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Roads to Rails Lesson Plan

Why Build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad?

Engraving from Stock Certificate, 1835. From the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum
Engraving from Stock Certificate, 1835. From the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum

The key to the growth of the United States in the early 19th century was the expansion of foreign and domestic trade. The United States was largely an agricultural society with trade centered on the Atlantic seaboard. Improving trade and transportation routes to areas west of the Appalachian Mountains would help Baltimore become a major commercial center. By 1830, Baltimore was a major port and the third largest city in the United States. For many years the National Road provided the main means of moving freight and goods to Baltimore.

Baltimore’s trade with the Ohio River Valley via the National Road was critical to the city’s economy. Wagons carrying goods and manufactured items could be found traveling east and west on the road at all hours of the day. However, this land route was a slow and expensive mode of travel. As it became clear that the proposed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) would not reach Baltimore, the need to sustain Baltimore’s economy would lead to the development of one of the nation’s first railroads, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O).

The B&O received its name from its point of origin, Baltimore, and its intended destination, the Ohio River. Why the B&O was built is a story of vision, courage, and capital. It is a story about major transportation changes in the Baltimore region that ultimately played out on the vast American continent. It tells the story of change in how freight, people, and ideas, traveled across the country. It is a story of transition from “roads to rails” and it is a riveting and colorful drama that begins in Maryland.

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