US railway history is so fascinating that it’s difficult to talk about everything that ever happened. However there are many key areas of the railway history that every railway enthusiast should know about, such as steam locomotives and the history of railway companies. Starting from the 1800’s, and continuing through to present day, trains and railways are forever changing, and who knows where trains will be in another hundred years time. Nevertheless the history of railways continues to captivate people, and the railway industry is worth learning about if you are new to trains.
Starting in approximately 1810, several entrepreneurs were toying with the idea of model railways in the United States, and in 1825, John Stevens, an inventor who lived in a summer estate home in New Jersey, built a test track for a locomotive to run around. Baltimore soon latched on to the idea of railroads, since they had yet to invest in a canal, and so built the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, hoping to attract more visitors to compete with New York. This was then declared as the first official railroad in the United States, and parades were held on the day of construction.
Many more railroads were built soon after. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was quickly formed, which was designed to trade from within the state. The company built a steam locomotive in 1830, at the West Point Foundry in New York City. The years to follow soon saw railroads overtake canals as a primary form of transportation, with the first steam engine being called the DeWitt Clinton, named after the builder Erie Canal.
The late 1800s saw more successful railroads being established, with automatic block signals being installed in 1869. This would mean faster transportation for passengers, safer passage on the railroads, and full utilisation of the tracks. However through 1870-80, many strikes were held against railroads. What started out to be one of many successful growing US industries, soon began to see financial struggles to continue railroad operations. The Pullman Palace Car Company also found people striking out against them, and corporations had to hire Pinkerton guards to break up the violence among patrons. These strikes brought about great ferocity, and many people were killed, buildings were burnt, and middle-class Americans were being rioted against.
1883 saw the decline of these strikes, as standard time zones were adopted by railroads. In 1887, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to watch over the railroads and ensure tickets for passengers were of a fair price. More safety regulations were undertaken in the late 19th century, to ensure there were fewer injuries and deaths on the railroads.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the formation of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), a company of nine locomotive manufacturing companies that had merged together. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the nationalisation of railroads in 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War 1. The United States Railroad Administration monitored the railroads until 1920, when Congress once again overtook control of railroad companies.
However, railroads started to see a slow decline in success in 1920-30. Due to the Great Depression, opposition were threatening railroads in the form of turnpike operators, canal companies, stagecoach companies, and others who were driving wagons. Tavern owners and innkeepers were starting to see threats to their business due to the decline of railways, since passengers did no longer need a place to stay in between journeys. These threats sometimes became violent, and religious leaders started describing trains as sacrilegious. Railways were once seen as successful, but there was now so much opposition and competition against them, that is was difficult to see the smooth running of railways anymore.
However, the economic benefits to railways soon began to win them over again. The 1940s saw the highest ridership in American History for railways, as in World War 2, soldiers were being transported via railroads to their overseas destinations; railways were easily becoming a very heavy industry for the United States. It was then automobiles that saw a dramatic decline due to this and the war, and more railroad companies saw the benefits of merging together to create one company. The California Zephyr was mutually launched by Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and Western Pacific Railroad on March 20, 1949. This passenger train became the first to introduce Vista Dome Cars, which were to be in regular service now.
As the first jetliners were taken to the air in the 1950s-60s, railways began to once again see a reduction in passenger numbers. Automobiles and air travel were becoming more popular as time went on, which railway companies were recognising. Railroads were merging together, and attempts to cancel all non-profitable trains and railways were futile. These efforts were delayed as they saw difficulties through Interstate Commerce hearings.
The 1970s saw the era of deregulation. On March 22, the California Zephyr made its last run, arriving in Oakland, California. The train was to be overtaken by Amtrak, a train travelling almost the same route as the California Zephyr. Amtrak was now to be created by the act of Congress, to oversee the national network of passenger trains, and ask the government for help to resurrect the failing US railways. On June 21, the Penn Central files for Bankruptcy, which became the biggest corporate failure in American History thus so far. Conrail was created from the remains of Penn Central, which began operating in 1986.
Amtrak was renamed to Auto Train in 1983, and this saw many major railways to be introduced in the following years, that are still in operation today. After the tragic terrorist attack on September 11 2001, part of the PATH railway was destroyed, which took two years to resume full service. Today, trains are still a popular form of transport, despite the countless number of cars on roads. While the total railway traffic has declined by 2.5 percent to 28 million carloads in 2015, there is no sign of trains or railways to be terminated anytime soon.