June 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

"Getting Crazy" on the Fourth: Celebrating the Beginnings of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Irish Laborers

What began here?

The country’s first fully operational locomotive, the Tom Thumb (pictured below), was built in the railroad's Mount Clare shops in 1829. A mechanical means of transporting passengers and freight had begun. Tracks, trestles, bridges and viaducts were completed by unskilled Irish laborers, with tunnels going through solid rock hills.

Tracks were built to Washington, D.C. by the late summer of 1835. Important visitors traveled the tracks in its earliest days, including E.A. Andrews, a professor who was traveling the Mid-Atlantic States on behalf of an abolition society. He sent back his observations on the institution of slavery, but also marveled at the railroad he had just traveled on, going from Baltimore to Washington.

He thought of it as the most fantastic accomplishment, and compared the work of an immigrant Irish population as the greatest since the immigrant Hebrew slaves built the pyramids. He referred to the railroad as "a monument to the labor of Irish immigrants”.

Who were these Irish immigrant laborers? They came from a rural existence: uneducated and living off the land.

Their homes were built of field stone, thatch and the earth itself. Meals (usually potatoes) were cooked over turf fires on the floor of their homes, with smoke dissipating slowly through the thatched roofs.

They arrived in America with God-given abilities, including intelligence and strong backs, but little else. They were willing to do work that few others either would or could.

They lived simply in Baltimore’s most modest homes, and became part of things much bigger than themselves: Industry, churches and schools, ethnic communities, unions and political parties, and various fraternal organizations.

It all began with a celebration along Baltimore’s Pratt Street.

How will you spend your 4th of July this year? It might just be a little subdued, as we continue to muddle through these strange days of Covid-19.

We can think about recent years, and our celebrations…some good memories, I hope. That being said, whatever we did last year paled in comparison to the events in Baltimore, Maryland on July 4, 1828. Baltimore's movers and shakers arranged for a massive parade, watched by 10,000. Marchers were the "Who's Who" of the city, state and nation. They were celebrating a possibility, and perhaps a probability; but not a certainty by any stretch. They were beginning a railroad that would extend from Baltimore to the Ohio River, but a real locomotive had not even been invented. This railroad was the hope of men who saw their city sliding into the second tier of transport, behind those who were building canals with Irish labor. How would they compete?

Their optimism was summarized with a "Song for the Day", which appeared in the local “American” newspaper on July 4, 1828:

"Here's a road to be made,

With the pick and the spade.

'Tis to reach to Ohio for the benefit of trade.

Here are mountains to be leveled,

Here are valleys to be filled.

Here are rocks to be blown and Bridges too to build.

And we're all hopping, skipping and jumping,

And we're all crazy here in Baltimore".

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (pictured below), the only Irish Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, dedicated the Baltimore and & Ohio Railroad that July 4th. He considered the act one of the top two things he did in his life. Meanwhile, President John Quincy Adams dedicated the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal the same day, in Georgetown, Washington D.C. Their plan to ship freight westward, and return with coal and crops via barge and mules. It was simple technology…but the race was on.

The B & O Railroad was established on land owned by men and their descendants of Irish heritage: physician and patriot James McHenry and Charles Carroll, Barrister. They had done well in both America and West Baltimore, where the railroad was founded.

Charles Carroll, Barrister owned Mount Clare, a colonial era estate that still exists in West Baltimore’s Carroll Park today. He was a cousin of Charles Carroll the Signer, and gave a good bit of the land used to establish Mount Clare Station (the railroad’s terminus) and the nearby workshops.

The McHenry Estate, known as Fayetteville, was broken up into neighborhoods and plots where Irish laborers could establish homes and support businesses. The B & O used an extensive amount of immigrant Irish labor. The jobs were advertised in Ireland, and ships brought over 200,000 pre-famine, laboring class Irish to America in the 1830’s.

Steam boilers were the key in the development of the first locomotives, built in 1829-1830 by engineers Peter Cooper and Phineas Davis. These locomotives did not exist until the demand for them required their invention. Technology to create the many iron bridges and trusses needed to run a railroad did not exist either. No one had ever built something like a railroad system, and the world marveled at what was being done by the engineers and workmen that worked for the B & O, including Czar Nicholas I of Russia. He sent an exploratory team to Baltimore to learn what could be done, and hired Baltimore-based engineers to complete his first line from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

One important work foreman was John McCartney. He was an Irishman who hired thousands of Irish laborers, paid them with both wages and whiskey, and got bridges built like no other. His French supervisor, Benjamin Latrobe, did not appreciate it when he baptized his kneeling workers with whiskey after completion of an early bridge in the system.

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