Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

George Stephenson


As late as the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century a land journey of any length was a matter not lightly to be undertaken. One had to go either on foot, or by horse. In the modes of travel the people of that time were no better off than the Romans under Caesar, more than eighteen hundred years before.

In early colonial times two or more persons traveling in the same direction often used the "ride and tie system," as it was called. That is to say, one would start on horseback, the other following on foot. The one on horseback, after riding about a mile would dismount, tie the horse, and walk on. The one on foot, coming to the horse, would mount, ride past the one ahead for a distance, tie the horse, and walk on in his turn, leaving the horse once more for the first rider.

In 1776 a coach took thirteen days to journey from London to Edinburgh; and in this country in the same year a coach between New York and Philadelphia, the weather favorable, took two days for the trip.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Now we travel at the rate of over fifty miles an hour and think nothing of it. This great change in the method of transportation is due, in large measure, to the genius and ability of George Stephenson.


George Stephenson was an Englishman. His father was a poor worker in the coal mines, and as a boy, he too worked in the mines. He did not know how to read or write till he was past seventeen, yet he became one of the most prominent men of his country.

England has always been celebrated for its coal mines; and in the years of Stephenson's childhood, the need of a quicker and a cheaper method of transporting the coal had long been felt. In some of the mines rough rails had been used, the loads being pulled by horses.

Stephenson was put to work as engine boy for the stationary engines used in lifting the coal. He had a mechanical mind and was fond of machinery. So he soon became familiar with the construction of machines, and at an early age was an expert engineer.

By studying after his working hours he learned to read and write. He was so poor that in order to increase his earnings, he made and repaired shoes in the evening. Later he gained quite a local reputation from the skill with which he cleaned and repaired clocks.

As he matured and his knowledge of mechanics increased, he became more and more interested in solving the question of transporting coal more cheaply. As early as 1815 he had built an engine which was used in drawing coal from a mine to the place of shipment several miles away.

A few years later he constructed another road, the Stockton and Darlington Railroad. At that time no one supposed that travelers would care to be carried in this way; for, as an English newspaper of those days said, "What person would ever think to pay anything to be something like a coal wagon...and to be a roaring steam engine?" At the celebration of the opening of this road a rider on horseback with a flag led the procession in front of the engine. You see that the train was not expected to go very fast.


But the Stockton and Darlington Railroad proved successful and led to the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Road. In order to decide the best engine to be adopted on this new road, a contest was held in which four engines took part, and the prize of five hundred pounds was won by Stephenson's engine, the Rocket.

The Rocket


The Liverpool and Manchester Railroad was opened in the summer of 1830; and the occasion was honored by the presence of the Duke of Wellington, many members of Parliament, and other prominent men. At this opening the first railroad accident is recorded, Mr. Huskisson, a distinguished member of Parliament, being killed.

The famous little Rocket is still preserved in London in the Kensington Museum. It weighs only four and a quarter tons and is a great contrast to the monsters of to-day, some of which weigh one hundred and twenty tons. But small though it be, it is, so to speak, the grandfather of the present locomotive.

George Stephenson


In the United States, railways were quickly introduced. The first one was only about thirteen miles long and ran from Baltimore, Maryland, to Ellicott's Mills. Over its rails in 1830 went the first American locomotive. Ten years later there were nearly three thousand miles of railroad in the different states. On May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven in a railroad that ran clear across our country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And to-day one can travel the 3,322 miles between New York and San Francisco in about five days, the same length of time it took the early colonists to journey from New York to Boston.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth