Maps

A Mapped History of Train Travel in the United States

On the 209th birthday of the first steam engine trip, how the Civil War impeded, then accelerated, the progress of America's trains.

The first steam engine railway travel took place 209 years ago today. Here, the story of how the Civil War impeded, and then accelerated, the progress of America's trains.






All maps credit Charles O. Paullin, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (1932)

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That progress you see in the above three maps was because of the steam engine. 1830 gave us Tom Thumb, the first U.S. steam locomotive, in Baltimore. And from there these machines took off.

But before we could build the transcontinental railroad, the Civil War broke out, which temporarily stalled things. Ultimately, however, the war accelerated the ubiquity of trains. Railway and bridges were destroyed, and Americans learned to rebuild them better and faster.


Hanover Junction PA, 1863. A crowd gathers to greet Abraham Lincoln on his way to Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

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Steam engines amid the ruins of a Confederate roundhouse in Atlanta in 1864 (Library of Congress)

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According to William Thomas, in The Iron Way, "The South possessed some of the most beautiful depots and railroad facilities in the nation in 1861. Sherman's campaigns sought to dismantle the Confederate railroad system and in so doing deny any claim to modernity and progress."


Fortified rail bridge in Nashville, TN, 1864. (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, guerrilla Confederates would attack trains, so the Union soldiers braced their bridges for attack and put up these block houses for bridge defenders. Sherman, knowing that his supply lines would be under attack, is said to have trained 10,000 troops in railroad repair before he marched on Atlanta. That his men were so adept at repairing their lines contributed to his success during the March to the Sea.


Military bridge over Potomac Creek, 1864 (Library of Congress)

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This bridge was destroyed and rebuilt several times. In May 1862 it was rebuilt in nine days. By 1864, they could rebuild it in 40 hours. Thomas notes that bridges like this contributed to the sense that railroad were "thought to defy nature."

After the war, many of these men put their railroad-construction skills and experience to use for non-military lines, and by 1930 the travel time from Manhattan to LA was down to three days.


All maps credit Charles O. Paullin, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (1932)

By 1930, three days brought us 2,500 miles. In 1800, three days would have taken us just 250 miles. Three weeks in 1857 was three days by 1930.

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But comparing that 1930 map with Amtrak options today, despite the lack of any civil war to impede our growth since then, we're still at about the same travel times.



Today bridge defenders across the U.S. are out of work or under-employed. But it still takes three days to get across the U.S. by train. Atlas has shrugged, or taken a plane. And Lake Superior has never looked more lupine.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.