Passenger Mobility in the 1850s

Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Passengers in 1857 from Philadelphia to Each Station on the Line

Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space (University of California Press, 1987) has described the effects of railroad travel and the development of the railroad network in the United States. Schivelbusch points out that the effect of speed on perception was intense, fatiguing to some, and psychologically important. It produced what he calls "the development of urban perception." Schivelbusch writes, "The notion that the railroad annihilated space and time was not related to that expansion of space that resulted from the incorporation of new spaces into the transport network.  What was experienced as being annihilated was the traditional space-time continuum which characterized the old transport technology."

Nearly every commentator in the 1840s and 1850s remarked on the "annihilation" of time and space that railroads and telegraphs seemed to bring with them wherever they went. By 1861 there were over 30,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, over 9,000 miles in the South. Blacks, whites, women, men, first-class elites and commoners, all rode the railroads. The number of depots across the nation expanded quickly.

At a Baltimore dinner in 1857 celebrating the completion of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's crossing of the Allegheny mountains, speakers marveled at "the simple fact" that the party had traversed over 1,000 miles in a few days and that they had crossed three states that were not states at the beginning of the century. "All that distance has, as it were, vanished from under our feet,” one remarked, "you had, for all practical purposes of transit, obliterated the Alleghenies from the map of our country." Such sentiments were widespread, but the full implications of these new arrangements were unclear. One expected the railroads would be "a powerful agent . . . to republicanize a people."  Another hoped that the railroads would allow "many mansions" in one house. Few could predict just how far the railroads would reorient the American landscape and with recursive effects, its polity, economy, and social relations.