The Illinois’ legislature’s charge in February 1831 to Bucklin to investigate the cost of building a railroad rather than a canal to link the two rivers at Chicago was not as bold as it might first appear, because at least eight railroads had already been chartered and were in various stages of construction in the U.S. by then.

Fig. 2.1. East Coast of U.S. locating the major cities where railroads were being discussed in 1831: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. (Online)


Railroads pulled by draft animals had been in service in Europe to assist mining operations for decades before British engineer Richard Trevithick applied the new technology of steam power to build the first moving steam engine or “locomotive” that pulled a combined load of freight and passengers ten miles in Wales on February 21, 1804.  (See Chapter 8 for Trevithick’s proposed 1000’ iron tower in 1833.)  The first steam-powered railroad, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad, powered by Locomotion, the first of many steam-powered locomotives designed by engineer George Stephenson had had its inaugural run on September 27, 1825.  These pioneering experiments in Great Britain were eagerly followed by Americans interested in applying this technology in the U.S., where horse-drawn railroads also predated the first steam railroads.  The first documented American horse-drawn company, the New Jersey Railroad Company was chartered on February 6, 1815, in New Jersey some ten years after Trevithick’s invention by Col. John Stevens, a lawyer and engineer who lived in what is now Hoboken, NJ, to create a land link between Philadelphia (at Trenton, NJ on the Delaware River) and New York City (at New Brunswick on the Raritan River).  The impending completion of the Erie Canal a decade later, however, was changing the economic calculus along the Eastern seaboard in favor of New York City, whose economy was beginning to overtake that of Philadelphia as the country’s financial center.  Stevens, America’s pioneering railroad visionary who was responsible for many inventions, including the country’s first steam-powered locomotive, eventually also succeeded in having the Pennsylvania legislature charter a second railroad on May 13, 1823, to run between Philadelphia to Columbia, PA, on the Susquehanna River, just upriver from Harrisburg, the state’s Capital.  Stevens had foreseen the potential of the railroad as Philadelphia’s salvation in its struggle to keep the Erie Canal and New York City at bay, and therefore, Stevens’ ultimate objective was nothing short of a vast interstate network of railroads that emanated from Philadelphia in order to maintain Philadelphia’s standing as the country’s largest city and financial center: 

“And when this great improvement in transportation shall have been extended to Pittsburgh, then thence into the heart of the extensive and fertile State of Ohio, and also the great western lakes, Philadelphia may then become the grand emporium of the western country… The improvement, when once introduced, will unquestionably be extended from Philadelphia across New Jersey to the city of New York.”

To prove the feasibility of a steam railroad, Stevens in 1825, the same year that Stephenson’s Locomotion pulled the first train in Britain, built a small steam-powered train that ran on a circular track on his Hoboken estate.  But he was fighting a very uphill battle because canal interests throughout Pennsylvania, inspired by the imminent completion of New York’s Erie Canal, would see to it that Pennsylvania would lag behind its competitors in the adoption of the railroad with the legislature’s passage of a series of bills in 1826 that formed the state’s Main Line of Public Works that called for a system of canals to link Philadelphia with Pittsburgh, and thus, via the Ohio River, to the NorthWest.  Railroads would eventually be incorporated into the system, but only as a means of linking one canal to another. 

Although Stevens was the first American to follow British’s railroad experiments, It took only three months after the start of Stephenson’s Stockton & Darlington for George Featherstonhaugh, a British immigrant who also was a follower of Stephenson’s work, who lived in upstate New York near Schenectady, to publish an announcement on December 28, 1825, stating that he planned to apply for a charter to build a railroad from Albany to Schenectady on the Mohawk River.  Although the New York legislature finally granted the charter for the Mohawk & Hudson on April 17, 1826, canal interests and Albany boosters fearing the proposal, added enough prohibitive provisions to it that, for all practical purposes, the project was stillborn for the foreseeable future.  While the New York legislature had debated Featherstonhaugh’s proposal. The Massachusetts and Pennsylvania legislatures had each approved a railroad charter in their respective states.  On March 4, 1826, the Massachusetts legislature approved the third American charter to build a railroad (although it, too, was to be horse-drawn) in the U.S., the Granite Rail-Road, to a group of Boston investors, led by Thomas H. Perkins, the city’s leading patrician, planning the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument (see Chapter 4).  And then only the week before New York had granted the M&H its charter, the Pennsylvania legislature approved a charter for the Delaware & Hudson Railroad on August 8, 1826, to build a railroad to ship coal from a mine in Carbondale, PA, to the company’s Hudson River canal at Honesdale, PA.  John B. Jervis, a self-taught engineer, who had been the resident engineer for a 50-mile segment of the Erie Canal, had been named the railroad’s chief engineer and had sent one of his associates, Horatio Allen, to Great Britain in 1828 to supervise the manufacture of four locomotives of Jervis’ design. The Stourbridge Lion arrived in 1829 and made the first run of a steam-powered locomotive in the U.S on August 8, 1829.   While this locomotive had worked successfully, it was ultimately abandoned as it was too heavy for the American track in use at the time. 

The sixth American railroad chartered was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that had been chartered on February 28, 1827, by Philip E. Thomas and George E. Brown of Baltimore with the expressed intent of building a railroad to the Ohio River so as to reduce the overland travel time of goods departing from Baltimore along the National Road to Wheeling for eventually shipment on the Ohio, as an attempt to counteract the economic advantage that New York had gained with the completion of the Erie Canal. In essence, it was a parallel proposal to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, upon which construction as of yet had not started. The history and success of the B&O was intertwined with that of Peter Cooper, a shrewd businessman and inventor from New York City at the time, who was a perfect example of the interrelatedness of the initial use of iron between that in the railroad and that in the construction of buildings.  Believing that the construction of the B&O would greatly increase the value of land along its proposed route, Cooper had purchased over 3000 acres in Maryland, upon which he discovered a rich vein of iron ore.  Naturally, he founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore to fabricate some of the iron components needed by the nascent company, and when the railroad ran into technical problems with its development of a locomotive, Cooper voluntarily stepped in with his own design of the Tom Thumb, the first American designed and built locomotive, made famous by its race on August 28, 1830, with the horse, Lightning (which it lost only after having suffered a technical malfunction).

Charleston, SC, another harbor on the Atlantic Coast in competition with New York, not only had much the same reaction to the Erie Canal as had its other competitors but was also under growing competition for its traditional inland cotton exports with its neighbor, Savannah, GA, that enjoyed the deeper inland penetration of the Savannah River, that allowed growers in South Carolina an easier (and less expensive) route to the Atlantic.  Charleston’s leading businessmen had the foresight to understand how the railroad could divert some of this trade to Charleston by building a railroad from Charleston to Hamburg, SC, directly across the Savannah River from Augusta, GA, and succeeded in having the South Carolina legislature charter the seventh American railroad, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co., on Dec. 19, 1827.  They made little progress, however, until they obtained the services of Horatio Allen from the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, who had made the first run of the Stourbridge Lion in 1829.  Four months after the race between the Tom Thumb and Lightning, the SCC&RR on December 25, 1830, made its first run of its first locomotive, David Matthew’s the Best Friend of Charleston.

By this time, investors in Philadelphia and Boston had finally awoken to the financial possibilities of the new technology and had chartered their own railroads.  Col. Stevens’ son, Robert L. Stevens, chartered the Camden & Amboy Railroad in New Jersey, the eighth such American company, on April 28, 1830, to build a route from New York City (by ferryboat over Raritan Bay to South Amboy, NJ) to Philadelphia (by ferryboat across the Delaware River from Camden, NJ).  Five weeks later, Boston investors once again led by Perkins, having been successful with the Granite Rail-Road, had chartered America’s ninth railroad, the Boston & Lowell Railroad to connect Boston with the textile mills at Lowell on June 5, 1830.  This would be the first in a system of four lines that radiated out from Boston that would make Boston’s the largest rail network in the U.S. when it was completed in 1835.

These successful experiments with the railroad appear to have finally convinced a group of prominent New Yorkers including John Jacob Astor, to buy into Feathersonhaugh‘s Mohawk & Hudson, whose construction had languished for over three years since its chartering, and take control of the project and then forced Feathersonhaugh to resign.  Engineer Jervis was brought in by the new management and began construction on the M&H on July 27, 1830. Seven months later, Jervis had completed the sixteen miles of the M&H and the maiden voyage of the somewhat ironically named DeWitt Clinton (who had died in 1828) took place on August 13, 1831.  Therefore, within a period of five years following the completion of the Erie Canal, all five major Atlantic ports, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, had responded to the immediate economic success of the Erie Canal by starting construction of their own railroads to the western hinterlands. Only time would tell which one would win the battle to the west and become the nation’s economic capital.  Any or all of these projects could have inspired the Illinois Legislature to explore the feasibility of building a railroad rather than a canal to link the Chicago River to the Illinois River in 1831.


Galloway, John Debo, The First Transcontinental Railroad, New York: Simmons-Broadway, 1950.

Grant, H. Roger. The Louisville, Cincinnati, & Charleston Rail Road. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Harlow, Alvin F., The Road of the Century, New York, 1947.

Kirkland, Edward Chase, Men, Cities, and Transportation: A Study in New England History (1820-1900) – Volume I, Cambridge, 1948.

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