On February 28, 1827, Chapter 123 of the 1826 Session Laws of Maryland passed a law enabling the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to be chartered as the first U.S. railway for commercial transport of passengers and freight. In addition, it was the first intercity railroad in the United States. Stakeholders in the B&O had hoped Baltimore, which was the second-largest U.S. city at the time, would successfully compete with New York for western trade.

In the Maryland law, Chapter 123 of the 1826 Session Laws proposed that the capital of the company be fixed with a $3 million dollar issue of stock in shares of $100 dollars each. Stock was also available to individual subscribers, which meant that almost every citizen of Baltimore owned a share by the time of construction. Construction began on July 4, 1828 when Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, did the groundbreaking.

It was not until May 24, 1830 when the first line of track opened. The track was a thirteen-mile stretch that followed the upper Patapsco and Monocacy rivers to the Potomac, ending in Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland. While it was not a long stretch by today’s standards, the track caused a lot of excitement due to the expedited travel times. However, the B&O still had skeptics because the steep, winding grades of the route were, at times, too hard for the horse-drawn coaches and wagons to handle. It wasn’t until after August 1830 that skeptics disappeared because the railroad adopted the steam-powered engine named the “Tom Thumb.”

By December 1, 1831, the railroad had expanded to Frederick, totaling 60 miles of track. In August 1835, the B&O Railroad connected Relay Junction, Maryland (then called Washington Junction) to Washington D.C. This connection crossed the upper Patapsco River on the Thomas Viaduct, which has been known as one of the B&O’s signature structures. Two years later in 1837, a bridge was built across the Potomac, which connected the B&O to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (back then it was still Virginia as West Virginia was not formed until 1863).

From Harpers Ferry, the B&O was able to connect with the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, which was the first convergence of two railroad companies in the U.S. From 1837-1852, the B&O continued west, adding stations in Cumberland, Maryland all the way through Grafton, West Virginia. After Grafton, the track turned northwest in order to reach Wheeling, West Virginia, the goal of its charter which was 379 miles from Baltimore. The last track was laid on January 1, 1853, almost 25 years after commencing construction.

Throughout the years, the B&O transported goods such as coal, steel, and other freight, as well as passengers, as far North as New York City, and as far west as Chicago. In its first full year of operation in 1854, the B&O generated a profit of $2.7 million and transported passengers a total of 19 million miles.

Furthermore, the B&O was of utmost importance to the Union in the Civil War as it provided critical logistic support, and was the target of repeated Confederate raids. By the 1890s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was one of the most important and profitable companies in America and even commissioned William Henry Jackson to photograph a series of scenic views along the B&O route in western Maryland.

Today, most of the surviving tracks are operated by CSX Transportation.

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This post was written by Ross Bater, one of Preservation Maryland’s Waxter Interns. Ross’s work with us focuses on researching best practices and resources for preservation in rural Maryland. He is a recent history graduate University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Learn more about Ross and our intern program here: presmd.org/waxter