Trains: The Romantic Past, The Regulated Present & Renovating Future

Trains: The Romantic Past, the Regulated Present & Renovating Future

trainsCredit: Iron Horse Art:

 By: J. Marlando


Trains are extremely nostalgic for me. I was mostly raised at my grandmother’s house which was just across the street from the train tracks. Everyone in the family loved the sight of those old trains passing by and the sounds of their whistles.

I’ve done a lot of train travel too (in the 1940s/50s/60s and 70s) I’ve been twice back and forth across country by train; I’ve traveled a half dozen times between Colorado and Utah and Colorado and California and made quite a few other train trips too.  I used to love train travel but it’s not the same these days. People born in the early 70s and after that will have no memory of when trains were beyond all else, pleasurable and…fun. 

As far as I am concerned those qualities have gone by the wayside since Amtrak has taken over operations of most of America’s passenger trains. Certainly the fun is gone and with it much of the comfort.

For those of you who are too young to remember, trains used to have friendly service—the porters, the conductors, waiters, bartenders and you name it were service orientated; they made your trip a pleasure if not a celebration. Today your dealing with pseudo government workers most of whom act as if they resent you being on board. Well, that’s what happens when competition goes by the wayside—executives to ticket sellers to janitors get lackadaisical.

And speaking of government support: In their fiscal year 2010, Amtraktrains(140340)Credit: Modern company Amtrak: earned $2.51 billion. That’s a whole lot of money, folks, but Amtrak, like government, is a bloated agency so it incurred around $3.75 billion in expenses. That means you and other taxpayers had to cough up an additional $50 billion—yes billion—to keep American trains rolling.

Indeed, before Amtrak food and food service was wonderful—it was always expensive but wonderful all the same: In the dining cars the tables were covered with white linen and food served with real silverware; the stewards were polite and friendly. Today plastic attitudes and, in most instances, sandwiches suffice.

Enough howling for now! The rest of this article will strive to give the reader a most memorable ride across the history of trains in the United States.

The Steam Engine

It was certainly the train and locomotive that revolutionized the United States and served its progression into the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly enough it all began in Great Britain. Indeed one Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth invented the steam engine trains(140341)Credit: Early steam: back in 1712. It would be, however, another 57 years before any improvement was done on the rather primitive original. In 1769 a Scot instrument maker, James Watttrains(140342)Credit: James Watts:  figured out how to keep the steam pressure constant and the future of trains was seeded.

As a quick aside and for you with mechanical minds, Watts invented and patented a separate condenser that allowed the cylinder of the engine to remain as hot as the entering steam. This increased the engines efficiency.

Early prototypes of trains as we think of them today did not get innovated until 1813 when young Geroge Stephenson trains(140344)Credit: Early Inventor: www.ecyclopedia2.the freedictionary.coma man who could not read nor write but clearly had mechanical genius was asked to supervise the building of a locomotive for the Killingworth wagon way.

Eleven years later Geroge and his son Robert formed Robert Stephenson & Company. Only a year later, in 1835, their Locomotion 1trains(140345)Credit: Innovation:  was loaded onto a wagon and pulled by horses from New Castle to Aycliffe Lane. There it was placed on tracks. Ten mining cars, turned into passenger cars, were attached and the trip was on.

With one engine break down and repair, the train averaged 8 mph running time and was only 55 minutes late for her nine-mile run. Nevertheless, the train was met by a crowd of around 12,000 cheering, awed witnesses.

trains(140346)Credit: A giant leap forward:

The future of steam locomotion had been launched.

Locomotion in America

trains(140347)Credit: Grand history:

As happens in all creative endeavors—writing to inventing—there are always those who become the unrewarded talent and this happened to Nathan Reed of Massachusetts who built a steam driven vehicle in 1790. He failed, however, to attract investors and simply faded into obscurity

Another talented mechanic, Oliver Evans, began conceiving of a steam driven engine shortly after the Revolutionary War and built a steam-driven road vehicle in 1785. Most basically the vehicle failed because it didn’t have enough tractive power. He later designed and built a flat-bottomed steam dredge in his shop, naming it the Oructur Amphibolis. He hauled it down to the Schuylkill River and launched it. He too failed to attract investors so his dreams sunk. However, he remained enthusiastic about the potential of steam travel for the rest of his life.

Then came along Colonel John Stevens trains(140348)Credit: The Father of US Trains: www.what=when-how.comStevens was an educated man, graduating in law at King’s College (becoming Columbia College soon after the war in 1784 and named renamed Columbia University in 1896) and became intrinsic in getting the United States patent laws enacted.

When the State of New York was actively supporting having the Erie Canal built, Col. Stevens began campaigning to have a railroad built between Lake Erie and Albany instead. Although this didn’t happen, the Colonel had tremendous foresight when it came to steam engines and railroads. He talked about steam engines moving trains as they moved his ferry boat; of tracks and flanged wheels in a positive future. He was nearly 20 years ahead of his time, however but nevertheless, he applied to the state of New Jersey in 1815 to be granted a charter for a railroad and it was granted.

The Colonel was 76 years old then but using only the crudest of tools managed to build a little, circular railroad on his estate.

trains(140350)Credit: Incredible foresight: www.breisbreiseleighgoleire1969.

While the effort did not create the enthusiasm that Colonel hoped for it did create a lot of interest in the potential of railroads. In 1830, along with his sons Robert and Edwin, the Colonel obtained a charter from New Jersey for the Camden &Amboy Railroad I Transportation Company. In the doing, Colonel John Stevens became known as “the Father of American Railroads.

The First Advanced Railroads in the USA

trains(140351)Credit: A beautiful mindscape:

The Granite Railway Company of Massachusetts was formed in 1826. The railroad’s three mile road was first used to haul granite blocks for the construction of Bunker Hill monument  trains(140352)Credit: Monument: www.pix.aiaporte.netThe monument is located six miles south of Boston, marking the site of America’s first railroad.

Quite suddenly steam technology and railroads had captured the imaginations and…ambitions of people all over the eastern part of the country. Among them was the Baltimore & Ohio who had sent engineers to England to observe the railroads there. They laid their first rail on July 4, 1828 obviously building it to last forever. The company had laid granite sills six to ten feet long having the rails spiked into wooden plugs inserted into drilled holes. The problem was that frost split and shifted the granite blocks so, in the end, the best intention of the engineers let the way to failure.

Then a wealthy manufacture in New York by the name of Peter CooperTrains(140354)Credit: Old Man of Trains:  A competent mechanic himself, he personally built a steam locomotive in his Baltimore machine shop; a little engine weighing less than a ton and named, Tom Thumb.

trains(140356)Credit: Moving forward:

The Tom Thumb became the first American-built locomotive to pull a car full of passengers over a rail. Indeed, in August of 1830, the “little engine that could” made its run from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills, a distance of thirteen miles and up a grade eighteen feet to the mile, in one hour and twelve minutes. This was a tremendous success but a surprise was waiting on the return trip.

Actually the double track line could be used by anyone who could afford it and a stage company by the name of Stockman & Stokes used it often. The stage line was not happy with the competition that the train promised so they sent a horse-drawn car to challenge Tom Thumb.

With the race  on the Tom Thumb trains(140357)Credit: Race into the Futyre: www.forttumleweed.nettook an immediate lead but…the engine lost its blower belt and head of steam. As a result the horse won.

This disappointment did not slow down progress for railroads, however.  In December of 1830 the first run of a scheduled train pulled by steam locomotive, took place in Charleston.

trains(140360)Credit: Grand old rails: www.mike/

The future of passenger service was assured by 1832.

Riding the Rails from East to West

Early passengers traveling by train were not very comfortable—not only were they often bounced around but winter travel was a cold experience. In fact, some children made some great pocket money by selling heated bricks to shivering passengers. Progression continued however. Here’s a passenger train called the Lafayette in 1837 trains(140361)Credit: Grandexectation: already taking on a modern look and by 1847 trains TRAINS(140363)Credit: Grand OOld Memories: www.webexhibits.orgwere basically modernized.

Regardless of the advancements that had been made by the 1840s, railroads remained a visionary’s quest in many parts of the country. A young attorney by the name of Whitmell Puge TunstallTrains(140365)Credit: Train Enthusiast:  was such a visionary.

Tunstall had been fighting in the Virginia Legislature since 1838 for a charter and only after nearly 10 years did he receive it.  In that same year, the stockholders meeting at the Charlotte Courthouse pix elected Tunstall President of the Richmond & Danville Railroad Company.

As positive as everything looked, the investors began lagging in their support and in general Virginia interest in railroads seemed to be heavily waning. As a result Tunstall gave a stirring speech. He said, “Virginia, alone in her glory seems unmoved either by instincts of interest, or the impulses of ambitions…if enterprising and gallant Georgia can send two roads from which she but yesterday drove the Indians, it does seem that Virginia might at least get to her own mountains.”

Problems did not cease and wallets did not fly open. And, making matters worse, landowners with ambitions of getting rich quick, offered the railroad land that had sold for $2 per acre and began asking $30 and $40 per-acre…the financial challenges persisted. In fact according to Lance Phillips,, in his annual report of 1850, Tunstall referred to lawsuits, injunctions, inability to hire labor and the scarcity and high prices of feed for horses…but only a year later, the 1851 report boasted that “5-foot-gaugse of strap-iron rails stretched all the way to Jetersville—44 miles west from Richmond. In addition, the company now owned three locomotives, 115 freight and three passenger cars; millage operated for the year totaled 31,735.” By 1853 the railroad stretched 84 miles to Mossingford and continued into South Boston. This was a happy occasion for Whitmell Tunstall, the man who had worked so diligently and conscientiously to bring the railroad to the state. Sadly enough he died of typhoid on February 19, 1854 so he didn’t live to see the glory days of his efforts.

The great glory day for American railroads, however, occurred only 14 years after Tunstall’s premature death on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah.   

trains(140368)Credit: Historic


The event was one of the most important events in American history; the completing of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. This is when the Union Pacific No. 119 and the Central Pacific No. 60 (better known as the Jupiter, were drawn face to face on Promontory Summit. This maptrains(140367)Credit: MAP: shows you the exact location.

When the task was at last done the nation celebrated: A hundred gun salute was fired in New York…the Liberty Bell rang in Philadelphia…thousands gave cheer in Washington D.C; parades in San Francisco lasted for two days and there has never been such a public celebration in Omaha.

The success story, however, is tarnished by politics and greed as we will see next.

The Other Side of the Story

The romance of America’s railroads had always been conjured in the hearts and minds of the people at least since it was recognized that trains tracks, passengers and freight translated to big business and gigantic profits.

Even before the Civil War railroad men were traveling to Washington D.C. carrying bait of cash, shares of stock and free railroad passes. As a result, between 1850 and 1857 the railroaders got 25 million acres of free public land along with millions of dollars in bonds and loans from the state legislatures. As Howard Zinn reports, “In Wisconsin in 1856, the LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad got a million acres free by distributing about $900,000 in stocks and bonds to fifty assemblymen, thirteen senators and the governor.” Incidentally, that railroad went bust two years later but the raw crookedness and government nepotism involved is certainly demonstrated.

As for the transcontinental railroad, Zinn says this: “The first transcontinental railroad was built on blood, sweat, politics and thievery, out of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. The Central Pacific started on the West Coast going east it spent $200,000 in Washington on bribes to get 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in bonds, and paid $79 million, an over payment of $36 million, to a construction company which really was its own. The construction was done by three thousand Irish trains(140375)Credit: Slave labor: and ten thousand Chinesetrains(140374)Credit: CHINESE WORKERS:  over a period of four years, working for one or two dollars a day.

“The Union Pacific started in Nebraska going west. It had been given 12 million acres of free land and $27 million in government bonds. It created the Credit Mobilier company and gave them $94 million for the construction when the actual cost was $44 million. Shares were sold cheaply to Congressmen to prevent investigation. This was at the suggestion of Massachusetts Congressman Oaks Ames, a shovel manufacturer and director of Credit Mobilier, who said, “There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their own property.” The Union Pacific used twenty thousand workers—war veterans and Irish immigrants, who laid 5 miles of track a day and died by the hundreds in the heat, the cold, and the battles with Indians opposing the invasions on their territory.

“Both railroads used longer, twisting routes to get subsides, the two crooked lines met in Utah.”

Among the railroad moguls were Collins Huntingtontrains(140377)Credit: Robber baron: Jay Gouldtrains(140380)Credit: Robber Baron:  Oakes Ames

trains(140381)Credit: Robber Baron:

  and J.P  Morgantrains(140382)Credit: robber baron:  were all included in the list of “robber barons” of the times. By 1980 Gould was much in control of 10,000 miles of railway or about 1/9th of the railway mileage in the United States. He was worth around $72 million when he died on 2nd of December, 1982.

The above is not to suggest that every railroader and politician who was intrinsic in building America’s railroads were self-indulgent thieves but the facts remain that dirty politics and calloused business were certainly factors amidst the “big boys” of the industries. And, we can clearly see that such alliances between big business and government continue into our own times.

Modern Times & the Future of U.S. Railroads

trains(140386)Credit: www.

Certainly with heavier and heavier traffic jamming the freeways leading in and out of bigger cities rapid (rail) transit is becoming more and more vital. And, the price of gasoline is certainly another incentive to “take the train” as opposed to drive.

My only experience is taking Metrolink trains(140387)Credit: Fast ride: Moorpark, California into Los Angeles a few times. I found the Metrolink personality to be robotic and cold; there is certainly no “customer concern” beyond basic services such as the bare essentials of taking tickets and answering as few questions as possible. The service is fairly fast but is no super speedster. It travels, between stops, at around 80 miles per hour.  That’s still a lot faster than the bumper to bumper traffic that can occur during morning and evening rush hours, however.

As far as high-speed rail in America, we are far behind countries like China, Japan and, for that matter the EU (Eurorail) and even South Korea. High speed rail in China any train that travels above 125 miles per hour—in the USA high-speed is categorized into three groups: Top-speeds: 90-110 mph…Regional: 110-150 mph and Express: over 150 mph.

There are those who are absolutely positive about building a high-speed system that’ll send trains zipping across the land and those who believe it would simply be a waste of money. In regard to this, here’s a projected maptrains(140388)Credit: Projection:  for having trains such as this onetrains(140389)Credit: High speed:  for U.S. travelers.

Some advocates of a high-speed rail in America use international examples to assure that such a rail would quickly kindle massive ridership while others argue that folks in a hurry would still use air to get them speedily from one place to another. In California it is said that a high-speed train would be assured a70% occupancy and that would mean financial success. Is the projection true or false in the real world? No one can know for sure.

The question that asked should America invest in high-speed rail extends the questions about success of such a “rapid-transit” system because there are environmental concerns to consider as well. Presently, there seems to be no major planning for a national high-speed rail system but shorter distances such as between Boston and Washington are seriously on the planning board as this article is being written.

My personal opinion is that a national high-speed rail might rekindle passenger service if “service” actually became a priority of the trains but, the real success story would be in high-speed fright. With this aside, however, the amazing observation for this article is how far we’ve come in just under a couple of centuries—from thistrains(140350)Credit: Incredible foresight: www.breisbreiseleighgoleire1969.  to thistrains(140390)Credit: Moderization:  it is such a curiosity of what the inventors will be building a hundred years from now.



TRAINS(140391)Credit: Old Black Beauty:

 Certainly I haven’t been able to name all the people who were involved in creating the U.S. rail system nor cover all the events that unfolded into modernism and our times. Here, for example, is a beautiful old wood burning engine pix soon to give way to coal burners like this one PIX soon to give way to our modern day diesels. There are vast histories between all three. 

Before exiting from this article, however, I would like to share one of my favorite train stories with the reader. It is about an entrepreneur by the name of Cyrus Kurtz Holiday, a young, twenty-six year old attorneytrains(140392)Credit: Innovator:  with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Back in 1853 he drew the charter for the Pittsburg and Erie Railroad, taking stock for his fee. He later sold the stock for $20,000. There after he ferried down the Kaw River where he would begin looking for available land.

He partnered with Enoch Chase buying up cheap property with plans to build a town. They decided to call their new town Topeka, which is an Indian word meaning potato patch.

Thereafter he wrote a charter that was granted in February of 1859. He called his line the Atchison & Topeka Railroad.

Problems abounded, however. Before he could launch his railroad the greatest drought in American history occurred and after that, the Civil War was declared. One delay after another but, with this in mind, the young entrepreneur renamed his railroad on November 24, 1963 to Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. By 1872 the line had reached Dodge City (Originally named Buffalo City). By 1875 at least 500,000 buffalo hides and tons of buffalo bones were being shipped back east by rail. By 1881, Cyrus Holiday’s line crossed Arizona and in 1882 to California. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe is truly a great American success story and for me a symbol of both American ingenuity and individual gumption, giving me a lot of grandtrains(140393)Credit: Grand Old Sign: old memories.   


References and suggested reading

Philips, Lance * Yonder Comes the Train *Galahad Books

Zin, Howard* A Peoples History of the United States * HarperPerennial




A must have for every history and train buff.

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