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Grolier Club Exhibitions

The Railroad Industry Grows Up

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Michel Chevalier.
Plate 1 from Histoire et Description des Voies de Communication aux États Unis et des Travaux d'art qui en Dépendent. 
Paris: C. Gosselin, 1840.

This plate shows the Allegheny Portage Railroad between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown, PA. This was part of the hybrid canal-rail system between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This system, along with other transportation developments caught the attention of Michel Chevalier, a French engineer who was advocating for similar improvements to transportation in France. Chevalier’s study of American Railroads was widely disseminated in France and helped promote civic and business investment in railroad technology.


Sarah Miriam Peale.
Matthias William Baldwin.
ca. 1850-1866.

Matthias Baldwin was a former jewelry maker who entered the locomotive business in 1831. His firm, Baldwin Locomotive Works, struggled in the 1840s but saw significant growth in the 1860s thanks to the Civil War and post-war railroad boom. By 1880, Baldwin was the dominant steam locomotive manufacturer in the nation, building over twice as many new engines as its closest competitor.

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Michigan Southern Railroad.
Circular Statement of the Condition and Prospects of the Michigan Southern Rail-road.
New York: Van Norden & Amerman, 1849.

This is a study of a moribund railroad. The Michigan Southern was chartered in 1830 and never was able to properly get started. After being dormant for years, outside investors saw the line and its valuable charter as a way to help build a continuous railroad between New York and Chicago. Buying up paper railroads like the Michigan Southern would become a common tactic of railroad tycoons as they built longer railroads across the country.

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James D. Reid.
The Telegraph in America: Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men. 
New York: Derby Brothers, 1879.

While printed decades after telegraphy was an established method of communication, this book celebrates the earliest pioneer of the technology, Samuel F. B. Morse. In 1840 Morse demonstrated the telegraph between Baltimore, MD, and Washington, DC, after securing permission of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to use their right of way for his wires. Despite the success of the demonstration, the railroads would wait for 10 years before adopting it for their own operations.

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Alfred Vail.
Description of the American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.
Washington, DC: J. & G.S. Gideon, 1845.

While Samuel Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraph was not quickly embraced by the railroads, the public found it fascinating. This work by Alfred Vail provides technical information and drawings showing the principles and mechanics of Morse’s invention.

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Mississippi and Pacific Railroad Company.
Mississippi and Pacific Rail Road: Circular Address to the People of the United States.
Memphis: Twyman & Tannehill, 1849.

After the war with Mexico, the pressure to build a transcontinental railroad increased. This pressure translated into a regional and municipal competition for the location of the route and its terminals. This circular from Memphis was one of many such reports published by railroad promoters in cities to try and drum up support for their city and region to gain access to this economic engine.

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Jesse Lynch Williams, Esq.
Experimental Survey and Report of Crooked Creek and Clifty routes to Madison, Ind. 
Indianapolis: John D. Defrees, 1848.

Where established inland ports like Memphis were trying to become part of the Transcontinental Railroad, other cities like Indianapolis had more modest goals. This report is an example of one of those more modest “feeder railroads.” The Madison and Indianapolis Railroad was created solely to help Indianapolis connect to the Ohio River and any railroads building to the West, thus preventing the city from being bypassed by trade and fading away.

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Henry S. Tanner. 
The American Traveller or, Tourists' and Emigrants' Guide Through the United States...
New York: T. R. Tanner, 1844.

Tanner’s American Traveller was one of the first travel guides for railroad travel in the United States. Tanner, himself an accomplished mapmaker who had produced travel guides for road and canal travelers, turned his attention to railroads in the 1840’s. The railroad network, particularly in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic, was sophisticated enough that guidebooks were needed to get between stations in various cities. 

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Asa Whitney. 
A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.
New York: G. W. Wood, 1849.

Merchant Asa Whitney saw the potential of a trans-continental railroad that would facilitate trade with Japan and China. He became a steadfast advocate for this project and tirelessly promoted it. In the late 1840’s Whitney distributed this pamphlet during lectures and visits to state legislatures to gather support for this project. Whitney’s efforts paved the way for the Pacific Railroad Surveys of the 1850’s and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860’s.

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François Marie Guyonneau de Pambour. 
A Practical Treatise on Locomotive Engines Upon Railways.
Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1840.

Guyonneau de Pambour was a French civil engineer who specialized in steam engines. This 1840 translation of an earlier work was a study of steam locomotives in England and his own research on the amount of work that a steam locomotive could do upon a railroad. His work, along with the work of other scientists and engineers would be used by American locomotive designers and engineers to help improve American steam locomotives to meet the unique needs of American railroads.

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George W. Whistler, Jr. 
Report Upon The use of Anthracite Coal in Locomotive Engines on the Reading Rail Road: Made to the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Rail Road Company.
Baltimore: J. D. Toy, 1849.

This study was borne out of economic necessity. Originally steam locomotives in the United States were wood fired. As the number of steam locomotives expanded, the price of wood increased. George Whistler’s report discusses the practicality of using coal from the mines served by the Reading Railroad. Other railroads began studies of their own and by the 1850’s many were converting to coal. Eventually, this fuel source would be ubiquitous on railroads.

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Spalding and B. F. Isherwood.
Description and Illustration of Spaulding & Isherwood's Plan of Cast Iron Rail and Superstructure, for Railroads.
New York: George F. Nesbitt, 1842.

Originally built using wood or stone for bridges and as a base for rail, railroads were either expensive to build or constantly under repair. Something new was needed to affordably build railroad track. This publication, originally from the UK, shows the benefits of using the new technology of cast iron in construction. Soon after this booklet appeared, railroads in the US also began using cast iron and changed the way railroads would be built in America.

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A Citizen of Burlington.
Beauties of the Monopoly System of New Jersey.
Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1848.

Despite general enthusiasm for railroads, some people were dissatisfied. This publication, a compilation of letters from a citizen to a New Jersey Newspaper, details the abuse of the transportation monopoly granted to the Camden and Amboy Railroad and the poor returns the company was providing to its shareholders. In fact, this complaint was becoming more widespread as government investors saw the actual financial returns were far less than promised in the 1830’s.

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New York Common Council. 
Report of the Joint Special Committee on the Communication from His Honor the Mayor, Relative to the New York and Albany Rail Road. 
New York: Bryant and Boggs, 1840.

New York was benefiting from the transportation of goods to and from the Erie Canal and later Mohawk and Hudson Railroad via the Hudson River, but soon competition from seaports with direct rail access forced the city’s hand. This document is an 1840 report on the city’s need to support this project to help maintain its status as the major commercial port of the United States.

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New York State Assembly. 
Report of the Committee on Rail-roads on a communication from the president of the New-York and Erie Rail-Road Company, asking an investigation of the affairs of that company. 
Albany: Thurlow Weed, 1841.

New York State invested in a railroad across the “Southern Tier” to link New York and Buffalo. However, the company was soon the subject of scandal. This report from the state was the first of many investigations into the New York and Erie in the 19th Century. While the report did not find anything amiss, it was widely known the things were not right with the company.