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Setting the Stage

Historical Context


Prior to the advent of railroad transportation, raw materials, manufactured goods, and other types of freight traveled by animal-drawn wagons on turnpike roads, and canal boats on waterways. During the 1820s, freight travel to and from the port of Baltimore was accomplished by way of the National Road. The National Road was one of a series of internal transportation improvements recommended by the federal government to promote and improve commerce and national security. The road consisted of a series of pre-existing turnpikes, improved roads, and the nation’s first federally funded “highway” constructed between Cumberland, Maryland and Vandalia, Illinois. Construction on the federal portion of the road began in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811 and reached the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (today located in West Virginia) in 1818. Reaching the Ohio River was imperative, as goods could then travel beyond it easily by way of ships and canal boats.


The National Road’s eastern leg heading west from Baltimore was constructed and operated as by the Baltimore and Frederick Turnpike Company. The company built an improved road from Baltimore to Frederick through towns like Ellicott’s Mills, Middletown, and Boonsboro, Maryland. Construction began in 1805 and when completed in 1818, the road stretched sixty miles and ended on the Western edge of Boonsboro. There the route to Cumberland continued 74.5 miles over the Hagerstown & Boonsboro Turnpike and the Cumberland Turnpike and eventually joined the National Road in Cumberland.


The first boom period of the road was 1820-1840 and coincided with the opening of the National Road and the rise of Baltimore as a commercial power. All along the Baltimore & Frederick Turnpike all sorts of wagons carried manufactured supplies to the west and raw goods east. It was not uncommon to see wagons on the road at any hour of the day. They averaged fifteen to twenty miles a day and could make the trip from Baltimore to Wheeling, Virginia in two weeks. During the 1820s, a man traveling between Baltimore and Frederick passed 235 wagons in less than thirty-five miles. However, wintry conditions clogged roads and deep snows could slow the rate of travel to three miles a day. 


By the 1840s, 15,000 men worked as “teamsters” leading their teams of horses that pulled the primary freight wagon known as the Conestoga wagon. They were named for Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the area where they were developed. The wagons sagged in the middle, and were tipped up in the front and back to prevent freight loss on rough trails. They could be as long as twenty-six feet and the front wheels of the wagon were three to four feet in diameter and the rear wheels were four to eight feet in diameter and averaged four inches wide. A typical Conestoga wagon weighed 3,500 pounds when empty and carried five to eight tons of freight. A Conestoga pulled by a team of six to eight horses carrying five tons of freight could travel eighteen to twenty miles on good roads in fine weather conditions. Larger Conestoga wagons carried ten tons, were pulled by teams of ten horses, with rear-wheels that were ten feet in diameter and ten inches wide.


The turnpike roads were the 19th century equivalent to today’s highways and the Conestoga wagons were the equivalent to modern freight trucks. Together they carried America’s commerce across the country prior to the railroad. These roads were far from smooth and the journey was anything but comfortable when compared to 19th century rail travel or today’s standards.


Source: The American Railroad Freight Car by John H. White and A Journey from Roads to Rails by David Shackelford.

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