On September 27th, 2025, it will be two hundred years ago that the world’s first public railway, known as the Stockton & Darlington (S&DR), was opened in north-east England.
As well as carrying coal, the train offered space for six hundred passengers, most of them traveling in wagons, but some distinguished guests were allocated a seat in a specially designed carriage called The Experiment.
The event sparked an international boom in infrastructure activity in which the United States soon took a leading role. America’s first passenger steam locomotive, the DeWitt Clinton of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad (M&H), began running in 1831 between the Erie Canal in Schenectady and the Hudson River at Albany. By the 1840s the nation had almost 3,000 miles of railway, greater than the combined European total of 1,800 miles. The network expanded quickly in the years leading up to the Civil War and by 1860 the American railroad system had reached some 30,000 miles.
As technology and industrialization advanced, the century brought about a range of inventions that increased the tempo of transport. Humanity was in a hurry. The clock became the operating system of modern society, especially after the acceptance of Greenwich as the prime meridian. The Age of Rage, foreseen by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1824, was imminent:
For move you must!
‘Tis now the rage,
The law and fashion of the Age.
The train’s momentum changed the traditional rhythm of life, annihilating previous perceptions of time and space. The railway was both agent and symbol of acceleration – but speed came at a price. The train imposed new concepts of catastrophe.
Thrill & Anxiety
The word disaster (from the French désastre, 1560s) literally means “ill-starred” and refers to a sudden misfortune which is blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet. Star (from the Latin astro) is used in the astrological sense of destiny or fate.
The term catastrophe entered the English language at about the same time. It was originally used in reference to drama, meaning the final action in a tragedy that completed the unraveling of the plot. Its meaning was quickly extended and applied to any sort of unpleasant ending. Over time the word took on its present sense of a “terrible disaster.”
The Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1st, 1755, virtually destroyed of the city with an enormous loss of life. This, the first widely reported “modern” calamity, shook Enlightenment thinking and disturbed its optimistic outlook. It also encouraged scientists and philosophers to attack the traditional view that such a calamity was the punishment of an angry God for the sins of the world. Earthquakes and volcanoes should instead be regarded and researched as natural disasters. The Age of Locomotion would introduce the notion of man-made disaster which involves elements of human hubris, miscalculation, or negligence involving mechanical failure.
Financier William Huskisson had been a Member of Parliament for Liverpool since 1822. On September 15th, 1830, he was invited to be present at the opening of the railway line from his city to Manchester. During a brief halt on the steam locomotive Northumbrian, Huskisson and some friends left their carriage when warning was given that Robert Stephenson’s Rocket was approaching down the adjacent track.
Still feeble from a recent illness, William stumbled and fell across the line whilst attempting to board the carriage. He was run over, becoming the world’s first reported railway passenger casualty. His dramatic death was widely reported.
The first U.S. railroad accident is believed to have occurred on July 25th, 1832, on the Granite Railway near Quincy, Massachusetts. Four people had been invited to observe the process of transporting massive blocks of stone when a cable on a vacant car snapped, throwing them off the train. One man was killed. The others barely survived.
The Victorian age identified progress with achievements in engineering. The railway was its iconic technology. The ability to travel at great speed was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and fear. J.M.W. Turner’s 1844 masterpiece “Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway” expressed the thrill of celerity. Yet, the painting was not without threat. It seemed to raise a question: would mankind be able to keep control over the monstrous power it had unleashed?
Man & Machine
In the relentless progression of Western technology there has been a clash between the Promethean and Faustian interpretations of its omnipresent sovereignty. Both Prometheus and Faust were in quest of knowledge. The former had the audacity to steal fire from the Gods; the latter sold his soul to the devil in order to obtain knowledge. To Prometheus science was an instrument of liberation and progress; to Faust it was a tool of power that would ultimately bring destruction and damnation. Ever since the First Industrial Revolution the writings of socio-cultural commentators can be distinguished as belonging to either of these opposing camps.
Literature tended to reflect the Faustian stance. In general, the fictional role of the railways was to highlight how they had transformed the nation, reshaping the landscape, blurring the line between rural and urban, and facilitating the expansion of cities. The locomotive was both beauty and beast.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is set against the social upheaval caused by the arrival of the railway in a small Cheshire town. John Ruskin complained that life in the age of the train would descend into infernal noise, obliterating contemplative life. In 1890, Zola spoke of the “imposing yet delicate beauty” of a locomotive in La bête humaine, a novel in which Flore commits suicide by walking in front of a train (one of numerous identical cases of female suicide in late nineteenth century fiction).
In Thomas Hardy’s writings the railway destroys the environment of Old Wessex. In his last novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), industrialized New Wessex has replaced the old social world of agrarian England. The train’s howls and flames had a satanic touch about them; railways were the Devil’s work. Where did such anxieties stem from?
The number of accidents mounted and fatal crashes caused alarm about machinery and modernity. The trauma of disaster became part of medical discourse when Copenhagen-born John Eric Erichsen, Professor of Surgery at University College London, published a collection of lectures On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System (1866) in which he discussed cases of psycho-neuroses that he had diagnosed after train accidents.
Even the most outspoken critics of modern society accepted that technological advance was irreversible. In a world where all can be managed by machines, everything will be done mechanically. Anxiety about the might of the machine added to the stress of life. A society that ran on rails felt vulnerable to the power it had generated. Safety was surrendered to the locomotive. Peace of mind went up in smoke.
Fearing that modern man might be the sorcerer’s apprentice, social observers warned that humanity was losing control over the machine. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” Henry David Thoreau concluded in Walden (1854).
Ambition & Tragedy
On June 9th, 1865, at 3:13 pm, a train derailed at Staplehurst, Kent. Traveling from Folkestone to London on the South Eastern Railway, it crashed while crossing a viaduct where a length of track had been removed during engineering works without adequate warning to the driver. Ten passengers were killed and forty injured.
On board of that train was Charles Dickens. He tended to the victims, trying to help the wounded. The experience affected him greatly. He lost his voice for two weeks and became reluctant to travel by train. Dickens died five years to the day after the accident. He never fully recovered from the impact of the accident.
On December 28th, 1879, a disaster took place in Scotland when a passenger train on its way to Dundee from Edinburgh fell from a collapsed railroad bridge as it crossed the estuary (firth) of the River Tay. There were no survivors. The failure of a major engineering work six months after its completion caused general disquiet. The undertaking of a prestige project for which technology was found wanting (with the suspicion of cost cutting), was condemned as a reckless act of Victorian arrogance.
The tragedy sent shock waves throughout the world. In Germany, Theodor Fontane published his ballad “Die Brück’ am Tay” ten days after the calamity. The details of the disaster were reported in the New York Times.
That same year bridge builder Theodore Cooper (responsible for the Second Avenue Bridge over the Harlem River) set up as an independent consulting engineer at 35 Broadway. In 1889, he published his influential paper on “American Railroad Bridges” in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
When in 1897 the Canadian Government proposed plans to build a crossing at Quebec over the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River that split the southern part of the country, Cooper accepted the invitation to come up with a design for the longest cantilever bridge ever constructed.
Working from his New York office, he directed the works by telegram. The project was ambitious and costly. Years of success as an engineer had buoyed belief in his ability to save money on materials. The bridge collapsed during construction on August 29th, 1907, killing seventy-five laborers. Only eleven of the workers on the span were recovered alive. Some bodies were never found.
Hell on the Western Express
On the evening of January 13th, 1882, the Western Express from Chicago pulled into Albany twenty-three minutes late. The State Legislature had just broken up and politicians and staff members were eager to get back to New York City for the weekend.
Such was the rush that the railroad took on an extra fifteen compartments, including eight “palace cars” designed by railroad tycoon and Republican State Senator Webster Wagner. Founder of the Wagner Palace Car Company in Buffalo, he had boarded the train himself. Two extra engines were added to accommodate the additional weight. Leaving the New York State Capital, the train picked up speed to make up for the delay.
Promoting his “parlors of luxury,” Wagner entertained guests and colleagues. It was a boisterous occasion which turned into a booze fueled party. Just after the express train passed the hairpin turn where the Hudson River meets the Spuyten Duyvil (Dutch for “Spouting Devil” referring to the strong tidal currents at that location), some drunken reveler may have pulled the air brake as the train came to an abrupt stop.
Webster Wagner himself stepped into the cold night to investigate. It was the last time he would be seen alive. Moments later the stationary train was struck by another train of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad. Two of the rear cars were crushed which started a fire.
The calamity was watched by visitors at Kilcullen’s Hotel, a popular bar for foundry workers at the massive gun-producing Johnson Ironworks. It being a Friday night, the saloon was packed. Soon after the crash, the snow-covered bank of the Spuyten Duyvil was an inferno of flames and bodies. Volunteers desperately tried to pull survivors away from danger. Others rolled giant snowballs towards the overheated engine cars to prevent them from exploding.
The “Spouting Devil” crash left eight politicians and dozens of other travelers dead (an official figure of the death toll was never published). Thoreau’s warning was ignored. Lessons of previous calamities had not been learned or were forgotten. Once again, the tyrannical power of technology that ruled over everyone and everything caused death and destruction. The Faustian legend entered the American consciousness. Mourning of mass death and collective loss became a modernist preoccupation.
Illustrations, from above: replica of the DeWitt Clinton: the original locomotive was built in 1831 (Library of Congress); Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844 by J.M.W. Turner (National Gallery, London); engraving of the Staplehurst rail crash in Kent (Illustrated London News, January 1st, 1865); interior view of a ‘parlor car’ in the 1880s (In: Railroad Stories, 1935); The Wreck at Spuyten Duyvil by H.R. Edwards (In: Railroad Stories, 1935); and Spuyten Duyvil disaster headline, New York Herald, January 14th, 1882.
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