There is nothing new about using tracks made of stone, wood, or iron to move wheeled vehicles about— even since Babylonian times. Throughout history, man has had the need to find better ways to transport goods and people. Before the invention of the steam engine in the 1760s, travel was slow and the best way to get from place to place was by boat. The first locomotives were only experiments, and some folks thought they would never be powerful enough to be useful. A race was set up between a locomotive and a horse to see which was more powerful. The horse won the race, but only because the locomotive broke down. Those who saw the race realized how powerful the steam engine could be.
In America there were few roads. Even short journeys could take days. To reach faraway places, people had to cross wilderness areas with no bridges or mountain roads. The most effective overland means of travel was horses and wagons, but the uneven ground was uncomfortable and dangerous. Growing cities in the East increased the need to transport both goods and people easily.
The coming of the railroads changed travel and thus changed history. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine was just one of the mechanical marvels that aided industrial growth and provided a quicker, safer way to travel and to transport goods. The last quarter of the nineteenth century found America a nation moving along into the complexity of modern civilization. Railroads rushed to meet the challenge of a continent that needed to be knit together and contributed to the building of both the United States and Canada.
By the 1860s, a series of rail lines linked the growing East with a few railheads trailing out to Abilene, Texas, where cattle drovers brought cows to meet the demand of the eastern market for beef and leather. The California Gold Rush of 1849 created a mass of people “rushing”to the gold fields. Not only could a transcontinental railroad bring gold seekers west, but it could also bring California’s wealth back to the East. Railroad companies started planning to build a railway across the continent. In that day, wherever you looked you could see the combination of God’s bounty and man’s cleverness making America over into a nation of men who could not produce wealth fast enough.
The development of the steam locomotive would eventually meet the growing need for a faster, more efficient workhorse. Steam was the main form of power used to drive trains from the early 1800s, but it was not very efficient because trains had to stop often to take on more fuel and water. In most parts of the world, coal was the fuel used to heat the water to make the steam. In North America the main fuel was wood.