Railroads in north america

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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


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.

“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 Board’s meeting:
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 destitute.
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.'"


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. pps. 154-157)
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.

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 rates.

(2) Provision that such maximum rates are prima facie evidence of reasonableness before the courts.

(3) Laws designed to prevent discrimination between places by means of “long-and-short-haul” clauses.
(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.

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 American Railroading.)
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 vacationers.
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 mainline track.
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 classification, are:

Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Canadian National

Canadian Pacific


CSX Transportation

Kansas City Southern

Norfolk Southern

Union Pacific
The Illinois Central Gulf was purchased by the Canadian Nation in 1998. Conrail was jointly purchased by CSX and the Norfolk Southern in 2001.

"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

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 Party. 1931.

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.
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.

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