IT would be difficult to trace each stage of the proceedings that finally led to the establishment of railways in the United States. At some periods few things were attempted which were not imitations of something that had previously been done in Great Britain. But this rule had notable exceptions, the first of which was the invention of a high-pressure engine, which, under favorable circumstances, could presumably have been developed into a successful primitive locomotive, by Oliver Evans, an able and successful inventor, at an earlier date than any equally important forerunner of the locomotive had been devised elsewhere. There were no railways in America at the period when Evans first conceived his plan of a steam-road wagon, and he was obliged to look, but in vain, for a field of practical utility, to turnpikes or a slight modification of them. He nevertheless was an ardent, although unsuccessful, advocate of steam railways, and he was the first citizen of the United States who combined with such advocacy positive proofs of ability to devise a machine capable of moving itself and additional weight by steam power, over ordinary streets or roads.

In a letter published in Niles' Register, dated November 13th, 1812, Oliver Evans describes at length the steps he had commenced, soon after 1772, to construct steam wagons, and to organize methods for applying them to useful service. He makes this reference to what was probably his most remarkable original discovery: "At length a book fell into my hands describing the old atmospheric steam engine. I was astonished to observe that they had so far erred as to use steam only to form a vacuum to apply the mere pressure of the atmosphere instead of applying the elastic power of the steam for original motion; the power of which I supposed irresistible. I renewed my studies with increased ardor and soon declared that I could make steam wagons."

He states that in 1786 he petitioned the legislature of Pennsylvania for the exclusive right to use his improvements in flour mills and steam wagons in that commonwealth, and that the committee to whom his petition was referred heard him very patiently while he described his mill improvements, but were led to think him insane by his representations concerning steam wagons. He then made a similar application to the legislature of Maryland, which resulted favorably, mainly on the ground that the grant could injure no one, and the encouragement proposed might lead to the production of something useful. He describes interviews with various prominent merchants or other capitalists, in which he explained his ideas and plans, and unsuccessfully solicited pecuniary assistance to give them practical effect. He says that in 1800 or 1801 he constructed a small stationary engine for grinding plaster, which fully demonstrated the correctness of his theories. As an additional and unanswerable demonstration, he cites the success of the effort he made in 1804 to propel by steam through the streets of Philadelphia his machine for cleaning docks.

Of this he says: "It consisted of a large flat, or scow, with a steam engine of the power of five horses on board to work machinery to raise the mud into flats. This was a fine opportunity to show the public that my engine could propel both land and water carriages, and I resolved to do it. When the work was finished I put wheels under it, and, though it was equal in weight to two hundred barrels of flour, and the wheels fixed with wooden axle-trees for this temporary purpose in a very rough manner, and with great friction, of course, yet with this small engine I transported my great burthen to the Schuylkill river with case; and when it was launched in the water I fixed a paddlewheel at the stern, and drove it down the Schuylkill to the Delaware, and up the Delaware to the city, leaving all the vessels going up behind me at least half-way, the wind being ahead."

This remarkable demonstration of


as well as steamboats, by a single machine, at that early period, was one of the greatest triumphs of superior inventive and mechanical skill ever achieved. But either lack of faith or lack of capital prevented the immediate fruition which Mr. Evans so richly deserved, notwithstanding the continuance of appeals, which he forcibly describes in the following extracts:

"Some wise men undertook to ridicule my experiment of propelling this great weight on land, because the motion was too slow to be useful. I silenced them by answering that I would make a carriage, to be propelled by steam, for a bet of $3,000, to run upon a level road against the swiftest horse they would produce. I was then as confident as I am now that such velocity could be given to carriages. . . . On the 26th of September, 1804, I submitted to the consideration of the Lancaster Turnpike Company, a statement of the cost and profits of a steam carriage to carry 100 barrels of flour 50 miles in 24 hours,—tending to show that one such steam engine would make more net profits than ten wagons drawn by ten horses each, on a good turnpike road, and offering to build such a carriage at a very low price."

In a practical test of such a proposition Mr. Evans would, of course, have been obliged to encounter difficulties similar to those which confronted other inventors who endeavored to promote the use of steam engines on turnpike roads, and he recognized the force of the conclusion which was one of the great secrets of the extraordinary success achieved by George Stephenson, viz.: That the rail and the locomotive should be regarded as man and wife.

Indications of this conviction are furnished by the following extracts from Mr. Evans' communication of 1812:—
"I am still willing to make a steam carriage that will run fifteen miles an hour, on good, level railways, on condition that I have double price if it shall run with that velocity, and nothing for it if it shall not come up to that velocity. . . . I have been highly delighted in reading a correspondence between John Stevens, Esq., and the commissioners appointed by the legislature of New York, for fixing on the site of the great canal proposed to be cut in that state. Mr. Stevens has taken a most comprehensive and very ingenious view of this important subject, and his plan of railways for the carriage to run upon removes all the difficulties that remained. I have had the pleasure, also, of hearing gentlemen of the keenest penetration, and of great mechanical and philosophical talents, freely give in to the belief that steam carriages will become very useful. Mr. John Ellicott (of John) proposed to make roads of substances such as the best turnpikes are made, with a path for each wheel to run on, having a railway on posts in the middle to guide the tongue of the wagon, and to prevent any other carriage from traveling on it. Then, if the wheels were made broad and the paths smooth, there would be very little wear. Such roads might be very cheaply made. They would last a long time, and require very little repair. Such roads, I am inclined to believe, ought to be preferred, in the first instance, to those proposed by Mr. Stevens, as two ways could be made, in some parts of the country, for the same expense, as one could be made with wood. But either of the roads would answer the purpose, and the carriages might travel by night as well as in the day."

This crude conception of a possible railway is followed by this striking prophecy of the actual course of events:—
"When we reflect upon the obstinate opposition that has been made by a great majority to every step towards improvement; from bad roads to turnpikes, from turnpikes to canal, from canal to railways for horse carriages, it is too much to expect the monstrous leap from bad roads to railways for steam carriages, at once. One step in a generation is all we can hope for. If the present shall adopt canals, the next may try the railways with horses, and the third generation use the steam carriage. . . . I do verily believe that the time will come when carriages propelled by steam will be in general use, as well for the transportation of passengers as goods, traveling at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, or 300 miles per day."

In a work published in or about 1813 he repeated in a still more emphatic manner, some of the ideas expressed above. He said: "The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly, fifteen or twenty miles an hour. . . . A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup at New York, the same day. To accomplish this two sets of railways will be laid, so nearly level as Hot in any place to deviate more than two degrees from the horizontal line, made of wood or iron or smooth paths of broken stone or gravel, with a rail to guide the carriages, so that they may pass each other in different directions, and travel by night as well as by day; and the passengers will sleep in these stages as comfortably as they now do in steam stage boats."


whose advocacy of a railroad instead of a canal is referred to by Oliver Evans, was the first American who combined a very early championship of railway improvements with persistent, and judicious efforts that finally led to important practical results. He commenced advocating the construction of railways in New York about 1810, and in 1811 applied to the legislature of New Jersey for the first American railway charter, which was granted in 1815. When the agitation of schemes for constructing a canal to connect lake Erie with the Hudson seemed to be assuming a practical shape in 1812, Colonel Stevens urged the New York commission of inland navigation, of which Gouverneur K. Morris was chairman, to construct a railway, instead of a canal, as a connecting link between those great water channels, and, although his suggestions were rejected, they helped to direct public attention to the practicability of improved iron highways, and they embodied the first clear conception of a lengthy and extensive railway. The comprehensive nature of his plans may be inferred from the fact that his outline of them, as furnished in February, 1812, was as follows:—
"Let a railway of timber be formed, by the nearest practicable route, between lake Erie and Albany. The angle of elevation in no part to exceed one degree, or such an elevation, whatever it may be, as will admit of wheel carriages to remain stationary when no power is exerted to impel them forward. This railway, throughout its course, to be supported on pillars raised from three to five or six feet above the surface of the ground. The carriage wheels, of cast iron, the rims flat with projecting flanges, to fit on the surface of the railways. The moving power to be a steam engine, nearly similar in construction to the one on board the Juliana, a ferryboat plying between this city and Hoboken."

This conception closely resembled the New York elevated railways, and although it differs widely from the method of construction subsequently adopted by the lengthy steam lines, it was far in advance of the plans that had then been suggested by other inventors.

He supported his theory of the practicability of such a road by the following reasons: Its expense would be no greater than that of an ordinary turnpike road with a good coat of gravel on it; it could be built in one or two years; its elevation would remove the timber, of which it was composed, from danger of decay; and travel could never be impeded on it even by the deepest snows; it would be free from the casualties to which canals were liable, and the expense of transportation would be far less than on a canal.

In discussing the speed that could be obtained by passenger trains he said that he should not be surprised at seeing steam carriages propelled at the rate of 40 or 50 miles an hour. In reference to freight movements be estimated that a train of 160 tons could be drawn at a speed of four miles per hour, and that the actual expense of transporting a ton over the entire line would be fifty cents. He also made a detailed estimate of the cost of such a road as lie proposed, having brick pillars, 400 to the mile, with timber ways and iron bar rails four inches broad and one-half inch thick. He made the cost per mile as follows:—

Bar-iron plates $7,603
Brick pillars $1,600
Timber ways $1,500

Or, for the whole 300 miles $3,210,900
For reducing elevations, etc $500,000


At a much later period, probably about 1835, attempts were made to build a few railways in accordance with these plans, in south-western New York and north-eastern Ohio, but such projects were soon abandoned mainly on account of the perishable and insecure nature of wood as a supporting material and the inability to secure a sufficient amount of capital to purchase iron supports.

Thwarted in his attempt to secure a favorable consideration from the New York commissioners, Mr. Stevens published his suggestions in pamphlet form in 1812, and made an earnest effort to secure aid from the Federal Government for the purpose of having an experimental railway built, by which the feasibility of his plans could be tested. He claimed that for the moderate sum of $3,000 such a test could be made. In the introduction to the description of his plans, be said: "But I consider it (internal improvement by means of railways), in every point of view, so exclusively an object of national concern that I shall give no encouragement to private speculations until it is ascertained that Congress will not be disposed to pay any attention to it. Should it, however, be destined to remain unnoticed by the General Government, I must confess I shall feel much regret, not so much from personal as from public considerations. I am anxious and ambitious that my native country should have the honor of being the first to introduce an improvement of such immense importance to society at large, and should feel the utmost reluctance at being compelled to resort to foreigners in the first instance. As no doubt exists in my mind but that the value of the improvement would be duly appreciated and carried into immediate effect by transatlantic governments, I have been the more urgent in pressing the subject on the attention of Congress. Whatever then may be its fate, should this appeal be considered obtrusive and unimportant, or, from whatever other cause or motive, should it be suffered to remain unheeded, I still have the consolation of having performed what I conceive to be a public duty."


Failing to secure favorable consideration from Congress, he probably increased his efforts to secure a railway charter from the state government of New Jersey, authorizing a road from Trenton to New Brunswick. At all events, his efforts to obtain such a charter were successful in 1815. But he seems to have been unable to speedily obtain a sufficient amount of capital to construct the proposed line, and his next step was to construct a short experimental railway, at his own expense, at Hoboken in 1820. In 1818 or 1819 be addressed a memorial to the legislature of Pennsylvania, recommending the construction of a railway from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and in 1823 he secured, in conjunction with other corporators, who were citizens of Pennsylvania, the passage of an act by the Pennsylvania legislature authorizing the construction of a line from Philadelphia to Columbia.

The law was approved on March 31st, 1823. It is entitled an act to incorporate a company to erect a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia, in Lancaster county, the terminal points being those between which the first important turnpike in the United States was constructed. The proposed title of the corporation to be created was, "The President, Directors, and Company of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company." The preamble is as follows: "Whereas, it hath been represented by John Stevens, in his memorial to the Legislature, that a rail-road from Philadelphia to Columbia would greatly facilitate the transport between those two places, suggesting also that

he hath made important improvements in the construction of railways; and praying that in order to carry such beneficial purposes into effect, himself and his associates may be incorporated." The corporators were John Connelly, Michael Baker, Horace Binney, Stephen Girard, Samuel Humphreys, of Philadelphia; Emmor Bradley, of Chester county; Amos Ellmaker, of Lancaster city; John Barber and William Wright, of Columbia."

The section relating to the charges authorized was as follows: "That on the completion of the said railroad, all transportation on the same, of whatsoever nature or kind, shall be carried on and conducted by and under the superintendence and direction of the said John Stevens, or of his legal representative or representatives; and it shall and may be lawful for said John Stevens and his legal representative or representatives to charge and receive for freight, on and for the transportation of goods, wares, and merchandise, at a rate not exceeding seven cents per mile on each and every ton thereof passing westward, and three and a half cents per mile on each and every ton weight thereof passing eastward on the said railroad; but on all single and detached articles, weighing less than a ton, it shall and may be lawful to charge and receive, on the transport of the same, an advance not exceeding twenty per cent. on the rates as above established."

The financial scheme contemplated by this charter was novel. Subscriptions of stock were to be invited in the usual manner; but the total number was not to exceed six thousand shares of one hundred dollars each, so that it was probably supposed at that time that this primitive railroad might be constructed on a line now occupied by one of the most expensive and profitable lines in the United States at a cost of about eight thousand dollars per mile. As it was uncertain whether the cost would exceed the sum derived from share subscriptions, or fall below it, the charter contained a section relating to the capital of the company, which was as follows: "That on the completion of said railroad the president and directors are hereby required to ascertain precisely the amount of the sum total of expenses incurred in the construction of the same, and said sum total shall constitute the existing capital of said railroad company." Another strange feature of this charter was a provision which, perhaps on account of a supposition that Stevens should possess special rights in the new enterprise analogous to those enjoyed by a patentee, declared that after dividends on amount of capital stock, amounting to three per cent. quarterly, or twelve per cent. per annum, were paid to the stockholders, all profits exceeding that liberal return should be retained by the said John Stevens or his legal representative or representatives. If the company did not earn more than twelve per cent. per annum on cost of road, and thus provide an excess out of which Stevens was to be paid for his labors, the charter provided that "in every such case the said John Stevens, or his legal representative or representatives, shall be paid such compensation for his or their services, during each year, as may be agreed upon by the said John Stevens, or his legal representative, and the said president, directors, and company of the said railroad company."

This charter led to no immediate practical results, and the charter was repealed in 1826. But little was known at that time of railway operations, and the difficulties of procuring the requisite capital under the plan proposed were insurmountable. The stipulations mentioned above, however, throw an interesting light upon the ideas prevailing in regard to railways in the most advanced circles in 1823.


The failure was due mainly to the lack of confidence among capitalists, which has postponed the completion or prevented the construction of many other lines proposed at later dates. An evidence of the persistence and ability with which Colonel Stevens advocated this project is furnished by the following public letter, published in 1823, which was doubtless one of the agencies that gradually prepared the public mind for the effective support of railway schemes:


"SIR: It is now generally admitted that a railroad is not a mere visionary project, but is actually practicable. An erroneous idea has, however, prevailed among its opponents, that it is only practicable to short distances, and that the contemplated extension of a railroad to a distance of 73 miles is ridiculous.

As the railroad will, throughout its course, be, in its construction, exactly similar, it is only in its deviations from a horizontal line that any difference in the progressive motion of carriages thereon can take place. The charter contains a provision that the railroad in its progress shall in no part rise above an angle of two degrees with the plane of the horizon.

Now let us suppose that a section of the intended railroad be constructed in the immediate vicinity of the city, of one mile in extent, in the progress of which elevations of two degrees do actually occur. Should it, however, be practicable, on such section of the intended railroad, to cause loaded carriages to move forward and backward, without encountering any impediment or difficulty, would it not be presumable that the effect would be precisely the same were a similar road to be extended ever so far? Such an experiment, then, would not fail to produce conviction in the minds of the most incredulous.

As a further illustration of the practicability of the proposed railroad, it would be barely necessary to notice the rapid progress this important improvement has recently made in the island of Great Britain. If, in the narrow limits of 21 miles in length and 12 miles in breadth, in the immediate vicinity of Newcastle, no less than 450 miles of railroad have, within a very short period of time, been formed, why should it not be practicable to erect one extending only 73 miles? The contemplated formation of a railroad from Manchester to Liverpool, between which large towns there now exists a spacious canal, demonstrates very forcibly its feasibility and great utility.

The expense of the contemplated railroad is estimated at about $5,000 per mile. One thousand shares, then, at five dollars each, would be sufficient for the construction of one mile of the road.

An appeal is now, therefore, made to the enlightened patriotism and to the enterprising spirit of the good citizens of Philadelphia to step forward, and, by an advance of five dollars each, to place the contemplated improvement beyond all possibility of doubt or uncertainty.

That the stock will, from the start, yield more than legal interest, there cannot be a shadow of a doubt, that it will, ultimately, and at no distant period, yield 12 per cent. per annum, is equally certain.

The contemplated railroad will differ from turnpike roads in these very important particulars: The actual expense of transportation on the railroad will be reduced to one-quarter of what it now is on the existing turnpikes. But the most essential point of difference, as it regards stockholders, is, that the whole of the emoluments to be derived from the transportation of commodities, and from the conveyance of passengers, will go to the railroad company, whereas the turnpike company receives only a toll. The expense of repairs will bear no proportion to that incurred on turnpike roads. The railroad too will be equally good at all seasons of the year. This circumstance gives to a railroad a decided superiority also over a canal, which continues, for months, during the winter season, locked up by frost.

But when, in the progress of improvement, the power of steam shall be substituted for that of horses, transportation will most assuredly be afforded at much less than on a canal. However extraordinary this opinion may appear, by a recurrence to calculation, it is, nevertheless, capable of demonstrative proof. And when this great improvement in transportation shall have been extended to Pittsburgh, and thence into the heart of the extensive and fertile state of Ohio, and also to the great western lakes, Philadelphia may then become the grand emporium of the western country.

Should the subscription for the shares be speedily filled the road from Philadelphia to Columbia may with case be finished before the next winter, and thus the stockholders will derive an immediate interest on their stock.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


One of the passages of this public letter shows that in addition to advocacy of lengthy through railway lines extending in New York from the Hudson to lake Erie and in Pennsylvania from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Colonel Stevens also recommended that railway companies should furnish cars and motive power. He was the inventor or constructor of the successful steamboats which entered into rivalry with those made by Robert Fulton.



It is a curious fact that Mr. Fulton bad also reached the conclusion that railways could be made advantageous avenues of lengthy transportation movements at a very early period. It is reported that when be was journeying over the Allegheny mountains, in a stage coach, to Pittsburgh, in 1811, he said:—
"The day will come, gentlemen, I may not live to see it though some of you who are younger will probably—when carriages will be drawn over these mountains by steam engines, at a rate more rapid than that of a stage on the smoothest turnpike."

The fact that the earliest serious advocates of railways in the United States had been extensively engaged in steamboat or steam engine operations is suggestive. It indicates a logical connection between schemes for conducting transportation by steam, in steamboats, on water, and on railways with the aid of locomotives; shows that the early, American railway advocates possessed superior ability; and also foreshadows such transitions of prominent and active men from one of these fields of activity to the other, as have occurred.

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