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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Washington Connection

The initial plans of the B&O Railroad did not include a branch line from Baltimore to Washington. The goal was to push west to the Ohio River Valley as soon as humanly possible, so additional lines were seen as distractions at best. However, the idea for a rail line between these two cities was not a new one. The company responsible for the turnpike linking Baltimore to Washington was given permission to build a rail line by the Maryland legislature, and the U.S. Congress, in 1828.

The turnpike was completed in 1825, and eventually became part of Route 1, the postal road linking the major cities of the east. It actually served to advance the idea of a railroad because of the dreadful traveling conditions experienced by the many influential people who traveled the route. Rains and intolerable mud interrupted summer heat and dust, and winter brought a frozen bed of stones that made travel an ordeal. Anyone who had spent the five to sometimes ten or more hour trip in stifling heat or brutal cold was easily convinced that there was a desperate need for a better way to move people and goods between the two cities. After some deliberation, the B&O decided to undertake the project.

Crews began work on the Washington branch of the B&O in October of 1833. There was some controversy about the route chosen, as it favored manufacturing interests over the agricultural interests of the route not selected. The road was graded for two tracks, which was the original plan, but only a single track was put down between Relay and Washington. A second line was not added until 1860.

The most challenging geographic obstacle of this entire project was the Patapsco River Valley, creating the need for a massive, curving bridge linking Relay to Elk Ridge, at the very beginning of the line to Washington. The Thomas Viaduct, named for the president of the B&O, was over 600 feet long, with curving tracks supported by eight striking sixty-foot arches built of Patapsco granite. The bridge is still in use today, standing as a monument to the skills of those 19th century planners and workmen who built it.

The perils of bridge building are starkly documented in an account by Benjamin Latrobe, who designed it, shortly before the completion of the structure:

There was a man killed yesterday by a fall from the center of the first arch. He was knocked off by the slipping of the foot…… and was precipitated to the ground from a height of about 55 feet, where he struck his head upon a stone and rebounded several feet. His skull was fractured and he sustained other injuries which in about an hour terminated his existence. He was a laborer by the name of Barney Dougherty and has not left a family fortunately. He was buried today, all hands attending his body......to the Catholic graveyard near Baltimore. What a sympathy there is between these rough men. It was affecting to see his fellow laborers dressed in their best going in a body to escort him a part of the way on his long journey.

The Washington Branch officially opened in August of 1835. It was immediately successful, carrying over 75,000 passengers in the first year. At $2.50 per trip, this produced over $175,000 in revenue, well above the $11,000 in freight receipts. This is in contrast to the main stem from Baltimore to Harper’s Ferry at the same time, where freight revenue was much higher than the income from passenger travel. The leaders of the B&O took great pride in the success of their Washington connection.

Questions for Reading 3
1.      Why was building a line connecting Baltimore to Washington not part of the original plans for the B&O?

2.      Why do you think they changed their minds and decided to build the line?

3.      Why was the specific route taken of importance to the people in Maryland?

4.      What was the most challenging part of construction of the Washington Branch?

5.      What does the passage about the man falling to his death tell you about the life of a laborer on a railroad construction crew?

6.      Why do you think the Washington Branch was so successful?

Reading adapted from A History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad by John Stover; The Great Road, The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, The Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1853 by James Dilts.

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