The railroad that opened the West

Monday Book Review

March 28, 1994|By Joseph F. Nevin

THE GREAT ROAD: THE BUILDING OF THE BALTIMORE & OHIO, THE NATION'S FIRST RAILROAD, 1828-1853. By James D. Dilts, Stanford University Press. 592 pages. 94 illustrations. 15 maps. $60.

JAMES D. Dilts decided to write a history of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad during the line's 150th anniversary celebration. Seventeen years later, Mr. Dilts, a Baltimore writer and former reporter for The Sun, has produced a major work of 592 pages, and it covers only the railroad's first 25 years!

His is not the first effort. In 1853, William Prescott Smith, calling himself a "citizen of Baltimore," wrote "The History and 'u Description of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company," the story of the company's first 25 years. Edward Hungerford wrote the two-volume "The Story of the Baltimore and Ohio" on its 100th anniversary. Both of these men were company employees, and their works suffer from the liabilities of directed-employee authorship. They are suspect in both research and objectivity and are dated and incomplete.

The product of Mr. Dilts' decision, "The Great Road," represents the book Smith should have written and the point where Hungerford should have started. Scaled back from its original scope, the book covers in 592 pages the same period as Smith's 1853 work -- the 25 years it took the B&O to complete its original plan for a railroad connecting Baltimore with the Ohio River at Wheeling, Va. With unparalleled objectivity, it covers the early NTC successes and failures of the fledgling company.

To call this book railroad history, or even corporate history, underestimates its scope. Mr. Dilts provides a picture of early 19th century business development; how the railroad was financed; the building of its corporate structure; the creativity involved in writing its charter; the involvement of politicians and the effects of politics at federal, state and local levels; the depth of interstate rivalry left over from the Colonial period; and the social impact of the railroad's linking of the Eastern Sea board with the West.

But "The Great Road" is primarily a people book. Mr. Dilts manages to penetrate the personalities and character of the individuals instrumental in the building of the railroad. There is the stoic but cunning first president, Philip E. Thomas; his emotional brother, Evan; directors Charles Carroll, Alexander Brown and William Patterson; nameless Irish laborers who provide so much color to the construction accounts; and the men who struggled to return to Baltimore the cargo traffic it had lost with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Like any good historian, Mr. Dilts obviously spent his many years of research getting to know the people about whom he writes.

Rail historians often refer to the B&O as "the Railroad University of the United States." The people who designed and built the first common carrier railroad on the continent had no blueprint to follow. Rather, they were drawing the blueprint for the lines that would follow as they proceeded west. Mr. Dilts describes the great frustration of the initial builders as they guessed wrong and were forced to rebuild sections of the railroad before completing the road to Wheeling. There were bitter debates between those who wanted to build a railroad for the ages and those who favored a lightly built line that could be put into service rapidly, then rebuilt after completion to the Ohio River.

Seventeen years to write the story of a 25-year period in the 19th century may seem excessive, but one has to realize the volume of source material Mr. Dilts had to examine and absorb in his quest. "The Great Road" is the definitive work on the development of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the story of the opening of the Ohio River trade to the Eastern Seaboard.

Mr. Dilts has earned recognition as a splendid historian. He's also earned a rest.

But many of us are already anticipating his next volume, which is planned to complete the story launched so magnificently in "The Great Road."

Joseph F. Nevin is a former president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society who lectures for the Smithsonian Institution on railroad history. He writes from North Potomac.

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