At first it was just an idea. Many thought it was an impossible dream and not a practical plan to provide Baltimore with an economic lifeline to the expanding western frontier. It was a stretch of the early 19th century imagination to think that a railway could be constructed over rivers and through a mountainous wilderness. But the idea blossomed into a plan to do exactly that, all the way to the Ohio River, and the B&O Railroad was born.
Herbert Harwood, Jr., in his book Impossible Challenge II, describes the launching of the B&O as more than the beginning of another business enterprise. It was in every sense the start of a great, bold, and enormously risky adventure. He describes the celebration that was held to mark the start of commercial railroading in the United States:
At six a.m. on the Fourth of July 1828, three guns were fired, signaling the participants in the parade to organize and take their places. At seven sharp they all started out west down Baltimore Street from the Merchants Exchange. It was the greatest celebration Baltimore had ever put on and, considering relative population, the greatest it ever would. At the time the city’s population was about 70,000 and it was estimated that almost 70,000 people had turned out. There were dignitaries of every description, a band, floats and hundreds of marchers representing the city’s major trades and crafts.... Each of their elaborate floats....displayed that trades particular wares, often in the process of creation. The hatters made beaver hats; the painters did a portrait; blacksmiths worked over a forge; lathes turned; printers printed. And toward the end came the most memorable float of all—a 27-foot-long fully rigged sailing ship, sails set and silk colors flying, built at Fell’s Point and manned by the Ship Captains and Mates.
The people who witnessed this spectacle may not have been able to foresee the changes that would be ushered in by the birth of American railroading, but they sensed that something momentous was happening.
Harwood explains that the project was probably the most massive ever conceived in this country, if not the world, at the time. When they started planning it, the longest railroad in the world was about 25 miles long and was little more than a mine tramway....They had no clear idea how their railroad would be powered, much less how the power would be designed. They did not know what kind of roadbed and rail would work or what bridge designs were appropriate to carry the unknown motive power and traffic loads. Nor did they really know what the project would cost or where the money would be found. From the beginning, it would be trial and error.
Source: Italicized portions are excerpted from Impossible Challenge II by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr.