Today in History

Today in History: February 28

The B & O Railroad

Put in your water, shovel in your coal,
Put cha head out the window and watch the drivers roll
I'll run her 'til she leaves the rail
For I'm eight hours late with the western mail.

"Casey Jones" [derived from an original textual transcription].1
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

On February 28, 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. railway chartered for the commercial transportation of freight and passengers. Investors hoped that a railroad would allow Baltimore, the second largest U.S. city at that time, to successfully compete with New York for western trade. New Yorkers were profiting from easy access to the Midwest via the Erie Canal.

Buckhorn Wall
Buckhorn Wall, 2500 Feet above Sea Level on Picturesque B&O,
William Henry Jackson, photographer, circa 1892.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Construction began at Baltimore harbor on July 4, 1828. Local dignitary Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the first stone.

The initial line of track, a thirteen-mile stretch to Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland, opened in 1830. The Tom Thumb, a steam engine designed by Peter Cooper, negotiated the route well enough to convince skeptics that steam traction worked along steep, winding grades.

River Hills
River Hills, Trough of the Potomac,
William Henry Jackson, photographer, commissioned by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, circa 1892.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse used the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad right of way to send the first telegraphic message from the Supreme Court room in the Capitol at Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore.

Baltimore and the Ohio River were connected by rail in 1852, when the B&O was completed at Wheeling, West Virginia. Later extensions brought the line to Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland.

Rapid development of rail power propelled westward expansion. As early as 1852, six lines carried passengers and freight across the Appalachian mountain range. By 1869, the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific line joined to create the first transcontinental railroad. Although pioneers continued to travel west via covered wagon, settlements grew quickly as rail transport increased the frequency and speed with which people and supplies could move across the vast continent.

In the 1890s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad commissioned William Henry Jackson to photograph a series of scenic views along the B&O route in western Maryland. Search Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company on Baltimore & Ohio railroad to explore these spectacular views of the Allegheny Mountains.

"Casey Jones," Byron Coffin Sr., vocals, and Mrs. Byron Coffin, Sr., piano, recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Alameda, California, on April 6, 1939.
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

Real Audio Format

wav Format
Forms part of a group of field materials documenting Byron Coffin Sr., Mrs. Byron Coffin Sr., and Byron Coffin Jr. performing Barbary Coast tunes, American popular songs, and ragtime music. Byron Coffin's stage nickname was "Casey Jones."

1 Note: The term drivers refers to the large wheels of a locomotive to which the side rods are attached: they are set in motion by the engine connecting rods.