The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad is one of the oldest railroads in the United States. Now part of the CSX network, the nation’s first railroad to offer commercial transportation of both passengers and freight, began as the brainchild of Philip E. Thomas and George Brown. Backed by about twenty-five Baltimore area bankers and merchants, together they wanted to find a way for the port of Baltimore to compete with the increased business the newly constructed Eerie Canal had brought the port of New York, and upon studying the railways of England in 1826, had concluded that a railroad was the way to achieve this.
After approval by Maryland and Virginia, the newly chartered Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road Company issued stock in 1827: almost every citizen of Baltimore owned at least one share in the new venture.
It was the early days of railroad engineering, so the B&O erred on the side of caution and used granite for track bed as well as structures. They soon found it was expensive to use for the track bed, as well as unforgiving, but most of the granite bridges survive to this day and are still in use by CSX. The first bridge built by the B&O, the Carrollton Viaduct in Baltimore, is the world’s oldest bridge still carrying trains; and the Thomas Viaduct, which at the time of its construction was the longest in the US, is also still in use. In the mid-19th century, the B&O often used the Bollman iron truss bridge design for its durability and ease and speed of construction, which aided the expansion of the railroad. By 1854, the 380 miles of track were generating $2.7 million in annual profit and Baltimore was now the financial and commercial capital of the region south of Philadelphia.
The B&O line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. was the site of another engineering first in 1843, when Congress used that right of way to construct an experimental 38-mile telegraph line. The B&O approved it with a condition that they be allowed free use of the line upon completion. The line was officially opened in May 1844 by Samuel F.B. Morse sending his “What hath God wrought” message from the B&O’s Mount Clare Station to the Capitol Building.
The Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road suffered greatly during the Civil War, with near-continuous raids and close battles hampering operations, and severe damage once causing service to be halted entirely for ten months in 1861-‘62. Track was destroyed, locomotives and rolling stock were stolen or burnt, but the B&O continued to operate and provide valuable support to the Union army, earning high praises from President Abraham Lincoln.
After the Civil War ended, the Baltimore and Ohio continued to expand its reach westward by buying and leasing railroad lines with connections from Cincinnati, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky to St Louis, Missouri, and Springfield and Chicago in Illinois. It also competed with the Pennsylvania Rail Road for branch lines around the Washington, D.C. vicinity, and eventually came under its control in 1901. Although it retained its separate identity through several mergers, the B&O finally disappeared off the corporate map in April of 1987 when it was formally absorbed into CSX Transportation.
To learn about other historic civil engineering projects, visit the People and Projects section of the ASCE website.