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Setting the Stage

Historical Context

The most difficult challenge facing those who built the first commercial railroad in America was geography. The task of laying serviceable track from Baltimore westward was daunting, to say the least. Rivers and mountainous terrain would play a central role in determining the path of the railroad. The existing roads for travelers on horseback and in wagons were incapable of providing a pathway for commerce on the scale envisioned by the business and political leaders who championed the railroads during the 1820s and beyond.

While the geographic factors loomed over the hopes of the railroad’s proponents, a debate continued within the business and political communities about whether the best way to “conquer” the frontier on the western horizon was by canals or railroads. The struggle between the backers of the two modes of transport was intense.

On the 4th of July, 1828 the city of Baltimore was the scene of a celebration of the decision to build a railroad. A huge parade consisting of 60,000 dignitaries and everyday citizens culminated with the laying of the “First Stone” on what is now the site of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. At the same time, ground was being broken for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the Georgetown section of Washington. D.C.

The competition was on. It included a bitter and lengthy battle in the courts over who had the right to build where and when. In spite of the persuasive powers of Daniel Webster, who argued on behalf of the railroad, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the canal company. In the long run, the dispute was settled in the marketplace, as the railroads proved better able to meet the demands for the quick, reliable transport of goods to locations that were out of reach for the canals. Both modes of transport were built and utilized to carry freight. The B&O Railroad reached its original goal of connecting Baltimore to the Ohio River (in what is now Wheeling, West Virginia) by 1853. The C&O Canal did not extend beyond Cumberland, Maryland, about half the distance of the railroad. 

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