Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Railroads in Antebellum Richmond

Chris Davis

In the Antebellum period, Richmond was often viewed by its inhabitants as a mecca of major social organizations and events. The city was filled with social establishments such as taverns, museums, coffeehouses, and exhibition halls. Sports and social events like horse racing, gambling, and theatres were other prevalent forms of entertainment. Yet the city could be more accurately portrayed as a major commercial center of the South in which railroads played a key role in the city's economic and commercial growth.

Railroads were at the center of Antebellum Richmond's attempt to commercialize the region. By 1860, Richmond's commercial market had grown and internal improvements, particularly railroads, had surged. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote "Where railroads are not, civilization cannot be....Under God, the railroad and the schoolmaster are the two chief agents of human improvement." Though a Northern abolitionist, Sumner expressed a view common in the South, that railroads were a substantial element in the growth of commercialization. Richmonders began to believe this "gospel of the railroad" when they observed the economic and industrial improvements railroads brought. The early benefits of the railroad helped to forward the ultimate goal of vast commercialization, exceeding the simple benefit of faster transportation.

Railroads were more than just a mode of transportation in Richmond. They were an essential component in the city's transgression from an important social setting to a major commercial center. Railroads gave Richmond the most rapid form of transportation available, large commercial networks, and an increased economy. Initial railroad development provided access to new markets, increased agricultural production, expanded inventory for the merchants and artisans, and an inexpensive mode of transportation. Most beneficial to Richmond would be the creation of a industrial city around which the Southern economy would revolve. Railroads would develop a commercial port in the South that could compete heavily with the North.

By 1860, the railroads had led the city to be ranked thirteenth in the production of goods in comparison with other American cities. This high rank exemplifies the increased industrial and agricultural growth contributed by the railroads. The railroads' influence on the commercial and industrial development of Richmond can be illustrated by the statistics in the annual reports of the railroads.

The statistics of railroads in the South displayed an increased net revenue and total tonnage. On the other hand, canals displayed a serious decrease in net revenue due to the increased competition of railroads in the South. Railroads were cheaper than canals and usually took less time to reach a desired destination. In the 1860s steamships traveled at speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour, whereas railroads were twice as fast at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour. In addition, railroads were relatively inexpensive to repair when compared to canals and turnpikes. The droughts and frost that occurred at rivers were another reason that railroads were more efficient than canals. David Goldfield has written that for Southerners, "railroads assumed the status of a demigod with the ability to leap rivers and abolitionists in a single bound." During the winter, railroads were able to carry the produce and manufactured goods across the frozen rivers, whereas canals could have inhibited the transportation of commercial products. This inhibition caused by canals might have stunted the commercial growth of Richmond if railroads had not spurred the commercial growth of the city.

Richmond's transformation into a strong commercial center is indicated by the totals of net revenue included in the annual reports of the railroads. The Richmond and Danville railroad produced a net revenue of approximately $256,000 and $267,000, in 1857 and 1858 respectively. This revealed a net increase of $11,000. The net increase was not unusual, considering the Richmond and Danville railroad showed an annual increase of net revenue between 1850 and 1859 and between 1861 and 1865. Over a five year span, the net revenue of this railroad in 1856 ($256,000) was approximately 7.8 times more than the net revenue in 1851 ($33,000). Another important railroad in Richmond, the Virginia Central railroad, increased their total revenue from $541,000 to $586,000 between 1857 to 1858. In the 1858 President's report to the Board of Public Works, Edward Fontaine (President of Virginia Central Railroad) wrote:

The principle railroad companies of the North have experienced
a heavy decline from their last year's business; it is
therefore a source of some satisfaction to know, that in spite
of adverse circumstances, the receipts of the company increased
more than $45,000.

The Baltimore and Ohio railroad, a Northern railroad, is shown to have decreased in net revenue between 1857 and 1859. This railroad decreased from a total net revenue of $3,856,000 (in 1858) to $3,619,000 (in 1859), which is a deduction of $237,000. Although the net revenue of this Northern railroad greatly exceeded the revenue of Richmond's railroads, Richmond's railroads experienced a steady increase in total net revenue. This suggests that the growth of railroads in Richmond had a strong influence on the economy. The statistics revealed that Richmond's railroads increased in net revenue even though some railroads in the North declined.

The increase of total tonnage of exports between 1857 and 1859 was another indication of Southern railroads' increasing role in commercial growth. During these three years, the Richmond and Danville railroad increased from 95,289 to 108,516 and the Virginia Central railroad increased from 56,983 to approximately 64,177. This increase suggests how Richmond's internal improvements, predominantly railroads, benefited the commercial development of the South by causing an increase in industry. With wider markets exposed by the railroads, the city was directly affected by the subsequential growth between the railroads and industry. The rapid growth of railroads would lead to an increased production of economic goods.

Richmond's railroads focused on the exportation of goods in order to reduce its dependence on imports and expand the Southern markets. From 1815 to 1860, the United States mainly imported goods. The main function of farmers and manufacturers in Richmond slowly progressed into one of exporting goods. The Virginia Central railroad and Richmond and Danville railroad primarily imported goods like wool, cotton, silk, iron and steel, coffee, tea, and sugar. Conversely they exported goods like tobacco, wheat, corn, and rice. Though the two railroads were still importing most of their goods, they increased in their tonnage of exports as the city moved closer to the Civil War.

In an effort to maintain the commercial development of the South, the railroad and agricultural industries were forced to coexist. The railroads led to increased agricultural and industrial production. As the production of crops increased, farmers became dependent on railroads to make a living. Before 1847, tobacco was the dominant crop in the South which required a mode of transportation to export the goods to the North and West. The Richmond and Danville Railroad was the railroad which could assist in the marketing of this crop, but the lawmakers would not give the railroad a charter until 1847. Railroads were the seeds of growth in Antebellum Richmond.

Both the agricultural and manufacturing industries were reliant upon railroads, and vice versa. As industrial manufactures increased their products, Richmond began to commercialize. If agriculture and manufactured items were not being produced, then the railroads would suffer a severe decrease in net revenue. Railroads receive much of their net revenue from passenger and freight charges. Therefore railroads and farmers needed to coexist with each other in order to provide a profit for Richmond's economy.

The city also needed the railroad. George R. Taylor noted in the Transportation Revolution, "...Urban growth, as well as that of large suburban areas, was greatly facilitated by developments in city transportation." Taylor suggests that railroads' binding of city and countryside was essential for the growth and industrialization of Richmond. Railroads presented problems to which the city had to adjust before becoming a major industrial center. One of these problems was the costly rates of the railroads. The high price of railroads, though still cheaper than canals, placed Richmond at a disadvantage. In the beginning of 1850, the Virginia Central Railroad charged the highest rates in the United States. By the end of the 1850's, Virginia Central Railroad had decreased their rates to a more reasonable amount. In 1858, the Richmond and Danville Railroad charged an average of 3.84 cents/mile for passenger and 4.9 cents/mile for freight. The Virginia Central Railroad charged 4 cents/mile for passenger and 5.22 cents/mile for freight. By 1859, the rates of Virginia Central Railroad remained the same, whereas the Richmond and Danville Railroad increased their average rate of freight to 5.51 cents/mile, surpassing Virginia Central's rate. Despite these high rates, the open competition between railroads permitted each railroad to make a profit and help commercialize the city of Richmond through economic and industrial growth.

The convergence of routes between the Richmond and Danville and Virginia Central railroad created competition in the South. The Richmond and Danville railroad travelled south from Richmond to Danville, passing through Burkeville on its route. The Virginia Central railroad proceeded from Richmond to the western part of Virginia, crossing Charlottesville and Jordanville. Both of these railroads converged in Richmond which caused competition for customers and revenue. Richmond was not the only city in which there was competition among Southern railroads. Some other cities included Charlottesville, Burkeville, Petersburg, and Manassas. All of these cities made it difficult for railroads to raise their prices without affecting their business.

By the late 1850's, open competition meant that Richmond's railroads were no longer reserved for the elite, but accessible to all classes. With the monopoly of some railroads, people were agitated and wary at the high prices of railroads for freight and passenger rates. Using the policy of laissez-faire, railroads took advantage of the government and its system. In the 1850's the government was going to ignore the laissez-faire policy in an effort to regulate prices, but the free competition amongst the railroads soon overcame the fading monopolies. In Lieutenant M.F. Maury's letter from Fredericksburg, Virginia, he wrote, "Monopolists charge maximum rates for everything...Hence, in this country we go strong for open competition, and are so much against monopolies generally." The government not only helped the daily passengers who used the railroads frequently, but it also aided the farmers and merchants who used the railroads to carry their freight to other areas. With the transporting of the imported and exported goods, the railroads were able to support some of the industries and manufacturers. Therefore, the railroads played a vital role in forming commercial links and assisting the economic and industrial growth of Antebellum Richmond.

This economic and industrial growth led some Richmonders to feel skeptical toward the railroad, believing the addition of railroads would mean higher taxes. Higher taxation caused much disbelief in the railroad systems because several people felt that taxes would be raised in an attempt to financially support the railroads. Although Richmonders showed resistance against the addition of railroads, the increased commercial growth in Richmond overcame the negative feelings and disbelief. In 1854, Lieutenant M. F. Maury wrote, "...are you going to increase the rate of taxation upon our friends in Virginia, that you may raise the money for building this road, and then come down on them, year after year, with additional levies to keep it in running order?" This excerpt from Maury's letter corresponds to many of the feelings and attitudes that were expressed concerning the railways in Antebellum Richmond. The railroads in Richmond promoted economic growth and raised the revenue of the city, which could pay for the total cost of the railroads and their further construction.

Another basic fear that citizens had concerning the railroads was safety. They believed that railroads were causing too many injuries, but many of these views would change as the citizens realized the profitability of railroads. Some people were making suggestions for improvement, such as a double track road to reduce and help avoid collisions on the railways. Alternatively, other people thought that parallel lines and railroad systems would be wasteful and unnecessary. More of the contingent injuries to the passengers were caused by the passengers' erroneous behaviors rather than actual collisions. The railroads provided a reasonable amount of safety and security for the people of Antebellum Richmond, while reassuring the city with its economic stability and commercial growth.

Railroads contributed largely to the molding of Richmond into a major commercial center in the South, but the people of Richmond took their ideas and expectations to an extreme degree. Many had expectations and dreams of competing with New York, the center of the country in commercialization. Richmond had neither the population nor the ports to compete with New York. One Richmonder said, "no people are independent who are compelled to rely upon others for industry." This statement was mainly aimed at the South's dependence on the North for industry. It is obvious that Richmond and the South needed the commercial ties with the North and West. In Allan Pred's Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information, he writes:

By 1890 the largest cities of the South had not yet begun
to function as an interdependent regional subsystem of
cities, as shown by their weak economic and informational
ties with one another and their "colonial" dependence on
New York and other Northeastern centers.

Pred argues that Virginia has weak informational ties with other states and strongly depended on the North for industry. This indicates that Richmond needed to concentrate on its own commercialization and no longer attempt to achieve the high standards of competition which had been set by New York. After attaining interurban trade and commercialization, Richmond's railroads could then expand their trade markets to other areas.

Richmond was becoming a major commercial center of the South due in large part to the growth of railroads. With the expansion of the railroads, Richmond had been able to derive a greater profit by creating a commercial connection with other regions of the country, particularly the North. However, this development conflicted with the dream of many Southerners to become independent of the North. Ludwell Johnson writes, "...growing numbers of Southerners came to depend on the North for the comforts and necessities of life." While Southerners wanted to become independent of the North (before the Civil War), they still desired goods from the North. With the large expansion of railroads, the South was able to create more markets with the North and was able to acquire profit which greatly supported the commercialization of the city. Some Richmonders believed that the South should have expanded the railroads Westward rather than Northward. The Richmond Enquirer stated "...such channels of internal communication will render the South more and more independent of the North in a commercial sense, and through it in every other." When the Civil War began, most of the railway connections were broken and the railroads were primarily used to assist each side during the war.

"Richmond shall be one terminus of a great continental trunk of railroads..." These were the words of eager Richmond citizens as the Virginia Central Railroad became a major project for the city. A few years later this railroad and others made Antebellum Richmond not only the political center of the Confederacy, but also the commercial center of the South. The railroads were the center of trade and transportation for Southerners. Many had become dependent on railroads' rapid and dependable transportation. As railroads developed throughout the nineteenth century, so did Antebellum Richmond. The railroads started as the seeds of growth for Antebellum Richmond and soon grew to being a major cause of the commercialization of the city. With the commercialization of Richmond, came increased agricultural production and more industrial output. Railroads yielded a major profit for Antebellum Richmond and developed many commercial ties both North and West. Railroads brought about a change in Richmond, which molded the city into a vast commercial center of the South.