The Baltimore and Ohio may be the most important railroad in American history and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad museum may be the best railroad museum in America. For these reasons it makes a wonderful field trip for the students in Maryland and northern Virginia.
However, since it’s pretty far from Tennessee, we thought we’d take you there.
The B&O Railroad was important because of when it started and what it was set up to do. Begun at a time when the only real connection between western and eastern waters was the slow but efficient Erie Canal, the Baltimore and Ohio connected an eastern seaport with the Ohio River. By doing so it created a link between the Atlantic Ocean and Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cleveland — all of which grew because of their connections to the B&O.
Also, by connecting the Atlantic Ocean to one branch of the Mississippi River system, the B&O railroad inspired and led to the creation of railroads in the South that would do the same thing. About a generation after the B&O was started, the state of Georgia formed the Western & Atlantic Railroad to connect Savannah to the Tennessee River (at Chattanooga). That, in turn, led to the Nashville & Chattanooga Railway, connecting the Cumberland River to the Tennessee.
The B&O Railroad was started by Phillip Thomas and George Brown. Construction began on July 4, 1828. One of the men who took part in the groundbreaking ceremony was 91-year-old Charles Carroll—the only living signer of the Declaration of Independence.
It took almost two years for the railroad to be built to the first stop toward the west — a town now known as Ellicott City. Today Ellicott City’s is the oldest railroad station in America.
It’s easy to imagine the excitement on May 24, 1830, the first day a train made it from Baltimore to Ellicott City. But this train may not have looked the way you imagine. You see, when the B&O first started, the railroad wasn’t using steam locomotives because steam locomotives weren’t strong enough yet. Horses dragged the first coaches on the B&O Railroad!
Steam power would improve, but it would take the B&O Railroad nearly a quarter century to meet its goal of connecting the ocean to the Ohio River.
As you can see from this map (click on it to make it larger), there were many stations along the way. In fact, there were more than 60 between Baltimore and Wheeling, which is where the railroad connected to the Ohio River.
There are thick volumes on how the B&O was built, crossing bridges, digging tunnels and overcoming legal obstacles year after year. It crossed the Appalachian Mountains, and did so with the user of skilled surveyors such as Stephen Harriman Long (who later surveyed railroads in Tennessee). The B&O also had to fight the Pennsylvania Railroad for the right to dip into that state.
In any case, the B&O made it to the Ohio River city of Wheeling in December 1852, as the article shown here indicates.
The B&O Railroad is now part of CSX Corporation. Today there are old train stations and small museums about the railroad along its former line in places like Cumberland, Maryland; Elkins, West Virginia; and Benwood, Pennsylvania.
But the best B&O Museum is in Baltimore. Here are things we saw and learned there:
Early locomotives looked nothing like they later would. Peter Cooper designed and built an engine known as the Tom Thumb in 1829, and it is believed to have been the first American-built locomotive used by a common carrier railroad.
There’s a story that claimes that, in 1830, the Tom Thumb raced a horse. According to the story, the Tom Thumb was winning the race, but then a belt slipped on the engine and the horse pulled away.
A locomotive called the Grasshopper, which looked similar to the Tom Thumb, became the first to haul a sitting U.S. president when Andrew Jackson took a ride on the B&O in June 1833.
Engineers would eventually make many technological advancements, some through trial and error. One of the big developments was that of the horizontal steam engine, and it was only after that invention that locomotives became far more efficient and began looking like ones familiar to us today. There are displays at the B&O that explain how horizontal steam engines work.
Speaking of inventions, an easier one to explain is the cowcatcher, the plow-shaped device at the front of steam engines that removed debris from the railroad. We’ll let students figure out why it was known as the cowcatcher.
One of the most important inventions in American history was that of the telegraph. The first long-distance public demonstration of the telegraph took place at a B&O Railroad station a few blocks from the current site of the museum. It was there that inventor Samuel Morse received a message that was simultaneously sent from the U.S. Capitol, on May 24, 1844. That four-word message, “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?” came from the Bible (Numbers 23:23), and it signaled a turning point in the history of American communication.
Morse was not a founder of the B&O Railroad. But because of the B&O’s association with this event, there is a room at the museum devoted to it.
The B&O Railroad Museum is dominated by massive locomotives which range from those used in the Civil War to modern-day diesel locomotives that hauled passenger coaches in the 1940s. However, the museum also reminds us of changes that have taken place in American society. There is a display about Plessy v. Ferguson, the case filed by a railroad passenger in Louisiana that resulted in the “separate but equal” clause that locked racial segregation into America. The B&O museum also contains a segregated railroad coach from pre-integration days.
Click here for the official website of the B&O Railroad Museum.