The most important US seaports in the early 1800s were Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. Baltimore had an advantage in being farther inland the others. However, New York gained an advantage in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal, and in 1826 Pennsylvania chartered a system of canals that linked Philadelphia with Pittsburgh. In response to this, the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road Company (B&O) was chartered in 1827, and construction began on July 4, 1828. The goal was to give Baltimore a competitive edge over the other port cities.
The B&O was America’s first common carrier, and the earliest days of the B&O had horse drawn rail lines with wood rails and iron straps laid upon stones. The first official passengers rode in the horse-drawn carts from Mount Clair in Baltimore to the Carrollton Viaduct construction site on January 7th 1830. By May 24th of that same year, the line was complete to Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland. The introduction of the first American-built steam engine in 1830, Tom Thumb, brought steam to the railroad. This also led to many other improvements, including cast iron rails, flanged iron wheels, and the development of a braking system.
In 1831, the line was opened to Frederick, giving the B&O 60 miles of track. They then opened a branch from Relay, Maryland to Washington in August 1835, crossing the Patapsco River on the Thomas Viaduct, which has it’s own unique history. At its completion, the Thomas Viaduct was the largest bridge in the United States and the country’s first multi-span masonry railroad bridge to be built on a curve. It remains the world’s oldest multiple arched stone railroad bridge. In 1964, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The viaduct is now owned and operated by CSX Transportation and still in use today, making it one of the oldest railroad bridges still in service.
Two years later a bridge was completed across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. At Harper’s Ferry, the B&O connected with the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, forming the first junction of two railroad companies in the United States. The line then continued west through Cumberland, Maryland to Grafton, West Virginia, where it turned northwest to reach the goal of its charter at Wheeling, West Virginia. This gave the B&O 379 miles of rail 25 years after being chartered. The B&O finally reached the Ohio River with a line west from Grafton in 1856.
During the Civil War, the B&O served to transport Union soldiers and supplies, and was thus the target of many Confederate attacks. Bridges were burned, tracks were torn up, telegraph lines were pulled down. There were several prominent raids involving the B&O during the Civil War: The Great Train Raid of 1861 (where 8 locomotives were captured by Confederate troops), the Romney Expedition, the Maryland campaign, the Jones-Imboden Raid, the Catocin Station Raid, the First Calico Raid, the B&O Raid on Duffield Station, the McNeill Raid, the Second Calico Raid, the Battle of Monocacy, Gilmor’s Raid, the Greenback Raid, the B&O Raid on Duffield Station II, Gilmor’s B&O Raid, and the B&O Derailment Raid. The B&O are particularly remembered for their part in the Battle of Monocacy. Agents of the railroad began report Confederate movement 11 days before the battle, and the railroad passed this information to authorities in the War Department. The information was passed on the Major General Lew Wallace, who commanded the department that would be responsible for defense of the area. As preparations progressed, the B&O transported federal troops and munitions. President Abraham Lincoln asked for further information from B&O president John W. Garrett. Union forces lost the battle, this information allowed Ulysses S. Grant to repel the Confederate attack on Washington at the Battle of Fort Stevens two days later.
Steel rail became the norm and the use of prefabricated iron bridges sped repairs. After the war, the B&O continued westward expansion by leasing the Central Ohio Railroad in 1866. In 1869, they leased a line from Newark to Sandusky, Ohio. From the Chicago Junction located on that line, the B&O built west to Chicago between 1872 and 1874. B&O expanded in several directions at once: the Cumberland-Pittsburgh line was completed in 1871, and The Metropolitan Branch, from Washington to a connection with the main line at Point of Rocks, Maryland was completed in 1873.
After the economic Panic of 1873, B&O attempted to lower workers’ wages, and after a second reduction in the same year, workers began the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. When the strike spread from it’s inception point in Martinsburg, West Virginia to Cumberland, Maryland, the governor of Maryland attempted to put down the strike by sending militia from Baltimore, but this caused riots to break out, resulting in 11 deaths, the burning of part of Camden Station, and damage to several engines and cars. The next day workers in Pittsburgh staged a sympathy strike that was again met with state militia force. Pittsburgh erupted into widespread rioting, and the strike and riots only ended after federal troops joined the state militias to restore order.
B&O president John W. Garrett died in 1884 and was succeeded by his son Robert for 2 years, Samuel Spencer for one, and then Charles F. Mayer. Mayer gained control of the Pittsburgh & Western Railroad, giving the B&O a line from Pittsburgh to Akron, and the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern, giving them a route through Cincinnati to St. Louis. He also oversaw construction of a line from Akron, Ohio to Chicago Junction, and construction of a line through, around and under Baltimore to connect the Philadelphia route with the rest of the B&O. However, by this time the B&O had built up a large debt. Freight and passenger rates were low and revenues were dropping. All of this in conjunction with the Panic of 1893 led to the B&O entering receivership in 1896.
PRR bought a large block of B&O stock, which it later traded to UP. UP eventually distributed its B&O stock as a dividend to its own stockholders.
During the early 1900s, the B&O continued to expand. This allowed them to continue competition with the PRR and New York Central (NYC). However, the B&O locomotives were slower and the B&O route was longer. B&O dropped its passenger service east of Baltimore in 1958. In 1960 the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) began to acquire B&O stock, eventually leading to C&O control over the B&O. Together with the Western Maryland (WM) the B&O and C&O merged to form Chessie System even though they still operated separately. In 1987 C&O completely merged B&O, and then CSX Transportation merged C&O.