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B&O Railroad spread steam, rail lines across the US

On Feb. 28, 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad made history for American trade when it became the first U.S. railway chartered for commercial transportation of freight and passengers.

While the B&O Railroad is a famous part of the classic Monopoly game board, which depicts the relating to Atlantic City, the real rail line never touched the seashore town in New Jersey. The line connected Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and at its longest stretched well past Ohio to Chicago and St. Louis. It was conceived as a way to help Baltimore compete with the behemoth in trade that was New York, which had recently opened the Erie Canal for better trade to the West, according to Britannica. Merchants of Baltimore established the line.

Construction began a year later, officially breaking ground July 4, 1828, with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. American revolutionist and the last surviving person to sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, laid the first stone.

Charles Carroll lays the first stone for the B&O Railroad. (Photo: B&O Railroad Museum)

In 1830, the first American railroad station was built on what today is known as Mount Clare Historic Site, according to its museum. The station was originally named West Pratt Street Depot.

At first the railroad exclusively operated its 13-mile track with horse-drawn rail cars. While there were steam engines in use elsewhere in the world, the first known steam locomotive in the U.S. was the “Tom Thumb.” It took to the B&O tracks on Aug. 28, 1830. The inaugural ride was a demonstration that transported B&O railroad directors to Ellicott City, Maryland, known at the time as Ellicott’s Mills.

“Tom Thumb” was the first American steam locomotive that operated on the B&O railroad. (Photo: B&O Railroad Museum)

Passengers were stunned at the train’s ability to reach speeds of 10 to 14 mph. While it may be known as the first successful American steam locomotive, it never reached regular service and was retired in March 1831 after transporting passengers only a few times. It was salvaged for parts in 1834, but it became the start of the steam locomotive for B&O and the U.S.

The rail line originally stopped at Ellicott’s Mills, but in 1852 it was extended to Wheeling, Virginia, which is now located in modern West Virginia, according to Britannica. The railroad continued to expand in the 1860s and ’70s to Chicago and then to St. Louis. However, in 1896 the company went bankrupt, forcing it to reorganize three years later. The reorganization led to an expansion to Cleveland and Lake Erie.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co. bought B&O in 1963, but it remained in operation as a separate entity. The overarching rail company went through many changes and eventually established the Chessie System as a holding company. The National Railroad Passenger Corp. (known as Amtrak today) took over all passenger services, and in 1980 Chessie System merged with Seaboard Coast Line Industries Inc. to form CSX Corp.

In 1987, the B&O company was officially dissolved.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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