The Father of American Railroads
John Stevens (1749-1838) was the scion of a prominent family in colonial New Jersey. During the Revolutionary War he served as state treasurer. In the postwar period he became intrigued by experiments in steam navigation by men such as John Fitch. At his estate at Castle Point in Hoboken, Stevens devoted the rest of his life to experimenting with the application of steam to travel on water and land. Frustrated by the steamboat monopoly given to Robert Fulton by New York, he turned his attention to the new technology of railroads.
In 1812, he wrote the first American publication promoting the advantages of “steam carriages” over canals, which has been called “the birth certificate of all railroads in the United States.” He prevailed on the New Jersey legislature in 1815 to pass an act “to erect a Rail-Road from the River Delaware, near Trenton, to the River Raritan, at or near New Brunswick”—the first American railroad charter. The law said nothing, however, about what kind of motive power would be used. Stevens was not able to raise funds for the project. In 1825, at age seventy-six, Stevens built on his estate an experimental steam engine “for propelling a carriage on railways.” Guests were delighted to ride at six miles per hour on “the circle at the Hoboken Hotel.” Five years later, the Camden and Amboy Railroad was chartered, and his sons Robert L. and Edwin A. became officers in the fledgling company. When the John Bull locomotive arrived from England in 1831, the old inventor hosted a grand celebration at his estate. John Stevens had lived to see his vision realized.
Commonly Called the Joint Companies
Riding the national trend toward internal improvements that was reflected in numerous turnpike and canal-building ventures, on February 4, 1830 the New Jersey legislature separately incorporated both the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company and the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company. Private funds underwrote both enterprises and spared the fiscally conservative state from being directly involved in potentially risky undertakings. Both charters contained a clause that prohibited rival companies from constructing a canal or a railroad within a specified distance. The railroad company was required to pay transit duties to the state, and an act of February 4, 1831, authorized the transfer of one thousand shares of stock to the state. In order to avoid ruinous competition, on February 15 another law, the so-called “Marriage Act,” authorized the consolidation of the two companies’ stock. Thus was created the entity “commonly called the Joint Companies.” Another act of March 2, 1832 guaranteed the Joint Companies’ monopoly of the New York-Philadelphia traffic, and gave the state an additional one thousand shares of stock. Other pioneer railroads chartered in 1831–1832 were the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad, which ran from Paterson to Jersey City, and the New Jersey Railroad, which ran from Jersey City to New Brunswick. The Camden and Amboy’s first locomotive, the John Bull, which was imported from England, made its trial run on November 12, 1831; by the fall of 1833 it was making regular runs between Bordentown and South Amboy. The Joint Companies eventually acquired ownership or interests in steamboats, ferries, stage lines, turnpikes, and bridge companies, as well as other railroads. By 1871, the Joint Companies (renamed the United Companies) owned, leased, or controlled more than four hundred and fifty miles of track in the state.
The State of Camden and Amboy
As a result of their “exclusive privileges,” the Joint Companies were an immediate financial success and the state’s coffers were filled. But at what price? As early as 1831, one newspaper feared that the legislature had created a monster that was already the “influence behind the throne, greater than the throne itself.” The deal struck with the state soon excited the jealousy of competing railroad companies, who felt that the state’s economic development was hindered. Complaints arose within New Jersey and from neighboring states that fares charged both for passengers and for freight were excessive. The Camden and Amboy was parsimonious regarding upgrades to its physical plant. Because of its reluctance to double-track its line, for instance, accidents were more common than on other railroads; in one incident, both John Quincy Adams and Cornelius Vanderbilt (who was injured) were passengers. The monopoly’s wealth, power, and influence were soon exerted in the political sphere. Its adroit machinations in the legislature caused New Jersey to gain the unsavory reputation as “the State of Camden and Amboy.” The chief strategist of the monopoly was Robert F. Stockton (1795–1866), the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A naval officer who served in the U.S. Senate, he was ambitious, self-confident, and impulsive, but also congenial and generous. Stockton was instrumental in brokering the consolidation of the canal and railroad companies. He reputedly boasted that “he carried the State in his breeches pocket, and meant to keep it there.” Whenever the monopoly was attacked, Stockton and its other apologists invoked the sanctity of contracts, states’ rights, and the financial benefits to the state.
Matters came to a head in 1848 when a series of letters by “A Citizen of Burlington” appeared in the Burlington Gazette. In addition to reciting the usual complaints against the monopoly, the author used statistics and detailed analysis to accuse the Joint Companies of the more serious charges of gouging the public and concealing profits in their reports, thereby defrauding the state. The anonymous writer later revealed himself as the noted publisher and political economist Henry C. Carey (1793–1879). Robert F. Stockton replied to the charges on behalf of the canal and railroad companies. Two legislative commissions investigated the charges, one of which exonerated the companies, while the other found only “remissness” and “inadvertency” in bookkeeping. Even though he was castigated as a “miserable monomaniac,” Carey proceeded to pick apart the commissions’ reports in detail, and insisted upon being allowed to inspect the companies’ books. The Joint Companies ultimately refused his demand. It is perhaps a vindication of his charges that subsequently the joint board of directors ordered all the early records destroyed.
Through the vehicle of the state’s Democratic Party, in the antebellum period the Joint Companies influenced elections, often to their advantage, on the Congressional, the gubernatorial, and the local levels. They had their mouthpieces in the national and state legislatures, and controlled several newspapers. But there was also an active anti-monopoly press, including Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. During the Civil War, the monopoly’s chokehold on through traffic drew national attention, as trains carrying troops, supplies, and mail bottlenecked in New Jersey. The Joint Companies’ (renamed the United Companies) monopoly expired in 1869, two years before the Pennsylvania Railroad leased them for 999 years. That lease by a “foreign” (i.e., out-of-state) company was also controversial, and sparked a legal challenge (John Black et al.) by the lessees’ stockholders.
At its simplest, a locomotive is a “boiler-on-wheels.” In practice, of course, it is a much more complex machine. Imagine what went through the mind of the Camden and Amboy Railroad’s master mechanic Isaac Dripps, when he was confronted with the task of assembling—without instructions—the imported John Bull locomotive. American builders were soon applying their ingenuity to replicating and modifying the British invention. They were motivated by pragmatism, conservatism, and economy in constructing railroads to suit both their needs and the demands of their environment.
The growing industrial city of Paterson was the headquarters of several leading locomotive manufacturers, such as Danforth and Cooke, Grant, and Rogers. Several other firms located there did not survive the Panic of 1857. During the decade of the 1850s, the Rogers Locomotive Works was “the most progressive builder in the country.” In its peak year of production in 1870, Rogers turned out 145 locomotives; that same year it had in service on all railroads 1818 locomotives. Over the entire life of the company (1837–1900), Rogers produced an aggregate of 5,654 locomotives. During that time, Paterson had evolved from a bucolic town to the major industrial city in New Jersey.
Locomotives were at the center of railroad technology, but were only part of the story. Robert L. Stevens’ invention of the T-rail, for instance, has been deemed “one of the most rational structural shapes ever devised.” Several different track gauges were in use in the United States. For example, the Camden and Amboy used 4 feet 10 inches, the Erie 6 feet. This resulted in much expense and time lost in off-loading passengers and freight. In the 1860s, Ashbel Welch (1809–1882), chief engineer of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, began advocating the standardization of track gauges. Eventually, a gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches became the norm.
Amazingly, locomotive wheels did not have brakes until the 1870s—a train was stopped either by reversing or by brakemen applying brakes on individual cars. George Westinghouse’s invention of the air-brake was thus an immeasurable contribution to safety. Other improvements to safety were the automatic coupler, automatic block signaling, and telegraphic communication.
In order to keep abreast of an increasingly technical field, aspiring engineers, mechanics, and machinists could study works such as M. N. Forney’s Catechism of the Locomotive (1875) or The Car-Builder’s Dictionary (1879). Several periodicals were devoted in whole or in part to railroad technology and related matters, such as Railroad Gazette, Railway Age, Journal of the Franklin Institute, and Scientific American. As Anthony J. Bianculli has pointed out, during the nineteenth century there was overall a “symbiotic relationship” between railroading and technology, “each dependent upon the state and progress of the other to a large degree.”
The Garden Spot of the Garden State
From colonial times, New Jersey was noted for its truck gardens. With the advent of railroads, local home gardening developed into commercial production for burgeoning urban markets. As early as 1838, the Camden and Amboy Railroad ran a “Pea Line” to carry agricultural products to market. In the 1840s, “peach trains” were dedicated to the shipment of the luscious fruit. Special ventilated cars were designed to facilitate transportation of the perishable crop. The “peach boom” peaked in the 1880s: on one day in September 1882, sixty-four carloads of peaches were shipped from Hunterdon County alone. Peaches were transported to New York, Philadelphia, and even to New England and Canada. After 1850, “strawberry fever” also flourished as a result of rail connections with cities. Similarly, cranberry production was stimulated by the railroads. In 1881, for instance, two South Jersey railroads carried more than 34,000 bushels of cranberries to Philadelphia. Railroads that hauled produce to market often returned with loads of fertilizer for farmers’ fields. An offshoot of the development of resorts such as Atlantic City was the sale of farm plots along the railroad right-of-way by railroad-affiliated land companies. Agricultural communities such as Hammonton and Egg Harbor (“The Garden Spot of the Garden State”) owe their growth directly to railroads. Some land promotions failed, however. In the early 20th century, several railroads sponsored “Agricultural Trains” that carried exhibits and lecturers to numerous rural stops. Ironically, faster and cheaper rail service with other states, along with the introduction of refrigerated cars, hurt the market for New Jersey products such as beef and pork. Railroads were indeed “the machine in the garden” of the Garden State.
Workin' on the Railroad
Despite their many problems, railroads provided employment for thousands of New Jerseyans. In 1907, for example, 45,810 people were reported by the state’s Bureau of Statistics as being employed by railroads. In addition to managers, they served as conductors, brakemen, engineers, firemen, switchmen, flagmen, trackmen, agents, baggagemen, clerks, machinists, boilermakers, car builders, telegraph operators, and on construction gangs. But they were victim, as today, to the vagaries of the economy. In June 1893, one locomotive builder employed 800 “hands” in its shops; one year later, as a result of the Panic of 1893, it employed only 300. Employees were subject to strict regulations regarding compliance with operating rules, as well as the use of tobacco and alcohol. In an era when individual life or disability insurance was almost unheard of, employees subscribed to voluntary relief associations, such as those of the Reading and the Pennsylvania railroads, which were both established in the 1880s to provide benefits in case of sickness or death. Employment by the railroad could be a vehicle for upward mobility. Joseph L. Gill (1889–1976), for example, was raised on a farm near Yardley, Pennsylvania. In 1905, he migrated to Port Reading, New Jersey to work as a junior clerk in the office of the Reading Railroad’s huge coal facility. Over the years he was promoted until he eventually became chief agent at that office. At age twenty-one, he was also elected a committeeman in his adopted hometown, being at that time the youngest person in the state elected to that office. Together with men and women directly employed by railroad companies, those working in related businesses represented a significant percentage of the labor force.
Why Not Own Your Own Home?
That was the question posed by a promotional pamphlet published in 1891 by the Central Railroad of New Jersey. A similar pamphlet advertised Homes on the Central Railroad for New York Business Men. In so doing they tapped into the American dream of home ownership by the burgeoning middle class. One travel writer noted in 1874 that “No such overflow of population has ever been witnessed before, and the past is but the index finger, showing what is to come.” Promotional pamphlets invariably included advertisements by land improvement companies that were affiliated with railroads, and sometimes even included actual designs for suburban cottages. Rapid transit made the commute feasible between urban workplaces and suburban dwellings. In 1904, the Central Railroad transported 3,150,000 passengers in the Jersey City and Newark district alone. The importance of railroads as “lifelines” in the suburbanization of rural communities such as Bergenfield “can hardly be overstated.” A significant part of people’s workday was spent at suburban depots or urban terminals waiting for trains, as well as on the commute itself. Timetables regulated not only trains, but people’s lives. In 1873, a promotional publication commented upon the change wrought in the countryside: “In every direction, within an hour of New York, we find the same signs of growth …; the old farm look has all disappeared, houses have risen like magic, mere settlements have grown to be villages, villages to be towns, and towns to be cities.”
In 1830, Robert L. Stevens (1787–1856), “President & Engineer” of the newly chartered Camden and Amboy Railroad, travelled to England to order rails and a locomotive for the company. He had gained valuable experience in steamboat design and construction from working with his father, John Stevens. While on the voyage, he whittled from a piece of wood the T-rail which, with little variation, eventually became the standard in the United States. Formerly, early railroads in America had used an iron strap laid out on wooden rails. Stevens had difficulty finding an American rolling mill to produce the rails, so the earliest ones were manufactured in Britain. The first T-rails made in America were rolled in 1846 by the Cooper and Hewitt firm in Trenton. Over the next decade they came into common use. Stevens also developed the “hook-headed spike” and the “fish plate” for fastening the rails, and he replaced the stone blocks that rails were originally fastened to with logs that were shored up with crushed rocks. Thus he presaged the wooden “sleepers” still in use on today’s roadbeds. In 1882, an engineer quipped that in America “poverty is the mother on invention” because engineers such as Stevens “used cross-ties as a temporary substitute because too poor to buy stone blocks, and so made good roads because they were not rich enough to make bad ones.” Another Stevens invention was the pilot, or “cowcatcher” attached to the front of locomotives. He never patented any of his railroad inventions. The miles of rail crisscrossing the countryside are Robert L. Stevens’s “imperishable monument.”
Immigration is a “defining feature” of the social, economic, and political history of the United States. In 1889, three years before Ellis Island opened as the chief point of entry for immigrants, the Central Railroad of New Jersey constructed a large terminal at Communipaw Cove in Jersey City directly across from Manhattan. In that year alone, 444,427 immigrants entered the country; by 1905, more than one million per year arrived. By 1930, immigration had slacked off to 241,700. The next stop for many of those passing through Ellis Island was the terminal of the Central Railroad or the Pennsylvania Railroad. Thus, millions of people first set foot on the mainland United States in New Jersey. Between 1912 and 1914, a ferry shed and train sheds were added to the CRR terminal. Each day, thousands of immigrants joined thousands of commuters in crossing on ferries to the rail terminals which, like nerve endings, connected to points throughout New Jersey and beyond.
By the Beautiful Sea
By the early 19th century New Jersey already had famous resorts, such as Cape May, Long Beach, and Tucker’s Beach, that offered makeshift accommodations, but were relatively difficult to reach. Railroads revolutionized the tourist business and also helped to democratize what were formerly the haunts of the genteel. A growing middle class provided the basis for this market. From New York City, steamboats owned by railroad companies brought travelers to landings where they could board trains to destinations such as Long Branch, a fashionable resort that could boast that seven U.S. presidents had vacationed there. “Excursion Houses” that catered to large groups at discounted rates were popular at both Atlantic City and Cape May. In some instances, trains discharged passengers virtually at water’s edge. Sleepy, economically backward shore towns were transformed as they provided for the needs of their seasonal guests. Larger resorts could offer a choice of grand hotels, boarding houses, or cottages for rent. Perhaps the greatest metamorphosis occurred after 1854 when the Camden and Atlantic Railroad blazed a route across the pines and created Atlantic City. It was destined to become “the queen of American watering places”: from Philadelphia, railroads advertised “only 54 miles from river to ocean” on “seventy minute flyers.” Development, both at the shore and along the route, went hand-in-hand with tourism. Gradually, waterways were bridged, making shore points such as Beach Haven even more accessible. Illustrated guidebooks described “jaunts by rail” to mountain resorts and the Delaware Water Gap in the northwestern part of the state. Overall, the success of New Jersey’s modern billion-dollar tourism industry owes a debt to patterns established by railroads in the 19th century.