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Birth of the Railroads
Trains - How It All Began

If I could step into Doctor Wonmug's time machine, I think I'd like to step out and learn Surveying and mapping in the frontier days and be part of the planning of the great railroads.

Moving people and goods across this huge continent by lakes, rivers and wagon trails until the early 1800s just didn't get the job done. Well, it did but if your dog had pups as you were leaving New York, they'd likely be full grown by the time you saw the Pacific Ocean.

Highlander Train - Photo by Wilfred Kitson taken in Haliburton, Ontario

Photo by Wilfred Kitson
taken in Haliburton, Ontario

The birth of the railroads as a concept takes us back to 17th century England when rails were first laid down to reduce friction in moving heavily loaded wagons which would otherwise cut deep ruts. They called them "gravity roads" and they made their American appearance in 1764 for military purposes at the Niagara portage in Lewistown New York, built by Captain John Montressor, a British engineer and mapmaker.

In 1809, Thomas Leiper, a wealthy Philadelphia tobacconist and friend of Thomas Jefferson, helped Reading Howell, also an engineer and mapmaker, construct the first practical wooden tracks for a tramroad. Little did they realize then that they were laying the groundwork for the great railroads.

The first railroad cars were pulled by horses or mules but then John Stevens, often considered the father of American railroads, demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular experimental track in Hoboken N.J. in 1826.

The great B & O Railroad opened 14 miles of tracks to horse drawn vehicles in 1830 and placed an American built locomotive into service the following year.

Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, dreamed of a Transcontinental Railroad and petitioned Congress for a charter in 1846.

To cover the history of American railroads in a short article is out of the question but there is a great web site to visit. History of Railroads and Maps

Railroads soon became a hot subject worldwide and Canada was no exception where a number of railroads were constructed. In 1871, Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A McDonald promised British Columbia a railroad across the rugged North West to the Pacific coast. Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie called the promise "an act of insane recklessness."

A country of only three million people pledged to build the greatest of all railways, almost a thousand miles longer than the first American railroad to the Pacific which the United States, with a population of almost forty million, had just completed.

On June 1st, 1875, the first sod was turned on the bank of the Kaministiquia River near its mouth on Thunder Bay, Lake Superior to officially begin construction. On February 15, 1881, the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway finally received royal assent and the last spike was hammered home on November 6, 1885.

Randolph Scott starred in the 1949 Twentieth Century-Fox film "Canadian Pacific" which immortalized the building of the CPR. (This Canadian RR history gathered from the wonderful books by Pierre Burton, "The National Dream" and "The Last Spike." Treasured birthday gifts from my parents in 1972.

Obviously, the railroads had to be inspected and maintained constantly and so came the "Hand Cars" and "Velocipedes."


Velocipede: provided by Art Clowes of the CRHA Museum of New Brunswick Railways (www.shrr.ca)

Both were propelled by a hand pumping action. The handcars carried a small crew while the velocipedes were designed for one or two people.

And, how about snow removal? Snowdrifts several feet high are not unusual in certain areas.

Not to worry, take a look at the snow machine in this photo with tender and flanger. The flanger/Caboose clears the snow between the tracks down to the flanges.

railroad train snow removal

Floyd Hall photo

Of all the train buffs in the world, none have taken a greater interest in the old trains than Ernest "Mooney" Warther, Master Carver, 1885 - 1973.

He left school after the 2nd grade to earn money to help his poverty stricken and widowed mother keep the family afloat. He began to whittle while tending neighbors' cattle and went on to carve locomotives and entire trains.

His works of art depict the evolution of the steam engine in sixty-four carvings from Hero's engine of 250 BC to the Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive of 1941.

The Smithsonian called his collection a "priceless work of art" and it's all on display along with his original workshop and tools at the Warther Museum in Dover Ohio.

Regular tours are provided by the Warther family. You can also visit their website

Warther carving of the New York Central

This Warther carving of the New York Central consists of 7,332 pieces
carved from ebony and ivory.

My favorite train song you ask? "The Last Ride" by Hank Snow. The story of a hobo keeping his promise to take his pal back home (in a boxcar) to be buried with his kin.

My thanks to Mr. R.L. Kennedy, a human encyclopedia on railroad history.

Visit www.trainweb.org/oldtimetrains.

Other great sites: www.cpr.ca and www.whippanyrailwaymuseum.net

Ron Kitson

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