Although train travel was hardly new around Civil War times, it had steadily evolved from the early railroads of the 1820s. Passenger comfort was improving as well. Early on, tiny engines such as the DeWitt Clinton, built in 1831 for the seventeen-mile Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, were used in trains designed with open passenger cars resembling stagecoaches, set just behind the engine. It couldn't have been exciting. Terrifying maybe, but hardly enjoyable to the riders, as they were bathed in black smoke and menaced by the smokestack's sparks!
These early trains couldn't go the distance, and with railroad expansion, life got better. The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad opened in 1830, and the Pennsylvania Railroad connected Pittsburgh with the Atlantic coast. Later engines distributed the weight via several sets of wheels, were made to round the bends, and incorporated the boiler into the body of the engine. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and it continued to be the predominant means of transcontinental travel until well after World War II.
New Means of Power Emerge
Electric traction was introduced in 1895 for short stretches of railroad track, especially in urban areas when tunnels were involved. This electrification, which eliminated smoke and steam, was precipitated by a serious accident in New York City when a tunnel filled with smoke. Soon, trains passed under Park Avenue to enter Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, in compliance with a state law discontinuing the use of combustion engines within New York City.
With diesel-electric, electric, and turbine-powered trains replacing steam engines, only a few of the earlier trains survive today, mostly for display or nostalgia rides. Indeed, it turned out that electric trains could accelerate and meet schedules far better than their predecessors.
The stagecoach was also a viable means of transportation in the West. The early railroads could only go so far. Manufactured in the quiet New England town of Concord, New Hampshire, the world-renowned Concord Coach became a symbol of the Wild West in the period following the Civil War. A durable coach, it could withstand harsh jolts on rutted roads, making it ideal for the wilderness.
Wells, Fargo and Co., founded in 1852 to provide mail and banking services for the California gold camps, used these stagecoaches as the fastest means of transportation for that part of the country. In 1861 you could buy a rail and stagecoach ticket, and barring any storms, floods, attacks by Native Americans, holdups, or breakdowns, you might make it coast to coast in twenty-six days!
Transportation, Business, and Politics
Inventions such as the automatic coupler and the airbrake (invented by George Westinghouse) improved safety each decade. In the 1880s, Westinghouse pursued his interest in rail safety, and at the age of thirty-four founded Union Switch & Signal Company in Pittsburgh. Within two years, his company was selling complete systems for switching trains from track to track and indicating the position of every train.
John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant and civil engineer, left his mark in Pittsburgh and New York with his wire rope used to build suspension bridges. In 1857, Roebling designed and began construction of the Brooklyn Bridge joining Manhattan with Brooklyn over the East River. Thousands celebrated its opening on May 24, 1883.
One of the most important strides came when George Pullman built a remarkable new railcar in 1864. These cars, given the name “Pullman cars,” had sliding seats, upper berths, and comfortable heating. In addition, Fred Harvey, a Kansas restaurateur, introduced meals to the railroad. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to break up a strike by railroad workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago because the strike over pay cuts interfered with mail delivery.
As the train phenomenon grew, presidential campaigns adopted whistle-stop tours, in which the candidate would speak from the train's rear platform. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a specially built railcar with armor-plated sides and three-inch-thick bulletproof windows.