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Excerpt from Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World

Construction started in 1828 with a ceremony that suggested the importance of the Baltimore & Ohio as a national event. With typical American exuberance, the first sod of earth was turned with a silver spade by the only surviving signatory of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the ninety-year-old Charles Carroll, who, at the ceremony, said: “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing of the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that.” Given the role of the railways in uniting the United States of America and creating a nation out of separate states spread over a distance from east to west of nearly 3,000 miles, his statement was prescient indeed.

Initially, just as in Britain, in the United States there was a debate about what form of traction to use. Peter Cooper, an industrialist and inventor from New York, had invested heavily in land in Baltimore and was keen to ensure the success of the railway, which he realized could only be guaranteed with the use of steam locomotives. Cooper, who also later patented gelatin, the principal ingredient of Jell-O, built an engine called Tom Thumb. As the name suggests, it was a relatively small locomotive, described by an onlooker as having a boiler “not as large as the kitchen boiler attached to many a modern mansion.” Nevertheless, on a test run along the first 13 miles of track, it reached an exhilarating 18 miles per hour, impressing the assorted investors and VIPs who had come along for the ride.

On the way back, Cooper exceeded himself and agreed to race his locomotive against a horse to prove that it was superior. The powerful gray horse was initially in the lead, thanks to its faster acceleration, but once the locative engine gained purchase on the track and its safety valve opened up to supply extra power, Tom Thumb glided past the galloping steed. Cooper’s machine was a quarter of a mile ahead when disaster struck. Just as the horse’s rider was ready to give up, the belt that drove the pulley on the locomotive snapped and the engine gradually eased to a halt. Cooper struggled to replace the belt, and he did manage to finish the course, but with his hands lacerated by burns caused by the heat of the engine, he was by then hopelessly behind.

The equine victory, though, proved pyrrhic. The investors had been sufficiently impressed with the performance of the little engine to realize that using steam haulage, rather than horse power, was the only way to make the line viable. Although some horse traction was used early on, locomotives were dominant, and by the time the line was extended westward, they were used exclusively.

From the book Blood, Iron, and Gold by Christian Wolmar. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010

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