"The Laying of the First Stone, July 4, 1828."
Photo from one of a series of paintings by Herbert D. Stitt
for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad during their Centennial in 1927.
Marylanders are fortunate to have had many firsts occur in their state. From the first U.S. balloon launch in June 1784 to the first highway financed by federal funds (National Road, begun in 1806), Maryland citizens have always been on the cutting edge of transportation improvement.
No improvement to transportation was more important than the development of railroads. The ability to move people and freight by rail changed America and provided a means for national expansion.
With Baltimore and Washington's location, it was natural that Maryland men planned the first railroad in the country. By rail, Baltimore was actually seventy miles closer to Buffalo, NY and over 200 miles closer to St. Louis than New York City! Shorter distances meant cheaper shipping costs, and cheaper shipping meant more profit.
The Railroad became a symbol for progress, and as historian Thomas M. Jacklin concluded, "…the railroad underwrote cities, built towns, spawned suburbs and settled a continent-profoundly altering the way in which Americans perceived space, time, and distance."
In the first two decades of the 19th century, the United Stated added six new states so that by 1820 the American nation spanned a thousand miles from the Atlantic Coast to the Eastern shore of the Mississippi River.
Settlers from the East Coast moving into these new Western states, especially Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, could simply float down the westward flowing Ohio River to their new homes. But before they would be able to connect with that great waterway starting in Western Pennsylvania, they had to cross the Allegany Mountains on foot. Another difficulty would come later, when they were established and wished to sell the products they had grown or made back east. They would first need to fight their way hundreds of miles upstream, and then cross back over the mountains, again on foot, to arrive at market.
Even before the Revolutionary War it had been America's dream to unite East Coast cities with the Ohio River, and beyond that, the Mississippi. In 1806, Congress authorized the building of a National Road from Cumberland, in Western Maryland, to Wheeling, West Virginia on the Ohio River. A series of privately funded turnpikes were also constructed, linking Baltimore to Cumberland by 1824.
Yet it was to be the development of canals and railroads that moved Americans and their goods efficiently by the middle 1800s. Canals readily competed with and surpassed the National Road as the most important form of inland transportation. The Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie, opened in 1825, achieving great commercial success, and was followed by a boom in canal building in New York State. Governments, both state and local, invested in transportation projects in the early 19th century. The State of Maryland, too, pledged $3 million to support the construction of its own Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (begun in 1828) with the goal of linking the Ohio and Potomac River valleys.
By this time, Baltimore had grown to be America's fourth largest city. It had one of the great natural harbors of the world, involved chiefly in the exporting of flour produced by mills along the region's many streams. Best of all, its location on the western shore of the upper Chesapeake Bay made it the farthest west of the major East Coast ports, meaning that the route from Baltimore to the West was shorter than from New York, Philadelphia or Boston.
Thanks to geographic good fortune, and to the National Road, Baltimore had gained a firm hold on trans-Allegany trade. With the opening of the Erie Canal, however, the cost of shipping goods from the Western states to New York City dropped sharply and the business leadership of Baltimore became convinced that they must find a more efficient and less expensive form of transportation in order to remain competitive.
A committee of prominent businessmen and bankers was formed. Early examples of "rail roads" and tram roads in Great Britain and America were studied, and a favorable report calling for a "double railroad" between Baltimore and the Ohio River was drafted. The committee applied for and was granted a state charter for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) on March 28, 1827. The charter authorized the sale of $3 million in stock, with 10,000 shares reserved to the State of Maryland and 5,000 to Baltimore. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone of the B&O at the Mount Clare estate on July 4, 1827.