Railroads have played a very important part in the expansion and development of the United States. They opened up the way to the West and to more meaningfully integrate the West into the nation. They were pivotal to the industrial revolution in the Northeast (between 1810 and 1850) and the settlement of the West (between 1850 and 1890).

Before railroads were built to bridge east and west, the fastest way to send a letter was by the Pony Express. At the same time, the longest stagecoach service in the world was the Butterfield Overland Mail which ran from 1858 to 1861.


The Early History of American Railroads

The first passenger and freight line in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which opened in 1827. Railroads quickly expanded over the Appalachian Mountains and boomed throughout the nation for the next 45 years.

  • First Passenger And Freight Line: The Baltimore And Ohio Railroad In 1827
  • Railroads Older Than Trains: The First Railroads Were Built For Horses To Pull the Cars

The railroads predate locomotives. The first railroads in the United States were pulled by horses or by a hand crank. One of the first railroads to be abandoned was the New Castle and Frenchtown. It was built for horses to pull the cars, but with the advent of locomotives, the line was left abandoned by 1859.

The American railway system was largely built by the year 1910 and soon it started to go into decline. The advent of trucks, highways, and cars really ate into their passenger traffic and the development of airplanes confounded it even more. Today few would consider traveling across the country by railroad - although that is the most common way to travel in other countries like India and China.

  • Peak: 1910
  • Competition: From Trucks, Highways, Cars, And Airplanes

Related: Could The USA Ever Get Highspeed Rail? One Company's Vision

American Railroads In Modern Times

Unlike in other places in the world (like Europe and Asia), the American passenger train network has largely failed to develop and change. Today the passenger side of trains is a shell of what it once was and there are barely any high-speed trains in the nation.

Countless miles of tracks have been abandoned across the nation as the mines they once served closed, or the routes just became unprofitable.

  • Peak Route Mileage: 254,251 miles (409,177 km) in 1916
  • Current Route Mileage: 139,979 to 160,141 miles
  • Longest Tunnel: Cascade Tunnel, 7.8 miles (12.6 km)

The total route mileage of railroads peaked in 1916 at 254,251 miles (409,177 km). A century later in 2011 that had fallen by around half to 139,679 miles (224,792 km) of tracks by 2011.

Today most railroads are primarily used for hauling freight and continue to be important to the national economy. In this capacity, they are some of the best in the world, but that hasn't stopped around half of the tracks from being abandoned.

  • Freight Transport: Freight Transport Is Highly Developed In The USA
  • Panic of 1873: Interrupted The Building Of Railroads

Many of the railroads abandoned were never completed in the first place. The Panic of 1873 interrupted the construction of a number of railroads, some of which were never resumed. Often there is a lack of published evidence for these aborted railroads.

Related: Bullet Train Concept Could Take You From Oregon To Canada In 2 Hours

Tools For Finding Abandoned Railways In One's Local Area

It is not possible to list out all the many abandoned railroads, rail bridges, and rail stations but there are a few great websites that one can check and see where they are.

A comprehensive list and map of them can be found on abandonedrails.com. They claim there are 1,755 "Abandonments." One can sort by state and see various pieces of information about them.

  • Online Maps: There Are Online Interactive Maps Cataloging the Abandoned Railroads

Frrandp.com offers an open-source map of abandoned railroads all around the world and not just in the United States. One may be surprised by just how many there are and how close they are. As it is a crowdsource project, if one sees an omission, one can add a new entry. Often the forgotten railways are just hiding in plain sight.

According to Atlas Oscura, their maps have cataloged around 2,500 lines that cover over 60,000 miles and most of these are in the United States with others being in the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere.

The maps for both of these sites are interactive so that one can zoom in and see the abandoned fragments of tracks in a particular area.

One can find many abandoned railways wherever there were mines. If there was a mine, then there was likely also a railroad servicing it. If the mine became unprofitable and such down, then most likely so did the railroad. It is possible to go hiking in the forests in West Virginia and other Appalachian states and see many abandoned old railroads.

Next: India's Super Fast Underwater Bullet Train Could Be Built By The End Of 2022