RAILROADS IN THE U.S.A.
In the early 1800s when the railways were spreading in Europe there
were some horse-railways on the East Coast of the U.S.A. turning to
the use of steam. In contrast with the U.K. with its large population,
numerous cities and dense industrial regions only short distances apart,
there were in 1830 in the U.S.A. only 13 million inhabitants, five cities
with more than 25,000 citizens, and few industrial concentrations.
The requirement for their 'railroads' was therefore quite different
from Europe; this was to open up the vast sparsely populated territories
to the West, much of it covered by great forests, transporting the new
immigrants flooding into the country. There were 23 miles (37km) constructed
in 1830, increased to 2,818 miles (4,535km) by 1847, mainly following
the routes of the rivers and canals. With the Government selling land
cheaply to the new railroads there followed a tremendous expansion between
1850 and 1860, the routes going up from 9,000 miles (14,485km) to 30,600
During these first years British locomotives were imported, starting
in 1829 with the Stourbridge Lion for the Delaware and Hudson Railroad.
These were heavy machines, with their wheels and axles rigidly attached
to a strong engine frame, which performed well on the level and accurately
laid British tracks, but did not perform well in the very different
conditions of the track inequalities and the ascending and descending
curves on the American long-distance lines. These had been rapidly built,
supported in many valley and river crossings on huge timber frame-works
and bridges; in spite of their flimsy appearance the new American railroad
engineers were creating innovative advanced engineering structures.
meet the demands of this 'explosion' of railroads a locomotive building
industry sprang up, the outstanding builder being Matthias Baldwin
(1795-1866) a Philadelphia engraver and machinist who started in 1832;
by the 1840s his powerful American style locomotive, long and elegant,
had emerged (left) with its distinctive features of three pairs of driving
wheels, the swivelling front bogie, its 'cow-catcher' mounted ahead
to clear away obstructions and animals which could block the unfenced
rail tracks and its huge conical funnel to catch the sparks from its
wood-burning boiler fires. (A little known fact is that during this
period to remedy a shortage with the great expansion of the British
railways, England actually imported American locomotives).
A significant U.S. invention by John Jervis was the swivel or
'bogie' truck in 1831, with two or four small-diameter wheels attached
to a load-bearing frame which was pivoted under the main frame, and
could thus lead the locomotives along the curved rails. With these bogies
the locomotives and the wagons and coaches could be made much longer,
with a better weight distribution, yet still able to negotiate the sharper
curves. These bogies soon came into universal use on all railways.
Until that time British railway engineers, because of their wide-ranging
experience, had been going abroad building the railways in most countries
of the world, with a consequent strong export of locomotives, rails
and signalling equipment. In 1850-54 over a million tons of railroad
iron track were exported, and the railway contractor Thomas Brassey
(1805-70) was employing 80,000 men in five continents. But with the
American success in establishing long-distance lines through dense forests
and wilderness their engineers were soon in competition. Thus the American
engineer George Washington Whistler went to Russia in 1842, at
the request of Czar Nicholas, to build the St.Petersburg-Moscow line.
(His son, French-educated James Abbott McNeil Whistler, 1834-1903,
was the famous painter and etcher, who achieved notoriety for his libel
action against Ruskin, over his savage criticism of Whistler's painting
Nocturne in Black and Gold; the Falling Rocket)
The railroads soon became a major factor in the massive economic growth
of the U.S.A. with the opening up of the West, the connecting of the
industrial cities and ports of the North, and the distribution of the
agricultural products of the South. They were thus a highly visible
symbol of American technology in action, with grand cathedral-like stations
in the big cities, the trains passing down Main Street in so many of
the towns which had grown up around the early terminuses, and the wonderful
spectacle of the long trains sweeping across the vast empty spaces of
the open plains, or climbing through the mountain passes.
However most 19th century American artists appeared not to share in
the excitement, or pride of achievement, felt by the population at large.
They regarded the railroads as 'intruders', fearing that the new ease
of access would civilise the natural wonders of the vast wildernesses,
forests, mountains and canyons, which they loved. Thus a well-known
painter Asher Durand in a painting called Progress, 1853
unfolds before the eyes of three native Americans looking down from
a mountain the progress of transportation from horse-drawn wagon to
canal boat to steamboat and railroad, and the telegraph wire slung on
thin poles. Nevertheless Durand himself, though he often travelled by
train, bitterly regretted the advent of the railroad near his own summer
residence on the Hudson river and stated that a landscape "declares
the glory of God by a representation of his works and not of the works
The celebrated American landscape painter, George Inness, (1825-94),
who had been influenced by the French Barbizon school during frequent
visits to Europe, painted Romantic landscapes in the traditions of his
native Hudson River school. These were reminders of the world he regretted
seeing disappear as the accelerating tempo of change in urban and industrial
life led to railways, factories and suburban sprawl. Inness in spite
of his known aversion to the impact of the railroads accepted a commission
by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to show scenes of its
network spreading into Pennsylvannia.
his painting The First Roundhouse of the Delaware, Lackawanna and
Western Railroad at Scranton, Penn, (1855), also known as Lackawanna
Valley, (left), Inness displays his own conflict of responses, with
a Claudian vista of a wide peaceful valley, stretching across to distant
purple hills. In the foreground there is a dark tree on the left, with
harvested fields and hay-stooks; a straw-hatted farmboy resting on the
ground with his dog gazes down at the intrusion into this pastoral scene
of a locomotive with its great plume of white steam, hauling wagons
across the track curving off to the left, while another track curves
off to the right round the copse of trees. Just beyond these trees can
be seen the roof and the tall smoking chimney of an isolated factory.
The railroad's domination of the valley in the centre of a wide expanse
of raw earth is the enormous domed 'roundhouse' in which the locomotives
can be serviced under cover while standing on radial tracks centered
on a turntable.
The railroad president apparently did not like the painting, for Inness
later recovered it from a Mexican curiosity shop. "I had to
show the double tracks and the round-house", he wrote later,
"whether they were in perspective or not. But the distance is
excellent". This picture stimulated the debate about the clash
between machine and nature.
penetration of the railroad into the dense forests is conveyed in a
dramatic sunset scene by T.P.Rossiter, (1818-71), Opening
in the Wilderness, (right). In a clearing amongst the stumps of
felled trees is a rugged wooden bridge carrying the tracks to a roundhouse.
Four locomotives stand with their white plumes of steam rising up starkly
against the black shape of the mountains seen in deep shadow as the
sun descends behind them, giving a golden glow to the sky.
The Scottish engineer James Kirkwood in 1848 built the beautiful viaduct
to carry the Pennsylvania Railroad high over the wide Starrucca valley.
At that time it was the most costly railroad structure that had been
built. (Kirkwood also had the distinction of being called in by Roebling
as a consultant on his board of experts to scrutinise his plans for
his proposed Brooklyn Bridge).
American painter Jasper Cropsey, (1823-1900), who had visited
England in the period 1856-63, painted panoramic scenes of famous localities,
such as Niagara Falls, 1860, and The Narrows from Staten Island,
1868, (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). The wonder of this viaduct
located in such a lovely remote landscape inspired him to paint Starrucca
Viaduct, 1865, (left).
A broad vista of a wide bend of the river ringed by bare mountains is
reflected in the water held back by a masonry dam with three towers;
smoke rises from the chimneys in the distant village. In the foreground
two boys are silhouetted on top of a dark rock gazing across to where
a great embankment on the right carries the track above the village
to the seventeen tall stone arches of the viaduct, glowing faintly in
the low sunshine. A locomotive is hauling a train across the viaduct,
its trail of white steam echoing the white puffy clouds in the blue
The greatest feat of the American railroad builders, which helped to
establish the U.S.A. as the world power it was to become, was the completion
of the trans-continental line from New York to California. In 1886 great
gangs of Irish immigrants and veterans from the Southern civil war battlefields
worked their way westwards to grade, cut, bridge, and lay tracks across
plains, mountains, and rivers, while an army of Chinese coolies pressed
eastwards from California through Nevada over towering mountains and
magazine publisher, Frank Leslie, sent an artist, Joseph Becker,
(1841-1910) to illustrate the construction. His first trip from Omaha
to San Francisco took 81 hours - a startling reduction from the 6-8
weeks the pre-railroad sea voyage from Boston to California had taken
by fast clipper. Becker's painting of Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific
in the Sierra Nevada, (right), shows the hostile terrain which had
to be overcome in building and operating the trains - over fifty miles
of these snow-sheds were needed in the highest passes to keep the track
clear of the heaviest snowfalls. As the railroad had only been opened
for traffic this same year there are still Chinese coolies around, seen
here in the right foreground, waving to the train, ready to repair or
relay the track.
On May 10, 1869 the two advancing hosts met at Promontory Point, near
Ogden, Utah, where their tracks were united in an imposing ceremony.
The newly installed telegraph wires radiating over the whole country
were connected to the rails on each side. As the final celebratory Californian-gold
pins joining the tracks were hammered into place they completed the
telegraph circuits thus automatically sending to all the U.S. main cities
the news of the thrilling culmination of the project that had been initiated
by Abraham Lincoln.