RAILROADS IN NORTH AMERICA
Some Historical Facts and
An Introduction to an Electronic Database of
North American Railroads and Their Evolution
M. C. Hallberg
December 21, 2009
Copyright 2006, 2009
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Some Early Reactions to Railroad . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Presidents of the United States and Railroads . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
The Granger Railroads . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Some Railroad Terms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Caboose . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Gauge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Planes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Railroad Classes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
An Historical Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Connecting America’s Cities and Moving West . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Some Milestones Along the Way . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
American Express Railway . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Railroads Establish Standard Time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Railroads Go To War . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Railroads After World War II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
A Rail Freight Revival . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Railroads and Freight Rates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Impact of Railroads on Farming . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Two Centuries of Railroading in the U.S. : A Chronology . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Railroad Names and Nicknames . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
The Casey Jones Story . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Train Robberies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Miles of Rail Owned and Freight Revenue in the U.S., 1830-2008 . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Railroads Chartered and Abandoned by Year in the U.S. and Canada, 1826-2009 . . . . 36
Number of For-Hire Railroads in Existence in the U.S. and Canada Years, 1826-2009 . . 36
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
The database that accompanies this report is intended as a compilation of all currently
existing railroads, all currently existing switching and terminal roads, and all operating railroads
(Class I, regional, and local) that have existed in the United States since the first railroad -- the
Granite Railway -- was chartered in Massachusetts in 1826 and the first common carrier railroad --
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad -- was chartered in Maryland in 1827. The motivation for this
compilation was to enable the generation of reasonably informative railroad family histories. A
concerted effort was made to record charter dates or dates of initial railroad operation as well as
dates of reorganization, consolidation, or merger, and the name of succeeding roads. Thus one can
use this compilation to develop a fairly accurate time-line of railroad history in the United States as
well as a fairly complete family history of railroads in the United States.
The database focuses primarily on United States railroads. It includes over 6,900 United
States roads. Currently existing Canadian roads are also included as are any Canadian roads that
have become part of the family of existing United States or Canadian railroads. A total of 192
Canadian roads are included in the database.
Roads included in this compilation and identified as being “abandoned” are those for which
Edson (see references) characterizes as being (1) abandoned, (2) dismantled, (3) tariff canceled, (4)
ceased operation, (5) dissolved, (6), charter expired, (7) charter surrendered, (8) dropped, (9)
liquidated, or (10) no tariff filed. There are over 1200 such roads.
I have associated each railroad with a state based on information in the various references
cited, the Association of American Railroads Internet web page, and various references on the
history of specific railroads.
In general, this compilation does not include special purpose proprietary lines. More than
150 electric railroads are included here, but generally only if they subsequently became part of the
family of one of the non-electric roads of primary interest to this compilation, or if they were
reclassified from steam to electric or vice versa.
This compilation also includes all known non-standard gauge railroads. The 4 foot, 8 1/2
inch gauge was not standardized until about 1887. Many of the early roads were built to various
gauge specifications often to effect local market protection. The 5 foot and 5 foot-6 inch gauge
roads (272 included in this compilation) were adopted by many roads in the South and the early
Canadian roads (see section on Railroad Gauges).
A variety of sources have been used to make this compilation as accurate and as meaningful
as possible. The currently existing railroad names were obtained from Primedia Directories, The
Official Railway Guide: Freight Service Edition, Nov/Dec 1999, and from the Internet web pages of
the Association of American Railroads. A special effort was made to include all of the early roads
listed in George Rogers Taylor and Irene D. Neu. The American Railroad Network: 1861-1890. A
special effort was also made to include all current and past switching and terminal roads.
A most important source for operating railroad names, beginning dates of operation, and
successor roads was William D. Edson. Railroad Names. This monograph is probably the most
complete compilation of railroad names in existence and is quite reliable, although a few omissions
were found even here. Another very useful source was George H. Drury. The Historical Guide to
North American Railroads. For Canadian roads, the works of Mika (1972), Mika (1986), and
Currie (1957) were most helpful as were several Internet sites on Canadian Railroad history.
Finally, I have consulted most of the histories written on specific railroad companies, and all of the
Internet web pages of railroad companies that are available as well as the Internet web pages of
various railroad clubs.
I have attempted to include all railroad families, but by no means do I claim this compilation
to include every single railroad company that was ever chartered and/or operated in the United
States. In general, I have not included what Edson has classified as proprietary companies, lessor
companies, and railroads not reporting to the I.C.C. unless they subsequently became part of the
family of one of the non-electric roads of primary interest to this compilation. While the present
compilation includes over 6,900 roads, if the number of roads alleged to be included in Edson’s
volume is correct, the present compilation includes only about 90 percent of the total number of
roads ever incorporated and operated in the United States. It should be noted, however, that several
of the roads included in the present compilation are not listed in Edson’s volume. Thus, even
Edson’s compilation is not complete. Indeed Edson states that “at least another 6,000 companies
are not listed because they were never operating railroads.”
A special computer program has been written to make access to this database as user
friendly as possible. This computer program is constructed in such a way that various summaries
can be obtained and special queries can be made, and so that updates to the database can quickly be
made and incorporated. In a very real sense, this database is a work in progress since information
on several roads has yet to be discovered. It is my intention to periodically update the database
based on information that subsequently becomes available.
SOME EARLY REACTIONS TO RAILROADS
“Thus, when as yet there were but two states on the western bank of the Mississippi . . .
there came to America the combination of a new sort of flexible composite vehicle -- the train made
up of many separate cars pulled by a unit of power -- and a new sort of road, the road of rails. Their
combination freed the continent from the limitations of terrain and temperature which so severely
restrict the usefulness of rivers and canals, for the railroad could go anywhere at any time. It could
pierce mountains and cross waterless plains. It could run every day in the year, through the frozen
winter or the long summer droughts, as well as in the more favored seasons of navigation. And
upon its surface of rails the power of men and machines to produce transportation was many times
multiplied.” [Robert S. Henry. This Fascinating Railroad Business.]
(From Freeman Hubbard, Encyclopedia of North American Railroading. page 151).
In about 1830 the Lancaster, Ohio Board of Education was asked to permit the use of its
schoolhouse for a debate on the practicability of railroads. Here is a record from the minutes of the
You are welcome to use the school room to debate all proper questions in, but such things as
railroads and telegraphs are impossibilities and rank infidelity. There is nothing in the word
of God about them. If God had designated that His intelligent creatures should travel at the
frightful speed of 15 miles an hour, He would have foretold it through his holy prophets. It
is a device of Satan to lead immortal souls down to Hell.
In 1829, eight years before he became President, Martin Van Buren wrote to then President
Andrew Jackson [keep in mind that the Erie Canal had opened in 1825]:
The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of
transportation known as "railroads". The federal government must preserve the canals for
the following reasons:
One -- if canal boats are supplanted by "railroads", serious unemployment will result.
Captains, cooks, drivers, repairmen, and lock tenders will be left without means of
livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for horses.
Two -- boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left
Three -- canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event
of expected trouble in England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could
ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.
For the above mentioned reasons, the Government should act to protect people from the
evils of "railroads" and to preserve the canals for posterity. As you may well know, Mr.
President, "railroad" carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by
things called "engines", which in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar
and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to the crops, scaring the livestock
and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people
should travel at such breakneck speed."
In a chapter of his book on local history about Eugene Township, Indiana (1963), Harold L.
O'Donnell writes about the Chicago and Eastern Illinois (C&EI) Railroad coming to town, and he
discusses the danger it was to livestock.
"Livestock in the early day were a constant source of trouble between the railroads and the farmers.
Stock would be killed and it was, of course, always the fault of the railroads. In one case a farmer
had a hog killed by a train and since he believed himself to have some ability as a poet, wrote the
railroad claim agent as follows:
My razorback strolled down your track,
A week ago today.
Your #29 came down the line,
And snuffed his life away.
You can't blame me; the hog you see,
Slipped through a cattle gate;
So kindly pen a check for ten,
The debt to liquidate.
He was surprised a few days later to receive the following:
Old #29 came down the line,
And killed your hog, we know;
But razorbacks on railroad tracks,
Quite often meet with woe.
Therefore, my friend, we cannot send,
The check for which you pine,
Just plant the dead; place o'er his head;
'Here lies a foolish swine.'"
PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES AND RAILROADS
Andrew Jackson was the first sitting President to have ridden a train. In 1833, President
Jackson traveled from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills on a short (20 miles or so) excursion.
Abraham Lincoln represented the Illinois Central Railroad in several suits in Illinois prior to
becoming President. His first case was in 1851 for the Alton and Sangamon Railroad which he
considered “a link in the great chain of railroad communication which shall unite Boston and New
York with the Mississippi [River]”. This suit arose when one of the original subscribers of stock to
the railroad who owned land in western Sangamon County, Illinois refused to pay the balance due
on his pledge in order to protest a change in the planned route of the road. Lincoln won the case for
the railroad. One of his early cases for the Illinois Central involved the granting of an exemption to
the railroad from all Illinois taxes. Again Lincoln won the case for the railroad, but this time he had
to go to court to collect his fees. (David H. Donald. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995.
On May 6, 1856, fourteen days after the first bridge across the Mississippi River opened at
Davenport, IA, the steamer Effie Afton was passing through the drawspan on her maiden voyage
when the starboard engine stopped causing the steamer to swing about and strike the bridge piers.
The Effie Afton’s chimneys toppled and the vessel burst into flames, drifting downstream.
The steamship company called the bridge an obstruction to safe navigation and initiated
legal action. The directors of the Rock Island Railroad met to select the attorneys for their defense.
Their regular attorney put forward the name of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln who won
the case for the Railroad.
As President, Lincoln formally inaugurated construction of the transcontinental railroad that
ultimately linked California with the rest of the nation. President Lincoln signed the Pacific
Railroad Act in 1862 that resulted ultimately in the driving of the “Golden Spike” at Promontory,
Utah joining the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad thus marking the
completion of the transcontinental railroad. President Ulysses S. Grant drove the ceremonial “last
spike” on September 8, 1883.
Harry S. Truman was the last President to “whistle stop” by train in 1945. Presidents
Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar uses of trains beginning in 1872.
THE GRANGER RAILROADS
Following the Civil War, four railroads -- the so-called “Granger Railroads” -- in the
Midwest were of particular importance to farmers in that region. These railroads were: the
Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, the Chicago and North
Western, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. These railroads served farmers (among other
businesses) in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota,
and South Dakota. All four were land-grant railroads – i.e., they received a grant of land from the
Federal government for the purpose of generating money with which to build a railroad. All four
were economically drawn to Chicago.
The National Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as The Grange, had long
been seeking redress from the monopolistic actions of railroads, particularly in the Midwest region.
In 1870, the Grange was successful in getting legislation passed in Illinois that addressed farmer
concerns. This legislation was revised and made more workable in 1873. Subsequently, other
states -- Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota -- adopted similar
legislation. The principle features of this legislation of Granger origin included:
(1) The fixing of maximum rates by direct legislation. For freight rates this was usually
followed by the setting up of commissions with power to establish schedules of maximum
(2) Provision that such maximum rates are prima facie evidence of reasonableness before the
(3) Laws designed to prevent discrimination between places by means of “long-and-short-haul”
(4) The attempt to preserve competition by forbidding consolidation of parallel lines.
(5) Laws prohibiting the granting of free passes to public officials.
The early Grange state railroad regulation applied only to intrastate rail operations. Later
they were extended to cover interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court at first upheld such
regulations, but in 1886 this opinion was reversed. This led to passage of the Interstate Commerce
Commission Act of 1887 which provided for interstate regulation of railroads and which would last
for the next century. Railroads thus became the first major U.S. industry to be subject to economic
regulation. Railroads at that time had a near monopoly on both freight and passenger transportation,
but that monopoly was shattered in the first half of the 20th century when federal subsidies promoted
the rise to trucks, barges, automobiles, airplanes and buses. Although the monopoly had long since
ended, railroads remained subject to strict regulation until 1980.
SOME RAILROAD TERMS
Caboose The caboose was the original house trailer. Besides the conductor’s office with a
desk, it had a living room, kitchen, dining room, workshop, bedroom, den, toilet,
balcony, and observation tower that the conductor shared with the rear brakemen and
any other authorized personnel riding with him. It was his source of income and
personal prestige, also his means of travel. “Join a railroad and see the world!”
Many a wide-eyed farm boy or bored factory hand answered that call in a bygone
era. The caboose was a daily adventure that took them far from their native cities,
towns, or farms. Naturally they became fond of it. Many a conductor loved his
caboose so much that when he retired he bought for a nominal sum the little old car
in which he had spent the best years of his life and had it hauled to the backyard of
his home and remodeled into a den for use in his old age.
Caboose was originally a nautical word, defined by some dictionaries as “a
house on deck where the cooking is done; a galley” and “an open-air cooking oven,”
in addition to the common railroad meaning. They link it to the Dutch kabuis and
kombuis, the Danish kabys, the Swedish kabysa, the German Kabuse, and Low
German Kabuus, each meaning “a little room or hut.” In Canada and Great Britain it
is usually called a van or brake van. (Freeman Hubbard. Encyclopedia of North
Gauge The distance between the inside edges of running rails. The standard railway gauge
in the United States, 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches, is the same as that of the rutways used for
chariots and carts in ancient Rome. During their occupation of Britain that began in
the first century A.D., the Romans used this gauge for coal mining. Later, the
Britons themselves found it convenient to retain the Roman gauge in their mine
railways and then in their passenger and freight lines. George Stephenson adopted
this standard gauge in building the world’s first practical railway and the first
successful steam locomotive.
At the outset, the choice of 4 feet, 8 ½ inches appeared arbitrary. The
tramways of the Newcastle area had a variety of other gauges, wider and narrower,
any of which Stephenson might have chosen. Archeological excavations at Pompeii,
Italy and elsewhere in the 1870’s and before revealed that the Stephenson gauge was
the approximate gauge of Roman road vehicles. That this was the common Roman
gauge was confirmed by subsequent archeology. Why the Roman’s chose this gauge
is still a mystery, although one historian hypothesizes that it represents the optimal
size of a road vehicle relative to the indivisible size of a horse. That is, anything less
would have underutilized the horse, anything greater would have put excessive strain
on the animal. Why it was retained by railroads also seems reasonable. It allowed
passenger cars that seated two people in comfort on each side of an aisle wide
enough for people to pass. It also permitted the use of freight cars that were large
enough to accommodate the size of packages that people could carry in and stack.
For about 60 years, American railroads had many gauges, ranging from the 2-
footers in upper New England to 5-footers in the South to 6-footers in New York,
New Jersey and Pennsylvania and to a 7-footer by the Ohio Railroad. Even
connecting railroads did not always have a uniform gauge. This seriously hampered
travel and freight shipping, particularly of the earliest circus trains. The St.
Lawrence and Atlantic, the Androscoggin and Kennebec, the Penobscot and
Kennebec, the Grand Trunk, and the Great Western of Canada adopted the 5 foot, 6
inch gauge to prevent through shipments from Canada to Boston. Promoters of the
New York and Erie wanted to monopolize trade so they built a 6 foot gauge road.
Similarly, the New Jersey Central adopted the 4 foot 10 inch gauge so as to
monopolize trade in that area. During the Civil War, easy rail interchange between
North and South was thwarted because the South had earlier been populated largely
by 5 foot and 5 foot 6 inch gauge railroads whereas the North used various other
gauges. Popular gauges by region were as follows: 2 foot, 3 foot, and 5 foot, 6 inch
in New England; 3 foot and 6 foot in the Mid-Atlantic States; 3 foot, 3 foot, 6 inch,
and 5 foot in the South; and 3 foot in the Midwest, Southwest, and West.
By 1887, however, every major railroad in the country, except for a large
segment of the Denver and Rio Grande and the Toledo, Cincinnati and St. Louis, was
using 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches, which by that time had become standard. The latter
railroads got caught up in the “narrow-gauge fever” infecting much of the West and
other areas and adopted the 3-foot gauge in the hopes of minimizing construction and
operating costs. (Freeman Hubbard. Encyclopedia of North American Railroading.)
Until the standard gauge was adopted, however, various expedients were
devised to permit interchange of equipment between lines of different gauge and
eliminate transshipment. The first expedient was the “compromise car”. This car
had wheels of 5 inch surfaces so they could be run over 4 foot 8 ½ inches up to 4
foot, 10 inch gauge. The second expedient was the “sliding axle car”. This car had
wheels that could slide on the axle to accommodate standard and broad gauge rails.
The third expedient was the “elevating machine car”. This was a car that could be
lifted while trucks of one gauge were replaced with trucks of another gauge. The
final expedient was use of “double gauge tracks”. Here a third rail was added to the
roadbed so rail lines of two different gauges could be run over the same roadbed
without changing equipment.
Planes When railroads were in their infancy, it was believed that an iron wheel locomotive
on iron rails would not go up more than a 2-3 percent grade without sliding back.
Even when the assumption was proved false, the small locomotives could hardly pull
more than empty cars up such a grade. As a result the early railroads used planes.
The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad at the Belmont area of Philadelphia had a
200 foot hill to climb and used a half-mile plane with a 7 percent grade. Another
plane was used to drop down into Columbia on the Susquehanna River. The
Danville and Pottsville Railroad between Pottsville and Sunbury was planned for 9
planes. Four were built to climb about 350 feet on the east side of the mountain near
Pottsville in 1834. Later a railroad was built paralleling the route with a 2 ½ to 3
percent grade. The Allegheny Portage Railroad used planes until larger locomotives
of the 1850s obsoleted the need.
While these three railroads were soon replaced by steam locomotive
railroads, other planes operated much longer. The three gravity railroads -- the
Delaware and Hudson Railroad at Carbondale, the Pennsylvania Coal Company near
Scranton (later, the Erie and Wyoming Valley Railroad), and the Mauch Chunk
Switchback Railroad built by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in 1826 --
ran much longer. The first two lifted loaded coal cars and were abandoned in 1899
and 1883 respectively. The Mauch Chunk Switchback lifted empty cars until 1872
when it ceased carrying coal, but continued for another 60 years carrying
Planes were also used by coal companies to lower cars of coal from mine
mouth down a mountain to trackside. There were probably 10 or 20 or even more in
the soft coal regions of Bradford, Lycoming, Cambria and other Pennsylvania
counties. The Reading Railway had two somewhat parallel planes -- the Gordon
Planes and the Mahanoy Plane. The former was built in 1854 at Gordon and
operated until 1896. It had two planes each about a mile long with a total vertical
height of 717 feet. The Mahanoy Plane between Gilberton and Frankville was more
than twice as steep. It opened in 1862, rising 365 feet in a half mile parabolic curve
with a maximum grade of 22 percent. The latter was discontinued in 1932 and torn
up in 1943.
By almost any standard the Jersey Central Railroad’s Ashley Planes was the
most outstanding. Completed in 1843, it far surpassed anything previously built.
The three planes totaled 2.2 miles and climbed 1025 feet. The bottom plane, with
only a 5.7 percent grade, took six 50 ton hopper cars up the grade at a speed of about
25 mph. The two shorter upper planes with a 14.6 percent and 9.3 percent grade
handled 3 cars at a time. An entire coal train could be lifted in little more time than
the road engine needed to run light up the 14 mile back track. Until the back track
was completed in 1867, the planes had carried empties and passengers. The planes
were discontinued in 1947 after diesels were purchased. (Adapted from Thomas T.
Taber, III. Railroads of Pennsylvania: Encyclopedia and Atlas. 1987.)
There are various ways to classify railroads none of which are foolproof. Class I
Railroads, as currently defined by the Surface Transportation Board of the Association of
American Railroads, are those railroads having operating revenue of at least $261.9 million per
year. Obviously, this figure has changed over the years. The Association of American Railroads
define a Regional Railroad as a non-Class I line-haul railroad operating 350 or more miles of
road and/or with operating revenues of at least $40 million per year, and a Local Railroad as
either a Class I or Regional railroad that is engaged primarily in line-haul service. The American
Short Line Railroad Association defines a short line railroad as one with less than 100 miles of
Finally, there is what is termed a Switching and Terminal Railroad which is a non-
Class I railroad engaged primarily in switching and/or terminal services for other railroads.
The current Class I Railroads, based on the Association of American Railroad
Burlington Northern Santa Fe
Kansas City Southern
The Illinois Central Gulf was purchased by the Canadian Nation in 1998. Conrail was
jointly purchased by CSX and the Norfolk Southern in 2001.
AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE1
"As our frontier moved westward, it was the railroads that bore the great tide of
Americans to the areas of new opportunities and hope. It was the railroads that linked together
the diverse segments of this vast land so that together they might create the greatest economy the
world has known." --- John F. Kennedy
Adapted from the Internet web page of the Association of American Railroads.
Connecting America's Cities and Moving West
The story of the railroads is also the story of a growing America. Early development was
limited largely to the coast and areas adjacent to navigable waterways. Development of the
railroad changed that, unlocking vast stores of natural resources and allowing population centers
to develop in areas previously considered inaccessible. As the nation grew and flourished, so did
the railroads, stretching across the country's vast plains and mountains and up and down its
coasts. Most of the nation's major cities and industrial centers can attribute their development in
some measure to commerce generated by the railroad.
Beginning in the 1820s, the railroad captured the imagination of Americans in much the
same way as it was captured by the space race in the 1960s. Demand for fast freight and
passenger trains paralleled the rise of the industrial revolution, as Americans in the industrial age
correctly reasoned that speed and efficiency would lead directly to increased profits.
A Union Pacific president in 1891 wrote2:
The growth of the United States west of the Alleghenies during the past fifty years
is due not so much to free institutions, or climate, or the fertility of the soil, as to
railways. If the institutions and climate and soil had not been favorable to the
development of commonwealths, railways would not have been constructed; but
if railways had not been invented, the freedom and natural advantages of our
western states would have beckoned to human immigration and industry in vain.
Civilization would have crept slowly on, in a toilsome march over the immense
spaces that lie between the Appalachian ranges and the Pacific Ocean; and what
we now style the Great West would be, except in the valley of the Mississippi, an
unknown and unproductive wilderness.
The critical role of railroads in the development of the frontier is detailed in John D.
Hicks book entitled The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s
Some Milestones along the Way
The first rail was laid in the United States in 1828. By 1830, the rail network consisted of
just 30 miles. But by 1848, that had grown to nearly 6,000 miles. By 1852, six rail lines had
breached the Appalachian Mountains and the first had reached Chicago. By 1860, Chicago
boasted service by no fewer than 11 railroads.
Disney, Dillon. “The West and the Railroads.” North American Review. 152:443-452. April
In 1856, the Mississippi River was bridged (at Davenport, Iowa). That same year also
saw operations begin on the first California railroad -- a 22-mile line based in Sacramento --
using locomotives that had been brought around Cape Horn by ship.
Spurred by such disparate developments as the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, and
exploration of the nation's vast interior, rail construction took on a dizzying pace in the last half
of the 19th century, as rail mileage passed 30,000 by 1860, 90,000 by 1880, and 190,000 by the
end of the century.
Railroads were responsible for what could be considered the first media event in the
nation's history -- completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, in Promontory,
Utah, where the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad met. As the
final "Golden Spike" was laid, the message "It is done" was telegraphed across the nation to
telegraph and newspaper offices, setting off a nationwide celebration.
Railroads became the first U.S. major industry to be subject to economic regulation in
1887 when Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which created the Interstate
Commerce Commission to regulate railroads. Railroads at that time had a near-monopoly on
both freight and passenger transportation, but that monopoly was shattered in the first half of the
20th century when federal subsidies promoted the rise of trucks, barges, automobiles, airplanes
and buses. Although the monopoly had long since ended, railroads remained subject to strict
regulation until 1980.
American Express Railway – Yesterday’s Federal Express
[Excerpted from the George H. Drury. Historical Guide to North American Railroads.]
One enduring symbol of railroading’s past is the red-and-white diamond herald of the
Railway Express Agency (REA). Today one finds reminders of REA only at museums or old
depots, but it once was a major element of the American scene — the FedEx of its day.
Express service is the prompt and safe movement of parcels, money, and goods at rates
higher than standard freight rates. It is generally considered to have been started by William
Harriden, who in 1839 began regular trips between New York and Boston carrying such items.
Other early names in the express business are those of William G. Fargo, a New York Central
freight clerk at Auburn, N.Y., and Henry Wells, a leather worker at Batavia, N.Y., who
organized Wells Fargo & Co. in 1853; Henry B. Plant, who formed Southern Express; Alvin
Adams; and John Butterfield.
The express business flourished in the latter half of the 19th century. By 1900 there were
four principal express companies: Adams, Southern, American, and Wells Fargo. In 1913 the
Post Office introduced parcel post, the first major competition for the express companies.
Express business continued to climb until 1920, then remained stable for a decade. During
World War I, the United States Railway Administration (USRA) took over the nation's railroads.
Under the USRA, the above four companies were consolidated into American Railway Express,
Inc., except for the portion of Southern Express that operated over the Southern Railway and the
Mobile & Ohio Railroad. In March 1929, the assets and operations of American Railway
Express were transferred to Railway Express Agency. REA was owned by 86 railroads in
proportion to the express traffic on their lines — no one railroad or group of railroads had control
of the agency.
REA's arrangement with the railroads was that they provided terminal space and cars and
moved the cars at their expense; REA paid its own expenses and divided the profit among the
railroads in proportion to the traffic. Express service in Canada and Mexico was operated
directly by the railroad companies.
Express revenues remained at profitable levels into the 1950's, albeit partly because of
rate increases — express volume dropped substantially after World War II. The railroads began
to view express service as expensive business.
REA negotiated a new contract in 1959 which allowed it to use any mode of
transportation, and it acquired truck rights to allow continued service after passenger trains were
discontinued. It tried piggyback and containers, but without much success.
In 1969, after several years of deficits, REA was sold to five of its officers and renamed
REA Express. By then only 10% of its business moved by rail and its entire business constituted
less than 10% of all intercity parcel traffic.
REA sued the railroads and the United Parcel Service for various reasons and became
involved in suits and countersuits with the clerks' union, and the Civil Aeronautics Board
terminated REA's exclusive agreement with the airlines for air express. REA Express terminated
operations in November 1975 and began liquidation — which was complicated by trials of its
officers for fraud and embezzlement.
Railroads Establish Standard Time
Prior to the late 1800s, every city and town across America had it’s own time determined
by the sun. For example, when it was noon in Washington D.C., it was 12:08 in Philadelphia,
12:12 in New York and 11:51 in Lynchburg, VA. When it was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 in
Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:09 in Louisville, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:27 in Omaha, and 9:05
in Sacramento. This made it very confusing for the railroads and for people who used the
railroads to coordinate with one another. Between Maine and California, for example, a traveler
would have to change his watch 20 times. In the railroad stations there had to be different clocks
for each railroad. In Pittsburgh alone, there were 6 different time standards for train arrivals and
This all changed in 1883. At a meeting of an association of railroad officers (the General
Time Convention) on October 11, 1883, Standard Time was adopted. The plan was for five time
zones -- four in the United States, and one in the Eastern Provinces of Canada -- based on mean
sun times on the 60th, 75th, 90th, 105th and 120th meridians west of Greenwich, England. The new
Standard Time was implemented on November 18, 1883. This system was established in U.S.
law with the Standard Time Act enacted in 1918.
Railroads Go to War
According to military historian Cyril Falls, "The Civil War was the first that could be
called a war of railways, one in which they played a dominant part." Both the North and South
used the railroads to ferry troops and materiel. But the North had two critical advantages: a more
developed rail network and use of a common gauge -- the width between rails -- that permitted
equipment to move freely from one line to another.
Railroads moved practically all of the troops and supplies of the American Expeditionary
Force to seaports during World War I. During the war, the government took control of the
railroads to solve problems caused by lack of skilled labor -- much of the rail peacetime work
force was in the Armed Forces -- and lack of capital to invest in equipment and personnel. This
experiment in government control of the railroads cost taxpayers about $2 million a day. The
railroads were returned to private ownership in 1920.
Again during World War II, railroads were called on to move most personnel and
supplies to seaports to support American forces both in Europe and Asia. From December 1,
1941, to the end of August 1945, U.S. railroads carried approximately 43.7 million service men
and women in troop trains, hospital trains and special cars attached to regular trains. This time
the railroads remained in private hands and operated efficiently and profitably.
By the end of World War II, railroads were responsible for almost 70 percent of both
intercity freight and for-hire intercity passenger transportation.
Railroads After World War II
After World War II, railroads began an extensive period of modernization. The most
dramatic was the replacement of steam locomotives with diesel locomotives.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were also spent on new passenger trains that brought an
increased level of comfort and speed to the rails.
Government policy, however, favored competing modes of transportation by pouring
billions of tax dollars into highways, waterways and airways. Because of this - and because of
unyielding economic regulation - railroads entered a period of long decline after World War II.
By 1970, railroads provided just 5.7 percent of the intercity passenger transportation. By
1978, the rail share of the freight transportation market as measured in ton-miles had fallen to
35.2 percent while the truck share had climbed above 24 percent.
Through much of the 1970s, more than 20 percent of the rail industry's route-mileage was
operated by railroads that were bankrupt.
A Rail Freight Revival
In 1971, Congress created Amtrak to operate remaining intercity passenger trains
throughout the United States. In exchange for one-time payments to Amtrak, the freight
railroads were relieved of annual out-of-pocket losses that were approaching $200 million and
intercity rail passenger service was preserved in hundreds of cities that otherwise would have lost
In 1973, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act which established the
Consolidated Rail Corporation -- Conrail -- as a publicly owned American railroad company
whose aim was to take over six bankrupt northeastern railroads: Central Railroad Company of
New Jersey, Erie Lackawanna Railway Company, Lehigh & Hudson River Railway Company,
Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, Penn Central Transportation Company, and Reading
Company. Conrail commenced operations in 1976 with the aid of federal loans. Although it still
lost money in its early years, by 1983 the Corporation had become profitable and by 1987 the
federal government put Conrail stock up for sale to the public.
In 1980, Congress passed -- and President Carter signed -- the Staggers Rail Act of 1980
which eased economic regulation of railroads. The Staggers Act unleashed an unprecedented
wave of investment, innovation and efficiency gains in the freight rail industry.
Since 1980, average rail rates -- as measured in average revenue per ton-mile -- have
fallen more than 50 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis.
Since 1980, railroads have spent more than $200 billion to maintain and improve track,
advanced communications and signaling systems, freight cars and high-tech locomotives,
including some that generate as much as 6,000 horsepower.
The rail share of the freight transportation market as measured in ton-miles has begun to
inch upward, topping 40 percent in both 1995 and 1996 for the first time since 1970. Shares for
other modes in 1996: truck, 27.7 percent; water, 14.2 percent; pipeline, 17.7 percent; and air, 0.4
Railroads and Freight Rates3
Railroad freight charges exceeded canal, river, and lakes shipping charges, except when
railroads ran at a loss in order to crush or meet competition. Rail rates tended to be lower where
the railroad faced water competition. Accurate average rail rates for the years before 1860 are
not known. Canal rates averaged 2 cents a ton mile, river rates about 1 cent a ton mile, and rail
rates around 4 cents a ton mile with water competition. Around 1850, rail rates sometimes went
to 25 cents a ton mile without water competition. But rail transport still cost less than any other
John T. Schlebecker. Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-
1972. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. 1975.
By moving things faster the railroads saved money for shippers in spite of the high rail
rates. Railroads also ran in more nearly straight lines than did rivers. The distance between
Cincinnati and St. Louis, for example, came to 327 miles by railroad, but it was 720 miles by
way of the Ohio-Mississippi waterway. With a shorter route, the railroad could charge twice as
much per ton mile and still be competitive.
At first Americans copied the British design of roadbeds, locomotives, and rolling stock.
But the roadbeds proved too rigid, and the locomotives too heavy. American engineers had to
make the roads more flexible and distribute the weight of the engines more evenly. Robert L.
Stevens, an American, probably was the first to use wooden ties under the rail on the Camden
and Amboy Railroad in the 1830s. In a land of abundant forests, this was a logical solution.
John B. Jervis of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad designed and built the first locomotive with
a four-wheel truck attached to the engine by a swivel. This lengthened the engine, allowed
distribution of weight over a larger surface, and still enabled the machine to get around curves.
In 1837, Joseph Harrison invented the equalizing beam which spread the weight of the engine
equally to all driving wheels.
The first state incorporating charters for railroads either specifically regulated rates or
made provisions for regulation. State legislatures issued the first charters since the first bureaus
to handle incorporations did not appear until 1837. Even then entrepreneurs preferred to go to
the legislatures because the railroads could get monopoly charters from the legislatures, but not
from the bureaucrats who had no such authority. So special legislation created the corporations,
and from the first, American railroads were at least technically subject to rate regulation.
The railroads as a group made up the first of the great corporations in America. Only
later did manufacturers incorporate their companies. Corporations had the great advantage of
being able to accumulate large quantities of capital and make it mobile. However, in the process
of incorporation, actual ownership of the business became divorced from management. The
railroads, owned and operated by corporations, were run by a professional managerial class who
felt obligations only to themselves and their shareholders. They ignored the well-being of their
patrons until abuses and oppressions had reached nearly intolerable proportions.
Impact of Railroads on Farming4
Railroads, even more than canals, influenced farmers in selecting their agricultural
specialization. For example, dairying was developed along railroad lines. In 1851, cooled milk
was moved from northern New York State to Boston. Grain could be sped from faraway Illinois,
Wisconsin, and Michigan to be shipped to Liverpool and London. Manufactured products could
be cheaply moved west, and the living standards of farmers improved. Farmers responded to the
availability of cheap capital goods with increased commercial farming, made even more
profitable with the building of railroads. But the new commercialism made the farmers
John T. Schlebecker. Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-
1972. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. 1975.
dependent on the railroads. Railroads also meant that urbanites could obtain better and cheaper
Fast transportation by railroad had the most immediate influence on the producers of
perishable commodities. As early as the 1830s, some American cities had become so large and
congested that milk could not be moved from farms to the center of the city and still be fresh. As
a result, large cities, such as New York, developed urban dairies. Large cow barns sheltered
cows fed on distillery and brewery slop, supplemented with garbage. The rows of stabled cows
were milked with little regard for sanitation.
The railroad, aided by new health regulations, slowly drove the urban dairies out of
business. During 1842-1843, the Erie Railroad carried more than 750,000 gallons of milk into
New York City. These deliveries increased greatly during the next decade in New York and
other large cities as well.
The milk was refrigerated after a fashion by stirring it in cans with ice-filled tubes. The
milk was cooled enough to reach the market in acceptable condition. Dairymen formed
associations, set up receiving stations in the cities, and ran city delivery services. The consumer
not only received a comparatively fresher product, with fewer health hazards, but the milk cost
less. As a result, the per capita consumption of milk in the cities rapidly increased. This
stimulated a greater specialization in fluid milk production on dairy farms near cities. As the
railroads expanded, so did commercial dairying, which soon became one of the most significant
Producers of fresh fruits and vegetables also benefited from the railroad. Previously
truck farmers were limited to the immediate vicinity of cities. The railroads, especially in New
York and New Jersey, caused an increase in sources of supply during the 1840s and 1850s.
Special express trains rushed truck produce to the city. Farmers began to grow many
horticultural specialties, especially strawberries. The great increase in the supply of these
specialties did not cause prices to fall because as the production expanded so did the demand.
Urban consumers had long wanted the commodities now made accessible by the railroad.
The producers of dairy and truck crops became the first to depend on the railroads and
also became the first victims of railroad policies. The truck farmer simply had to use the
railroads, regardless of freight rates, because he could not store his crop. A western wheat
farmer could, at least in theory, hold his product. Some milk could be used for cheese, but even
this was a limited method for preserving milk. So, although not widely known, the eastern
farmers were the first to object to rail monopolies. On the other hand, the proliferation of rail
lines in the East sometimes provided farmers with alternative routes, and on the coast, short
distance water transportation sometimes kept rail rates down.
The supply of certain fruits and vegetables became more certain and more continuous
with the advance of railroads into the South. In the 1850s, New York City obtained fruits and
vegetables from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Truck farms and orchards flourished,
particularly in the vicinity of shipping points such as Norfolk, Charleston, and Richmond. Some
southern rail lines ran to the interior, and fruits were carried to ports and shipped by water to
The cities of the interior and the South experienced similar changes. Fruit and vegetable
growing and dairying were developed to supply Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other cities.
The rise of Wisconsin as a prominent dairying area can be linked to the growth of Chicago.
Chicago merchants and railroads also reached into the Deep South for various horticultural
specialties, a very significant development.
Two Centuries of Railroading in the U.S. – A Chronology
1797 The steam locomotive is invented in England.
1809 Thomas Leiper’s horse-drawn wooden tramway connected quarries in
Delaware County, PA to a boat landing. This was the first time
rails were utilized for freight transportation in the United States.
1823 The first public railway in the world opens in England.
1827 The first common-carrier railroad in North America -- the Baltimore and
Ohio -- is chartered by Baltimore merchants.
1829 The Stourbridge Lion, imported from England, was experimentally
operated on the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s railroad
at Honesdale, PA. It was the first steam engine to run on
commercial railroad tracks in the U.S.
1830 The first regularly scheduled steam-powered rail passenger service in the
U.S. begins operation in South Carolina, utilizing the U.S.-built
locomotive The Best Friend of Charleston.
1830 The Tom Thumb steam engine locomotive on the Baltimore and Ohio
made the first successful railroad run in 1830 from Baltimore to
Ellicott, MD at up to 18 mph carrying 26 passengers. A race was
staged between this engine and a horse-drawn carriage near
Ellicott’s Mills, MD. After the engine slipped a belt, the horse
galloped to victory.
1831 The first U.S. mail is carried by rail on the South Carolina Canal &
1831 Robert Livingston Stevens invented the T-rail design.
1832 The Staple Bend Tunnel on the Allegheny Portage Railroad, east of
Johnstown, PA, is the first railroad tunnel built in the Western
1833 Andrew Jackson travels from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills, becoming the
first sitting U.S. president to ride the rails.
1833 A total of 380 miles of rail track are in operation in the U.S.
1837 The first sleeping car, a crudely remodeled day coach, was placed in
service on the Cumberland Valley Railroad between Harrisburg,
PA and Chambersburg, PA.
1838 Five of the six New England states have rail service, as do such frontier
states as Kentucky and Indiana.
1840 More than 2,800 miles of track are in operation.
1841 The first caboose, termed a way-car, was placed in service on the Auburn
& Syracuse Railroad in New York.
1850 More than 9,000 miles of track are in operation in the U.S., as much as in
the rest of the world combined.
1850 President Fillmore signed the Douglas Railroad Bill giving the state of
Illinois 2.5 million acres to help in the construction of a 700-mile
railroad from Chicago to Cairo in the south and to Dunleith in the
north. This was the first land-grant legislation passed for the
benefit of American railroads.
1851 First use of Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph for train dispatching in the
United States on the Erie Railway at Turners, NY.
1852 For the first time, Pittsburgh, PA is linked to Philadelphia, PA via rail
(using the inclined plane from Johnstown, PA to Hollidaysburg,
PA) and via the Pennsylvania Railroad. Now rail development to
the West can proceed apace.
1854 The Pennsylvania Railroad’s 1300-foot long Horseshoe Curve at Altoona,
PA is opened for service. This reduced the travel time from
Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from 3 ½ days to 13 hours.
1854 Attorney Abraham Lincoln represents the Illinois Central Railroad.
1856 The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River was opened at
1859 The first Pullman Sleeping Car went into service.
1860 More than 30,000 miles of track are in operation in the U.S.
1860 President Abraham Lincoln formally inaugurates construction of the
transcontinental railroad that will ultimately link California with
the rest of the nation.
1861-65 The Civil War becomes the first major conflict in which railroads play a
major role as both sides use trains to move troops and supplies.
1862 The first mail car for sorting mail en route is placed into service between
Hannibal and St. Joseph, MO.
1865 The "golden age" of railroads begins. For nearly half a century, no other
mode of transportation challenges railroads. During these years,
the rail network grows from 35,000 to a peak of 254,000 miles
reached in 1916.
1867 The first domestic steel rails are rolled by the Cambria Iron Works in
Johnstown, PA using the Bessemer process.
1867 George Pullman and Andrew Carnegie approaches Durant of the Union
Pacific with the idea of sleeper cars. George Westinghouse patents
the air brake. The refrigerator car is developed.
1868 Eli Janney patents the automatic or “knuckle” coupler.
1869 On May 10, at Promontory, Utah, the "Golden Spike" joins the Union
Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, marking completion of the
1872 Presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Franklin D. Roosevelt travel largely
by train. For them, as for virtually every American, the railroad
offers the fastest, safest means of travel.
1882 The Erie’s Kinzua Viaduct is completed near Mt. Jewett, PA. At 301 feed
high, it is the nation’s highest railroad bridge.
1883 At noon on November 18, standard time is introduced to the nation by the
1887 The Interstate Commerce Act was passed by Congress providing the first
federal regulation of railroads.
1893 New York Central locomotive No. 999 attains a record speed of 112.5
miles per hour near Batavia, NY.
1895 A Baltimore and Ohio trunk line in Baltimore was electrified making this
the year of the first use of an electric locomotive in the United
1910 The CB&Q was the first railroad to operate and employ the printing
telegraph in its rail operations.
1915 The CB&Q was the first railroad to use the train radio.
1917 The federal government seizes control of the railroads for the duration of
World War I. By the time they are returned to private ownership in
1920, they are in seriously run-down condition and in need of
substantial maintenance and improvement.
1924 The first diesel locomotive suitable for use was built for the New York
1927 Centralized traffic control was implemented by the CB&Q.
1900-40 Other modes of transportation grow from small beginnings to challenge
rail dominance over freight and passenger transportation. By the
eve of World War II, automobiles, large buses, trucks, planes and
pipelines - supported by government subsidies and less burdened
by regulation than railroads - have become full-fledged
competitors to railroads.
1929-40 The Great Depression exacts a heavy toll on the railroad industry, forcing
substantial segments of the industry into bankruptcy.
1934 The first successful modern, streamlined, all stainless-steel train, The
Pioneer Zephyr, was delivered to the CB&Q Railroad Company in
April. The cars of the streamliners weighed 30 percent less than
those built of other materials, were stronger and safer, required less
maintenance, and had a more attractive exterior.
1937 The Delaware & Hudson Railroad laid the first continuous welded rail, or
ribbon rail, in the United States.
1941-45 Railroads remain under private control during World War II and move on
average twice the monthly volume of both freight and passengers
as during World War I.
1945-70 Railroads enter the post-war era with a new sense of optimism that leads
them to invest billions of dollars in new locomotives, freight
equipment and passenger trains. That investment would see
retirement of the last steam locomotive by the late 1950s. In spite
of this modernization, the decline in rail market share that began
before the war resumes.
1945-53 President Harry S Truman is the last "railroad President." His successors
will rely mostly on planes and automobiles, using trains largely for
1954 Piggyback service (truck trailers carried on flatbed rail cars) is offered by
1955 Intermodal freight - the movement of containers and highway trailers by
rail - is reported as a separate category of freight for the first time.
In that year, railroads moved 168,000 carloads of trailers and
containers. Now railroads move more than 8 million trailers and
1970-75 Burdened by regulation and faced with subsidized competition, nine Class
I railroads, representing almost one-quarter of the industry's
trackage, file for bankruptcy protection.
1970 The Burlington Northern Railroad was formed as a merger of the Great
Northern Railroad, the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Chicago,
Burlington and Quincy Railroad, the Pacific Coast Railroad, and
the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad.
1971 The federal government creates Amtrak to take over money-losing rail
1972 The Illinois Central Gulf Railroad was formed as a merger of the Illinois
Central Railroad and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
1976 The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act creates the
Consolidated Rail Corp. from six bankrupt Northeast railroads. It
also included regulatory reforms that were supposed to make the
regulatory system more responsive to changed circumstances.
1980 The Staggers Rail Act reduces the Interstate Commerce Commission's
regulatory jurisdiction over railroads and sparks competition that
stimulates advances in technology and a restructuring of the
industry, including creation of hundreds of new shortline and
1980 The Seaboard System was formed as a merger of the Chessie System, the
Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, the Louisville and Nashville
Railroad, the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad, the Georgia
Railroad, the Atlanta and West Point Railroad, and the Western
Railway of Alabama.
1987 The Seaboard System was renamed the CSX Transportation System.
1987 After a federal investment of some $7 billion, Conrail is privatized in what
-- at that time -- was the largest share offering in U.S. history as
investors pay $1.65 billion to buy shares in the railroad.
1995 The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad was formed as a merger of the
Burlington Northern Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa
1996 After 108 years of existence, the Interstate Commerce Commission goes
out of existence and is replaced by the Surface Transportation
Board which assumes responsibility for remaining railroad
1996 Railroads move more freight than ever before -- 1.36 trillion ton-miles --
and do it while at the same time setting records for the lowest
employee injury and train accident rates in history.
1997 The Norfolk Southern Corporation and CSX Corporation agreed to
acquire Conrail through a joint stock purchase. The Surface
Transportation Board officially approved the acquisition and
restructuring of Conrail on July 23, 1998. The approved merger
plan restructured Conrail into a switching and terminal railroad
that operates as an agent for its owners, Norfolk Southern and
CSX, in the Shared Assets Areas of Northern New Jersey,
Southern New Jersey/Philadelphia, and Detroit.
1998 The Canadian National Railway was acquired by the Illinois Central Gulf
2000 AMTRAK starts high speed Acela service.
2001 Conrail was acquired jointly by the CSX Transportation System and the
Norfolk Southern Railroad.
RAILROAD NAMES AND NICKNAMES5
Railroad companies used various means with which to name their roads. Early railroad
names included the important terminal points so the rider would know for sure where he or she
was going. However, soon after the first major geographic barrier to the railroad -- the
Appalachian Mountains -- were conquered, railroads wanted names that would reflect their
ability to take passengers to far-away places, or to impress investors with a name that led them to
believe that the railroad was much larger than it actually was. One of the first to do this was a
small railroad in Maryland, i.e., the Baltimore and Ohio, who had the effrontery to claim it was
going all the way to Ohio. Other railroads simply added the word "Western" to their names to
indicate that they were “going places” – e.g., New York, Lake Erie & Western; Delaware,
Lackawanna & Western; New York, Ontario & Western, etc. Others added "Pacific" to their
names, trying to convince people that they were going all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A few
actually did make it to the Pacific Ocean – Atlantic & Pacific; Southern Pacific, Northern
Pacific, and Central Pacific. Others didn’t even get close: Denver, South Park & Pacific;
Acme, Quanah & Pacific; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific; Texas
& Pacific. Some names were just plain incorrect. The Mobile and Gulf was an eleven mile line
that was near neither Mobile nor the Gulf. The Memphis, El Paso and Pacific never made it to
any of the places mentioned in it's corporate title.
Naming railroads was rarely a simple matter. Politics undoubtedly played a role,
particularly in cases like the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific, or the Cincinnati,
Hamilton & Dayton, or the New York, New Haven & Hartford. It seemed to be a logical
extension of these long and tortured names to start identifying railroads by their initials.
Adapted in part from material developed by Paul Veltman and included on his web page:
<home1.gte.net/stumpie/rrmain.html>) and in part from various other railroad web pages.
Unfortunately, this led to duplications in some cases so eventually a system of unique “reporting
marks” was used and is still in use today.
The American sense of humor, coupled with the natural adversarial relationship between
railroad management and labor, saw initials that begged for some creative interpretation. Nobody
was immune. These creative names, or nicknames if you will, took on a mostly negative
connotation, with the point of most nicknames being that the railroad was slow, never on time,
had poor track and motive power, or was just mismanaged to some degree. Therein lies the
rationale behind the birth of the informal railroad nickname. Some railroads took on nicknames
and slogans to further their brand identity, or to try to offset the damage done by the informal
nicknames. The Bellefontaine & Indiana, for example, called itself the "B" line, later extended to
"Bee Line" to indicate that it traveled the shortest route to the desired destination.
One of the more interesting advertising campaigns was pulled off by the Delaware,
Lackawanna and Western Railroad which went by the nickname, “The Route of the Phoebe
Snow”. This road was the first to use anthracite coal that burned soot free (hence it was also
dubbed “The Road of Anthracite”). Phoebe Snow was a cartoon character – a very beautiful
woman all dressed in white including white dress, long white gloves, white hat, and white purse.
The point of the advertising campaign was that ladies could ride the “Phoebe Snow” without
getting their clothes dirty as they did on competitor railroads. In fact, several verses were written
about Phoebe Snow of which the following is an example:
Says Phoebe Snow
About to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo:
“My gown stays white
From morn till night
Upon the road of Anthracite”
Some railroads even adopted their nickname as their official corporate name. The
Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville, for example, adopted its nickname from the name of a
small junction town -- Monon, Indiana – to became the Monon Railroad. The Carolina,
Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad was called The Clinchfield so often that management finally gave
up and changed the name to Clinchfield Railroad. Nicknames were also often based on nearby
place names, mountains, rivers, or freight hauled.
The history of most nicknames is, unfortunately, lost. Many, however, are traceable to
some local phenomenon or event that has survived history. Here are a few of the later:
The Alaska Railroad was known as the "Moose Gooser" because accidents involving trains and
moose in Alaska were common.
The Alexander Railroad acquired its nickname in the North Carolina legislature. Romulus
Linney and Cy Watson debated where to locate the road to be built with the money from the sale
of the state’s interest in the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad. Linney wanted the money put
into an extension of the Atlantic, Tennessee, and Ohio Railroad to Taylorsville. Watson wanted
to use the money to extend the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad to Danbury. Watson argued
his option would open up coal fields and deposits of iron ore while Linney’s route was
practically without any mineral wealth. Linney countered that coal and iron were quite common
in the area of his proposed route, and furthermore, this area had what no other spot on earth
could boast of – the Hiddenite stone. He added that “A well-wintered June Bug could carry
away $1,000 worth of this valuable gem, which rivals the diamond in sparkling beauty, tied to its
hind leg!” Linney’s proposal won the day and thereafter the Alexander Railroad was known as
“The June Bug Line”.6
For some time, railroad engineers had dreamed of building a “low grade” line with which
to navigate the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Valley Railroad
attempted to build such a line, but it went bankrupt in the process. Nevertheless, during its
lifetime it was known as the “Low Grade” railroad.
Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay officially changed it's name to “The Bay Line” in 1994.
The Atlanta, Knoxville and Northern Railroad was nicknamed “The Hiwassee Route”
after the winding, scenic portion of the line that followed along the Hiwassee River.
The Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad was known as “The Old Mullet Road” because
of the huge quantities of Mullet fish shipped on this road.
The Atlantic, Valdosta & Western Railway was known as “The Jacksonville Short Line”
since it was constructed to connect the cities of Valdosta, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida.
Maine is a potato producing state. The Bangor and Aroostock hauled lots of potatoes and
it was a slow, local freight. Hence “Spud Drag” became its nickname.
Bartlett Western in Texas was nicknamed the “Route of the Apostles” because four of its
stations were named St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John, respectively.
Several railroads were known as the “Bee Line”. A “Bee Line” is an old expression
meaning to take the shortest route. If someone were to make a "bee line" for something, then that
person would take the shortest route. This particular name, "Bee Line," actually started out as
the "B Line," the "B" being short for Bellefontaine, the first road to use that nickname. The
Reading in Pennsylvania and the Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic apparently had no relation to
the others or each other. All the other railroads merged at one time or another, and the nickname
"Bee Line" followed these mergers. In 1868, the Bellefontaine merged with the Cleveland,
Columbus and Cincinnati to form the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, also
known as the "Bee Line." Also merged into the CCC & I in the 1860s were the Dayton & Union
and the Indianapolis & St. Louis. In 1889, the CCC & I became the Cleveland, Cincinnati,
Chicago & St. Louis, also known as the "Bee Line." This lasted until 1930, when it became part
of the New York Central System. The Dayton & Union split off from the CCC & I in 1917 and
was independent until 1936 when it became part of the Baltimore & Ohio. During this time, the
This story was reported to the author by Matt Bumgarner of the National Railway Historical Society.
Dayton & Union was also known as the "Bee Line," apparently having kept the nickname from
it's prior association.
The Burlington & Missouri was known as “The Alphabet Line” because its station names
followed the alphabet. These stations were, in order, Arlington, Berks, Crete, Dorchester, Exeter,
Fairmount, Grafton, Harvard, Inland, Juniata, Kenesaw, Lowell, Mindon and Oxford.
The California Western Railroad was known as “The Skunk Train”. In 1925, the railroad
began using a self-propelled Mac railbus, numbered M-80. This motorcar (as those of its kind
are known in western railroading) was gasoline powered, and had in it a pot-bellied stove that
kept the loggers it transported warm. The fumes exhausted from the gasoline engine mixed with
the smoke from the stove, which was carried inland by ocean breezes faster than the motorcar
could travel. Residents claimed that "you could smell it before you could see it coming," and
nicknamed the railbus “The Skunk”.
The Carolina & Northwestern was known by the nickname, “Can’t & Never Will”. The
origin of this nickname was in the corporate fantasy that the line would eventually extend to
The Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio was popularly known "The Clinchfield." In 1925,
management gave up and just changed the formal name to it's nickname, "Clinchfield," until it
was taken over by the Seaboard System in 1983.
The Central of Georgia Railroad adopted the slogan, “Route of the Nancy Hanks”, after a
famous bay mare trotter herself named after President Lincoln’s mother.
The Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway had 15 tunnels. Hence it was
known as “The Rathole”.
Crandic is a contraction of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Hence the Cedar Rapids and
Iowa City Railway was known as “The Crandic”.
The Coeur d’Alene Railway & Navigation Company was known as the “Chippy Line”
because of the proliferation of houses of ill-repute along the line.
The nickname "Southpaw" originated from the Chicago and North Western Railway’s
habit of running on the left hand track in double track territory.
The Chicago Great Western Railroad and its successor, the Chicago, St. Paul and Kansas
City Railroad, was known as “The Maple Leaf Route” nodoubt because its route map through
MN, IL, IA, MO, and NE was formed in the shape of the veins of a maple leaf.
Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific -- “America's Resourceful Railroad” -- was
originally the slogan of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. In 1927, the name was
changed to Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, but the railroad kept the slogan.
The Crystal River and San Juan Railroad was known as “The Marble Road”. It was a
narrow gauge road running between Marble, CO and Carbondale, CO to transport marble mined
at Marble to the Denver and Rio Grande Western or to the Colorado Midland at Carbondale.
This marble was used in various monuments in Washington D.C. including the Tomb of the
The Davenport, Rock Island and Northwestern Railroad was incorporated in 1900. At
that time the “Tri-Cities” of Ill-Iowa were Davenport, IA, Rock Island, IL, and Moline, IL.
Undoubtedly, this is the source of this railroad’s “Tri-City Route” nickname. The “Quad-Cities”
did not come into existence until after 1903 when Bettendorf, IA was incorporated. But the old
nickname stuck until the road was purchased by the Burlington Northern.
The Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railroad was known as “The Moffat Road”
because it was constructed in 1903 by David Moffat.
The Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad was once owned by Henry Ford, thus it was
known as “The Model T”.
The “Expulsion of the Acadians” from the Grand Pre area in Nova Scotia is immortalized
by Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline”. Hence the Dominion Atlantic Railway was known as
the “Land of Evangeline Route”.
In the area of operation of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad,
locals became accustomed to the “tweet”, “tweet” of the train whistle that echoed through the
hills of North Carolina and Tennessee. Thereafter the train became known as “The Tweetsie”.
There were many small towns along the line of the old Findlay, Fort Wayne and Western
Railroad which was just about the straightest railroad ever built in the United States. It became
known as the "Tangent Line" because of its straight-line characteristic. It was in 1888 that the
road was constructed between Findlay and Fort Wayne, Ind.
The Florida East Coast was known as the “Flagler System” after its founder, Henry
Flagler. Flagler first started developing hotels in 1885, but soon realized that Florida needed a
good transportation system if his hotels were to succeed. He first purchased the Jacksonville, St.
Augustine & Halifax River Railway, and the rest is history.
The Frankfort and Cincinnati Railroad was known as the “Whiskey Road” because of the
number of distilleries it served along its path from Frankfort to Paris, KY.
The track on the Frankfort and Kokomo Railroad was in generally poor condition and
made the trains take a side-to-side jog resembling the movements of a rabbit. Hence the
nickname “The Rabbit Track Line”.
The Georgia, Florida and Alabama Railroad was named “The Sumatra Leaf Route” in
recognition of major type of tobacco grown in the area.
The Hooppole, Yorktown and Tampico was known as “The Dummy” because, lacking a
rail spur, it could not turn around and had to run a portion of its route backward.
Louis Houck was a railroad building pioneer in Southeast Missouri. Several roads in the
area are named after him: Cape Girardeau and Chester, Cape Girardeau and Thebes Bridge
Terminal, Chester, Perryville and St. Genevieve, Saline Valley, and St. Louis, Memphis and
The Houston and Texas Central got its nickname, “Hell on Texas Contractors” because
contractors building the line had a lot of trouble collecting money for their work. The nickname,
“Hen and Ten Chicks” came from the fact that in the early days of railroads, one locomotive
hauled 10 cars.
The Houston, East and West Texas Railroad got its nickname, “The Rabbit”, because of
the hopping, rabbit-like disposition of this railroad.
The Jupiter & Lake Worth was known as “The Celestial Line” because it went through
Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Juno, Florida.
The Kansas City Southern Railway was founded by Arthur E. Stillwell. Hence it was
known as “Stillwell’s Road”.
A successful commercial operation at Deepwater, KS, which was served by the Kansas
City, Clinton and Springfield Railroad, was a clay tile factory. This plant was leased and later
purchased by the Kansas City based W. S. Dickey Clay Company, and became their main
production plant, turning out over 1,000 carloads of clay products a year. In 1896 the Dickey
plant in Deepwater burned down, but it was replaced by a new, much larger plant in 1897, which
would be further expanded later to a capacity of over 3,500 car loads per year of clay products.
Dickey also took over a second clay plant located to the south of Deepwater, operating it for
years as the Deepwater #2 factory. It was the clay tiles from the Dickey plant that gave the
Kansas City, Clinton & Springfield Railroad its enduring nickname, the "Leaky Roof". The clay
tiles required no protection from the rain and so the KCC&S and its parent the Fort Scott tended
to dispatch any old car that would roll down to Deepwater to handle the tiles. As the story goes,
one rainy day the superintendent of the White Swan Flour Mill at Clinton, which shipped a
considerable amount of its finished flour south on the KCC&S line, looked out over the KCC&S
yards and saw that the road had brought down another batch of decrepit old cars. Since the mill’s
flour output would be ruined if it got wet, the superintendent called out to his general manager
"Don't send out any flour today, they've got another bunch of those ‘leaky roofs’ in the yards."
The Kansas City, Fort Smith and Southern Railroad was known as the “Split Log”
because it was owned and built by Mathias Splitlog, a wealthy Indian Chief.
The Kentucky and Indiana Terminal Railroad was called the “Daisy Line” because its
passenger cars were painted yellow with brown trim, resembling the Black-Eyed Susan.
The "Ol’Hook & Eye" as a nickname for the Kishacoquillas Valley Railroad actually
referred to the engineman, John Ross, who, historian for this railroad Hartzler explained, always
wore a pair of hooks and eyes on his overalls, similar to those worn by the Amish who lived in
the valley of the Kishacoquillas area.
In 1971, the La Salle & Bureau County Railroad was caught stealing hundreds of Penn
Central box cars. The La Salle repainted reporting numbers on these cars and used them as their
own. The interesting thing was that the Penn Central never missed them. Thereafter the La Salle
& Bureau County was dubbed “Let’s Steal Box Cars”.
The Lehigh Valley was a major Pennsylvania coal hauler, and was known by the
nickname of "Route of the Black Diamonds." Black Diamonds is a slang term for coal.
The Marianna and Blountstown Railroad was called the “Rich Uncle Railroad” because it
was supposed to have rich relatives in the local Cellophane and Pulpwood industries it served.
The owner of the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Dubuque Electric Traction
Railroad and the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway, Col. M. W. Savage, also owned
the famous race horse, Dan Patch, so his railroads became known as “The Dan Patch Line”.
The Mohawk and Malone Railroad was known as “Dr. Webb’s Railroad” because Dr.
Webb was its founder.
The owner of the Montana Railway, Mr. Harlow, negotiated several agreements with
companies to build his road and to make it pay. Thus it became known as “The Jawbone Line”.
The Morris & Essex Railroad was known as "Methodist & Episcopal" because it did not
run on Sundays.
Some argued that the Newfoundland Railway traveled so slow you could hop off a
forward car and pick a cupful of blueberries before the caboose came into sight, and that 25 mph
was good going on the flat. Hence it came to be named, ironically, “The Newfie Bullet”.
The New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad was built to compete with the Lake Shore
& Michigan Southern. It was then sold to the New York Central for a very high price. Hence
the nickname, “Nickel Plate”, as if the tracks and equipment were nickel plated.
Photographer and historian, Donald R. Hensley, Jr., indicates that the Orange Belt
Railroad was known as the Tarpon Route because of the tarpon fish present in the Gulf of
Mexico and at Tarpon Springs, where sportsmen came to do battle with this sport fish after
disembarking from the train.
In 1879 Henry B. Plant acquired the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad which he reorganized as
the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway. This was the original and largest of the roads of the
“Plant System”. Other independent “Plant System” roads absorbed by the Savannah, Florida and
Western were: Charleston & Savannah, Brunswick & Western, Alabama Midland, Silver
Springs, Ocala & Gulf, Abbeville Southern, and Green Pond, Walterboro and Branchville. Other
roads of the “Plant System” included: South Florida Railroad, Sanford and St. Petersburg
Railway, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Key West Railway, Florida Southern Railway, and Silver
Springs, Ocala and Gulf Railroad.
The Queen and Crescent Route represented a railroad system involving joint operation of
five separate railroad companies extending from Cincinnati, OH to New Orleans, LA and
Shreveport, LA: the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway, the Alabama Great
Southern Railroad, the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, the Alabama and Vicksburg
Railway, and the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railway. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
dubbed Cincinnati the “Queen City of the West” because he thought it so beautiful. New
Orleans is known as the “Crescent City” because the Mississippi River carved out a croissant-
shaped land mass upon which New Orleans sits.
The Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway was known as the "Ice Railway"
because during the winters of 1880-83 it placed track on large timbers laid on the ice to cross the
St. Lawrence River. During the summer months the train was ferried across the River.
There are many legendary stories regarding the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg
Railroad (translated in time to "Rotten Wood and Old Rusty Rails”.) Many people fondly called
the R.W.& O. the "Hojack." It seems that in the early days of the railroad, a farmer in his
buckboard drawn by a bulky mule was caught on a crossing at train time. When the mule was
halfway across the tracks, he simply stopped. The train was fast approaching and the farmer
naturally got excited and began shouting, "Ho-Jack, Ho-Jack." Amused by the incident, the
trainmen began calling their line the "Ho-Jack."
The Salt Lake, Garfield & Western, the “Saltair Route”, was a 17 mile road founded in
1906 to take people from Salt Lake City to a resort and amusement park on the Great Salt Lake.
The name of the resort was "Saltair.
The San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railway was known as “The Key System” because
the map of the railroad looked something like a key.
The South Florida Railroad was part of the system of railroads built by Henry B. Plant
after the Civil War. Others in this system included the Savannah, Florida and Western and the
Brunswick and Western.
The Southern New York was called the “Leatherstocking Route” because it was located
in the Leatherstocking region of New York State.
The St. Louis, Alton & Springfield adopted the nickname "Bluff Line" in reference to the
massive bluffs that followed along the Mississippi River in the area. The St. Louis, Chicago &
St. Paul adopted the nickname of its predecessor, the St. Louis, Alton & Springfield, in 1893.
The Strasburg Railroad was known as “The Road to Paradise” because the road went
through the nearby town of Paradise in southeastern Pennsylvania. Paradise is in an area with
such other interesting named villages like Bird-In-Hand, Intercourse, and Blue Ball.
The Sumpter Valley was known as “Polygamy Central” because the territory through
which it ran was mainly populated by Mormons who, at one time, practiced polygamy.
The Toledo, St. Louis and Western Railroad adopted the white clover as its emblem and
thereafter it came to be know as “The Clover Leaf”.
The Washburn, Bayfield and Iron River Railroad was believed to be named “The
Battleax” after a brand of tobacco used by its employees.
The Western Pacific’s main crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is up the Feather
River Canyon. Hence, the Western Pacific was known as "The Feather River Route."
The Waco, Beaumont, Trinity and Sabine Railroad was known as “The Orphan Line of
the MKT” because it was not connected directly to the rest of the MKT system.
The Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railroad got its nickname,
“Watermelons, Mineral Water and Nowhere Whisky” because Weatherford, Texas called itself
"The Watermelon Capitol of the World”, Mineral Wells was a spa for mineral baths in the 1920s
and 1930s, and the strict Christian fundamentalist thought of the area banned whiskey.
The Wellsville, Addison and Galeton Railroad was known as “The Sole Leather Line”
because most of its business came from tanneries located at Elkland and Westfield.
The Western & Atlantic was called “Grandpa's Railroad” because to get a job there, you
practically had to be related to an employee. A lot of people worked for that railroad whose
‘grandpas’ had worked there previously.
The Yazoo Delta is a small line in Mississippi that is steeped in history and in
Mississippi Delta Blues. According to the story, W.C. Handy heard an unnamed Blues artist sing
a song "Where the Southern Crosses the Dawg." So where does the Southern cross the Yazoo
Delta – i.e., the “Dawg” or the “Dog” or the “Yellow Dog”? In Moorhead Mississippi.
The Merced Canyon and river flows out of Yosemite Valley into the Central Valley of
California. Hence the Yosemite Valley Railroad is known as “The Merced Canyon Route”.
THE CASEY JONES STORY
Once in a great while an individual attains a degree of fame that is tantamount to legend.
Such a man was Engineer John Luther ("Casey") Jones (1864-1900), who died at his post on an
Illinois Central Railroad Express train on April 30, 1900. Although he had been born in southern
Missouri, he was called "Casey" in reference to his boyhood home of Cayce, Kentucky. At age
15, he went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad as a telegrapher, and three years later he
became a fireman. In 1888 Casey moved to the larger Illinois Central, and within two years he
achieved his goal of becoming a steam locomotive engineer. The then 26-year-old, 6'-4"
engineer ran fast freights for the IC, first out of Jackson, Mississippi, and later out of Centralia,
Illinois. In 1892 he was assigned to a local express taking fairgoers from downtown Chicago to
the World's Columbian Exposition. For the next seven years he was back on freights, with his
home base at Water Valley, Mississippi. He was known up and down his division for his six-tone
calliope whistle and the "whippoorwill call" he played upon it, and among co-workers for his
dashing good looks and high spirits. As the new century began, Casey Jones was promoted to as
prestigious a job as the Illinois Central could offer. He was to pilot the company's premier
Chicago-New Orleans passenger train, the "New Orleans Special," also known as the
"Cannonball." His division covered the 188 miles south of Memphis. On the night of April
29,1900 the 36-year-old Casey and his fireman, Sim Web, brought the northbound "Cannonball"
(officially, the "Chicago Fast Mail") into Memphis on time. There they learned that the engineer
scheduled to take the southbound "Cannonball" when it arrived from Chicago was out sick, and
they were asked to turn around and retrace the miles they had just logged. They agreed, with
Jones insisting that he be able to use his regular engine -- the 4-6-0, Number 382, that he had just
brought in from Canton, Mississippi at the head of the northbound. The 10-wheeler was readied,
but Jones and Sim Webb had to cool their heels: the southbound "Cannonball" was late and they
would be leaving Memphis 95 minutes behind schedule. The train orders Casey received that
night specified that the southbound "Cannonball" be on time at Canton, which meant that those
95 minutes would have to be made up in 188 miles. That was not any problem for Casey Jones,
as Sim Webb recalled some years later that "running on time was his hobby." By the time the
train left Granada, 100 miles into the run, one hour had already been erased from the deficit;
after another 23 miles, the "Cannonball" was only 15 minutes late. Casey Jones approached the
little depot at Vaughan almost on time. "The old girl's got her high-heeled slippers on tonight,"
he shouted to his fireman over the thunder of his roaring locomotive. Jones hoped Vaughan
wouldn't cost him any time. His orders told him to "saw" through two freights that were sided at
the station. This was a common enough procedure when the total length of the sided trains
exceeded the length of the siding: the far train extended off the siding through the switch at the
far end, and out on the main track. Once the incoming train had cleared the first switch it would
back up and clear the far switch. That synchronized maneuver would clear the main track ahead
and the through train could continue on its way. It would all have gone smoothly if an air hose
hadn't broken on the first of the two sided freights, delaying its southbound maneuver. There
were no automatic signals in those days, so a flagman was sent to warn the "Cannonball" to stop
well short of the four cars of the freight that blocked the track at the north switch. For whatever
reason, Jones did not heed the flagman's lantern signal and approached the curve leading into the
north switch at 70 mph. He only began to brake when his wheels exploded a warning "torpedo"
the flagman had placed on the track. Within seconds, Fireman Webb saw the lights of the
freight's caboose around the bend up ahead and shouted "Look out! We're gonna hit something."
Jones told Webb to jump, and hit the emergency brakes. The "Cannonball" was doing
considerably less than 50 mph when it struck the freight, but the big 10-wheeler tore through the
caboose and one boxcar, the impact killing Casey Jones. He was the only casualty of the wreck.
A song about Casey Jones, in its dozens of variations, put the doomed engineer into the realm of
folklore, and cast him into so much of an example of reckless bravery that now -- a full century
later -- people ask, "Was there REALLY a Casey Jones? There was! …………………….
The first train robbery in the U.S. occurred on October 6, 1866 when the Reno Brothers
jumped onto an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train in Indiana. The robbers emptied one safe
while on the train and tossed a second safe out the window so they could take it with them. This
event started a trend – during the next two seeks two more trains were robbed. A passenger who
testified that he saw the faces of two of the Reno brother robbers was subsequently shot and
killed. This quieted any further identifications. After their fifth robbery a couple of years later,
however, the Pinkertons finally caught up with the Reno brothers. Some members of the gang
were hanged, but a lynch mob got to others before official justice could be served.
The first Jesse James train robbery occurred on July 21, 1873 when Jesse James and the
James-Younger Gang robbed the Rock Island train in Adair, Iowa. The train was derailed and
turned on its side, killing the engineer and injuring several passengers. The James-Younger
Gang, clad in Ku Klux Klan outfits, went up and down the length of the overturned train
demanding passengers’ watches and other valuables, throwing them in bags along with the
money stolen from the train’s safe. The Gang ended up getting about $3,000 for their effort.
Citizens of Adair, Iowa reenact the robbery every July and celebrate Jesse James Days with a
parade and other festivities.
The so-called Wild Bunch Outlaws were active train robbers from 1896 through 1901.
This gang, usually a group of ten or so outlaws, banded together and worked out of the “Hole in
the Wall” located in the southern Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and/or “Brown’s Hole”
located in a desolate valley near the Wyoming, Colorado and Utah border. In the winter months
they worked out of “Robber’s Roost” located in the desert of southeastern Utah – a famous
outlaw winter resort. The members of the Wild Bunch varied considerably from time to time.
The leadership was controlled by Robert Leroy Parker, known as “Butch Cassidy”, and his
sidekick, Harry Longbaugh, known as “Sundance Kid”. The Wild Bunch focused much of their
attention on Union Pacific trains. The movie The Great Train Robbery portrayed a robbery that
occurred in June 2, 1899 near Wilcox, Wyoming. The Wild Bunch flagged down the UP’s
Overland Limited, detached the express car and dynamited it wide open. When the guard
surviving the dynamite blast declined to open the safe, the Wild Bunch dynamited the safe which
resulted in money being blown all over the landscape. The Wild Bunch made off with $30,000
but had a terrible time scrambling all over the landscape for the greenbacks.
The Wild Bunch pulled off three more train robberies the last one of which occurred near
Malta, Montana netting $40,500. After the Malta holdup, the UP RR employed a high speed
train and professional gunmen to get the Wild Bunch dead or alive. In consequence the Wild
Bunch dispersed with Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid leaving for South America.
The Dalton Gang was an infamous outlaw group in the American West during 1890-
1892. They specialized in bank and train robberies. They were related to the Younger though
they acted later and independently of the James-Younger Gang. The Dalton family came from
Jackson County, Missouri. Lewis Dalton was a saloon keeper in Kansas City when he married
Adeline Younger, the aunt of Cole and Jim Younger. In 1886 they moved to Coffeyville in
southeast Kansas. Thirteen of the couple's 15 children survived to maturity. The Daltons were
"agrarian farmers". It is suspected that when the railroad "took" the family farm, the event
marked the beginning of the Dalton Brothers life of crime, along with other family tragedies,
particularly the death of Frank.
On February 6, 1891, after Jack Dalton had joined his brothers in California, a Southern
Pacific Railroad passenger train was held up. The Daltons were accused of the robbery, based on
little evidence. Jack escaped and Bill was acquitted, but Grant was arrested, convicted, and
given a 20-year prison sentence. According to one account, Grant was handcuffed to one deputy
and accompanied by another while being transferred by train. After the train had gone some
distance, one deputy fell asleep and the other busied himself talking to other passengers. It was a
hot day, and all the windows were open. Suddenly, Grant jumped up and dived head first out of
the train window. He landed in the San Joaquin River, disappeared under water, and was carried
downstream by the current. The deputies were astounded. Grant must have taken the key to the
handcuffs from the first deputy's pocket as he slept and then timed his escape to take place when
he knew the train would be on a bridge. If he had landed on the ground, he would almost
certainly have been killed. Grant found his brothers, and they made their way back to Oklahoma
Between May 1891 and July 1892, the Dalton brothers robbed four trains in the Indian
Territory. Four months later they robbed a train of $10,000 at Lillietta, Indian Territory. In June
1892, they stopped another Santa Fe train, this time at Red Rock. Blackfaced Charley Bryant
and Dick Broadwell held the engineer and fireman in the locomotive. Bob and Emmett Dalton
and Bill Powers walked through the passenger cars, robbing the passengers as they went. Bill
Doolin and Grant Dalton took on the express car. They threw the safe out of the train. They
gained little for their efforts—a few hundred dollars and some watches and jewelry from the
passengers. The gang scattered after the Red Rock robbery, but soon Blackfaced Charley was
The gang struck again in July at Adair, Oklahoma. They went directly to the train station
and took what they could find in the express and baggage rooms. Then they sat down on a bench
on the platform, talking and smoking, with their Winchester rifles across their knees. When the
train came in at 9:45 p.m., they backed a wagon up to the express car and unloaded all the
contents. There were several armed guards on the train, but for some reason all 11 men were at
the back of the train. The guards fired at the bandits through the car windows and from behind
the train. In the gun fight, 200 shots were fired. None of the Dalton gang was hit. Three guards
were wounded, and a town doctor was killed by a stray bullet. The robbers dropped out of sight,
probably hiding out in one of several caves near Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Miles of Rail Owned by Class I, II, & III Railroads and
Real Freight Revenue in the U.S., 1830-2008.
Miles (cents/ton mile)
Miles of Rail Owned
Revenue (cents/ton mile) deflated by CPI
Number of Railroads in the U.S. and Canada
Chartered, Abandoned, and Acquired by
Another Railroad by Years, 1826-2009.
Number of Railroads Chartered
Number of Railroads Acquired by Another Road
Number of Railroads Abandoned
Source: Database prepared by author. Roads acquired include roads sold, roads
acquired by another road, and roads merged into another road.
Number of For-Hire Railroads in Existence by
Years in the U.S. and Canada, 1826-2009.
Source: Database prepared by author. Excluded from this chart are 699 switching
and terminal roads, tourist roads, street roads, and private roads.
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Mika, Nick and Helma with Donald M. Wilson. Illustrated History of Canadian Railways.
Belleville, Ontario: Mika Publishing Company. 1986.
Myrick, David F. New Mexico’s Railroads: A Historical Survey. Revised Edition.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. 1990.
Overton, Richard C. Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines. New York: Alfred A.
Overton, Richard C. The First Ninety Years: An Historical Sketch of the Burlington Railroad,
1850-1940 . Chicago, IL. 1940.
Poor, Henry V. Manual of the Railroads of the United States. Eds. 1868/69, 1897, 1899, 1900,
1912, 1917, and 1924.
Primedia Directories. The Official Railway Guide: North American Freight Service Edition.
Primedia Information, Inc. Hightstown, NJ. Nov/Dec 1999.
Rand McNally and Company. Handy Railroad Atlas of the United States. (Published every few
Richardson, Helen R. Illinois Central Railroad Company: A Centennial Bibliography, 1851-
1951. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Railroads, Bureau of Railway
Economics Library. 1950.
Saylor, Roger B. The Railroads of Pennsylvania. Bureau of Business Research, College of
Business Administration. The Pennsylvania State University. 1964.
Simons, Richard S. and Francis H. Parker. Railroads of Indiana. Bloomington & Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press. 1997.
Stover, John F. A History of American Railroads. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company. 1967.
Stover, John F. American Railroads. University of Chicago Press. 1997. (A good source of
references on railroads in America.)
Stover, John F. Iron Road to The West: American Railroads in the 1850s. NY: Columbia
University Press. 1978.
Stover, John F. History of the Illinois Central Railroad. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,
Stover, John F., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American
Railroads. New York: Routledge. 1999.
Taber, Thomas T., III. Railroads of Pennsylvania: Encyclopedia and Atlas. Muncy, PA:
Thomas T. Taber, III. 1987.
Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860. The Economic History of
the United States. Vol. IV. Harper and Row. New York. 1968.
Taylor, George Rogers and Irene D. Neu. The American Railroad Network: 1861-1890.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1956.
Withuhn, William L. ed. Rails Across America. New York: Smithmark. 1993.
Some Additional Titles Consulted
Adams, Charles Frances. Railroads, Their Origin and Problems. 1878.
Bogen, Jules. The Anthracite Railroads. New York: The Ronald Press Company. 1927.
Brigham, A. P. From Trail to Railway Through the Appalachians.
Corliss, Carlton J. Main Line of Mid-America: The Story of the Illinois Central. New York:
Creative Age Press. 1950.
Flint, Henry M. The Railroads of the United States: Their History and Statistics. 1868.
Fisher, Leonard Everett. Tracks Across America: The Story of the American Railroad, 1825-
1900. New York: Holiday House. 1992.
Fogel, Robert William. Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric
History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press. 1964.
Gates, Paul Wallace. The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press. 1934.
Gordon, W. R. Stories and History of the Erie Railroad.
Haney, Lewis Henry. A Congressional History of Railways in the United States to 1850. Ph.D.
Dissertation. University of Wisconsin. 1906.
Kistler, Thelma M. “The Rise of Railroads in the Connecticut River Valley.” Smith College
Studies in History. Vol XXIII. Nos. 1-4. Oct 1937-July 1938.
Lind, Alan R. From the Lakes to the Gulf: The Illinois Central Story: An Illustrated History of
the ‘Main Line of Mid-America’. Park Forest, IL: Transport History Press. 1993.
Modelski, Andrew M. Railroad Maps of North America: The First Hundred Years.
Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. 1984.
Prince, Richard E. Steam Locomotives and Boats: Southern Railway System. Green River, WY:
Richard E. Prince. 1965.
Prince, Richard E. Norfolk & Western Railway: Pocahontas Coal Carrier. Salt Lake City, UT:
Richard E. Prince. 1980.
Prince, Richard E. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad: Steam Locomotives, Ships and History. Green
River, WY: Richard E. Prince. 1966.
Randall, David and Alan R. Lind. From Zephyr to Amtrak: A Guide to Lightweight Cars and
Streamliners. Park Forest, IL: Prototype Publications. 1972.
Starr, John W. One Hundred Years of American Railroading. New York: Dodd, Mead &
Thompson, Slason. A Short History of American Railroads Covering Ten Decades. Chicago,
IL. Bureau of Railway News and Statistics. 1925.