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History of Railroads and Maps - Part 2

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  History of Railroads and Maps – Part 1

This is the first of three articles.

downThe Beginnings of American Railroads and Mapping
downThe Transcontinental Railroad

  Surveying and mapping activities flourished in the United States as people began moving inland over the inadequately mapped continent. The settlement of the frontier, the development of agriculture, and the exploitation of natural resources generated a demand for new ways to move people and goods from one place to another. Privately owned toll or turnpike roads were followed first by steamships on the navigable rivers and by the construction of canals and then in the 1830s by the introduction of railroads for steam-powered trains.1
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  The Beginnings of American Railroads and Mapping
  Railways were introduced in England in the seventeenth century as a way to reduce friction in moving heavily loaded wheeled vehicles. The first North American "gravity road," as it was called, was erected in 1764 for military purposes at the Niagara portage in Lewiston, New York. The builder was Capt. John Montressor, a British engineer known to students of historical cartography as a mapmaker.
  map showing 1828 survey for the proposed Boston and Providence Railway
Topographic strip map showing horse drawn trains on a 1828 survey for the proposed Boston and Providence Railway.
Source: The Library of Congress American Memory

The earliest survey map in the United States that shows a commercial "tramroad" was drawn in Pennsylvania in October 1809 by John Thomson and was entitled "Draft Exhibiting . . . the Railroad as Contemplated by Thomas Leiper Esq. From His Stone Saw-Mill and Quarries on Crum Creek to His Landing on Ridley Creek." Thomas Leiper was a wealthy Philadelphia tobacconist and friend of Thomas Jefferson, who owned stone quarries near Chester. Using his survey map, Thomson helped Reading Howell, the project engineer and a well-known mapmaker, construct the first practical wooden tracks for a tramroad. Thomson was a notable land surveyor who earlier had worked with the Holland Land Company. He was the father of the famous civil engineer and longtime president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, John Edgar Thomson, who was himself a mapmaker. In 1873 the younger Thomson donated his father's 1809 map to the Delaware County Institute of Science to substantiate the claim that the map and Leiper's railroad were the first such work in North America.2

In 1826 a commercial tramroad was surveyed and constructed at Quincy, Massachusetts, by Gridley Bryant, with the machinery for it developed by Solomon Willard. It used horsepower to haul granite needed for building the Bunker Hill Monument from the quarries at Quincy, four miles to the wharf on the Neponset River.3

These early uses of railways gave little hint that a revolution in methods of transportation was underway. James Watt's improvements in the steam engine were adapted by John Fitch in 1787 to propel a ship on the Delaware River, and by James Rumsey in the same year on the Potomac River. Fitch, an American inventor and surveyor, had published his "Map of the Northwest" two years earlier to finance the building of a commercial steamboat. With Robert Fulton's Clermont and a boat built by John Stevens, the use of steam power for vessels became firmly established. Railroads and steam propulsion developed separately, and it was not until the one system adopted the technology of the other that railroads began to flourish.

John Stevens is considered to be the father of American railroads. In 1826 Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular experimental track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, three years before George Stephenson perfected a practical steam locomotive in England. The first railroad charter in North America was granted to Stevens in 1815.4 Grants to others followed, and work soon began on the first operational railroads.

Surveying, mapping, and construction started on the Baltimore and Ohio in 1830, and fourteen miles of track were opened before the year ended. This roadbed was extended in 1831 to Frederick, Maryland, and, in 1832, to Point of Rocks. Until 1831, when a locomotive of American manufacture was placed in service, the B & O relied upon horsepower.

Soon joining the B & O as operating lines were the Mohawk and Hudson, opened in September 1830, the Saratoga, opened in July 1832, and the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, whose 136 miles of track, completed to Hamburg, constituted, in 1833, the longest steam railroad in the world. The Columbia Railroad of Pennsylvania, completed in 1834, and the Boston and Providence, completed in June 1835, were other early lines. Surveys for, and construction of, tracks for these and other pioneer railroads not only created demands for special mapping but also induced map makers to show the progress of surveys and completed lines on general maps and on maps in "travelers guides".


map showing routes of the Pacific railroad
1857 map showing routes of the Pacific railroad surveys.
Source: The Library of Congress American Memory
Planning and construction of railroads in the United States progressed rapidly and haphazardly, without direction or supervision from the States that granted charters to construct them. Before 1840 most surveys were made for short passenger lines which proved to be financially unprofitable. Because steam-powered railroads had stiff competition from canal companies, many partially completed lines were abandoned. It was not until the Boston and Lowell Railroad diverted traffic from the Middlesex Canal that the success of the new mode of transportation was assured. The industrial and commercial depression and the panic of 1837 slowed railroad construction. Interest was revived, however, with completion of the Western Railroad of Massachusetts in 1843. This line conclusively demonstrated the feasibility of transporting agricultural products and other commodities by rail for long distances at low cost.


Early railroad surveys and construction were financed by private investors. Before the 1850 land grant to the Illinois Central Railroad, indirect Federal subsidies were provided by the Federal government in the form of route surveys made by army engineers. In the 1824 General Survey Bill to establish works of internal improvements, railroads were not specifically mentioned. Part of the appropriation under this act for the succeeding year, however, was used for "Examinations and surveys to ascertain the practicability of uniting the head-waters of the Kanawha with the James river and the Roanoke river, by Canals or Rail-Roads."5

In his Congressional History of Railways, Louis H. Haney credits these surveys as being the first to receive Federal aid. He notes that such grants to States and corporations for railway surveys became routine before the act was repealed in 1838.

The earliest printed map in the collections of the Library of Congress based on government surveys conducted for a State-owned railroad is "Map of the Country Embracing the Various Routes Surveyed for the Western & Atlantic Rail Road of Georgia, 1837". The surveys were made under the direction of Lt. Col. Stephen H. Long, chief engineer, who ten years earlier had surveyed the routes for the Baltimore and Ohio.6 Work on the 138-mile Georgia route from Atlanta to Chattanooga started in 1841, and by 1850 the line was open to traffic. Its strategic location made it a key supply route for the Confederacy. It was on this line that the famous "Andrews Raid" of April 1862 occurred when Union soldiers disguised as railroad employees captured the locomotive known as the General.7

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  The Transcontinental Railroad

The possibility of railroads connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was discussed in the Congress even before the treaty with England which settled the question of the Oregon boundary in 1846.8 Chief promoter of a transcontinental railroad was Asa Whitney, a New York merchant active in the China trade who was obsessed with the idea of a railroad to the Pacific. In January 1845 he petitioned Congress for a charter and grant of a sixty-mile strip through the public domain to help finance construction.9


19th century railway land grant map
1893 map showing the alternate sections of public land granted to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway.
Source: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
A large-scale grant map dated 1893, showing the alternate sections of public land granted to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway. Such maps were used by land speculators to advertise railroad lands for sale to the public.

Whitney suggested the use of Irish and German immigrant labor, which was in great abundance at the time. Wages were to be paid in land, thus ensuring that there would be settlers along the route to supply produce to and become patrons of the completed line. The failure of Congress to act on Whitney's proposal was mainly due to the vigorous opposition of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who favored a western route originating at St. Louis.

In 1849 Whitney published a booklet to promote his scheme entitled Project for a Railroad to the Pacific. It was accompanied by an outline map of North America which shows the route of his railroad from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, across the Rocky Mountains north of South Pass. An alternate route to the south of the pass joined the main line at the Salmon River and continued to Puget Sound. Proposed lines also extended from St. Louis to San Francisco and from Independence, Missouri, to New Mexico and the Arkansas River. This is one of the earliest promotional maps submitted to Congress and was, according to its author, conceived as early as 1830.10


Although Congress failed to sanction his plan, Whitney made the Pacific railroad one of the great public issues of the day. The acquisition of California following the Mexican War opened the way for other routes to the coast. The discovery of gold, the settlement of the frontier, and the success of the eastern railroads increased interest in building a railroad to the Pacific.11

Railroads were also needed in the West to provide better postal service, as had been developed in the East, by designating railroad lines "post roads" in 1838. Strengthened by other proposals such as those of Hartwell Carver in 1849 and of Edwin F. Johnson in 1853, such leading statesmen as John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Jefferson Davis declared their support for linking the country by rails. The lawmakers, however, could not agree on an eastern terminus, and they did not see the merits of the several routes west. To resolve the debate, money was appropriated in 1853 for the Army Topographic Corps "to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean."

Under the provisions of the Army Appropriation Act of March 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was directed to survey possible routes to the Pacific. Four east to west routes, roughly following specific parallels, were to be surveyed by parties under the supervision of the Topographical Corps. The most northerly survey, between the 47th and 49th parallels, was under the direction of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, governor of Washington Territory. This route closely approximated that proposed by Asa Whitney.

The ill-fated party under Capt. John W. Gunnison was to explore the route along the 38th and 39th parallels, or the Cochetopoa Pass route, which was advocated by Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. After Gunnison's death at the hands of hostile Indians, Lt. Edward G. Beckwith continued the survey along the 41st parallel. Capt. Amiel W. Whipple, assistant astronomer of the Mexican Boundary Survey, and Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives surveyed the route along the 35th parallel westward to southern California. This line was favored by Jefferson Davis and was essentially the route traversed by Josiah Gregg in 1839 and later surveyed by Col. John J. Abert. The most southerly survey, which followed the 32d parallel, was surveyed by Lt. John G. Parke from California along the Gila River to the Pima villages and the Rio Grande. Capt. John Pope mapped the eastern portion of the route from Dona Ana, New Mexico, to the Red River.

A fifth survey, following a north-south orientation, was conducted under the direction of Lt. Robert S. Williamson. This party reconducted topographical surveys to locate passes through the Sierra Nevadas and the Coast Range in California in order to determine a route that would connect California, Oregon, and Washington were made under the direction of Lt. Robert S. Williamson.12

These surveys showed that a railroad could follow any one of the routes, and that the 32nd parallel route was the least expensive. The Southern Pacific Railroad was subsequently built along this parallel. The southern routes were objectionable to northern politicians and the northern routes were objectionable to the southern politicians, but the surveys could not, of course, resolve these sectional issues.


photo of the joining the tracks for the first transcontinental railroad
Joining the tracks for the first transcontinental railroad, Promontory, Utah Territory, 1869.Source: National Archives and Records Administration.
While sectional issues and disagreements were debated in the late 1850s, no decision was forthcoming from Congress on the Pacific railroad question. Theodore D. Judah, the engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, became obsessed with the desire to build a transcontinental railroad. In 1860 he approached Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, leading Sacramento merchants, and soon convinced them that building a transcontinental line would make them rich and famous. The prospect of tapping the wealth of the Nevada mining towns and forthcoming legislation for Federal aid to railroads stimulated them to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California. This line later merged with the Southern Pacific. It was through Judah's efforts and the support of Abraham Lincoln, who saw military benefits in the lines as well as the bonding of the Pacific Coast to the Union, that the Pacific Railroad finally became a reality.

The Railroad Act of 1862 put government support behind the transcontinental railroad and helped create the Union Pacific Railroad, which subsequently joined with the Central Pacific at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, and signaled the linking of the continent.

See Part 2 – Mapmaking and Printing, The Growth of Mapping, and Land Grants

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1 Henry Varnum Poor, Manual of the Railroads of the United States for 1870-71 (New York: H.V. & H.W. Poor, 1870), p. xxviii.
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2 James A. Ward, J. Edgar Thomson: Master of the Pennsylvania (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 11.
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3 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 18.
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4 Thurman W. Van Metre, Transportation in the United States (Brooklyn: Foundation Press, 1950), p. 31.
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5 The reports to these surveys have not been found. See Louis H. Haney, A Congressional History of Railways (1908), 1:111. See also Joseph Carrington Cabell, Notes Relative to the Route, Cost and Bearing of a Railway from Covington to the Head of Steamboat Navigation on the Kanawha River . . . (Addressed to Walter Gwynn, Chief Engineer, February 10, 1851.)
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6 Report of the Engineers, on the Reconnaissance and surveys, made in reference to the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road (Baltimore: Printed by W. Wooddy, 1828). William Howard, C.E., Stephen Harrison Long, Jonathan Knight, William Gibbs McNeill, Joshua Barney, and Isaac R. Trimble were the surveyors. Joshua Barney's "Map of the Country Embracing the Various Routes Surveyed for the Balt. & Ohio Rail Road by Order of the Board of Engineers" (Baltimore, 1828?, scale ca. 1:193,000, 27 x 61 cm.) was prepared to accompany the report.
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7 Slason Thompson, A Short History of American Railways (Chicago: Bureau of Railway News and Statistics, 1925), p. 154.
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8 Louis H. Haney, A Congressional History of Railways, 2 vols. (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1908-10; reprint ed., New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968), 1:234.
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9 Memorial of Asa Whitney . . . Praying a Grant of Land, to Enable Him to Construct a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean (28th Congress, 2nd sess., Senate Doc. 69, Serial 451, Jan. 28, 1845).
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10 Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 5 v. (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1957-63), 2:187.
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11 John F. Stover, American Railroads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 53.
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12 Gouverneur K. Warren, Memoir to Accompany the Map of the Territory of the United States from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, Giving a Brief Account of Each of the Exploring Expeditions Since A.D. 1800, with a Detailed Description of the Method Adopted in Compiling the General Map (Washington: U.S. Congress, Senate, 1859), p. 78.
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Adapted from Andrew M. Modelski, History of Railroads and Maps (Washington: Library of Congress, 1984), pp. ix-xxi, which represented a revision of the "Introduction" to Railroad Maps of the United States, compiled by Andrew M. Modelski (Washington: Library of Congress, 1975), pp. 1-14.

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