In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio became the first common carrier rail company to operate in the United States. Barley fifty years had passed since the Declaration of Independence was signed, and America was still very much in it’s infancy. Early operations depended on horse-drawn carts for startup operations. Those pioneer railroads had to invent as they built or replicate or import proven designs that were perfected in England, Mother of the Railways. A wide variety of primitive US-built steam locomotives developed, such as the Tom Thumb, York and Atlantic of the B&O that featured vertical boilers. It became readily apparent that vertical boilers restricted the size and steam capacity that was required for more powerful locomotives. The Herald of the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, imported from England in 1832 featured a horizontal boiler and the Lafayette of the B&O built in 1837 also featured a horizontal boiler thus ending the era of vertical boiler designs. Other pioneer locomotives of that era included the Dewitt Clinton of the Mohawk & Hudson (later NYC) and John Bull of the Camden & Amboy (later PRR).
Despite distinction of being “common carriers”, pioneer railroads were developed to haul freight and passengers were clearly a secondary market. Early freight equipment resembled larger, four wheeled versions of horse-drawn carts in service on primitive turnpikes. When passenger service was introduced, stage coach bodies were mounted on four wheeled freight car frames. The demand for cars with greater capacity drove larger and longer car body designs for both freight and passenger cars that were supported by two trucks per car with four wheels per truck.
Structures reflected the focus on freight and early railroad depots were basically warehouse designs that featured limited office for a freight agency. Some early stations also featured a large room at one end, with a smoke jack to the roof, accessed by two large external doors that served as the engine house for early steam locomotives. The original station of the B&O at Ellicott City, MD is so equipped and outside the station the turntable pit nearby has been excavated as well confirming the diminutive size of early railroad motive power. When passenger service was eventually introduced, passengers also used the offices of the freight agency to purchase transportation and wait for trains. As the freight business expanded, passenger services were frequently relocated to nearby trackside Inns or Hotels but that proved to be inadequate and dedicated passenger stations and shelters were then introduced. Many of the earliest passenger stations resembled the toll houses that were located along turnpikes. The 1850-era Mt. Clare Station of the B&O is an example of that design influence.
Transportation is evolutionary and each new form takes notes from its predecessor. Accordingly early railroad routes frequently followed rivers and canals since those were established lanes of commerce and the water level grade reduced expensive engineering and construction projects. It short, all capital was needed to perfect locomotives, rolling stock and track structure as well as permanent structures. But in time railroad management discovered that the corkscrew alignment of the earliest rail routes hampered continued development and efficient operation. Correcting those challenges later on proved to be a lengthy and expensive process.
By the 1860s numerous American Locomotive, Car Builders and Railway Suppliers flooded the expanding railroad sector with new designs and products. Locomotives and wheel arrangements developed significantly and gave birth to the 4-4-0 wheel arrangement appropriately name American type. The 4-4-0 locomotive was the most numerous wheel arrangement of that period. But the demand for more powerful locomotives later in this period lead to the 4-6-0 Ten Wheeler) and 2-6-0 (Mogul) types.
For modelers, this can be a challenging era to replicate, as the choice for readily available models is limited. Model Railroad manufacturers have never featured an extensive line of equipment and structures from that pioneer era meaning that much has to be scratch built, including infrastructure and track types. Several sets recreating well known locomotives and rolling stock from that era have however been produced by manufacturers such as Bachmann. Still if you like a challenge take time to study images of railroading in that era including the structures and physical characteristics of pioneer railroads. The charming detail of stone structures and frame Inns and Hotels and riverside locations of some rail lines offer a creative modeler endless possibilities. Several late modelers including M. D. Thornburgh and E. P. Alexander built several impressive dioramas of pre-1860 railroad scenes that remain fascinating 80 years after their completion.