How Rails Saved a Seaport

On June 1, 1881, the morning train from New York arrived in Baltimore on schedule at 2 P.M. Its most distinguished passenger, a large, heavy-set man in his early sixties, stared eagerly from the window of his private palace car as the train was broken up and shunted aboard the ferry steamer Canton for the trip across Baltimore Harbor to the B&O piers at Locust Point. The temperature was in the low eighties, the weather partly cloudy, and to the big man just returned from twelve months in Europe the city and its bustling harbor presented a cheering sight on this warm June day. The man was John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and one of Maryland’s leading citizens, and his native Baltimore had prepared a welcome for him.


As the Canton nosed into her wharf at Locust Point the guns in Fort McHenry, guarding the entrance to the inner harbor, boomed a salute. Mr. Garrett and his wife and daughter were met by his two sons, who boarded the presidential car for the short trip to the B&O’s main depot at Camden Station in the heart of town. Locomotives were flying the national flag in honor of the return of their chief, and a reception committee awaited his arrival at the depot. Official Baltimore was out in force, several hundred strong, to greet him, and everyone cheered, and the mayor made a speech about how glad they were to have him home. The president of the Baltimore & Ohio was unquestionably the man of the hour.

There was reason for this. Baltimoreans owed something to John W. Garrett, and they knew it. Many changes had taken place since Garrett’s accession to the B&O presidency in 1858. In the ensuing 23 years he had transformed the company from a 375-mile line connecting Baltimore with the Ohio River into a giant system touching Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, with branches tapping the most important agricultural and industrial areas between the Chesapeake and the Great Lakes. The Baltimore & Ohio had become the powerful instrument whereby the busy city on Chesapeake Bay could hold its own with the other great eastern ports—New York, Philadelphia, Boston—in their endless competition for the interior trade.

And with the expansion of the railroad came greater prosperity for Baltimore. Prosperity was trainload after trainload of western produce pounding eastward to market; prosperity was a harbor thronged with vessels waiting to transfer cargoes manufactured in Europe and the industrial Northeast to boxcars loading for interior points. This railroad was Baltimore’s leading commercial artery in an era of startling and unprecedented industrial expansion, capable of handling a respectable portion of the enormous volume of raw materials, foodstuffs, and manufactures that moved between the seaboard and the interior because of the way in which John W. Garrett had improved and modernized and enlarged the system. And Baltimore had prospered accordingly, and turned out to honor the man who had helped the port to keep pace with her rivals and share in the boom times that followed the Civil War.

It had all happened so fast. As Garrett spoke to the crowd in Camden Station, reminiscing about his early career, his mind took him back through the years to the Baltimore of Andrew Jackson’s day. In the 1830's young John and his brother Henry were learning the produce and commission business in their fathers countinghouse. Then, as on John’s triumphal return from Europe over forty years later, Baltimore thrust its wharves into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River at tidewater, and owed its prosperity to the commerce that passed through its warehouses on the way to market. Smoke from the steamboat and the factory chimney was hardly in evidence in the 1830’s, although bay steamers had already begun to ply between Baltimore and other ports on the Chesapeake, and small cotton textile factories were springing up here and there on the edge of town.

Smoke hung more heavily over Baltimore in 1881. The countless spars that bespoke coasting schooners from Boston or brigs from Havana or barks from Rio were still there, as John had seen them half a century before: but now they were sharing harbor space with black-funneled ocean steamers that tied up at Locust Point to fill their bunkers with Cumberland coal and their holds with western wheat for the markets in Liverpool or Bremen or Amsterdam. Factories were larger and more numerous, and much of the smoke came from the tall stacks of B&O switch engines constantly shunting their strings of freight cars on Locust Point. The city had grown, and the growth and the gathering smoke clouds were evidences of the industrial change that had transformed the nation since Garrett’s youth and destroyed forever Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a sturdy agrarian republic.