When Our Ancestors Became Us


The early trains were not comfortable in the least. In the summer they were extremely hot, and sparks from the wood-burning engines were a constant menace. Returning from a trip to Montauk, George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer and, like Philip Hone, the keeper of a remarkable diary, cursed the Long Island Railroad, as would countless millions after him: “Long detention, rain, smoke, dust, cinders, headache again, all sorts of botheration—home at half-past nine and went straight to bed doubting whether I should ever enjoy the blessing of a clean face again....” Matters were no better in winter, when Strong complained that the cars “with their sloppy floors, red-hot stoves, and currents of chill air from opened doors and windows, are perilous traps for colds and inflammations.”

The first coaches were linked together by nothing more complicated than lengths of chain, and the locomotive engineers delighted in trying to topple the stovepipe hats of the male passengers as the cars jerked suddenly into motion one by one. Indeed, much of what seems, to us, intrinsic to railroads was developed only later in the century. An adequate signaling system had to await the invention of telegraph signaling in 1851. Even the train whistle—that haunting, now nearly forgotten leitmotif of the steam age—did not appear before 1837.

But if the railroads were not comfortable, they were immensely practical from the very start. Until the coming of the railroad many people in the vast and undeveloped United States lived a week, even two weeks away from a major city. For people of modest means a visit to a big city might well be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even the affluent were often trapped by walls of time and distance. In the early 1830s what became the Erie Railway was being considered for “the sequestered counties” of New York State. Philip Church, a nephew of Alexander Hamilton who had attended Eton and owned more than a hundred thousand acres of the Genesee Valley, was pushing hard for the railroad but had to make an extended, season-long trip to New York City to do it.

His daughter-in-law wrote to her father that “Mr. Church goes to New York for the winter, endeavoring to make interest for the railroad, which is now a topic of much feeling throughout the country. If they get it, it will be indeed annihilating all time and space. They talk most seriously of being able to go from Buffalo to New York in twenty-four hours. You may smile at this, but I assure you, it’s all true.”

Because railroads could carry passengers cheaply and quickly, they created traffic where none or little had existed earlier. In 1829 few people not elected to the Presidency could have undertaken a trip such as Jackson’s. A generation later such a journey was a simple matter of perhaps three days, and people exploited the new mobility to the fullest. The Charleston and Hamburg Railroad in South Carolina began operations in 1830. One of the first in the country, it was on its completion the longest railroad in the world under one management, at 136 miles, and it almost immediately revolutionized travel patterns in the area. Travelers between the two South Carolina cities had previously relied on one stagecoach making three trips a week. Only five years later the railroad conveyed 15,959 passengers in six months, a fiftyfold increase.

Railroads quickly transformed the areas they reached, for they brought not only a great increase in personal mobility but also an equally vast increase in freight traffic. And it was the products of the Industrial Revolution that, more and more, were carried in their freight cars. As railroads widened the potential markets for factory goods, they helped lower the price of those goods, and that, of course, further stimulated demand.

As the railroads reached distant areas that had formerly been too remote to compete, older areas of the country often had to undergo wrenching economic readjustments. Once the railroads had connected the fertile fields of the Middle West with the Eastern seaboard, agriculture in the stony soil of New England became far less profitable. Many New England farmers migrated westward, and others gravitated to the textile mills that were springing up along New England’s swift-flowing rivers. The great diaspora of rural New Englanders caused by agricultural decline and the influx of immigrants to the cities and new factories deeply disturbed the conservative, ethnically homogeneous society that had existed secure for two hundred years. It is no coincidence mat the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the oldest such organization in the country, was founded in 1845. It came into existence to keep alive the memories of the good old days of a vanishing New England.


Railroads also created markets where none had existed before. Until quick transport was available, fresh milk from rural areas could not be carried to the fast-growing cities. The rich could keep a cow or two in their stables or buy milk from nearby farmers who catered to the carriage trade. Less affluent city folk had to make do with what was called swill milk. Breweries kept herds of cows that were fed the mash after it had been fermented (and thus most of its nutrients extracted). The milk of these poor creatures was thin, bluish, and often contaminated with brucellosis and tuberculosis. The stench of overcrowded cow barns was often detectable half a mile away.