The First American Railroads

In 1828, the 90-year-old Charles Carroll stepped up to make the inaugural speech at the breaking ground ceremony for the new Baltimore and Ohio railroad. Carroll had witnessed the birth of the United States firsthand—he was the only surviving signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. Half a century later, as he commemorated the launch of this ambitious project that aimed to reach into the heartland of the continent, his words proved to be remarkably prescient: “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that.”

The United States, which had only recently freed itself from the shackles of colonialism, was ...

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