Oldest railroads in North America

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This Gilded Age train station sits at the summit terminus of what was arguably the most important nine miles of railroad in the United States in the 1830s: the Mauch Chunk & Summit Hill Railroad, later the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway. The Victorian building replaced the original offices, one of the first train stations to host travelers. The first documented passenger traffic arrived in the later half of 1827 when the area and down to Mauch Chunk was billed as "The Switzerland of America"; regular passenger trains brought urban tourists from 1829 until early 1932.

This is a list of the earliest railroads in North America, including various railroad-like precursors to the general modern form of a company or government agency operating locomotive-drawn trains on metal tracks.

Railroad-like entities (1700s–1810s)[edit]

  • 1720: A railroad is reportedly used in the construction of the French fortress at Louisburg, Nova Scotia.[1]
  • 1764: Between 1762 and 1764, at the close of the French and Indian War, a gravity railroad (mechanized tramway) (Montresor's Tramway) is built by British military engineers up the steep riverside terrain near the Niagara River waterfall's escarpment at the Niagara Portage (which the local Senecas called "Crawl on All Fours.") in Lewiston, New York.[2] Before the British conquest, under French control the portage had employed nearly 200 Seneca porters. However, once the British took control of the area, they installed a cable railway using sledges (heavy sleds without wheels) to hold the track between the rails. The sleds were capable of carrying 12 to 14 barrels at a time (a serious weight capacity even if only small shoulder-hoistable/mule-compatible keg-sized barrels, taken along with its longevity) indicating that it was a funicular design with two tracks. With barrels as the primary Up load's configuration and they also provided a ready-made counterweight with addition of sufficient Niagara River water as the likely mass used to adjust the lifting force. Designed by Captain John Montresor, the new railway replaced manual labor performed by the Seneca and touched off what might be the first labor rebellion in North America when the Seneca became unemployed; in September 1763, the Senecas revolted and killed many British soldiers and workers in what is called the Devil's Hole Massacre. The tramway was in use until the early 1800s[3]
  • 1799–1805:[a] Boston developers begin to reduce the height of Mount Vernon before building streets and homes. Silas Whitney constructs a gravity railroad to move excavated material down the hill to fill marshy areas to create new land from the Back Bay.[4] Frederick C. Gamst, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, believes this to be the same railroad equipment as used by Bulfinch on his Beacon Hill railway, given the relations of both men to the land speculation syndicate.[5]
  • 1811: George Magers designs and builds a one-mile (1.6 km) wooden gravity railroad between a gunpowder mill and its powder storage bunker at Falling's Creek, Virginia.[6]
  • 1815: New Jersey grants a charter on February 6, 1815, for a company to "erect a rail-road from the river Delaware near Trenton, to the river Raritan, at or near New Brunswick"—that is to connect the waterports so boats could ferry riders the last distance connecting Philadelphia & Trenton to (19th-century) New York City and Brooklyn & Queens on Long Island via New York Harbor, as proposed by inventor and railway builder John Stevens (1749–1838). This New Jersey Railroad Company is the first passenger carrier railroad chartered in the United States, but fails to attract investors and is never built. Its rights would be passed to the Camden and Amboy Railroad (below) chartered in 1830 also having Stevens as president.
  • 1816: A railroad is reportedly used at Kiskiminetas Creek, Pennsylvania.[7]
  • 1818: An iron-smelting furnace at Bear Creek, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, reportedly has a wooden railroad in operation.[7]

Early railroad companies (1820s–1830s)[edit]

Granite, coal and cotton railroads
Historical Marker of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, incorporated in 1826 and opened in 1831.
U.S. railroads in 1835.

Early common carriers (1820s–1830s)[edit]

While private railroads are legally free to choose their jobs and customers, common carriers must charge fair rates to all comers.

Any effort to arrange early common-carrier railroads in chronological order must choose among various possible criterion dates, including applying for a state charter, receiving a charter, forming a company to build a railroad, beginning construction, opening operations, and so forth.

Name Chartered State Opened Notes
Union Canal Company of Pennsylvania March 3, 1826 Pennsylvania 1830 Chartered on May 30, 1811 to build a canal; authorized to build a railroad on March 3, 1826
Granite Railway March 4, 1826 Massachusetts October 7, 1826 Only authorized to carry freight until April 16, 1846
Delaware and Hudson Canal Company April 5, 1826 Pennsylvania October 9, 1829 Chartered on March 13, 1823 to build a canal; authorized to build a railroad on April 5, 1826
Danville and Pottsville Railroad April 8, 1826 Pennsylvania September 24, 1834
Mohawk and Hudson Railroad April 17, 1826 New York September 24, 1831 Carried only passengers for first few years of operation due to competition from the adjacent Erie Canal.
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad February 28, 1827 Maryland January 7, 1830 First common carrier in America, chartered from its inception to haul freight and passengers on timetabled trains over vast distances with steam power, first to open for public service
South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company December 19, 1827 South Carolina December 1830 Operated first steam hauled passenger train in America on a schedule. Known to the public as the Charleston & Hamburg Railroad.
Ithaca and Owego Railroad January 28, 1828 New York April 1, 1834
Mill Creek and Mine Hill Navigation and Railroad Company February 7, 1828 Pennsylvania November 3, 1829
Tioga Navigation Company February 7, 1828 Pennsylvania 1839 Chartered on February 20, 1826 to build a canal or slack-water navigation; authorized to build a railroad on February 7, 1828
Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad February 13, 1828 Maryland July 4, 1831
Chesterfield Railroad February 27, 1828 Virginia July 1831
New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Railroad Company March 14, 1828 Maryland February 28, 1832 Chartered on January 6, 1810 as the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike Company to build a turnpike; renamed and authorized to build a railroad on March 14, 1828
Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad March 24, 1828 Pennsylvania October 18, 1832 Part of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works
Schuylkill Valley Navigation Company April 14, 1828 Pennsylvania 1830 Chartered on March 20, 1827 to build a canal; authorized to build a railroad on April 14, 1828; renamed Schuylkill Valley Navigation and Railroad Company on January 15, 1829
Schuylkill East Branch Navigation Company April 14, 1828 Pennsylvania November 18, 1831 Chartered on February 20, 1826 to build a lock navigation; authorized to build a railroad on April 14, 1828; renamed Little Schuylkill Navigation, Railroad and Coal Company on April 23, 1829
Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven Railroad April 15, 1829 Pennsylvania April 1831
Northern Liberties and Penn Township Railroad April 23, 1829 Pennsylvania April 1834
Mount Carbon Railroad July 15, 1829 Pennsylvania 1831
Tuscumbia Railway January 15, 1830 Alabama June 12, 1832
Pontchartrain Railroad January 20, 1830 Louisiana April 23, 1831
Lexington and Ohio Railroad January 27, 1830 Kentucky August 15, 1832
Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company February 4, 1830 New Jersey October 1, 1832
Petersburg Railroad February 10, 1830 Virginia October 1832
Lykens Valley Railroad and Coal Company April 7, 1830 Pennsylvania April 1834
Beaver Meadow Railroad and Coal Company April 7, 1830 Pennsylvania November 5, 1836
Canajoharie and Catskill Railroad April 19, 1830 New York 1839
Boston and Lowell Railroad June 5, 1830 Massachusetts June 24, 1835
Petersburg Railroad January 1, 1831 North Carolina 1833
Paterson and Hudson River Railroad January 31, 1831 New Jersey 1834
Elizabethtown and Somerville Railroad February 9, 1831 New Jersey August 13, 1836
Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad February 16, 1831 New York July 12, 1832
West Chester Railroad February 18, 1831 Pennsylvania October 1, 1832
West Feliciana Railroad March 5, 1831 Louisiana January 1835
Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad March 21, 1831 Pennsylvania March 18, 1834 Part of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works
Southwark Railroad April 2, 1831 Pennsylvania 1835
Cumberland Valley Railroad April 2, 1831 Pennsylvania August 16, 1837
Philadelphia and Delaware County Railroad April 2, 1831 Pennsylvania January 17, 1838 Renamed Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad on March 14, 1836
Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad April 5, 1831 Pennsylvania June 6, 1832 First common carrier in Pennsylvania. Earlier railroads were operated to haul minerals like coal and iron, but later in the decade would become modern common carrier systems hauling passengers and public goods.
Winchester and Potomac Railroad April 8, 1831 Virginia (now partially West Virginia) March 1836
New York and Harlem Railroad April 25, 1831 New York November 26, 1832
Boston and Providence Railroad July 22, 1831 Massachusetts July 28, 1835
Boston and Worcester Railroad June 23, 1831 Massachusetts April 16, 1834
Clinton and Vicksburg Railroad December 19, 1831 Mississippi 1838 Reorganized as the Commercial and Railroad Bank of Vicksburg on December 25, 1833
Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad January 5, 1832 Ohio 1838
Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad January 13, 1832 Alabama August 20, 1833
Wilmington and Susquehanna Railroad January 18, 1832 Delaware July 14, 1837
Lawrenceburg and Indianapolis Railroad February 2, 1832 Indiana July 4, 1834
Ohio and Indianapolis Railroad February 3, 1832 Indiana 1851 Renamed Jeffersonville Railroad on February 3, 1849
Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad February 23, 1832 Pennsylvania November 14, 1833
Baltimore and Port Deposit Railroad March 5, 1832 Maryland July 6, 1837
New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company March 7, 1832 New Jersey September 15, 1834
Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad March 8, 1832 Virginia July 27, 1834
New Jersey, Hudson and Delaware Railroad March 8, 1832 New Jersey 1872 Merged into the New Jersey Midland Railway on April 26, 1870
Franklin Railroad March 12, 1832 Pennsylvania September 10, 1839
Delaware and Maryland Railroad March 14, 1832 Maryland July 14, 1837 Merged into the Wilmington and Susquehanna Railroad on April 18, 1836
York and Maryland Line Railroad March 14, 1832 Pennsylvania August 23, 1838
Liggett's Gap Railroad April 7, 1832 Pennsylvania October 20, 1851 Renamed Lackawanna and Western Railroad on April 14, 1851
Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad April 14, 1832 New York April 19, 1836
Saratoga and Fort Edward Railroad April 17, 1832 New York October 15, 1848 Reorganized as the Saratoga and Washington Railroad on May 2, 1834
New York and Albany Railroad April 17, 1832 New York December 31, 1848 Sold to the New York and Harlem Railroad on March 9, 1846
Watertown and Rome Railroad April 17, 1832 New York October 1849
Tonawanda Railroad April 24, 1832 New York May 1837
New York and Erie Railroad April 24, 1832 New York September 23, 1841
Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad April 25, 1832 New York April 18, 1836 Leased by the Long Island Rail Road from opening
Hudson and Berkshire Railroad April 26, 1832 New York September 26, 1838
Boston, Norwich and New London Railroad May 1, 1832 Connecticut 1840 Merged into the Norwich and Worcester Railroad on June 22, 1836
New York and Stonington Railroad May 14, 1832 Connecticut November 17, 1837 Merged into the New York, Providence and Boston Railroad on July 1, 1833
Portsmouth and Lancaster Railroad June 9, 1832 Pennsylvania September 16, 1836 Renamed Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mountjoy and Lancaster Railroad on March 11, 1835
Williamsport and Elmira Railroad June 9, 1832 Pennsylvania January 12, 1837
Strasburg Rail Road June 9, 1832 Pennsylvania 1837 Still in operation as a shortline freight hauler and tourist railroad. Recognized as the oldest, continuously operating railroad in the United States as it still operates under its original 1832 charter.
New York, Providence and Boston Railroad June 23, 1832 Rhode Island November 17, 1837
Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad June 29, 1832 Michigan February 3, 1838 Sold to the Central Railroad of Michigan on April 22, 1837
New Orleans & Carrollton Rail-Road in 1835

Selected railroads chartered since 1832:

Tunnels and bridges[edit]

The expanded Park Avenue Tunnel in 1941

West of the Mississippi River[edit]


Before we can list railroads, we must understand what consisted a railway as an emerging technology. Understanding today's mature industry technology cannot suffice to see the past in its proper context clearly; to appreciate the explosive progress, one almost need join a track gang as a 'gandy dancer' and 'lay-hold heave' within a team replacing a cracked rail or two.

A skewed perspective can only be achieved were a party to only consider railroads famous for passenger traffic as of importance. By and large, for operations management, carriage of passengers was by far, most often, a minor concern relative to the planning for actual business revenues of a railway creating profits for owners. Nearly every business depended on large multiples that return a modest regular return rather than a competitive edge such a monopoly situation.

Only by understanding that there was the influence of the press on the writing of history, and the widely held snobbery-induced belief that the keeping of such well traveled managers experiences happy-faced with the brand's passenger system would strongly influence his purchasing and decision making – resulting thus also in his scheduling of his company's freight on the freight carrier side together with wide-ranging campaigns that promoted passenger services onto a pedestal can we counteract the false romantic influences of decades of railway advertising campaigns. Early passenger accommodations were spartan, and then only slowly improved as most lines were de facto monopolies locally and could do whatever riders would put up with. Accordingly, general passenger services only slowly became uniform, what we'd consider to be coach class, and the great famous runs of named passenger expresses were comfortably in the future as railroads entered their middle years. Such catering to luxury travelers would occur, but only in response to feeling a competitive pinch, or to assert one. They did not rule on most trunk, much less branch lines, nor for normal inter-city travelers, but were marketed and aimed at the well to do. No doubt the luxury traveler paid his own way, but they also demanded vast increases in additional train crew and station staff to act as cooks, cleaners, bartenders, stewards, janitors, porters, not to mention expensive car maintenance costs, and the need for mail room staff to walk and feed pets.

Together these behaviors and the in-your-face presence bent and magnified the importance in economics and historically those services often generating only marginal profits into an importance and a larger piece of the railroad's revenue streams than is warranted. An important distinction here is made between the sometimes risky peaks and valleys suffered by hosting and advertising a premiere long haul passenger service and that of making a predictable steady revenue stream from reliable everyday commuter operations, the later of which were oft backstopped by freight revenues along the daily runs of mixed trains. Many a branch line and shortline stayed in business because of a mail contract. When such contracts were transferred to Airlines, the passenger services required of Class I & Class II Railroads by 1900–1920s anti-trust legislation gradually dragged most of the American rail industry into bankruptcy, resulting in bailouts and the advent of Conrail in the 1960s.

Technology Historian Frederick C. Gamst[30] writes in 2014 in "The Transfer of Pioneering British Railroad Technology to North America":[30]

What Is a Railroad?
Sometimes an old line of rails is dismissed in an unreflective manner as not being a railroad, and is, then, labeled 'only a tramway'. Accordingly, any discussion of railroad genesis must first reflect on the underlying question: What is a railroad? Using a core definition grounded in my research on present-day technological forms and functions, a railroad can be defined as an overland right-of-way bearing self-guided vehicles, which obtain support and guidance from wheels on rails. The guide way, or fixed path, consists of paired rails. These are elevated out of much of any debris strewn upon the way and the results of inclement weather. Self-guidance is accomplished by a flange, either on the vehicular wheels or supporting rails, usually the former. A hard wheel tread on a hard rail surface offers less friction and resistance than in ordinary vehicles on common roads. Not germane to the functional definition of a particular line of rails, and hence to questions of its classification as a railroad, are: the source of motive power, kind of material for rails and supporting ties (sleepers), varieties of things transported, or classification under law as a private or public carrier. From their modern English beginnings about 1600, all railroads are on one evolutionary continuum. Neither technological nor operational discontinuities exist regarding the devices and structures found on the steadily developing railroads.

— Frederick C. Gamst, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum[30]

This definition is minimal and purely functional. Prestige concerns do not make up any of its criteria. Accordingly, many an industrial project, some ephemeral and temporary had used and built railways that are not widely remembered or known by their important influence and effects in early times and which often extend through today. The list of railways here meet that test and more. They are largely and mostly chartered as common carrier enterprises, if chartered (at all) by a legislature after the early days. If wholly on private lands, they need not be chartered at all in many states, and would not be common carriers, but nowadays, even private ones are subject to some oversight—by the local building inspectorate and land regulators and the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Bureau of Mines, et cetera. No large business skates past some oversight in today's regulated business climate.

As today, in their formative years, most North American railways were and are in use to overcome the costs of transporting freight from place to place, especially bulk goods such as grains, ores, coal, gravels, and other raw materials such as those fabricated in processes such as steel, aluminum, concrete, etc. or are just bulky and unwieldy such as steel bridge girders, trusses, or timber (and better behaved lumber). Ironically, these are the same products (excepting steel goods) which the brief American Canal Age carried enabling the existence of the industries of necessary scale to be able to build a railroads many components. Without such service, much of the interior would be unproductively stranded without means of getting products in or out to markets. With the advent of the adolescence of the Iron Horse's technologies in the 1850s, the interior of North America away from navigable streams could be and has been settled and exploited.

In 1840, there were 2,800 miles (4,500 km) of usable railroad track in the United States. Two decades later, the mileage had grown to more than 30,000 miles (48,000 km).[31]


  1. ^ Ganst's: No.- 02

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brown, Robert R. (October 1949). Canada's Earliest Railway Lines. Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin #78.
  2. ^ Text online of placement commemorating historic railroad., accessdate=2017-03-01
  3. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-26. Retrieved 2010-03-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Whitehill, Walter Muir (1959). Boston - A Topographical History. Harvard University Press. p. 62.
  5. ^ Gamst, Frederick C.; The Transfer of Pioneering British Railroad Technology to North America, Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum; "First, in 1795 on Boston's Beacon Hill, a wooden railway of about a two-foot gauge in the form of a double-track inclined plane took earth removed from the top of the hill to its base. This excavation prepared a level area for the new State House of 1798, designed by the architect and construction engineer Charles Bulfinch."
  6. ^ Dunbar. quoting Thomas McKibben of Baltimore in the American Engineer, 1886. pp. 878–9.
  7. ^ a b Dunbar. p. 880. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 85 [1]
  9. ^ American Railroading Began Here cited 15 October 2009.
  10. ^ Heydinger, Earl J. (1964). "Railroads of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company: GROUP IX". Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin. Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. 110 (110): 59–62. JSTOR 43518101. THE MAUCH CHUNK RAILROAD: Pennsylvania's first railroad and first anthracite carrier opened on Saturday, May 5th, 1827, when seven cars of coal passed from the Summit Hill mines of the L. C. & N. Company to their canal at Mauch Chunk, descending 936 feet in the nine-mile trip. Sixteen-year-old Solomon White Roberts, later a noted railroad engineer, who had helped his uncle, Josiah White, build the railroad, rode the first delivery of coal by rail. Loaded cars made the trip in a half-hour; mules returned three or four empties over the same route in three to four hours. Evidently the line had only seven (or twenty-one) coal cars at the opening, as that number brought coal to the canal on the following Monday and Tuesday also. These three days' deliveries, twenty-one cars, deposited nearly a thousand tons of anthracite into a chute over the canal boat landing. Loaded cars descending drew empties from the bottom of this chute on a self-acting plane. Built in a period of four months, on a turnpike previously used for coal wagons, the line, 12-1/2, miles with sidings, cost $38,726. Ties were on four-foot centers; strap rail was ⅜" x 1½".
  11. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), pages 415,537 [2]
  12. ^ Heydinger, pp. Pages 59 - 62.
  13. ^ Fred Brenckman, Official Commonwealth Historian (1884). History of Carbon County Pennsylvania (2nd 627 pages ed.).
  14. ^ Brenckman.
  15. ^ Bartholomew, Ann M.; Metz, Lance E.; Kneis, Michael (1989). DELAWARE and LEHIGH CANALS, 158 pages (First ed.). Oak Printing Company, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Center for Canal History and Technology, Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museum, Inc., Easton, Pennsylvania. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0930973097. LCCN 89-25150.
  16. ^ Bartholomew makes the point this "monotonically even descent grade" over such a length was an engineering first, not only in North America, but also in European road construction of any kind.
  17. ^ a b Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 415 [3]
  18. ^ in The Transfer of Pioneering British Railroad Technology to North America by Frederick C. Gamst, University of Massachusetts, Boston [4]
  19. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 459 [5]
  20. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 501 [6]
  21. ^ Welcome to Tuscumbia, Alabama - You Should See Us Now!! Archived 2009-12-23 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 462 [7]
  23. ^ Railroads and Canals of the United States of America by Henry V. Poor (New York: John H. Schultz & Co, 1860), page 460 [8]
  24. ^ a b Development of Early Transportation Systems in the United States by J.L. Ringwalt (Philadelphia: Railway World Office, 1888), (RAILWAY CONSTRUCTION FROM 1830 TO 1840)[9]
  25. ^ ExplorePAHistory.com Historical Marker Allegheny Portage Railroad
  26. ^ ExplorePAHistory.com Historical Marker Service began on wooden rails.
  27. ^ Lansford-Hauto tunnel called an engineering marvel, accessdate=2017-0301
  28. ^ Facebook image of legal notice of sale
  29. ^ Red River Railroad
  30. ^ a b c Frederick C. Gamst, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 2014 The Transfer of Pioneering British Railroad Technology to North America, paper for the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum on the history of early North American Railroads and their development.
  31. ^ "Chronology of Railroading in America" (PDF). Association of American Railroads. Retrieved 20 September 2017.

External links[edit]

Specific railroads[edit]