120 persons, made the first run. Although it would not be until the 1850’s when the trains actually reached Ohio, Ohio;railroads the thirteen-mile initial line from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills quickly became a showcase of early U.S. railroading.

Peter Cooper Cooper, Peter , who owned a Baltimore iron foundry, built the Tom Thumb, Tom Thumb (train) a diminutive steam locomotive. In an experimental trial on August 28, 1830, it hauled thirty-six people at speeds up to eighteen miles per hour. The railroad’s directors were impressed, and with the help of Baltimore engine builders, the railroad was transformed into a true steam-operated railroad during the 1830’s.

As the railroad expanded, the need for technological improvements became evident. Only a year after the railroad began operation, Jonathan Knight Knight, Jonathan , the railroad’s chief engineer, said the comfort of the passenger carriages had to be improved by mounting them on springs to improve ride quality. In addition, sheets of timetables, called “Arrangements of Trains,” were posted in stations for the edification of travelers. Ridership and freight tonnage increased. Service improvements caused more use. All acted to feed industrial growth. The need for improved railroad equipment spawned support industries to serve it.


The beginning of long-distance railroads was inauspicious, but the potential for public rail transportation created a railroad mania throughout the nation. Schemes for railroad construction took the public imagination by storm. By 1833, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company had completed its line from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina South Carolina;railroads . In 1836, the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad connected Toledo, Ohio, Ohio;railroads with Adrian Township, in the Michigan Territory. Between 1840 and 1860, an additional twenty-eight thousand miles were added to the nation’s railroad system. The growth of railroads allowed the absorption of immigrants both on the coast and in the interior. At the same time, westward expansion resulted in the displacement of the American Indian population there.

More efficient steam engines Steam engines;trains soon replaced the smoking teakettle contraptions of the earlier years, and as horsepower per tonnage increased, freight costs dropped dramatically. What had begun as a private enterprise by Baltimore merchants to save their city became a national institution. The railroad soon came to dominate internal transportation, but more important, the railroad created a need for corporate organization on a large scale. The phenomenal growth of American industry in the second half of the nineteenth century cannot be understood without reference to the impact of the railroads upon American economic life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, George H. All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life. New York: Paragon House, 1992. Examines how the railroad has shaped the lives of Americans and the communities in which they live.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faith, Nicholas. The World the Railways Made. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991. Examines the effects of railroads on society on a worldwide basis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fishlow, Albert. American Railroads and the Transformation of the Antebellum Economy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. A controversial interpretation of the effect of railroad expansion on the economy of the pre-Civil War United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hornung, Clarence. Wheels Across America. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1959. A graphic history of vehicular transportation in North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hungerford, Edward. The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928. Traces the history of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as an example of corporate institutional growth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, David. The Willing Servant: A History of the Steam Engine. Stroud, England: Tempus, 2004. A history of the steam engine and its impact on society. Ross begins his chronicle with Trevithick’s invention of the first steam engine during the early nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stover, John F. American Railroads. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. This general history of U.S. railroads places the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in historical perspective.

Trevithick Patents the High-Pressure Steam Engine

Construction of the National Road

Westward American Migration Begins

Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens

Erie Canal Opens

Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Opens

Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Is Incorporated

Pacific Railroad Surveys

First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

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Leland Stanford; Cornelius Vanderbilt. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Railroads;Baltimore and Ohio Railroads;U.S. Maryland;Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

Categories: History