Did you know that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was a Maryland first? It was the original steam-powered railway in the United States carrying freight and later passengers as well. Merchants from Baltimore, at the time the second largest city in America behind New York City, formed the idea of a railway that would compete with the newly dug Erie Canal in New York state providing competition for westward trade. The B&O was incorporated on February 28, 1827.

The dedication stone for the B&O was laid by a signer of our Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832). You may have toured or visited his birthplace in Annapolis, the Charles Carroll House. The original 13 miles of track was laid from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills, renamed Ellicott City in 1867. The rail would open to travel in 1830. Ellicott’s Mills (1792) established by three brothers from Pennsylvania, John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, produced flour, and was the first “for trade” flour mill in the U.S. Ellicott’s Mills utilized the B&O to ship its product for distribution from the Baltimore harbor. In 1968, the B&O Train Station in Ellicott City (1831) was designated as a National Historic Landmark deemed the oldest surviving railroad station in the country.

You may have heard of the Tom Thumb (1829), the first American steam-powered locomotive envisioned, designed and built by Peter Cooper of New York. The Tom Thumb was made to put to rest doubts that steam traction was possible on steep and winding grades. Cooper convinced the officials of B&O to try out his invention. The Tom Thumb was placed into service by the B&O on August 28, 1830 to prove the worth of steam locomotives. On its trial run, the Tom Thumb, with open passenger car in tow, carried about 40 officers and directors of the B&O and would reach speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour covering the 13-mile span. According to Mr. Cooper, the journey took one hour and 12 minutes. The mini marvel amazed onlookers as it successfully traveled over this first stretch of track. Sadly, the Tom Thumb no longer exists; it was an experiment and little importance was given at the time to saving it for succeeding generations. Not to worry, there is a replica in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, albeit bigger, taller and heavier than the original. In 1831, the B&O reached Frederick, Maryland. By 1837 it ran to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and by 1842 it made it to Cumberland, Maryland. In December 1852, track was laid all the way to what was then Wheeling, Virginia, now West Virginia. Soon, the idea of running more line from Wheeling to Cincinnati, Ohio (1857) became a reality and eventually more line was placed from Cincinnati to the west bank of the Mississippi River opposite the thriving city of St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis, well known as the “Gateway to the West” was a launching pad of eastern rail travel and trade to the western United States. B&O track would eventually span over 10,000 miles across the county. At its peak, B&O rail reached such cities as New York, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit. Over the coming years, the B&O would undergo many changes and also lead the way in new and innovative rail travel.

Maryland is home to many “firsts.” The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad is a first that many of us have heard of but perhaps didn’t know a lot about. When able, explore the early days of Maryland’s B&O line at the Baltimore museum dedicated to this purpose. Also, visit the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum in Ellicott City. Enjoy our vast and varied Maryland history.

Barbara, who enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland, can be contacted at [email protected]

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.

Barbara Aiken

Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.