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Fine Maps

One Track Minds

Another positive feature was that “this line of Road does not interfere with the residence of any Gentleman, in any part of it.” The granting of charters, and with it the right of eminent domain (compulsory purchase of land), was then in its infancy, and in any case influential landowners who did not want to contemplate their land divided by a railway, steam or not, could be a huge nuisance to a company trying to create a line from one city to another. It would still be a few years before the utility of the railroad became so obvious that railroad interests would outweigh those of landowners. The only precedent—albeit an important one—at this stage of the game were the canals, an altogether less intrusive and quieter feature of the landscape.

‘Four Horses can take as much at one time as now employs forty horses.’

Also at the U.K. National Archives I found not one but two maps of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, both surveys and both dated 1826 and probably related to the second application to Parliament for a charter that year (an application the previous year had been rejected). The maps showed different projected lines for the railway. George Stephenson had been retained by the promoters of the line as their chief engineer, but George relied on his son Robert to do most of the surveying calculations—and Robert had departed for South America to do engineering work in the Colombian gold mines. The survey George prepared for Parliament was found to be inaccurate; in Robert’s absence he had relied on subordinates and they did not do an adequate job. This is the first of the two maps now in the National Archives. The second survey and map, showing a different routing, was that of engineers George and John Rennie and surveyor Charles Vignoles, who had been appointed after Stephenson was fired. Ironically, the Rennies soon asked for more money, and this got them fired, too. Then, there being little choice, George Stephenson was rehired. Robert returned in 1827 but devoted himself to locomotive building, producing two years later his Rocket. George actually did quite a good job as engineer for the Liverpool & Manchester, notably the construction of the line across Chat Moss, a huge area of boggy ground in which no bottom could be found. George solved the problem by sinking wooden and heather hurdles weighed down with earth and stones (the hurdles keeping the other material together until it settled properly). So well done was this feat of engineering that not only did it support the trains of the day, but it also continues to do so with the much heavier modern trains that still use the route.

These early British railroads established not only the feasibility of the technology but the fact that one could actually make money building and operating them. It was the promise of wealth that attracted the attention of the United States and other nations—and spurred them to claim the new railway technology for themselves.

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Derek HayesDerek Hayes is the author of a new book titled the Historical Atlas of the American West, which will be published by the University of California Press this fall.