When the railway age opened in 1830, many parts of the United States were still raw, unexplored, and undeveloped. The nation’s basic industry was agriculture. Seaport merchants conducted its trade. Everyday life differed little from that of the earliest settlers of our country. But that would drastically change over the decades that followed. The railroads and the nation grew and prospered together. Railroads, especially their freight trains, drove the changes in people’s lives and the economic stature of the country
The single most important item eventually carried by railroads was coal. It was the foundation of the railroad freight business and the basis of its financial success. Coal gave birth to the rail industry, whose origins can be found in horse-powered tramways built in England during the 18th century. Rail transport came to the United States about a hundred years later on gravity railways at Mauch Chunk and Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The success of these two small lines in moving coal from the mountaintop to nearby canal landings demonstrated the promise that railways held for the future of coal transport on a much larger scale.
North America was rich in coal deposits, and the Pennsylvania fields were a small part of what was available. The Pennsylvania fields contained some of the best coal in the world and were the first to be extracted and sold in the United States. Huge deposits of lower quality soft coal, however, stretched from eastern Pennsylvania to southern Illinois. More coal was found in the West, especially Colorado and Wyoming. Efforts to dig out bituminous coal began around Cumberland, Maryland, in 1842. Within six years coal was a major item on the Baltimore and Ohio, representing 42 percent of its eastbound tonnage. By 1850 coal accounted for 57.5 percent of B&O eastbound traffic! On the eve of the Civil War one-third of the railroad’s freight equipment consisted of coal cars and one-third of its freight traffic was from bituminous traffic. The B&O could move a ton of coal 178 miles from Cumberland to Baltimore for the bargain price of $2.07. Traffic increased steadily, surging to over one million tons in 1878, and exceeding two million tons four years later.
The early trickle of freight grew into a powerful flow of coal and many other goods providing for the basic needs of civilized life - heat, food, shelter, and clothing. As the pace of industrialization accelerated, the national wealth soared. People’s lives were changing. By 1890 the United States was emerging as a major economic power in the world. The freight train, especially the simple coal car, played a central role in this transformation process.