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 miles (49,250km).

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.

Click for larger imageTo 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 of man".

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.

Click for larger imageIn 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.

Click for larger imageThe 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).

Click for larger imageThe 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 sky above.

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 yawning gorges.

Click for larger imageA 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.