The rail world

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Sure, they're a famous couple now, but tracks and trains didn't choo-choo-choose each other at first glance.

On the rails

It may seem mind-boggling, but railroads weren't originally intended for trains. The earliest railroads were actually used in 16th-century European mines to help men and horses pull coal carts faster. Soon after, the Germans came up with Wagonways: the first wooden rail system.

As early as the 1550s, people hopped on the railways to drive their horse-powered wagons, avoiding a bumpy ride on rutted European roads. To keep the tracks from wearing too quickly, and to make the ride smoother, strips of iron were added to the wooden tracks along with crossties to hold the timbers in place.

Then, in 1767, Coalbrookdale Iron Works of England forged the first cast-iron rails, made with rims that flared to keep the wheels on the tracks - allowing heavier loads to travel.

Doing the locomotive

Oddly enough, train development took a separate path. Thomas Newcomen created a crude steam engine in 1712, and James Watt made better ones in 1769 and 1774.

But the first actual steam locomotive didn't come around until Richard Trevithick invented it in 1804. Just like the first railroad never saw a train, the first locomotive was intended for the road, not the tracks.

Still, it laid the path for George Stephenson to build "The Blucher" a decade later - a steam locomotive that tugged eight loaded train cars at just about five miles per hour ... for nine miles. It wasn't a bad maiden voyage, if a bit slow. Stephenson developed "The Rocket" a decade later, and became known as the father of the steam locomotive.

Like in England, the first railroads in the U.S. just serviced horse-drawn wagons hauling minerals.

Two locomotives imported from England in 1829 turned out to be too heavy for the tracks, so Matthias Baldwin of Philadelphia started a domestic locomotive-building business. It didn't take long to catch on - within a decade, railroads had surpassed the mileage of canals and were considered more reliable than the turnpikes.

The Underground Railroad

Two things about the Underground Railroad: First, it wasn't underground. And second, it was never a railroad.

Organized abolitionists worked to free slaves as early as 1775, and the system was so successful that 40,000 to 100,000 slaves escaped between 1810 and 1850. Interestingly, the network existed long before the nickname. Railroads didn't become popular until around 1830.

Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun, visit and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.