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Building the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

Laying the First Stone. Oil on canvas by Stanley M. Arthurs, 1928. From the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum.


Railroading in the United States began in Maryland and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was the first railroad to provide regular freight and passenger service in the United States. The B&O represented progress as the railroad opened the interior of the U.S. It served as a training ground for numerous engineers, supervisors, contractors, and managers who would use their skills to build other railroads. The creation of the B&O was Baltimore’s most important business decision in the nineteenth century, providing economic growth for the port and city for years to come.

The founding of the B&O resulted from the emergence of competing trade routes to the interior of the United States. Baltimore was the third largest city in America in the 1830's, competing with New York, Boston, and Philadelphia for trade and commerce. Prominent Baltimoreans met to discuss how to provide “quick and easy” access to the Ohio and the upper-Mississippi River Valleys and restore the western trade lost with the introduction of steamboats and canals. They realized that a canal connecting Baltimore with the proposed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) was too costly and presented too many engineering problems. A similar plan calling for a canal to connect Baltimore to the Susquehanna River would not bring sufficient revenue to the city because the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was nearing completion. The business community turned to the only remaining option; they decided to build a railroad.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad received its name from its point of origin, Baltimore, and its intended destination, the Ohio River. Extensive engineering work was required to reach the Ohio River. The route the railroad followed was rocky, mountainous, and largely undeveloped. Complicating the project was the fact that engineers were designing a railroad without knowing the capabilities of the engines and cars that would run on them. There were no blueprints to follow and solutions to construction problems were often solved by trial and error. Historian Herbert Harwood Jr. stated the challenge best when he called the B&O's plans a nineteenth-century moon-shot. The success of the B&O's engineers was a testament to their skills and helped the line earn the informal title "The Railroad University of America."

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