The road linking New Castle and Frenchtown was little more than a heavily traveled path often becoming an impassable quagmire during Spring thaws or extended rains. In 1806 two Maryland business men, Andrew Henderson and William McDonald, placed packet boats on both the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River with a stage coach line linking the packet service(1). After consolidating with a rival line headed by Maryland's Captain Edward Trippe, the new company became the Union Line. Although this venture greatly increased traffic through New Castle it also caused further deterioration in the condition of the road to Frenchtown.
The 16 mile overland link saved some 300 miles of sailing around the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia peninsula. As early as 1764 certain Pennsylvania factions had shown interest in a canal connecting the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and a survey had been made. No further action on the project was taken at that time.
Captain Edward Trippe of the Union Line was an associate of Robert Fulton who in 1807 had made the historical cruise with his steam powered boat the Clermont. Trippe realized the commercial value of a steamboat on the Chesapeake Bay and arranged to have a Baltimore boatyard build one. On June 21, 1813 Trippe's boat the Chesapeake, the first steamboat launched on the Chesapeake Bay, made her first trip from Baltimore to Frenchtown, Maryland. With the successful introduction of the steamboat two New Castle investors, John Janvier and Thomas Janvier, became partners in the Union Line.
Again the inadequacy of the New Castle and Frenchtown road was recognized and a company was incorporated to construct a turnpike across the peninsula. New Castle's Kensey Johns was elected head of both the New Castle and Frenchtown companies. John and Thomas Janvier were listed as officers in the company. Work on the turnpike began in April 1813 and was completed in 1818. With steamboats now being placed on the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay and with the new turnpike, New Castle's commerce seemed sound(2). The canal idea, however, was revived and in 1822 funding for the canal was successful. With John Randel, Jr. of New York starting as chief engineer, the 13 5/8 mile long, canal was completed in 1829. The canal immediately became a formidable competitor of the New Castle and Frenchtown turnpike.
Three years before the canal opened, a group of New Castle citizens conceived the idea of a railroad as a means of meeting the expected competition. In 1828 a committee comprised of James Black, James Booth and William Janvier succeeded in securing a charter from the Maryland legislature for building the railroad. In 1830 after Delaware gave its authorization a new corporation emerged, The New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Railroad Company. John Janvier was elected corporate president. The same engineer who had initially surveyed the newly opened Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, John Randel, was hired to survey the proposed railroad route.
With Randel as chief engineer, construction of the roadbed began in July 1830. Soon more than one thousand men were working on the project. Enoch Sweat, an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was hired to lay the rails. Stone sleepers twelve to fourteen inches square from Port Deposit, Maryland quarries were embedded in the ground. The sleepers had holes in them to receive wooden plug inserts. Yellow pine wooden rails six inches square from Savannah, Georgia were positioned along the top surface of the sleepers and retained by angle iron brackets. The brackets were vertically spiked into the wooden inserts in the stones and horizontally into the sides of the wooden rails. The actual running surface or track was three eighths inch thick strips of iron, imported from England, spiked to the top of the wooden rails.
Approximately two miles of track had been completed from New Cattle to Morvin (Hares Corner) when Colonel Stephen H. Long of the United States Topographical Engineers was granted permission to demonstrate an engine he had built. Unable to built sufficient steam pressure the engine failed the trial. The following day it ran to Morvin but had to be pushed back to New Castle by hand. Although Colonel Long continued experimenting with the engine during that Summer, he finally admitted defeat and withdrew the locomotive from further testing(3).
In May 1831 John Janvier tendered his resignation as company president, resenting criticism from a board member. Six months later his brother Thomas also resigned as a board member under similar circumstances. With James Booth as president the track to Frenchtown was completed. Using horses to pull the coaches, the railroad was opened for full passenger service on February 28, 1832.
A number of passenger cars were ordered from Richard Imlay, a Baltimore carriage maker, and had arrived in New Castle by February 1832. George Steever, another Baltimore carriage maker, also supplied a number of coaches and freight cars. The Imlay four wheel, swell sided coaches, contained two transverse seats at opposite ends of the body facing one another. There was also a set of folding seats astride the doors. This arrangement provided interior seating for twelve passengers. With the roof bench accommodating another twelve persons plus an additional six on the outside end seats, the thirteen foot long car could carry thirty passengers. The roof benches became impractical after steam locomotives were placed into service because of the trailing smoke and sparks from the stack. Leather curtains were used to cover window openings in foul weather. The coach body was suspended with heavy two inch wide leather throughbraces. These suspension straps were several laminations of leather sewn together. The ends were fastened to jacks which were bolted to the undercarriage. Tension on the straps was adjusted by crescent shape wheels. The thirty inch diameter chilled cast iron coach wheels were equipped with Winan's friction wheel journal bearings and protected with mudguards. The brakes on the thirty five hundred pound car were controlled by a long lever at each end of the coach accessible from the outside end seats. One of the first of these cars placed into service in New Castle was the eight hundred and fifty dollar "Red Rover". Mr. Imlay supplied an additional five of these beautiful coaches to the New Castle and Frenchtown line which were named Annapolis, Brandywine, Delaware, Dover and Wilmington.
The reputation of Mr. Robert Stephenson of New Castle, England as a builder of fine locomotives was recognized by the New Castle and Frenchtown railroad directors. Although the first engine was ordered from Mr. Stephenson in June 1831, a delivery misunderstanding resulted in the locomotive being placed into service in England's Liverpool and Manchester railroad. Stephenson then built another engine which arrived unassembled at New Castle, Delaware in April 1832. A Mr. Baldwin from Philadelphia was employed to assemble the locomotive. Baldwin, working with an assistant, spent several months on the assembly which was expected to take no longer than a few days. It was discovered that the assistant was making dimensioned drawings of the engine parts to be sent to Baldwin in Philadelphia. It is interesting today to compare the New Castle and Frenchtown engine, both in appearance and design, with Mr. Matthias Baldwin's "Old Ironsides", an engine he built for the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad at a later date. Subsequent engines delivered to New Castle required only one week each for assembly time by a different mechanic.
James Bird and Samuel Burr were hired as railroad agents and in March 1832 a Mr. Edward Young was employed as a locomotive engineer. Robert Stephenson's Planet type locomotive was now fully operational and named Delaware. Horses continued to be used on the railroad while the locomotive was put through a series of trial runs. The Planet design incorporated a multitubular horizontal boiler with eleven inch diameter, sixteen inch stroke horizontal cylinders. These were encased in the smoke box. This detail, suggested to Stephenson by Trevithick, enabled the cylinders to be heated by exhaust gases. The connecting rods were fastened to a counterweighted crank axle driving a pair of five feet diameter wheels. The engine's lead wheels were three feet in diameter. The beautiful little seven and one half ton engine was Stephenson's finest effort to that time and the Planet set the locomotive design criterion for many years(4).
By August 1832 the Delaware's trials had more than satisfied the company directors when the engine attained speeds up to thirty miles per hour(5). With another new Stephenson engine now delivered and operable named the Pennsylvania, the officers elected to discontinue using horses and on September 10, 1832 scheduled the railroad for full steam locomotive operation. Pulling two Imlay coaches loaded with passengers, the Delaware made the company's first official steam train run. This event was declared "Opening Day" for the steam railroad.
The engine was not equipped with a whistle, bell or even brakes. Braking was accomplished by using the brakes on the tender. The tender's brake lever was arranged to be operable from the engine. Edward Young, the engineer, discovered that lifting the pressure relief valve beam would release an audible burst of steam which he used as a warning signal. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad also pioneered in the use of a signal system. A series of poles were used along the length of the line on which a white or black flag was displayed. The black flag indicated the train was late or disabled and indicated its location. Once the train arrived in New Castle a similar system was used consisting of muslin covered frames, one white and the other black. The appropriate color was hoisted to the Courthouse steeple to signal the arrival or departure of the train. References to the train written in personal diaries at that time suggest that the train was simply called "the cars". ("This afternoon my husband rode the 'cars' to New Castle".)
Use of the heavy locomotive soon proved the inadequacy of the wood-on-stone rails. Without crossties the gauge began to vary resulting in derailments. Also the thin steel track would separate from the top of the wood and curl, sometimes piercing the floor of the coaches. These "snake heads" as they were called were a frightening danger to the passengers. Accordingly, a new steel rail arrangement incorporating wood crossties was phased in and the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad became a popular and successful operation. Five years later a parallel track to Frenchtown was completed but the company was already nearly halfway through its corporate life.
By 1838 a group of independent railroad lines joined to form the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Company. This new route to Baltimore swept southwest around the Chesapeake Bay eliminating the need for the Frenchtown to Baltimore water connection. The New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad Company struggled courageously against the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad losing in 1843 when the P.W.&B. absorbed the corporation. Little is left of the old railroad today. In New Castle on Battery Park, site of the railroad, is a small frame building believed to be the original ticket office. Nearby on the Strand is a two story brick building built by the railroad as a waiting room and train crew quarters. Parts of the old roadbed and stone bridges can still be found. Also today in this beautiful little colonial town, many stepping stones and walkways are some of the stone blocks used on the original track(6). One can still visit Packet Alley on the Strand where travelers once walked from the boats to the rail-road. Traces of cobblestone streets remain where once trod Lord Ashburton, Indian Chief Blackhawk (as a prisoner), David Crockett, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Louis Napoleon and Daniel Webster to name a few. Even a delegation of American Indians including Osceola, all in full Indian regalia, enroute to see the "Great White Father" in Washington passed this way to board either the stages or later the railroad train. The railroad is but a small piece of the history of this historic town which must be visited to be most appreciated.
To my Great-Grandmother, Mary Saville Davis McKnitt, who "saw the train run".
Hugh G. Ryan, Jr.
Contributed by Mabel Ryan