High-speed Rail in 1826

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 1-2:

A young lady wrote to a Pennsylvania newspaper in the summer of 1827 about her journey along the state-operated system of internal improvements. Having left Reading at three in the afternoon, she arrived at Mount Carbon the next evening after a passage of 49 miles by canal, “a great journey for me to make in one day.” The mountain scenery impressed her, as did the band on board the canal boat, but greater wonders awaited. From Mauch Chunk (population 1,300), she elected to ride to the nearby coal mines, 9 miles up a considerable slope, on the Mauch Chunk Railway. This line, built in September 1826, comprised, along with a shorter (3-mile) one from the Boston tidewater to a granite quarry at Quincy, Massachusetts, the first elements of the railway system in the United States.

There were three carriages that day each loaded with six passengers. A horse drew the train up the 3-foot, 7-inch gauge track to the mine, 900 feet above the Lehigh River, in 1 hour and 25 minutes. Coming down, there was no horse, only a rope wound at the top around a wheel with a friction brake to control the descent. That ride reached speeds of 30 miles per hour—faster than the passengers had ever experienced. The cars seemed at times on the verge of shooting off a cliff before a curve came into view and took the gasping tourists around. Wrote the young lady, clinging to her seat: “It really appeared like flying.”

The Mauch Chunk and Quincy Railroads were in those years (the mid-1820s) a national phenomenon, a tourist attraction of a magnitude far beyond their limited economic function. Newspapers competed for details. Also, they collected news from British journals of the architecturally impressive railroad lines completed in 1826 between Stockton and Darlington and Liverpool and Manchester.

At Quincy the attraction was the tremendous weights that could be moved with relatively little effort by means of rails. A load of 21 tons of stone made its way down a slight grade along the Quincy road in October 1826, pulled by a single horse. The horse easily pulled the empty cars back. “It is a matter of astonishment,” went a Massachusetts governmental report, “to consider how great an advantage is gained, by merely providing smooth iron tracks for the wheels of carriages to run on; and though, in every kind of machinery, simplicity tends to increase its value and beauty, yet in no instance, can we find, from so simple an arrangement, effects so striking, or which promise to be so extensively beneficial.” An extension of a railroad system, the report concluded, would impart energy to all kinds of business and produce circumstances that would improve the reputation of the state and of society in general. By the spring of 1827, people from around the nation were visiting the Quincy railroad, giving business to an inn and interfering substantially with the main business of the road in order to satisfy the demands of tourists. The little Quincy Railroad became an object of study for civil engineers and legislative committees thinking of more ambitious rail projects. The economic advantages were obvious. The railroad had made granite so inexpensive that in Boston a house could be built of that durable material more cheaply than with bricks, even when the bricks sold for as low as $4 per thousand.

The Mauch Chunk line drew more attention still, so much that one editor commented it had become a “place of notoriety” Pleasure cars made the round-trip once every day and were always booked in advance.” One passenger reported riding “in pleasure carriages, which have seats like sleighs, and precisely like the sleigh, but longer and without back and front, and have small iron wheels.” It seemed a pleasant way to travel, “not a jolt, jar, or movement, to the right or left.” Birds, cats, and cows flew for their lives before the train: “They must have thought the end of the world was at hand.”

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