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The iron horse comes to Delaware

robert stephenson's 1830 locomotive

The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad is a case study in mechanical engineering looking over its shoulder.

What an odd way to build a railroad bed, you may be saying as you examine this section of the New Castle, DE terminus. Where are the railroad ties?

The short answer is: horses.

New Castle and Frenchtown terminus in New Castle, DE shows granite ‘sleepers’.

The NC&F railroad, the first built in Delaware, and one of the earliest in the nation, was laid down closely parallel to the path of the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike. Since 1816 stagecoaches had traversed this, the shortest path across the northern portion of the Delmarva peninsula, connecting the markets of Baltimore and Philadelphia via steamboat ports at either end. By the 1820s stagecoaches had become big business in this area.

NC&F investors saw dollar signs. They envisioned raising THEIR stagecoach wheels up onto a track, allowing their horses to move much faster than competitors.

Two things happen when you connect your rails with wooden crossties: 1) the horse pulling the coach down the middle is forced to step over them, slowing it down and tiring it out faster; and 2) the horse’s shoes invariably knick the wood, wearing it out prematurely and adding to repair costs.

The solution? Put your rails up on stone blocks, leaving the path between the rails open.

And so for the first 9 miles of this 16-1/2 mile railroad, the builders used granite “sleepers” instead of wooden crossties. (Stay with me, I’ll tell you why they’re called that shortly).

1832 ticket office of New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad, in New Castle, DE.
1832 ticket office of New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad, in New Castle, DE.

Wait. What about the remaining 7-1/2 miles of track? Technology, dear reader, was catching up.

For one thing, the cost was spiraling out of control. “The cost of a single line of railway, resting on stone blocks, has been nearly $6,000 per mile,” explained writer Nicholas Wood in ‘A practical treatise on rail-roads’ (1830).

“On the high embankments wooden sleepers are, of course, adopted. The cost, where wooden sleepers are used, has been a small fraction less than the preceding sums,” he continued.

But the bigger change afoot was the steam locomotive. In 1809, when planning for the NC&F line had begun, steam locomotives were still a laboratory curiosity.

By 1827, when NC&F construction was in full swing, steam locomotives were an interesting sideshow the English seemed increasingly fond of.

But only two years later, in 1829, British inventor/businessman George Stephenson demonstrated conclusively the advantage of the steam locomotive over the horse in trial runs of an engine he dubbed ‘The Rocket.’ His engine could pull TWO coaches versus the ONE a horse could. It wasn’t long before he won a contract to operate the first inter-city railway between Liverpool and Manchester.

NC&F’s owners noticed. In 1831, even before their new line opened, they contacted George’s son Robert Stephenson about purchasing one of the firm’s newfangled engines.

And so the completed NC&F line opened February 28, 1832, initially with horses drawing a single coach. By September, the new steam locomotive arrived from Great Britain, and the horse drawn chapter came to an abrupt end.

Now. “Sleepers” is a term that was used widely in the construction industry at the time the railroads arose, and it carried over, as it described what crossties did quite accurately to citizens of the time.

“For the manner of building a railway,” said the editor of the The Charleston [SC] Daily Courier on April 30, 1825, “I would refer those who are curious enough to know, to the manner in which the dam-way between Bennet’s two water saw-mills was built, some years since, by posts, sleepers and braces. This would be the frame work, if it is designed to be either of wood, stone or iron. Now this is rendered a railway by placing upon the sleepers the rail; to this the wheel of the carriage is fitted, and placed on it.”

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