As the 19th century dawned, Baltimore was a thriving port city of about 30,000 citizens. The city’s inner harbor was the westernmost port in the eastern United States and competed effectively for European trade with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Produce and goods from the fertile interior made their way to her port on numerous wagon roads developed as people settled to the west. The “Fredericktown Turnpike” that connected Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland originated at a tollgate near the B&O Railroad Museum’s historic site. This point was the eastern terminus of the first federally-funded ‘highway” known as the National Road.
In 1825, the opening of the Erie Canal presented a threat to the economic prosperity of Baltimore. The new waterway connected the Great Lakes to the port of New York; thereby threatening Baltimore’s flourishing western trade. Other canals to the west were planned just beyond the borders of Maryland. As a response to this situation, several prominent businessmen promoted the idea of building a railroad that would transport goods and people to and from the Ohio River Valley. The idea was met with a reaction similar to the one that later faced those who suggested that man could fly. While many continued to scoff at the notion, by February of 1827 the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road had a charter from the Maryland General Assembly to proceed with this risky and costly venture. A partnership was created between Baltimore’s merchant “elite,” The City of Baltimore, The State of Maryland, and the public at large. It was an unprecedented private-public enterprise. The B&O Railroad would be the first common-carrier railroad constructed in the United States. It was to be a monumental undertaking.
The concept of a “rail-road” went back hundreds of years, and recent technological advances in England gave hope to the business and political leaders who were about to undertake this project. A road made of rails was designed so that a wheeled vehicle with flanges could gracefully travel across smooth rails easier and faster than a wheeled vehicle over a bumpy, and sometimes muddy, dirt road. However, the plan was to build from the port city, through a sparsely settled mountainous wilderness, 380 miles to the Ohio River! The only railroads existing in the United States were for mining operations and short freight purposes. Cars were pulled by horses or propelled by gravity. Nothing like this had ever been attempted.
By July of 1828, the ceremonial First Stone was in place and surveyors had marked a 13-mile right-of-way from Baltimore west to Ellicott’s Mills. By March of the following year tracks were laid proceeding west from Mt. Clare, the current site of the B&O Museum. A month later a massive stone arched bridge, the Carrollton Viaduct, was completed, crossing over Gwynn’s Falls, 1.5 miles from Mt. Clare. This 312-foot long structure is the oldest surviving railroad bridge in active daily use in the world.
Painstaking and costly progress continued westward, as rivers and mountains once thought to be impassable were slowly conquered. Meanwhile, working in the other direction, the B&O completed the first rail link to Washington, D.C. in 1835. The centerpiece of the “Washington Branch” was the Thomas Viaduct, a 612-foot-long stone arch bridge over the Patapsco River valley in Relay, Maryland. By 1853, the B&O had reached the terminus of the original charter at the Ohio River in Wheeling, Virginia (now the “panhandle” of West Virginia).
Reading adapted from, The Birthplace of American Railroading by Courtney Wilson, Executive Director of the B&O Railroad Museum, 2004