Timeline of United States railway history

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Steam locomotives of the Chicago and North Western Railway in the roundhouse at the Chicago, Illinois rail yards, 1942

The Timeline of U.S. Railway History depends upon the definition of a railway, as follows: A means of conveyance of passengers and goods on wheeled vehicles running on rails, also known as tracks.


  • 1795–96 & 1799–1804 or '05 — In 1795, Charles Bulfinch, the architect of Boston's famed State House first employed a temporary funicular railway with specially designed dumper cars to decapitate 'the Tremont's' Beacon Hill summit and begin the decades long land reclamation projects which created most of the real estate in Boston's lower elevations of today from broad mud flats, such as South Boston, Eastern parts of Dorchester, much of the shorelines of the entire Charles River basin on both the left and right banks and Brighton from mud flats, and most famously and tellingly especially the Back Bay.[1]
  • 1815-1820s One interpretation of historical documents indicates the same equipment was used for a longer, more ambitious period to level and effectively remove 'The Tremont', Copely, Cope's, and Beacon Hills again into what became Boston's Back Bay.[1] These moves were far from completing the project, photos in the 1850s and recent scholarship show the majority of the Back Bay was still tidewater.


  • 1800–1825 Various inventors and entrepreneurs make suggestions about building model railways in the United States. Around Coalbrookdale in the United Kingdom, mining railways become increasingly common. An early steam locomotive is given a test run in 1804, but is then wrecked carelessly. For unknown reasons, the inventor does not rebuild it for nearly two decades.[2]
  • 1809 Scottsman quarry owner Thomas Leiper, in 1809 when denied a charter to build a canal along the Crum Creek from his quarry to the docks in the tidewater, commissions a short temporary 60 yards (55 m) railroad test track in the yard of the Bull's Head Tavern in Philadelphia. The track had a grade of one inch and a half to the yard,[3] with a 4% grade to test whether a horse could successfully pull 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) against the slope.
  • 1810–1829 The Leiper Railroad was a short horse drawn railroad of three quarters of a mile opens in 1810 after the quarry owner, Thomas Leiper, failed to obtain a charter with legal rights-of-way to instead build his desired canal along Crum Creek. The quarry man's 'make-do' railroad solution was the continent's first chartered railway, first operational non-temporary railway, first well documented railroad, and first constructed railroad also meant to be permanent. It was perhaps the only railroad replaced by a canal, and also one of the first to close, and of those, perhaps is alone in reopening again in 1858.


Inspired by the speedy success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825) in England's railway historical record, capitalists in the United States — already embarking upon great public works infrastructure projects to connect the new territories of the United States with the older seaboard cities industries by the canals of America's Canal Age, almost overnight began dreaming up projects using railroads — a technology in its infancy, but one employing steam engines which were rapidly becoming widely known from their successful use on steamboats. American steam engine pioneers were willing to experiment with Heat Engines using higher pressures than the mainly Atmospheric engines still fashionable in Great Britain. The rest of the world lagged the two English speaking nations. Railroads began to be proposed where canals wouldn't do, or would be too costly and with an increase in rolling stock tonnage capacity, locomotive power, and a growing confidence born of experience and new materials in less than three decades, the United States generally would discard canals as the principal design choice in favor of far more capable freight haulage technologies.

  • 1825 American John Stevens (inventor), builds a test track and runs a locomotive around it in his summer home estate, Hoboken, New Jersey. This partially settles the tractive power questions, showing that on level track, metal on metal wheels can provide tractive effort and pull a load. The ability for any engine to do so on a grade is still widely doubted in the press and minds of potential investors (pubs, clubs, boardrooms, etc.), while the minds of many potential investors were well aware that most railroads in the capital poor United States would have to surmount significant grades to be useful technology. And while news from Europe was delayed 4–8 weeks, well connected Americans were aware in general of United Kingdom news coverage's and to a lesser extent, that of continental European developments. In consequence, the 1825 success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway only gradually eroded the three-way nay-sayer beliefs that the careful expensive gentle engineered grades extant in the early British railways was impracticable in most cases in America and that such grades were necessary since steel on iron rails would not provide traction on hills, were it possible to build an locomotive engine powerful enough to surmount such grades. In each case, it would take experience and success against such over at least several months before the misconceptions fell into disdain.
  • 1826: The 3 miles (4.8 km) industrial animal powered Granite Railroad opens in Quincy, Massachusetts, to convey quarried granite for the Bunker Hill monument. It later becomes a common carrier railroad.

During the summer of 1827,[a] a railroad was built from the mines at Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk. With one or two unimportant exceptions, this was the first railroad in the United States.

— James E. Held, Archaeology[6]

The resultant Summit Hill & Mauch Chunk Railroad, where mules rode special cars down as well, after the coal hoppers, then returned empties up the nine mile return trip, became the first U.S. railway to carry passengers in the same year of 1827. In less than two years the railway was attracting so many visitors, it began charging fares, and then added and operated special tourism excursions on Sunday as a tourist road — which role it carried into 1932 as the world's acknowledged first roller coaster. In 1847 the cable railway return track was constructed with planes climbing two prominences along Pisgah Ridge, shortening the up trip to twenty minutes from nearly four hours by mule.

  • August 8, 1829: The Stourbridge Lion, first steam locomotive imported into the US, is tested along tracks built by the Delaware and Hudson company. Deemed too heavy for the company's rails, it and its three brethren are converted to stationary engines for cable railway parts of the transportation system.
  • 1830 ushers in a flurry of railroad incorporations, charter applications, grants and beginnings of construction. The B&O opens its first 13 miles (21 km) stretch to Ellicott's Mills and begins regular scheduled passenger services on schedule, May 24, 1830.
  • 1830 the 26 miles (42 km) Beaver Meadows Railroad from Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania, is incorporated and constructed to open a second major coal field to the Lehigh Canal at Parryville beyond the Lehigh Gap. This would form the seed company of the first class Lehigh Valley Railroad after the 1870s.
The DeWitt Clinton as it would have appeared on its inaugural run in 1831.

Railroads gradually replace canals as the first-choice mode of transportation infrastructure to champion and build, while canals hold a whip hand on economy for decades more, but falter on flexible destinations, speed, and where they suffer seasonal stoppages yet service year round needs. By the 1860s, in any case, where all the important older canals were to be found any canal with functions satisfiable by parallel railways (excepting by definition, ship canals) is eyed by investors to be supplanted by a competing railroad. The idea of a rail network in the US, which is by then showing early signs some areas have overbuilt in the Eastern United States is still not a common business model. Cut throat competitive capitalism, not co-operation are the rule, and the decade kicks off the forty years or so of the robber barons and excesses in capitalism.



Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, which first opened in 1913.


  • 1970s: Era of deregulation.[16]
  • March 1, 1970 Burlington Northern is created with the consolidation of the *Chicago Burlington & Quincy, Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Spokane Portland & Seattle railroads.
  • March 22, 1970: The California Zephyr, on its last run, arrives in Oakland, California, from Chicago; the train name will soon be resurrected by Amtrak on a train travelling almost the same route as the original train.
  • June 21, 1970 the Penn Central files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, becoming the largest corporate failure up to that time in US history.[17]
  • 1971: Amtrak created by act of Congress to assume and operate a national network of passenger trains from private railroads after years of dropping ridership and massive deficits force railroads to drop passenger service and ask for government help.
  • March 1972: the Gulf Mobile & Ohio is merged into the Illinois Central, forming the Illinois Central Gulf.
  • 1970s: Conrail is created from the remains of the bankrupt Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Central of New Jersey, Reading and Lehigh Valley Railroads in the Northeast, beginning operations April 1, 1976.
  • 1970s and 1980s: Amtrak introduces double-deck Superliner rolling stock. Auto-Train Corporation begins running as independent line (1971), but fails in 1981; In 1983, Amtrak revives service and runs slightly renamed "Auto Train" as one of its more-heavily promoted lines.
  • 1977: Amtrak carried 19.2 million passengers an average of 226 miles.[18]
  • 1980: Railroads deregulated by Congress by Staggers Rail Act of 1980.[19]
  • March 1, 1980, the Rock Island ceases operations after bankruptcy liquidation.
  • September 15, 1981: The John Bull becomes the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world when it runs under its own power inside Washington, DC.
  • 1981: Union Pacific 3985 is restored to operating condition, making it the largest operable steam locomotive in the world.
  • July 1, 1982, Norfolk & Western and Southern Railway merge to form Norfolk Southern.
  • January 1, 1986: The Milwaukee Road is merged into the Soo Line Railroad in the largest railroad bankruptcy proceedings to date.
  • July 1, 1986, Seaboard System and Chessie System merge to form CSX Transportation corp.[20]
  • 1990s: Amtrak funding comes under heavier scrutiny by Congress, while Amtrak creates new trains such as the Talgo and the Acela Express.
  • 1995: ICC abolished; Congress creates Surface Transportation Board to assume the remaining regulatory functions.[21]
  • 1997–99: Conrail assets sold to Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation.
  • September 11, 2001: Terrorists destroy World Trade Center in New York and destroy part of the PATH system in the process. Full PATH service resumed November 23, 2003.
  • 2015: Total rail traffic declined 2.5 percent to 28 million carloads. Coal remains the largest volume, at 5.1 million carloads. Coal volume fell 12 percent in 2015, as natural gas replaces coal and electricity plants. The lower volume allowed better service and faster speed, but low fuel prices are giving an advantage to trucking.[22]
  • 2021: Moynihan Train Hall opens in New York City, partially replacing New York Penn Station.


  1. ^ Summer of 1827 is in conflict with highly detailed account by Brenckman and other more local (and more contemporary) historians.[5] Brenckman's detailed account details preparations stockpiling wood, iron, tools and materials over the entire preceding winter and fall with work parties defined and told off with work commencing as soon as soil melts allowed work to lay sleepers in March and April with the aim of not affecting coal deliveries to the canal head, so it could resume operations as soon as ice and flooding permitted. Further, framework, couplings, tires and other iron castings were carried out in the LC&N Co.'s own foundries in Mauch Chunk, the company having financed at least 12 of the first 14 blast furnaces North of Easton — so triggered the iron and steel industries of Bethlehem and Allentown south of the Blue Ridge escarpment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William A. Newman, Wilfred E. Holton, Boston's Back Bay: The Story of America's Greatest Nineteenth-century Landfill Project, Northeastern University Press, Boston,
  2. ^ Burke, James, Connections (book), 1978 edition book, Chapter "Fuel to the Flame" (episode title: "Thunder in the Skies").
  3. ^ Gradient calculation: (1.5 X 100) / 36 = 4.16667%. This is steep by mountainous country standards.
  4. ^ Bartholomew, Ann M.; Metz, Lance E.; Kneis, Michael (1989). DELAWARE and LEHIGH CANALS, 158 pages (First ed.). Oak Printing Company, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Center for Canal History and Technology, Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museum, Inc., Easton, Pennsylvania. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0930973097. LCCN 89-25150.
  5. ^ a b Fred Brenckman, Official Commonwealth Historian (1884). HISTORY OF CARBON COUNTY PENNSYLVANIA (2nd (1913) ed.). p. 627.
  6. ^ James E. Held (July 1, 1998). "The Canal Age". Archaeology (Online). A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America (July 1, 1998). Retrieved 2016-06-12. During the summer of 1827, a railroad was built from the mines at Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk. With one or two unimportant exceptions, this was the first railroad in the United States.
  7. ^ Harwood, Jr., Herbert H. (1979). Impossible Challenge: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Barnard, Roberts. ISBN 0-934118-17-5.
  8. ^ "Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah". World Digital Library. 1869-05-10. Retrieved 2013-07-20.
  9. ^ Blaise, Clark (2000). Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time. Random House Digital. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-375-72752-8.
  10. ^ Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, ch. 104, 24 Stat. 379, approved 1887-02-04.
  11. ^ Act of Mar. 2, 1893, 27 Stat. 531, recodified, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 20302.
  12. ^ "The USRA Era, 1900–1916, Part I". N.P. Ry. Tell Tale Extra. PW2.Netcom.com. Archived from the original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2011-05-25.
  13. ^ Presidential Proclamation 1419, December 26, 1917, under authority of the Army Appropriation Act, 39 Stat. 45, August 29, 1916.
  14. ^ Esch–Cummins Act, Pub.L. 66-152, 41 Stat. 456. Approved 1920-02-28.
  15. ^ Railway Labor Act, May 20, 1926, ch. 347, 44 Stat. 577. 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.
  16. ^ William E. Thoms, "Clear Track for Deregulation American Railroads, 1970-1980." Transportation Law Journal 12 (1981): 183+.
  17. ^ Joseph R. Daughen, and Peter Binzen, The wreck of the Penn Central (1999).
  18. ^ Steven A. Morrison, "The Value of Amtrak." Journal of Law and economics 33 (1990): 361+
  19. ^ Clifford Winston, "The Success of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980" (AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, 2005) online.
  20. ^ Brian Solomon, CSX (Voyageur Press, 2005).
  21. ^ Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 104–88 (text) (PDF), 109 Stat. 803; 1995-12-29.
  22. ^ Laura Stevens, "Railroads face more tough track, Wall Street Journal 11 January 2016

Further reading[edit]

  • Chandler, Alfred D., ed. (1987). The Railroads: The Nation's First Big Business – Sources and Readings. Arno Press. ISBN 9780405137686.
  • Churella, Albert J. (2013). The Pennsylvania Railroad: Volume I, Building an Empire, 1846–1917. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-4348-2. OCLC 759594295.
  • Deverell, William (1994). Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850–1910. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). ISBN 9780520205055.
  • Ducker, James H. (1982). Men of the steel rails: Workers on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, 1869–1900.
  • Fish, Carl Russell (1917). "The Northern Railroads, April, 1861," The American Historical Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jul., 1917), pp. 778–793 JSTOR 1836240; old but still valuable
  • Frey, Robert J. (1988). Railroads of the Nineteenth Century. Volume 2 of "Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography." (New York: Facts on File). 490pp. ISBN 9780816020126.
  • Gallamore, Robert E.; Meyer, John R. (2014). American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674725645.
  • Grant, H. Roger. Railroads and the American People (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Hayes, Derek. Historical atlas of the North American railroad (2010); 400 historical maps
  • Hubbard, Freeman H. (1981). Encyclopedia of North American railroading: 150 years of railroading in the United States and Canada. (New York: McGraw-Hill). ISBN 9780070308282.
  • Jenks, Leland H. (1944). "Railroads as an Economic Force in American Development," The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (May, 1944), 1-20. JSTOR 2113700.
  • Kirkland, Edward Chase (1948). Men, Cities and Transportation, A Study of New England History 1820–1900. (2 vol.) Harvard University Press.
  • Klein, Maury (1997). The Life and Legend of Jay Gould Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801857713.
  • Klein, Maury (2000). The Life & Legend of E. H. Harriman (2000) University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2517-4. Online edition. Archived 2011-06-04 at the Wayback Machine
  • Marrs, Aaron W. Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society (2009) excerpt and text search
  • Martin, Albro. James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Martin, Albro. Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (1992) excerpt and text search; wide-ranging overview
  • Meyer, Balthasar H. History of Transportation in the United States before 1860 (1917) online
  • Middleton, William D. ed. (2007). Encyclopedia of North American Railroads. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253349163.
  • Miner, Craig. A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825–1862 (University Press of Kansas; 2010) 325 pages; Documents the enthusiasm that accompanied the advent of the railroad system
  • Nice, David C. Amtrak: The History and Politics of a National Railroad (1998) online edition Archived 2011-06-04 at the Wayback Machine
  • Nock, O.S., ed. Encyclopedia of Railways (London, 1977), worldwide coverage, heavily illustrated
  • Riegel, Robert Edgar. The Story of the Western Railroads 1926 online edition Archived 2011-06-04 at the Wayback Machine
  • Riley, C. J. The Encyclopedia of Trains & Locomotives (2002)
  • Saunders, Richard. Main lines: Rebirth of the North American railroads, 1970–2002 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).
  • Stover, John. The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads (2001)
  • Stover, John. History of the Illinois Central Railroad (1975)
  • Stover, John. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s (1978)
  • Turner, George E. Victory rode the rails: the strategic place of the railroads in the Civil War (1953)
  • Ward, James Arthur. J. Edgar Thomson: master of the Pennsylvania (1980) 265 pages
  • Ward, James A. "Power and Accountability on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846–1878." Business History Review 1975 49(1): 37–59. in JSTOR
  • White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Wolmar, Christian. The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America (2012), survey to 2012; emphasis on 19th century; 448pp excerpt and text search


  • Railroads in U.S. History (1830–2010) (2010), set of 4 DVDs, directed by Ron Meyer; #1, "Railroads come to America (1830 - 1840);" #2, "The First Great Railroad Boom (1841- 1860)"; #3, "A New Era in American Railroading (1861 - 1870)," #4, "The Second Great Railroad Boom (1871 - 2010)" link

External links[edit]