History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!

She’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad! Researching Railway Records

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott discovers his centenarian cousin once worked for the U.S. Railway Mail Service—and delves into some railroad history.

As a genealogical historian, one of the aspects of family history I love the most is discovering something new about an ancestor. Then I can take some time off from working on my family tree and spend it learning about this new aspect, or area, that I have uncovered. So it was recently as I found myself once again working on my Bohemian (Czech) ancestors in Ohio.

This time I was delving into one of my first cousins, twice removed, Theresa (Sluka) Armstrong. I was reading her obituary in GenealogyBank.com and among all the other tidbits of great information I was finding, I came upon the statement that she was a retiree of the United States Railway Mail Service.

As you can see by reading my cousin’s obituary, Theresa was 100 years old when she passed away. She must have loved the city as she was the wife of a Cleveland policeman and the sister of Frank and Albert Sluka, who were also both Cleveland policemen. (You can read about the tragic murder of Albert Sluka in my previous GenealogyBank.com blog article found at http://blog.genealogybank.com/author/scottphillips.)

obituary for Theresa Sluka Armstrong, Plain Dealer newspaper 19 February 1991

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 February 1991, page 11

The more I thought about it, the more intriguing this organization called the United States Railway Mail Service became to me. Additionally, I found it quite interesting that my female cousin worked for them. Having never heard of it before, I began investigating her occupational history with the railroad almost before I realized it.

Still on GenealogyBank.com, I began searching on “U.S. Railway Mail Service” and was instantly treated to amazing railroad background and historical information.

Unbeknownst to me, in about 1863, the United States Postal Service began outfitting and utilizing specially-designed railway cars to accommodate the collecting, sorting, and distributing of mail aboard railroad trains as they traversed across the United States as an integral part of the early postal system. This efficient railway system was even designed so that at many locations, usually smaller, rural towns where the train did not stop, mail pouches were hung by the railroad tracks where a special “arm” attached to the train would snag the bag while moving. Then the postal clerks on board would retrieve the pouches, open their locks, and sort and process the mail as the train roared along. The train never slowed down or missed a beat!

Quickly I was treating myself to multiple stories about the development, history, and operations of the United States Railway Mail Service. One of my early favorite stories was from an 1891 newspaper article that not only explained the functioning and design of this delivery service, but even contained a drawing of what the mail pouch pick-up looked like.

Mail on the Rail, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 October 1891

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1891, page 13

Then I really found myself hitting pay dirt with a 1909 newspaper article from North Dakota. This historical article is an entire page of the newspaper explaining in detail the U.S. Railway Mail Service and containing six extraordinary photographs of the working areas of these specialized train cars. It even contains the names of the postal clerks working that run. Lists of employee names are always a treat for genealogists and family historians!

U.S. Railway Mail Service in North Dakota, Grand Forks Herald newspaper article 24 January 1909

Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 January 1909, page 16

I am now engaging in a full pursuit of finding the employment and pension records for my cousin, which for the U.S. Railway Mail Service are held at the Civilian Personnel Records Department of the National Personnel Records Center, housed at the National Archives and Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

I am keen on discovering more about the employment history of my centenarian cousin and finding out if her working career involved actually “riding the rails” or staying on the solid ground at the station in Cleveland.