Canadian Transport Sourcebook

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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> The Railway Builders > Chapter 1

Chapter I

The Coming of the Railway

On the morning of October 6, 1829, there began at Rainhill, in England, a contest without parallel in either sport or industry. There were four entries:

These were neither race-horses nor stage-coaches, but rival types of the newly invented steam locomotive. To win the £500 prize offered, the successful engine, if weighing six tons, must be able to draw a load of twenty tons at ten miles an hour, and to cover at least seventy miles a day. Little wonder that an eminent Liverpool merchant declared that only a parcel of charlatans could have devised such a test, and wagered that if a locomotive ever went ten miles an hour, he would eat a stewed engine-wheel for breakfast!

The contest had come about as the only solution of a deadlock between the stubborn directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, or tramway, then under construction, and their still more stubborn engineer, one George Stephenson. The railway was nearly completed, and the essential question of the motive power to be used had not yet been decided. The most conservative authorities thought it best to stick to the horse; others favoured the use of stationary steam-engines, placed every mile or two along the route, and hauling the cars from one station to the next by long ropes; Stephenson, with a few backers, urged a trial of the locomotive. True, on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first successful public line ever built, opened four years before, a Travelling Engine, built by the same dogged engineer, had hauled a train of some forty light carriages nearly nine miles in sixty-five minutes, and had even beaten a stage-coach, running on the highway alongside, by a hundred yards in the twelve miles from Darlington to Stockton. But even here the locomotive was only used to haul freight; passengers were still carried in old stage-coaches, which were mounted on special wheels to fit the rails, and were drawn by horses. The best practical engineers in England, when called into consultation, inspected the Stockton road, and then advised the perplexed directors to instal twenty-one stationary engines along the thirty-one miles of track, rather than to experiment with the new Travelling Engine.

'What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,' the Quarterly Review had declared in 1825, 'than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stage-coaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve's ricochet rockets as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate.' And the Quarterly was not alone in its scepticism. The directors of the new railway had found great difficulty in obtaining a charter from parliament—a difficulty registered in a bill for parliamentary costs reaching £27,000, or over $4000 a mile. Canal proprietors and toll-road companies had declaimed against the attack on vested rights. Country squires had spluttered over the damage to fox covers. Horses could not plough in neighbouring fields. Widows' strawberry-beds would be ruined. What would become of coachmen and coach-builders and horse-dealers? 'Or suppose a cow were to stray upon the line; would not that be a very awkward circumstance?' queried a committee member, only to give Stephenson an opening for the classic reply in his slow Northumbrian speech: 'Ay, varra awkward for the coo.' And not only would the locomotive as it shot along do such varied damage; in truth, it would not go at all; the wheels, declared eminent experts, would not grip on the smooth rails, or else the engines would prove top-heavy.

To decide the matter, the directors had offered the prize which brought together the Novelty, the Sans-pareil, the Rocket, and the Perseverance, engines which would look almost as strange to a modern crowd as they did to the thousands of spectators drawn up along the track on that momentous morning. The contest was soon decided. The Novelty, an ingenious engine but not substantially built, broke down twice. The Sans-pareil proved wasteful of coal and also met with an accident. The Perseverance, for all its efforts, could do no better than five or six miles an hour. The Rocket alone met all requirements. In a seventy-mile run it averaged fifteen miles an hour and reached a maximum of twenty-nine. Years afterwards, when scrapped to a colliery, the veteran engine was still able, in an emergency, to make four miles in four and a half minutes. 'Truly,' declared Cropper, one of the directors who had stood out for the stationary engine and the miles of rope, 'now has George Stephenson at last delivered himself.'

Stephenson had the good fortune, he had earned it indeed, to put the top brick on the wall, and he alone lives in popular memory. But the railway, like most other great inventions, came about by the toil of hundreds of known and unknown workers, each adding his little or great advance, until at last some genius or some plodder, standing on their failures, could reach success. Both the characteristic features of the modern railway, the iron road and the steam motive power, developed gradually as necessity urged and groping experiment permitted.

The iron road came first. When men began to mine coal in the north of England, the need grew clear of better highways to bear the heavy cart-loads to market or riverside. About 1630 one Master Beaumont laid down broad wooden rails near Newcastle, on which a single horse could haul fifty or sixty bushels of coal. The new device spread rapidly through the whole Tyneside coal-field. A century later it became the custom to nail thin strips of wrought iron to the wooden rails, and about 1767 cast-iron rails were first used. Carr, a Sheffield colliery manager, invented a flanged rail, while Jessop, another colliery engineer, took the other line by using flat rails but flanged cart-wheels. The outburst of canal building in the last quarter of the eighteenth century overshadowed for a time the growth of the iron road, but it soon became clear that the 'tramway' was necessary to supplement, if not to complete, the canal. In 1801 the first public line, the Surrey Iron Railway, was chartered, but it was not until 1825 that the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway proved that the iron way could be made as useful to the general shipping public as to the colliery owner. At the outset this road was regarded as only a special sort of toll-road upon which any carrier might transport goods or passengers in his own vehicles, but experience speedily made it necessary for the company to undertake the complete service.

It took longer to find the new motive power, but this, too, first came into practical use in the land where peace and liberty gave industry the fostering care which the war-rent Continent could never guarantee. Nowadays it seems a simple thing to turn heat energy into mechanical energy, to utilize the familiar expansive power of water heated to vapour. Yet centuries of experiment, slowly acquired mechanical dexterity, and an industrial atmosphere were needed for the development of the steam-engine, and later of the locomotive. Inventiveness was not lacking in the earlier days. In the second century before Christ, Hero of Alexandria had devised steam fountains and steam turbines, but they remained scientific toys, unless for the miracle-working purposes to which legend says that eastern priests adopted them. So in the seventeenth century, when the Norman, Solomon de Caus, claimed that with the vapour of boiling water he could move carriages and navigate ships, Cardinal Richelieu had him put in prison as a madman. Around 1628 an Italian, Giovanni Branca, invented an engine which had the essential features of the modern turbine, but his crude apparatus lacked efficiency.

Once more the coal-mines of England set invention working on a definite, continuous object. As the shafts were sunk to lower and lower levels, it became impossible to pump the water out of the mines by horse power, and the aid of steam was sought. Just at the close of the seventeenth century Savery devised the first commercial steam-engine, or rather steam fountain, which applied cold water to the outside of the cylinder to condense the steam inside and produce a vacuum; while Papin, one of the Huguenot refugees to whom industrial England owed so much, planned the first cylinder and piston engine. Then in 1705 Newcomen and Cawley, working with Savery, took up Papin's idea, separated boiler from cylinder, and thus produced a vacuum into which atmospheric pressure forced the piston and worked the pump. Next Humphrey Potter, a youngster hired to open and shut the valves of a Newcomen engine, made it self-acting by tying cords to the engine-beam, had his hour for play or idling, and proved that if necessity is the mother of invention, laziness is sometimes its father. Half a century passed without material advance; even as perfected in detail by Smeaton, the Newcomen engine required thirty-five pounds of coal to produce one horse-power per hour, as against one pound to-day. Then James Watt, instrument-maker in Glasgow, seeing that much of the waste of steam was due to the alternate chilling and heating of the cylinder, added a separate condenser in which to do the chilling, and kept the temperature of the cylinder uniform by applying a steam-jacket. Later, by applying steam and a vacuum to each side of the piston alternately, and by other improvements, Watt, with his partner Boulton, brought the reciprocating steam-engine to a high stage of efficiency.

It took fifty years longer to combine the steam-engine and the rail. French and American inventors devised steam carriages, which came to nothing. England again led the way. At Redruth in Cornwall Boulton and Watt had a branch for the erection of stationary engines in Cornish tin-mines, in charge of William Murdock, later known as inventor of the system of lighting by gas. Murdock devised a steam carriage to run upon the ordinary highway, but was discouraged by his employers from perfecting the machine. Another mechanic at Redruth, Richard Trevithick, captain in a tin-mine, took up the torch, built a 'Dragon' for use on the common highway, but was baffled by the hopeless badness of the roads, and turned to making a locomotive for use on the iron ways of the Welsh collieries. Two years later, in 1803, he had constructed an ingenious engine, which could haul a ten-ton load five miles an hour, but the engine jolted the road to pieces, and the versatile inventor was diverted to other schemes. Blenkinsop of Leeds in 1812 had an engine built with a toothed wheel working in a racked rail, which did years of good service; and next year at Wylam on the Tyne a colliery owner, Blackett, had the Puffing Billy built, and proved that smooth wheels would grip smooth rails. Still another year, and an engine-wright in a Tyneside colliery, George Stephenson, himself born at Wylam, devised the Blücher, doubling effectiveness by turning the exhaust steam into the chimney to create a strong draught. Using this steam blast, and adopting the multitubular boiler from a French inventor, Seguin, Stephenson finally scored a triumph, due not so much to unparalleled genius as to dogged perseverance in working out his own ideas and in adapting the ideas of other men.

Thus by slow steps the steam railway had come. It was a necessity of the age. Crude means of transport might serve the need of earlier days when each district was self-contained and self-sufficing. But now the small workshop and the craftsman's tool were giving way to the huge factory and the power-driven machine. The division of labour was growing more complex. Each district was becoming more dependent on others for markets in which to buy and to sell. Traffic was multiplying. The industrial revolution brought the railway, and the railway quickened the pace of the industrial revolution.

To some critics, as to Ruskin, railways have appeared 'the loathsomest form of deviltry now extant, animated and deliberate earthquakes, destructive of all nice social habits or possible natural beauty.' Animated and deliberate earthquakes they were indeed to prove, transforming social and industrial and political structures the world over. With the telegraph and the telephone, they greatly widened the scope and quickened the pace of business operations, making it possible, and therefore necessary, for the captain of industry and finance of the twentieth century to have under control ten times the press of affairs which occupied his eighteenth-century forerunner. The railway levelled prices and levelled manners. It enabled floods of settlers to sweep into all the waste places of the earth, clamped far-flung nations into unity, and bound country to country.

Nowhere was the part played so momentous as in the vast spaces of the North American continent, and not least in the northern half. The railway found Canada scarcely a geographical expression, and made it a nation.