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Census Title Page, 1851
Title page and first page of “Report of the Superintendent of the Census”
for December 1, 1852.

Railroads in the United States. —In no other particular can the prosperity of a country be more strikingly manifested than by the perfection of its roads and other means of internal communication. The system of railroads, canals, turnpikes, post routes, river navigation, and telegraphs, possessed by the United States, presents an indication of its advancement in power and civilization more wonderful than any other feature of its progress. In truth, our country in this respect occupies the first place among the nations of the world.

From returns received at this office, in reply to special circulars, and other sources of information, it is ascertained that there were, at the commencement of the year 1852, 10,814 miles of railroads completed and in use; and that 10,898 miles were then in course of construction, with a prospect of being speedily brought into use. While the whole of these 10,898 miles will, beyond reasonable doubt, have been finished within five years, such is the activity with which projects for works of this character are brought forward and carried into effect, that it is not extravagant to assume that there will be completed within the limits of the United States before the year 1860 at least 35,000 miles of railroads.

The Quincy railroad, for the transportation of granite from the quarries at Quincy to Neponset river, and the Mauch Chunk railroad, from the coal mines to the Lehigh river, in Pennsylvania, were the first attempts to introduce that mode of transportation in this country; and their construction and opening, in the years 1826 and 1827, are properly considered the commencement of the American railroad system. From this period until about the year 1848, the progress of the improvements thus begun was interrupted only by the financial revulsion which followed the events of 1836 and 1837. Up to 1848, it is stated that about 6,000 miles had been finished. Since that date an addition of 5,000 miles has been made to the completed roads, and, including the present year, new lines, comprising about 14,000 miles, have been undertaken, surveyed, and mostly placed under contract.

The usefulness and comparative economy of railroads as channels of commerce and travel have become so evident, that they have in some measure superseded canals, and are likely to detract seriously from the importance of navigable rivers for like purposes. In a new country like ours, many items of expense, which go to swell the cost of railroads in England and on the Continent, are avoided. Material is cheap, the right of way usually freely granted; and heavy land damages seldom interpose to retard the progress of an important work. It is difficult to arrive at a clear approximation to the average cost of railroad construction in the United States. Probably the first important work of this class undertaken and carried through in the Union was the cheapest, as it has proved one of the most profitable, ever built. This was the road from Charleston, in South Carolina, to Augusta, on the Savannah river. It was finished and opened for traffic in 1833. The entire expense of building the road and equipping it with engines and cars -for passengers and freight was, at the date of its completion, only $6,700 per mile; and all expenditures for repairs and improvements, during the eighteen years that the road has been in operation, have raised the aggregate cost of the whole work to only $1,336,615, or less than $10,000 per mile.

It is estimated that the 2,870 miles of railroads finished in New England have cost $132,000,000, which gives an average of nearly $46,000 per mile. In the middle States, where the natural obstacles are somewhat less, the average expense per mile of the railroads already built is not far from $40,000. Those now in course of completion—as the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, Pennsylvania Central and other lines, the routes of which cross the Allegheny range of mountains—will probably require a larger proportionate outlay, owing to the heavy expense of grading, bridging, and tunneling. In those States where land has become exceedingly valuable, the cost of extinguishing private titles to the real estate requires, and the damages to property along the routes, form a heavy item in the account of general expenses of building railroads. In the South and West the case is reversed; there the proprietors along the proposed line of a road are often willing and anxious to give as much land as may be needed for its purposes, and accord many other advantages in order to secure its location through or in the vicinity of their possessions.

In the States lying in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi the cost of grading, also, is much less than at the eastward. Where the county is wooded, the timber can be obtained at the mere cost of removing it from the track; and through prairie districts, Nature seems to have prepared the way for these structures by removing every obstacle from the surface, while fine quarries of stone are to be found in almost every region. These favorable circumstances render the estimate of $20,000 per mile in all the new States safe and reliable.

The primary design of nearly all the great lines of railway in the United States has been to connect the seacoast with the distant interior; to effect which object it was necessary to cross the Alleghenies, which intersect every line of travel diverging to the West from the great commercial cities of the sea board.

The following are some of the vast enterprises which have been undertaken to accomplish this great purpose, which have either been finished, or are in such a state of progress as leaves no doubt of their being brought to a successful issue within a few years:

First. The railroads connecting Portland, the commercial capital of Maine, with the British provinces, and through their public works, the St. Lawrence river and the lakes, with the western States of the interior.

Second. The railroads from Boston westward, connecting at Albany with the roads of central New York, and, by the more northern route, traversing New Hampshire and Vermont, continuing towards the West by the Ogdensburg railroad, and bringing Montreal, the chief commercial city of Upper Canada, into communication with the capital of New England.

Third. The New York and Erie railroad, extending from New York city to Lake Erie, and intended to form a part of' a continuous line from the Hudson to the Mississippi—a project likely to be effected within the ensuing ten years.

Fourth. The Pennsylvania Central railroad, from Philadelphia to Pittsburg (sic), with numerous diverging branches, to points north and south of the general direction. This great route will reach St. Louis by a nearly due west course through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The Pennsylvania section will be completed about the end of 1852.

Fifth. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad, one of the most magnificent works of the day, will pass from Baltimore through Maryland and Virginia to Wheeling, on the Ohio. At the latter point, it will form a connexion with the system of roads traversing the West and Northwest. It crosses the Alleghenies by the most favorable passes, and, to avoid a very high grade, a tunnel has been cut, perhaps the longest and most expensive in the world.

Sixth. The roads proposed to be constructed under authority of Virginia, and already commenced, intended to establish communication between tide-water and the interior, and southwestern parts of that State, and to continue the same through Tennessee to the Mississippi. These routes pass through the mountains at the southeast corner of Virginia, and the works are in a state of less forwardness than those upon any other of the great lines referred to in this connexion.

Seventh. The several lines of railroad from Charleston and Savannah, penetrating South Carolina and Georgia, concentrating in northeastern Alabama, and reaching the level region of the Mississippi by the valley of the Tennessee river. These roads, by their western continuation, will intersect lines running to every important point between the mountains and the Mississippi.

Eighth. The Mobile and Ohio railroad, from the Mexican gulf to Cairo, on the Ohio river, and thence by the Illinois Central railroad to the lakes, a distance in a straight line of about eleven hundred miles.

It will be seen at a glance that the leading idea in all these vast enterprises was to overcome the barrier presented by this chain of mountains, to a direct and unrestricted intercourse between the sea board and the West, and to supply the want of those natural channels of commerce, navigable rivers, extending into the section we desire to reach. The enormous aggregate of expense of the numerous works specified above, undertaken with this one object, and their importance as public improvements, may be estimated from the following brief notice of the New York and Erie railroad, which occupies the third place in our preceding enumeration:

The longest continuous line of railroad in the world, and that in the construction of which the greatest natural obstacles have been overcome, is that which extends from the Hudson river, through the southern counties of New York, to Lake Erie. Its length is four hundred and sixty-nine miles, and it has branches of an additional length of sixty-eight miles. Nearly its whole course is through a region of mountains. The bridges by which it is carried over the Delaware and Susquehannah rivers, and other streams, and the viaducts upon which it crosses the valleys that intercept its route, are among the noblest monuments of power and skill to be found in our country. The most of these works are of heavy masonry, but one of them is a wooden bridge, one hundred and eighty seven feet in height, with one arch, the span of which is two hundred and seventy-five feet. One of the viaducts is twelve hundred feet long, and one hundred and ten feet high.

The aggregate cost of this important work was $23,580,000, and the expense of construction was $42,333 per mile. The road was originally suggested in 1829; a company was organized in 1833; it was finished on May, 1851, and opened with great ceremony for travel and transportation in that month. The State advanced three millions of dollars towards the work, and afterwards released the company from the obligation to pay the loan. It will be seen that the execution of this great work was pursued through nineteen years, and was not accomplished without calling into requisition both the resources-of the State and the means of her citizens.

The following table presents, in a convenient form, some of the principal facts connected with railroads in the United States on the first January, 1852:

1851 Census, Table #1

Since the first edition of this report was put to press, information has been received, tending to prove that 2,500 miles of railroad, in progress at the beginning of 1852, had been completed during the year, and that 3,652 miles of new road had been placed under contract, making the aggregates of 13,266 miles of railroad in operation, and 12,681 miles in progress, on the 1st of January, 1853. These facts display a rate of increase in the extension of the railroad system greater than the experience of former years had authorized us to anticipate. New York has 3,047 miles of railroad. This is the greatest absolute amount possessed by any State; but Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio exceed it in proportion to their area and population. Several other States—as Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wisconsin—have a greater extent of railway accommodation, according to population, than New York.

Of the southern States, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are proceeding most rapidly in the construction of these improvements. In the North, Illinois and Ohio take the lead of all other States. But it will be more satisfactory to copy in this place a table, exhibiting the progress which each State is making, and has made, in such enterprises. It is extracted from the American Railroad Journal, and has been scrutinized with great care, and is believed to be a statement as nearly the exact as any that can be made.

Table showing the number of miles of railroad in operation, and in under construction,
in each State of the Union on the First of January, 1853.
1851 Census, Table #2

Measures are in progress for establishing railroads in California, with the object of connecting San Francisco with some of the principal towns of the State; and no doubt, ere the lapse of many years, that important division of the Union will be in possession of as large a proportion of these facilities for travel and business as her population and resources require.

From the brief sketch of American railroads should not be excluded some mention of several projects which are not only closely connected with the interests of the United States, but possess something of national importance. The first of these, in point of vastness of design, is the enterprise of building a railroad from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean. The routes proposed in this great work are almost as numerous as the persons who claim the merit of having first suggested and brought forward the scheme of thus completing the chain of railroad connexion between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Union.

Although the importance of such a work to the prosperity of the nation cannot be doubted, there is reason to suppose that many years will elapse before the resources of the country will be found sufficient for its accomplishment. No scientific survey of any route west of the frontier of Missouri has been made, but it is not probable that any could be found that would bring the line of travel between the Mississippi and the ocean within the limit of 1,600 miles.

The natural obstacles to be overcome are the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevada, the deserts between the Missouri and the former chain, and those of the great basin, the flying sands, and the want of timber. Further explorations may lead to the discovery of means to overcome these difficulties. Should the cost not exceed the average of western roads, it would form no objection to the enterprise, since it would be only about $32,000,000, or only twenty-five per cent more than has been expended upon the Erie railroad—less than fifty per cent greater than the aggregate expenditure upon the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and not two-thirds of that incurred by the State of Massachusetts on her railroads. And even though the average cost should be as heavy as that of the most expensive roads in the country—those of New England, for example—the aggregate expenditure required for the completion of this great national enterprise would not exceed $72,000,000, which is not a larger sum than has been invested in such improvements in England in a single year. The only question, then, affecting the probability of the construction of the Pacific railroad is that of practicability.

This can only be determined by thorough surveys of some or all of the routes proposed, from the valley of the Rio Grande, the Arkansas, the Missouri, and the upper Mississippi. If this road were completed, and the route continued westward by steamship to Calcutta, it would reduce the time required for the circuit of the globe, by the American overland route, to ninety-three days, as follows:

From: New York to San Francisco   4 days.
San Francisco to Hong-Kong 25 "
Hong-Kong to Calcutta   6 "
Calcutta to Bombay 13 "
Bombay to England 35 "
London to New York 10 " 
  93 days.

Another project for connecting, by the means of cheap and rapid conveyance, the two coasts of our confederacy, which deserves, as it has received, very great attention, is the proposition to build a railroad across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. The difficulties which surround this undertaking are chiefly of a diplomatic character, upon the ultimate decision of which the success of the enterprise depends. An American company has taken the work in hand, and caused a preliminary survey to be made, which establishes its feasibility. The length of the road, according to the report of the surveyors, will be 166 miles from sea to sea; but only about 80 miles from the head of navigable water on either side.

The cost of the road, with all the necessary equipments, station houses, &c., is estimated at $7,848,000. The time expected to be required for its construction is three years. With this connecting link of communication completed, the voyage from New Orleans to San Francisco will be performed in eight or nine days.

The subjoined table, prepared for the most part from actual returns, exhibits the amount expended upon roads in operation on the 31st December, 1851:

1851 Census, Table #3

Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

Note: This webpage concerns the Federal Census; there was also an 1852 California Special Census.

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