While there was considerable excitement about the construction of a railroad from Baltimore into the frontier, support was far from unanimous. This was especially true for a railroad that its backers hoped to see built with substantial state and local government funding. Skeptics included taxpayers such as William Hollins, who in 1827 argued forcefully against the use of public monies for a “project….of very doubtful utility” in a 35-page tract calling for the government to reject the plan to raise money from the public through the sale of subscriptions. He asserted that canals and turnpikes would provide a transportation system that is equal to, if not superior to a railroad. He refuted the arguments in favor of the railroad made by its proponents:
…on a spacious canal, a boat can be drawn with more rapidity; and that a farmer with his own team…and with his own hands, can navigate a canal, being a free highway, without any other expense than that of tolls; whilst on the other hand, he must pay a gain seeking company and monopolists (such as a railroad), a profit for transportation of his produce; and consequently, goods could not be sent in return at as cheap a rate, because a farmer could afford to transport them on better terms, when his boat was returning, than any gain seeking company possibly could do.
The time to be consumed in traveling the railroad (to the Ohio River in Wheeling) is set down at three and a half days…. The mail-stage …is three and a half days, with changes about every twelve or fourteen miles, in passing between Baltimore and Wheeling. Now, I contend, that a rail-road would be nearly, if not quite, as long as a canal route through our mountainous and broken country; being of necessity driven to the margins of the rivers, which have in many places broken through those mountain barriers; and I think, that in this I shall be borne out by most of my fellow-citizens, who, being acquainted with the country…..to be found on the map of the national road, between Cumberland and Wheeling.......
…On a canal, a free highway, like a turnpike road, a farmer, a miller, a founder, a store keeper, or any other person, can travel with his own boat, or his neighbor’s boat, and taking four horses, provender from his farm, he hitches two to the draught while the other two are at rest and feeding on board the boat, carrying forty, fifty, or sixty tons of produce, at once, to market. This cannot be done on a railroad. The company must have a profit on the conveyance; every carriage, except those of the company, and those paying for the privilege, being excluded by law.
I have protested against a subscription of A Million Dollars on the part of the State to the rail-road scheme, because, after a full examination into the subject, I am convinced of its utter impracticability through our undulating and mountainous country, for a distance of three hundred miles, within the bounds of any fiscal means.
Here we arrive, at once, to an important comparative difference in the economy of power in favor of a canal over a rail-road. When a canal is… constructed, the power consists in the hydraulic lifts or locks. After the construction of a rail-road and the necessary stationary engines and apparatus; the expense of fuel, extra attendance of engineers, great wear and tear, and an immense consumption of oil, along the whole route, are unavoidable.
Needless to say, these arguments did not deter the railroad’s supporters, and the “First Stone” of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was laid on July 4, 1828. Construction towards what is today Ellicott City was begun immediately. The long, difficult job occupied a small army of workmen, surveyors, and engineers for the next 25 years.
During the celebration of the completion of the main line to Wheeling, VA. (now W. VA.), B&O president Thomas Swann spoke candidly about the last 60 miles of track from Cumberland. Holding the silver shovel employed by Charles Carroll of Carrollton at the laying of the first stone, he said “if the people of Baltimore could have seen the country they were trying to build the railroad through, the project would have been abandoned”. This was probably true for a substantial part of the route west. However, they pushed on, and the once widely ridiculed idea of building a railroad through the wilderness became a reality.
Questions for Reading 1