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Determining the Facts
Reading 1: Freight Service by Rail Begins Slowly, But Quickly Picks Up Steam
The earliest trains did not haul much freight or go very far. They moved no faster than the horses that pulled them. The B&O horse-drawn train to Frederick, a distance of 61 miles, took about eight hours in 1831, requiring twelve stops to change the horses. Receipts for freight traffic on the main stem of the new railroad totaled a little more than $4,000 in that same year, only a fraction of passenger revenue.
However, this slow and bumpy start was short-lived. News reports from July of 1832 note that during the spring of that year, the average passenger traffic between Baltimore and Ellicott’s Mills was 400 travelers a day while the average transport of freight was 26 tons a day. Traffic increased even more when the line to Frederick was open. Advances in steam locomotive technology brought an end to the use of horse power on the Baltimore and Ohio in 1834. By 1835 freight revenue was up to $169,000, a figure that was nearly double the receipts for passenger travel. This trend continued as the demand for freight service increased up to and beyond the Civil War. Freight revenue rose to over $10 million by 1865. Generally, freight traffic was four to five times as great as passenger traffic.
These freight trains hauled coal, flour, wheat, lumber and countless other resources from sources in the interior of the country back to the growing cities of the east and the towns that sprouted up around the railroad depots. This helped put in motion forces for economic growth that were unlike anything seen before. The railroad ultimately allowed goods to move at a speed and in such quantities that could not have been previously imagined. People who had expected to spend their lives within a few miles of their birthplace now could imagine prosperous and exciting futures for themselves and their children. It did not happen overnight, and not everyone would flourish in the emerging industrial society, but the long term impact on our country as a whole was momentous.
Questions for Reading 1:
- Why was it necessary to stop horse-drawn trains so frequently?
- Why do you think the B&O made more money carrying freight rather than passengers? Be sure to use evidence from the reading to support your answer.
- Who, besides the railroad companies, benefited from the increased flow of goods carried by freight trains?
- Who might not have been excited or happy about the growth of the railroad industry during the 19th century? Be sure to use evidence from the text to support your answer.
This reading was excerpted from History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, by John F. Stover.