Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER VII.: RAILROADS IN AMERICA. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER VII.: RAILROADS IN AMERICA. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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RAILROADS IN AMERICA.
Richmond, (Va.) March 15, 1834.
Three thousand years ago the kings of the earth were happy; happy as a king; but the old proverb is now become a falsehood. Then no Constantinople was coveted; the citadels of Antwerp and Ancona were not built. No one troubled himself about the Rhenish frontier; the natural and simple Herodotus told marvellous tales, like those of the Arabian Nights, about the country watered by the Rhine. The banks of the Danube were trackless morasses; Vienna was not yet, nor of course the Treaty of Vienna. Peace reigned between the sovereigns, or at least their contests were altogether academical, philosophical, and literary. The good king Nectanebus, an enlightened prince, a patron of the arts, played charades with his neighbours, the mighty monarchs of Asia; he guessed all their riddles without their being able to solve his in turn; his glory was unmatched, his people rolled in prosperity. The condition of men of letters and science was, to be sure, somewhat of the meanest; grammarians and philosophers were sometimes dragged to market with halters on their necks, to be sold like cattle, a treatment to which none but negroes are now subject. But if they were men of genius, their good star threw them into the hands of the best of masters, such as Xanthus, the most patient and kind of men, or good natured princes, like Nectanebus, who knew how to appreciate true merit. Æsop having become the property of this good king, soon got to be his counsellor, friend, and confidant, revised his charades and riddles, and suggested new ones to the king in such a modest way, that Nectanebus really believed himself the author of them. One day Nectanebus, by his advice, proposed to his rival monarchs this difficult problem; How would you build a city in the air? After they had puzzled their brains without success, Nectanebus prepared to give a solution of the question in the presence of the ambassadors of the Asiatic sovereigns solemnly convoked; Æsop put some little boys in baskets, which were carried up into the air by eagles trained for the purpose, and the boys began to cry out to the astonished ambassadors; “Give us stone and mortar, and we will build you a city.” This old story has often occurred to my mind since I have been in the United States, and I have often said to myself, if Æsop’s boys had been Americans, instead of having been subjects of king Nectanebus, they would have demanded materials, not for building a city, but for constructing a railroad. In fact there is a perfect mania in this country on the subject of railroads.
While at Liverpool, I went aboard the Pacific to engage a berth, and Capt. Waite, a very worthy man, who believes in God with all his heart, and is not any the less on that account a very skilful commander, and a most intrepid sailor, offered me the latest American newspapers. The first I opened happened to be the Railroad Journal. Soon after sailing I fell sea-sick, and had scarcely a moment’s relief till my arrival at New York; of all my recollections of the voyage, the most distinct is that of having heard the word railroad occurring once every ten minutes, in the conversation of the passengers. At New York, I went to visit the docks for building and repairing vessels; after having examined the dry dock and two or three other docks, my guide, himself an enthusiast on the subject of railroads, carried me to the railroad-dock, where the ships are moved along a railway. In Virginia, I found railroads at the bottom of the coal mines, which is not, indeed, new to a European. At Philadelphia I visited the excellent penitentiary, where everything was so neat, quiet, and comfortable, (if that word may be applied to a prison), in comparison with the abommable prisons in France, which are noisy, filthy, unhealthy, cold in winter, and damp in summer. The warden, Mr Wood, who manages the institution with great vigilance and philanthropy, after having shown me the prisoners’ cells, the yards in which they take the air, the kitchen where the cooking is done by steam, and allowed me to visit one of the convicts, a poor fellow from Alsace, said to me, just as I was taking my leave; “But you have not seen everything yet, I must show you my railroad;” and in fact there was a railroad in the prison, for the cart in which food was brought to the prisoners.
Some days ago I happened to be in the little city of Petersburg, which stands at the falls of the Appomattox, and near which there is an excellent railroad. A merchant of the city took me to a manufactory of tobacco, in which some peculiar processes were employed. In these works was manufactured that sort of tobacco which most Americans chew, and will chew for some time to come, in spite of the severe, but in this matter just, censures of English travellers, unless the fashion of vetos should spread in the United States, and the women should set theirs on the use of tobacco, with as unyielding a resolution, as the President has shown towards the Bank. After having wandered about the workshops amidst the poor little slaves by whom they are filled, I was stopping to look at some of these blacks, who appeared to me almost white, and who had not more than one eighth of African blood in their veins, when my companion said to me, “As you are interested in railroads, you must see the one belonging to the works.” Accordingly we went to the room where the tobacco is packed in kegs, and subjected to a powerful pressure. The apparatus for pressing is a very peculiar contrivance, which I will not now stop to describe, but of which the most important part is a moveable railroad, suspended from the ceiling. Thus the Americans have railroads in the water, in the bowels of the earth, and in the air. The benefits of the invention are so palpable to their practical good sense, that they endeavour to make an application of it everywhere and to everything, right or wrong, and when they cannot construct a real, profitable railroad across the country from river to river, from city to city, or from State to State, they get one up, at least, as a plaything, or until they can accomplish something better, under the form of a machine.
The distance from Boston to New Orleans is 1600 miles, or twice the distance from Havre to Marseilles. It is highly probable, that within a few years this immense line will be covered by a series of railroads stretching from bay to bay, from river to river, and offering to the ever-impatient Americans the service of their rapid cars at the points where the steamboats leave their passengers. This is not a castle in the air, like so many of those grand schemes which are projected amidst the fogs of the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne; it is already half completed. The railroad from Boston to Providence is in active progress; the work goes on à l’ Américaine, that is to say, rapidly. From New York to Philadelphia, there will soon be not only one open to travel, but two in competition with each other, the one on the right, the other on the left bank of the Delaware; the passage between the two cities will be made in seven hours, five hours on the railroad, and two in the steamboat, in the beautiful Hudson and the magnificent Bay of New York, which the Americans, who are not afflicted with modesty, compare with the Bay of Naples. From Philadelphia, travellers go to Baltimore by the Delaware and Chesapeake, and by the Newcastle and Frenchtown railroad, in eight hours; from Baltimore to Washington, a railroad has been resolved upon, a company chartered, the shares taken, and the work begun, all within the space of a few months. Between Washington and Blakely, in North Carolina, 60 miles of railroad are completed, from Blakely northwards. A company has just been chartered to complete the remaining space, that is, from Richmond to the Potomac, a distance of 70 miles, and the Potomac bears you to the Federal city by Mt. Vernon, a delightful spot, the patrimony of George Washington, where he passed his honoured old age, and where his body now reposes in a modest tomb. Between Washington and Blakely, those who prefer the steamboats, may take another route; by descending the Chesapeake to Norfolk, they will find another railroad, 70 miles in length, of which two thirds are now finished, and which carries them to Blakely, and even beyond. Blakely is a new town, which you will not find on any map, born of yesterday; it is the eldest, and as yet the only daughter of the Petersburg and Blakely railroad. From Blakely to Charleston the distance is great, but the Americans are enterprising, and there is no region in the world in which railroads can be constructed so easily and so cheaply; the surface has been graded by nature, and the vast forests which cover it, will furnish the wood of which the railroad will be made; for here most of these works have a wooden superstructure. From Charleston, a railroad 137 miles in length, as yet the longest in the world, extends to Augusta, whence to Montgomery, Alabama, there is a long interval to be supplied. From this last town steamboats descend the River Alabama to Mobile, and those who do not wish to pay their respects to the Gulf of Mexico, on their way to New Orleans, will soon find a railroad which will spare them the necessity of offering this act of homage to the memory of the great Cortez.*
Within ten years this whole line will be completed, and traversed by locomotive engines, provided the present crisis terminates promptly and happily, as I hope it will. Ten years is a long time in these days, and a plan, whose execution requires ten years, seems like a romance or a dream. But in respect to railroads, the Americans have already something to show. Pennsylvania, which by the last census, in 1830, contained only 1,348,000 inhabitants, has 325 miles of railroads actually completed, or which will be so within the year, without reckoning 76 miles which the capitalists of Philadelphia have constructed in the little States of New Jersey and Delaware. The total length of all the railroads in France is 95 miles, that is, a little more than what the citizens of Philadelphia, in their liberality, have given to their poor neighbours. In the State of New York, whose population is the most adventurous and the most successful in their speculations, there are at present only four or five short railroads, but if the sixth part of those which are projected and authorized by the Legislature, are executed, New York will not be behind Pennsylvania in this respect. The merchants of Baltimore, which at the time of the Declaration of Independence contained 6,000 inhabitants, and which now numbers 100,000, have taken it into their heads to make a railroad between their city and the Ohio, a distance of above 300 miles. They have begun it with great spirit, and have now finished about one third of the whole road. In almost every section east of the Ohio and the Mississippi, there are railroads projected, in progress, or completed, and on most of them locomotive steam-engines are employed. There are some in the Alleghanies, whose inclined planes are really terrific, from their great inclination; these were originally designed only for the transportation of goods, but passenger-cars have been set up on them, at the risk of breaking the necks of travellers. There are here works well constructed and ill constructed; there are some that have cost dear, (from 40,000 to 50,000 dollars a mile,) and others that have cost little, (from 10,000 to 15,000 dollars a mile). New Orleans has one, a very modest one to be sure, it being only five miles long, but it will soon have others, and after all, it is before old Orleans, for the latter has yet to wait till its capitalists, seized with some violent fit of patriotism, shall be ready to make the sacrifice of devoting some ten or twelve per cent. of their capital to the construction of a railroad thence to Paris. Virginia, whose population is nearly the same with that of the Department of the North, and which is inferior in wealth, already has 75 miles of railroad fully completed, and 110 in progress, exclusive of those begun this year. The Department of the North, where it would be quite as easy to construct them, and where they would be more productive, has not a foot completed, or in progress, and hardly a foot projected. Observe, moreover, that I here speak of railroads alone, the rage for which is quite new in America, while that for canals is of very old date (for in this country fifteen years is an age), and has achieved wonders. There are States which contain 500, 800, or 1,000 miles of canals. We in France are of all people the boldest in theory and speculation, and we have made the world tremble by our political experiments; but during the last twenty years we have shown ourselves the most timid of nations in respect to physical improvements.
[* ] For observations on these statements see Letter XXI., and the Notes.