July 4th is a day of celebration and independence, steeped in history. It should come as no surprise that many other historic events have “happened” to fall on this date as subsequent generations looked to tie their own achievements to this monumental day. Railroads are no exception.
July 4, 1828
Just as July 4th became the symbolic birthday for a new country, so too does it mark the beginning of this industry whose impact can not be understated. Like the American Revolution, railroads didn’t come nicely wrapped and delivered on a single day. There were many important dates before July 4, 1828 and there would be many more after. With all due credit given to the many “first” railroads in the United States, it is the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio on this date 184 years ago that most signifies the arrival of railroads.
The founders of the B&O chose July 4th with no subtlety. Although it is doubtful even they could have predicted just how far and how fast their railroad would change the shape of the world, they clearly intended to link the two events in the minds of their contemporaries. The symbolic first stone of the railroad was laid in Baltimore by the last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll.
July 4, 1835
The B&O would continue to cement its self-proclaimed image as “America’s Railroad” in 1835, with the completion of the Thomas Viaduct. This graceful, curved stone-arch bridge crossed the Patapsco River and completed the link between Baltimore and Washington D.C. The B&O used the viaduct for many publicity photos, perhaps most memorable being the official photo for the newly streamlined Royal Blue passenger train. The 177 year old structure still sees daily use by CSX making it the oldest stone arch bridge in continuous use in the country.
July 4, 1869
The first railroad bridge was completed over the Missouri River on this date 143 years ago. The bridge, part of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, was a critical link in a true transcontinental rail system. Remember that the Golden Spike driven less than two months before completed the biggest part of that project, but there were still missing links east of Omaha – including the crossing of the Missouri. That particular missing link would not be completed until 1888.
In addition to helping build the national rail network, this bridge gave economic life to Kansas City. Previously, the towns of St. Joseph, MO and Leavenworth, KS had been much larger and well known. Construction of the bridge here brought not one but seven railroads to the city, making it a regional hub of commercial activity.
The bridge itself was designed by a French immigrant, Octave Chanute. The center span included a swing bridge to open the channels for river traffic. Construction began in 1867 on a river that many said could not be crossed. The bridge was named the “Hannibal Bridge” for the railroad it was built for, a name which remains to this day.
The river has lived up to its reputation. The original bridge received major repairs after a tornado damaged the center section in 1886. The present day Hannibal Bridge is a newer span built in 1917 just 200 feet upstream from the original and is still in operation by BNSF. It too has been tested. In a massive flood in 1951, four riverboats were slammed into the foundations of the bridge.
July 4, 2012
Norfolk Southern chooses this holiday to highlight its history and its future with the grand unveiling of all 20 of its new Heritage Units for family portraits in Spencer, NC. It is an event which I’m sure will see lots of attention and be remembered by railroad fans for years to come! We look forward to seeing some of your pictures!