On This Day: A Horse Changed the World Forever Smoking a Steam Locomotive in 1830 Race

by Kati Kuuseoks
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Horses are undeniably complex, beautiful creatures. They are also inextricably linked to the history of our country. A horse changed the course of history forever in this epic tale of a race against machines around the time of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad’s conception in 1830.

The tale explains how the railroad company had utilized horses to haul railcars before switching to machines for more efficiency. But what exactly happened that fateful day and how does it affect us now? History attributes the story to John H. B. Latrobe, a lecturer at the Maryland Institute in the late 1860s.

Early Thinkers and Problem Solving

From its birth, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was on a course to stretch nearly 400 miles, connecting Baltimore, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia. The problem is that this track couldn’t avoid steep grades and sharp curves along the river, necessitating the invention of a machine that could handle such difficulties.

The railroad company directors turned to an ingenious inventor and scholar, Peter Cooper. Having built up an impressive arsenal of patents on his own, Cooper had the experience. On August 24, 1830 Cooper’s baby prototype of a locomotive made its debut.

It was immediately put to the test. The trial ended in success after hauling over a dozen passengers along a short Maryland stretch. The prototype then became America’s first steam locomotive to operate on a commercial track.

Horse-ing Around

While everything appeared fine and dandy for Cooper’s locomotive design and the future of the railroad, not everybody was on board with the new vision for the future. In fact, a stagecoach company by the name of “Stockton and Stokes” wanted to put an end to this business. So, they proposed a race with their horse-drawn railroad car side-by-side against Cooper’s steam-powered abomination along the double tracks.

The race was a nail-biter from the start. The horse initially gained a promising lead, while the locomotive stayed behind in a steady build up of energy. As the race went on, the locomotive pushed forward to take charge. To Cooper’s dismay, this is where the locomotive started experiencing problems. Between loose parts and emergency repairs that needed to take place in the moment, Cooper and his metal baby just couldn’t keep up to the horse. Despite Cooper’s loss, the railroad only grew more excited for the future of machines. They had seen the locomotive’s potential despite its quick failure in action.

As far as the fact-checking goes, it’s not completely possible to tell the folklore from the non-fiction here. Some sources seem to corroborate the legendary tale, but the sources are few and far in between. Still, it’s worth mentioning the tale itself couldn’t have brought on the railroad the public sway they would have been after, so that fact alone points towards an inclination to accept the tale.

Whether or not this specific man and this specific horse are to be credited with aiding in the initial sparks of the Industrial Revolution, it’s interesting nonetheless to explore our roots. Join us for more “On This Day” fun and historical snippets right here at Outsider.

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