Tales of a Train in 1835 Virginia

November 24, 2017

Charles L. Powell rode a train for the first time on April 3, 1835, and he had a wild ride: another passenger was almost crushed to death, and a dog managed to chase the train for 16 miles. He was traveling from Harper's Ferry (then Virginia) to Point of Rocks, Maryland, along the B&O Railroad. The portion he traveled had just been completed 4 months earlier on December 1, 1834 [1], and he wrote to his wife about the experience. The following is a rare glimpse into train travel that early in America:

 

"Did you ever see a rail road or a car? I suppose not for as you have never enjoyed the advantages of travel and the Upperville and Baltimore rail road is not yet in full operation. I can not expect you to be informed about those matters and as one of the greatest pleasures of us traveled gentlemen is to enlighten the uninformed." [2]

 

Mr. Powell is teasing his wife, much like frequent fliers today like to "enlighten the uninformed" with their tales. Mr. Powell continues...

 

"I will tell you about them. The road is made by laying pieces of timber about 8 inches wide parallel to each other and about two yards a part. Upon them is laid a flat piece of iron about two inches wide – and upon this is laid the wheels of the car (which are grooved so that the flat pieces of iron fit into the groove) run." [2] 

 

According to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Mr. Powell's description is of an early form of rail called "strap rail."  He continues...

 

"The cars are made like stages – but of much larger size and to show you the facility with which they are drawn I moved with one finger one of those larger cars and upon withdrawing the finger, the car will progress a considerable distance without the application of further force." [2]

 

 

Early train cars indeed looked like stages as Mr. Powell described. The image at the left is of the Maryland Coach at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. The image below is of a similar coach at the museum called the Ohio Coach. Note the platform above the wheels where passengers would occasionally stand, and where one such passenger had a close call (described below). The coaches shown are replicas built in 1927 of original coaches built in 1830.

 

 

"We traveled in these cars at the rate of about 8 miles an hour along the banks of the Potomac – within a few inches in some parts of the road of an immense cliff- which overhangs the road. The wheels of the car are very low and just above the wheels there is a part of the car which projects - the passengers have sometimes been in the habit of standing upon this projecting part outside and upon one occasion a passenger who was then standing for the purpose of enjoying themselves carried at the rate of 8 miles just missing a projecting cliff which he did not see – the interval between which and the side of the car scarcely admitted of the passage of his person and which if he had struck must have crushed him to death. The man was so alarmed on reflecting upon the [?] of his condition that upon resuming his seat in the stage, which he did immediately he was very near fainting." [2]

 

Mr. Powell was describing how narrow the ledge was between the Potomac River and the Catoctin Mountain between Harper's Ferry and Point of Rocks, which the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal shared[1].  Mr. Powell finished his travel story with a delightful tale of a dog...

 

"Our sympathies were enlisted in behalf of a dog who accompanied the car from Harpersferry, under the mistaken impression that his master was one of the passengers.  He kept up with us the whole way and long before we reached the Point of Rocks, his tongue was hanging out & his mouth watering, and he seemed almost exhausted but the faithful creature would cast a look at the car and continue his pursuit with unyielding effort. Some person on the road caught him & put a rope around his neck and tried to detain him but he struggled in apparent annoyance at length escaped & continued his pursuit and it was not until we reached the Point of Rocks 16 miles from Harpersferry that he was secured by the Driver of the Car to be taken back the next day to Harpersferry.  His story you must read to Becca altering the language of course." [2]

 

His four-year-old daughter, Becca, likely delighted in the story of the dog as most children would. And we can delight in a rare glimpse into train travel in 1835 Virginia.

[1] John F. Stover, History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987) 39.

 

[2] Powell Family Papers, Manuscripts and Rare Books Department, Swem Library, College of William and Mary

 

 

All images are courtesy of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore.

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©2019 by Alison Herring