Abstract: The B&O Railroad and the Geography of Commerce in Early Republic Baltimore

David Schley


This paper examines the discourses surrounding the creation of America's first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, in order to understand how ideas about geography and trade influenced the railroad project. The incorporation of the B&O was predicated on an understanding of trade as a geographic practice governed by the "natural laws" of commerce. In the eyes of the city's mercantile and municipal elite, Baltimore was in decline as its once robust trade with the trans-Appalachian West had been sapped away by the opening of the Erie Canal in New York. The B&O, founded in 1827, was designed to restore Baltimore's "natural advantage" of proximity to the West by facilitating travel across the mountains, effectively restoring the prior balance of trade. Though the technology to be used was novel, the founders drew on a pre-existing understanding of the city as a geographic-mercantile entity bound to other places by commercial networks moving along natural corridors. Comparing the railroad to a waterway, the initial creators of the railroad realized that it would alter the geographic balance of trade between East and West, but did not anticipate the restructuring of the economy that historians today associate with the railroad.