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Setting the Stage

Historical Context

As the first commercial railroad in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was an important part of the process that changed our agrarian society into an industrial giant. In the 1820s, Baltimore businessmen realized that in order for their city to compete economically with other eastern port cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, they needed a strong transportation system to the west connecting their port with the Ohio River. Turnpike travel was slow, and constructing a canal was too costly and impractical through the rugged western Appalachian Mountains. Therefore, they boldly decided to construct a road made of smooth rails to the Ohio River which would provide practical and efficient transportation for the region. The innovative B&O Railroad officially opened to the public in May 1830.

Freight trains changed everyday life in America. Railroad freight trains eventually brought an endless variety of foods and household products to consumers. This improved the American diet as well as the quality of life for the average citizen. The new pipeline for commerce also meant, as early as the 1840s, that many of the neediest citizens could purchase bread made from the carloads of inexpensive wheat that flowed eastward to the cities. People who were too poor to buy firewood could now afford to heat their dwellings with a seemingly endless supply of cheap coal. Before the railroads, the wealthy had always been able to acquire the things they needed. Now, thanks to steam engines and the cargo they transported, even the people at the bottom of the economic ladder were able to improve the quality of their lives. In many ways, the railroad freight business increased the overall wealth of the nation.

The railroad also created new opportunities, as it better connected cities of the coastal regions with the frontier, and dramatically cut travel times. Unskilled workers saw the realistic possibility of creating a new life as the plentiful land to the west became more accessible. And, as industrialization accelerated after the Civil War, many who were tired of the struggles of rural and small town life began migrating back to the cities for jobs (many of which were created by the booming railroad business). In fact, masses of people from all over the European continent set sail for the economic prosperity afforded by America. A part of the explanation for this historic phenomenon can be found inside the boxcars, coal hoppers, and gondolas of the freight train.

 Source: Adapted from: The American Railroad Freight Car by John H. White

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