RAILWAY movements are at all times invested with deep interest to those who are responsible for results, and the operations on some of the early lines were peculiarly exciting on account of the lack of experience, the absence of a number of the appliances and safeguards which have since been considered indispensable, and the crude nature of the tracks, locomotives, and cars.

An English Engineer forcibly says that "the railway of the present day is in principle what it was at the outset; but it differs in detail from the original as much or more than the skewer that fastened the dresses of the ladies in Queen Elizabeth's time from the pin of the present day, or the carpets of this era from the rush floors of that. The progress has been gradual, but not slow."


grew out of the peculiar circumstances under which the primitive lines were called into existence, and the ends they were designed to serve. One class of roads was intended mainly to carry freight for the owners of the line, and if this purpose was served other matters were of comparatively little importance. This remark applies to the early coal roads, and even on the Philadelphia and Reading, which also engaged extensively in other business, it is stated that there was a period when coal trains were given the right of way in preference to passenger trains. There were also some roads, belonging to private companies, which commenced operations under a system like that adopted on the railways built by the state of Pennsylvania, viz., the companies did not aim at furnishing either passenger or freight cars, and only supplied the roadway and motive power. This limitation had an effect analogous to that arising from the application of a similar principle to turnpikes, inasmuch as the company might, in various contingencies, become anxious to reduce expenses, even at the risk of subjecting rolling stock to unnecessary wear and tear. A number of important lines were built partly with aid, more or less liberal, from state or city governments, which was given chiefly for the purpose of drawing trade to some particular centre, and if this object was promoted in a satisfactory degree other shortcomings were usually condoned.


In addition to the usual forms of opposition which many modern railways encounter, special causes of distrust and hostility existed when the entire undertaking was novel. In portions of Pennsylvania the fear that the use of horses would be greatly restricted was a leading incentive to active antagonism. In other places champions of pre-existing canal systems desired to prevent rivalry. There were some localities in which the adverse influence of rich stage proprietors was keenly felt, and their efforts to crush a dangerous and destructive competition materially increased the difficulties of some of the early projectors. In some instances stage routes and appurtenances that had been sold for large sums soon ceased to be profitable after competing railways had been completed. There was also a considerable number of substantial and conservative citizens who opposed the innovation on principle, although they reaped a large share of the benefits conferred. Josiah Quincy, in discussing this phase of the pioneer railway movements, describes town meetings which passed resolutions denouncing projected lines as incalculable evils, and be says that "the believer in railroads was not only to do the work and pay the bills for the advantage of his short-sighted neighbor, but, as Shakespeare happily phrases it, 'Cringe and sue for leave to do him good.'" In Mr. George W. Smith's additions to Wood's Treatise on Railroads, published in 1832, he says that on the Baltimore and Ohio "an unfortunate cow (according to the inveterate habits of these animals) crossed the road when a train was passing, and persisted in the attempt to arrest the progress of the car. The melancholy fate of this proto-martyr of the opposition, excited great commiseration among some of the canal advocates, who bewailed her untimely end in many a newspaper article. On the South Carolina Railroad a negro placed himself on the top of the safety valve of the locomotive engine during the absence of the engineer; it proved no seat of safety to him; and, resenting the indignity, blew poor Sambo sky-high."


The plan of constructing railways on stone sills, which had been adopted in England, led to a serious derangement of the tracks, and materially increased some of the difficulties of early operations. The frost cracked and broke many of these solid foundations, and the position of others was shifted, so that a new system of construction became necessary. All the early devices were very defective, but the stone from which so much had been expected proved even less satisfactory than the supporting wooden rails or stringers, which quickly decayed or wore out.

The practice of sanctioning sharp curves was resorted to with extraordinary frequency, particularly on lines which were to be run by horse power at the outset. The chief reason for this course originated in a desire to avoid the expense required for the construction of tunnels, bridges, and deep cuts or high embankments, but the influence of citizens who favored the adoption of particular routes for the promotion of private purposes was also an important consideration. An account of an early road in Kentucky says that "it is very crooked, because the engineers who surveyed it were averse to crossing streams on bridges, so they went around the streams, alleging that it was an advantage to have the road crooked, so the conductor could look back, and see that his train was all right."

As flat iron bars were used as a substitute for iron rails on a very large proportion of the mileage operated they furnished a fruitful source of anxiety and danger, and caused delays and accidents of one kind or another, some of which were of a decidedly serious nature. An early conductor reports that on the line with which he was connected "it frequently happened that the strap rails would get out of place and curl up at the ends, forming 'snakes' heads.' Every train carried a good sledge-hammer, and whenever it passed over a loose rail and left a snake's head in its wake, the conductor had to stop the train and hammer the loose rail into place." Sometimes a snake head would fly up, and the rail would go through the car and shatter it. Occasionally a passenger would get hurt. "Snake heads" were as prominent a feature of early railroading as snags in steamboat operations on western rivers. The relative lightness of the locomotive and rolling stock, and imperfections of the track, made derailments or jumping the track comparatively common. The cars were, at the outset, destitute of springs, brakes, and buffers, and such appliances were only supplied and improved by comparatively slow degrees.


While the roads supplied with edge rails were decidedly superior to those on which strap rails were used, serious and constant difficulties arose on them, particularly from the keys or wedges used to keep the rails in proper position in the chairs becoming loose; from the tendency of the stone blocks on which the chairs were placed to be shifted, and alternately elevated or depressed by frosts or other atmospheric changes; from the danger that rails would be broken; and from the frequency of tracks spreading, on account of the relatively small number of ties used. It was part of the system pursued on the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad, while edge rails were used on it, to have track walkers constantly at work, by day and night, who were specially charged with the duty of tightening the keys used in the chairs. Each mile was assigned to a man for such operations during the day, and a man for night service. He carried a leather pouch containing keys, so that substitutes for those which were lost or broken could be supplied, and a long-handled hammer, to be used in tightening keys or wedges when they were loosened.

In regard to the effect of the stone blocks and scarcity of ties, the superintendent, Joseph B. Baker, in a report for the year ending November 30th, 1855, says: "Every exertion has been made to keep the old portion of the south track in passable condition, and it is a source of satisfaction that we have been enabled to strengthen it, so as to allow the passage of the large and increasing business now thrown upon it. If the old rail (edge rail) had not been made of the best iron, it would have been impassable long since. Wherever it was possible to put in additional cross-ties between the stone blocks, both in straight lines and curves, it has been done, and as long as the frost does not affect the ground the track will be reasonably safe, but in hard-freezing weather the cross-ties are disturbed, and the stone blocks remaining permanent, the rails are thus raised from the blocks, lessening the bearings, and sometimes causing the rail to break when the train comes upon it.

The same effect is produced when the frost leaves the ground, the bearings being merely reversed, the rail resting upon the blocks, while the cross-ties sink below. This operation has been going on for the last twenty years, the engine making a waved line of the rails, and the repair men making them straight again, and it is no wonder that they cannot be relied upon for carrying with safety the present trade."


As telegraphic communication available for railway service was not established until about 1850, various methods were adopted for ascertaining the location of belated trains and relieving them. On roads on which comparatively extensive movements were made a locomotive was kept ready for the use of relief parties at all hours of the day and night. The preparations for any probable emergency were as complete as possible, but it will readily be seen that the absence of telegraphic communication materially increased the difficulties of operation, inasmuch as the first duty, when delays occurred, was to start on a voyage of discovery, and it was necessary that all appropriate preparations for the commencement of such explorations at any moment should be constantly in a state of readiness. This system was in force on the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad. When a passenger train failed to make its appearance at about the proper time (there was no strict schedule, but engineers of passenger locomotives were expected to be as expeditious as possible), a locomotive and crew were dispatched to its relief, and similar steps were taken when freight trains were delayed. The task was entered into with a spirit similar to that which animated the volunteer firemen of the olden time. The crew generally consisted of eight or ten persons, who carried with them whatever was deemed necessary to repair an injured locomotive or return it to the track if it had been derailed, and as there was danger of a collision if proper precautions were not taken, some of the crew were sent ahead when curves were approached to see whether progress could be safely continued. After the belated train was reached, if the difficulty arose from derailment, then much more common than at present, the usual phenomenon was developed of passengers acting under the supposition that they had a much better understanding of the proper method of returning a derailed locomotive to the track, than the men who devoted a large portion of their lives to such labors. If the detention was caused by derangement of any portion of the engine temporary repairs were made as quickly as possible.


In the absence of the telegraph, and the lack of any established system of signaling, novel methods for conveying information were devised. It is said that the New Castle and Frenchtown had a primitive telegraph system in operation as early as 1837. A description of it says that "the poles were of cedar, quite like those now in use, and had cleats fastened on them, forming a sort of Jacob's ladder. The telegraphing was done thus: The operator would go to the top of the pole forming his station, and with his spy-glass sight the next station in the direction of the approaching train. If the train was coming, and the signal showed a flag, it meant all is well. If a big ball was shown, and no train in sight, it signified an accident, or delay of the steamboat. These signals were methodically exchanged until an understanding was had from one end of the road to the other."

The methods of communicating intelligence from one part of the train to another, and of giving warnings or signals from the locomotive, have been greatly improved. One of the early engineers on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore says that on that road, before whistles were applied, "signals of danger, &c., were given by raising the valve stem on the dome with the hand, and allowing the steam to escape with a sudden, loud, hissing noise."

One of the first conductors on the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown says: "The manner of stopping trains then, in contrast to the modern system of simply pulling a bell rope, was something altogether novel. The conductor ascended a ladder to the roof of a car, and then ran forward to within hailing distance of the engineer, to whom he imparted the signal verbally. There was a great deal of briskness required of a conductor in the old days, and running along the tops of cars on a dark night was not as comfortable a task as one might wish for. There were no bell ropes, and the steam whistle had not been thought of." He also says: "The first practice of railroad signals that I remember was a system of conveying a sign to the engineer by a movement of the fingers. For instance, if I wanted to stop at the Falls I held up one finger; Wissahickon, two fingers; Conshohocken, three fingers, and so on."

On another road a device was used which enabled the engineer, by running up a flag on the tender, to notify brakemen that they should apply brakes.


Many troubles or inconveniences arose from defective brake power. At one time the chief reliance was upon the activity of the engineman in checking the speed of the locomotive, but this was often insufficient. It is stated that on the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad the braking of the train when near the station—Frenchtown or New Castle—was done at the signal of the engineman by raising his safety valve. Then the old colored servants (slaves) would rush to the train, seize hold and pull back, while the agent would stick a piece of wood through the wheel spokes.

Of the primitive brake power on the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown one of the early employees of that company says that "the speed of a train was slackened by what was termed a foot brake, operated by the pressure of a man's foot on a spring and lever." A New England writer refers to "those dear old hand-brakes, which gave one, when approaching his station, such a jolly stirring up and never let up until he was landed wide awake on the platform." There was always rude jolting when trains stopped or started, and it frequently was tantamount to a shock scarcely less severe than would be caused on a superior modern train by a collision.

It is said that the primitive buffers on the New Castle and Frenchtown "were formed of the side sills extending past the end of the car, these ends being cushioned with hair covered with sole leather."


Horatio Allen states that when the South Carolina Railroad had one hundred miles of track prepared for use, operations over such an extensive line were then unprecedented. In making prospective arrangements for this unusual undertaking one of the first things that occurred to him was that the locomotives would have to run by night as well as by day, and in the absence of a head-light he built an open platform car, stationed in front of the locomotive, a fire of pine knots, surrounded with sand, which furnished the requisite illumination of the route traversed. On some of the other lines no substitutes for head-lights were used. But night trips were, as far as possible, avoided, and it was considered a hardship when the carrying of mails necessitated them, and when no extra compensation was given for such service.

One of the current items of newspaper intelligence in August, 1840, was the following: "The Boston and Worcester Railroad Company are preparing a very bright head-light with powerful reflectors, to be placed in front of a locomotive, which is to run on that road after night. The transportation of freight by night is a very material gain in point of time, and diminishes the chances of collisions, while the slow rate of travel enables a locomotive to draw heavy loads without injury to the road."


During the period when transitions from horse power to locomotives were progressing, and some of the locomotives were not very reliable or powerful, there was considerable diversity of opinion in regard to the merits of the two motive powers. At that time stage-coach operations had been brought to a high state of advancement, and there were occasional trials of speed, in which, on account of a temporary disability of the locomotive or other causes, the iron-horse was beaten. Such an incident occurred in a trial of Peter Cooper's locomotive, on the Baltimore and Ohio, and there are reports of similar contests elsewhere. As the number of locomotives was very limited, the disability of an engine was, in some instances, followed by a temporary resumption of the use of horses.


Reports of an incident on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway, in which the right of way was contested by an irate bull, were widely circulated, and for years this singular conflict and its results were often referred to as typical of the resistless power of the locomotive. The story, as told by Henry Willis, a gentleman who claims to have been a witness of the occurrence, is as follows: "One mile east of Leaman Place, a farmer named Slaymaker, whose barnyard was at the foot of a thirty-foot embankment, had a three-year-old bull, that showed its approval of railway matters by bellowing in the most unearthly manner at each train, much to the amusement of the passengers. I had occasion to go to Parkesburg early one morning, and with this intent took the four o'clock early freight, which was made up of twelve open cars, each loaded with four hogsheads of whisky, manufactured by Benjamin Herr, of Manor township, Lancaster county. Slaymaker's bull heard the engine coming, got on the track, and headed for the enemy. I was on the engine at the time, and feared going over the embankment. I called to the engineer to open the throttle wide. The engine darted forward, and the bull met the enemy sooner than expected, and was hurled to the bottom of the embankment. Cowcatchers were not in use then; simply a bumping block. Ever after the bull would shake his head and bellow, but he gave us a wide berth."


There are doleful accounts of the pitiful state of impecuniosity to which some of the lines were reduced. Cash being exhausted, and receivers' certificates not having been invented, when operations proved unprofitable there was no basis for credit. An early employee of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown, which subsequently became one of the most profitable short lines in the country, reports that be was obliged to buy grease to oil the axles with his own money. An old engineer on a New England road "relates how men were sometimes put on the tender, with a saw-horse and saw, to cut the wood to make steam for the trip, because there was no supply on band, and no money and no credit to buy any. It is said that an official once gave up his gold watch as security when a train was seized for debt while en route."

Poverty, or lack of means, was a chronic complaint with so many of the early lines, that if a few notable successes had not been scored, and if state and city governments had not rendered timely aid to some of the most important enterprises, the rapid extension of the system would have been jeopardized. It is probable that the life of a considerable number of unprofitable lines was only perpetuated, because, after large sums had been expended upon them, investors and creditors of various grades concluded that it was better to make additional advances, even at the risk of losing the amount of the new outlays, than to sacrifice the entire capital.


One of the noticeable features of early operations on northern lines was the small amount of freight traffic. It was, relatively, easier to attract Passengers than to obtain consignments of merchandise or staple products, except on roads that traversed coal-mining districts or cotton-growing regions. Of a prominent Massachusetts road it is reported that a motion was made at an annual meeting to let the privilege of carrying freight on its lines to some responsible person for $1,500 a year. Of freight operations on the Baltimore and Ohio a report dated October 1st, 1831, stated that on thirteen miles of road in operation since the previous January, only 5,931 tons of freight had been carried. During the same period 81,905 passengers had been carried.

The following statement of the early business of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, located on one of the best natural routes in the country, inasmuch as it was the leading thoroughfare between two of the most populous cities of the United States, indicates at once the paucity of freight traffic (which was partly due on this line to high charges and partly to the existence of convenient adjacent water routes), and the small amount of traffic of any kind that could be procured:—

At it comparatively early period of the operations of this road it was considered an important event when the demand for cars to move freight increased to a requirement for forwarding 90,000 pounds in a single day.

A serious obstacle to immediate success on many of the early lines arose from the extent to which the practice of dispensing with the aid of common carriers of any kind in land movements had been rooted in many communities. Aside from the travel on stage routes, and the hiring of teams to carry merchandise over a few leading thoroughfares, nearly all those who wished to make journeys or move merchandise used their own teams or borrowed horses or vehicles.


Of the antecedents of the employees selected as trainmen on a number of the early railways, and especially those constructed in New England, Mr. William S. Huntington says that many of them had previously been connected with stage-coach operations. He says: "Some were employed is conductors, others as station agents, baggage masters, firemen, etc., etc. Their former occupation made them robust and their training gave them that keen, attentive watchfulness which admirably fitted them for their new calling. They were called upon to fill every conceivable position in operating railroads. They were promoted from time to time, and firemen soon became engineers, baggagemen were soon collecting fare, conductors were made superintendents, engineers were promoted to be master mechanics, and so on through the whole list, and as fast as railroads were built the stagemen were called upon to operate them. There was a great deal of ignorance in railroad management in those days, but not as much nonsense as there is now."

There was peculiar propriety in recruiting employees from the stage routes, as they were the principal sufferers in the way of losing previous employment by railway operations. In some localities staging was combined with railroad operating by companies who made it part of their business to take up or put down passengers at any convenient point in the towns or cities near their termini. This was done in Boston and Albany and probably other places, the system being applied to passenger traffic that is applied now to light freight traffic by the express companies which act in co-operation with railway companies.


On some lines great difficulty was experienced in obtaining reliable locomotive enginemen. On account of the exposure to which they were subjected before cabs were furnished, and comparatively low wages, few machinists who understood engines cared to continue in the business. Smart young blacksmiths were found to be the best class to select from by some roads. In other districts young men trained as farmers, and accustomed to miscellaneous farm labors, but not experts in any class of mechanics, proved most serviceable. The duties imposed were in several respects peculiarly responsible and onerous, inasmuch as the engineman was expected to understand the machine he was operating sufficiently well to give directions for a considerable proportion of the requisite repairs, which were often made by men who had no other training than as blacksmiths. Instances of defective knowledge on the part of some of the inexperienced enginemen were by no means uncommon, and occasionally ludicrous blunders were made, but, as a rule, a better comprehension of the locomotives used was then necessary than is requisite now, on account of the marked improvement in systems of repairing; and if a train was derailed it frequently became the duty of the engineman to set matters right without aid from a wreck train.

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