The B&O’s early days by “Jack” Snyder prepared by Jim Surkamp Pt. 1

My name is Jack Snyder. I am a writer and historian living in West Virginia. The year is 2012. I’m going to talk today about the history of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from 1827, when it began to the end of the Civil War in 1865 and we’re going to cover the area between Baltimore, Maryland and the Midwest, including some of the events of the Civil War. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was the first common carrier railroad of the United States – “common carrier” means that it was designed to carry both freight and passengers. It was inaugurated in Baltimore, given legal existence in the year 1827. This was done in imitation of a railroad in England called the Stockton and Darlington, which was a 25-mile long railroad in western England, designed to carry coal from inland coal mines to the seacoast, where it could be exported. The Baltimore & Ohio, however, was designed for much more than that, it was designed to carry both freight and passengers and it was intended from the very beginning to travel the distance from Baltimore to the Ohio River, a distance of 379 miles and it finally reached the Ohio River twenty-five years after it began in the year 1852.

The importance of the Baltimore Ohio Railroad is greater than it would first appear to be. It was one of many railroads being initiated in that era but it adopted from the very beginning the standard gauge of the English railroads, which was four feet, eight-and-a-half inches. That may sound like an arbitrary number, but that number actually has deep historical roots. It was derived from the distance between the wheels on standard Roman wagons and carts from the heyday of the Roman empire 2000 years ago and it proved to be very effective and successful and is still widely in use today, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. The railroad, as I said, began in 1827 and by 1831 it began its first regular passenger train service to the small industrial city Ellicott Mills – Ellicott’s Mills, I should say – just outside Baltimore to the west on the Patapsco River. By 1832, the railroad had reached Frederick, Maryland. Frederick, of course, is a good deal inland, and was the second city in Maryland – still is – after Baltimore. By 1836 the Baltimore Ohio railroad had progressed to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. This of course was before the state of West Virginia which only came into existence during the Civil War. And by 1842, the B&O had reached Cumberland, Maryland, a distance of about 200 miles from its origin point in Baltimore.

Another form of transportation which had been inaugurated by George Washington – the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal – which eventually reached Cumberland about five years after the B&O Railroad got there. Throughout most the 19th century, the two forms of transportation were in deep competition until eventually the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad won out and took over the canal. The railroad proved to be an extremely important form of transportation, not just for passengers who were the dominant money-maker part of the railroad in the early days. They were quickly supplanted by the importance of freight transportation. B&O Railroad hauled agricultural produce from inland points to the Port of Baltimore and the wheat, being grown in this area the mid-Atlantic was particularly prized in international commerce in those days. It held up very well in transportation and, so it commanded premium prices and the wealth generated by huge exports of wheat provided a great deal of money for the improvement of the areas that provided the wheat. That was particularly true here in Jefferson County, which is the focus of what we’re going to talk about today. Many in fact, of the fine houses and plantations that were built in this area were a direct result of the wealth pouring in from the transport of wheat, during that period which is a period when a great deal of wheat was being demanded in Europe, as a result of population growth and economic growth. The passenger side of it was very important too, to enable people to move quickly between the coast and inland points and this in itself resulted in tremendous economic growth when the B&O Railroad reached Wheeling, Virginia in 1852 to the transport of commodities had been very expensive hmm everything was done by Road up to that point and the cost of transporting a ton of goods of any kind whether it was agricultural commodities or finished products was a hundred dollars a ton using wagons and teamsters over the National Road. Well, when the B&O got to Wheeling, Virginia in 1852, the price of shipping a ton of goods or commodities dropped from a hundred dollars a ton to five dollars a ton. You can readily imagine what a tremendous effect this had on commerce between the Ohio River area and the East Coast, and similarly it was possible, then, for passengers to travel from Wheeling to Baltimore, Baltimore to Wheeling overnight. In those days, an express train left Wheeling Virginia about five o’clock in the evening and arrived in Baltimore about nine o’clock the next morning. By 1857, the Baltimore and Ohio was able to offer through transportation across Ohio and Indiana using connecting railroads in those states – all the way to St. Louis and commerce really began to pick up because, until that point, most of the major transportation routes were based on rivers and roads and the railroad was able to offer faster, cheaper, more efficient transport to everybody for both freight and passengers.

Made possible by the generous, community mind support of American Public University System. ( Sentiments and views portrayed in this series do not in any way reflect the modern-day 21st century policies of the University, but are offered to encourage  fact-based discussion on the evolution of the foundational values of the United States. 1,001 words