Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Plate

In the classic 1946 Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, asks Uncle Billy “You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?” While Uncle Billy has decidedly different ideas, traveler at heart George’s answer was, not surprisingly, “anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.” Like George, the imaginations of many a would-be traveler have been stirred by the haunting sounds of a train speeding through the night.


Portrait of Charles Carroll III.

Maryland was home to one of the first train systems in our nation—the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad—a claim to fame that inspired this first Maryland by the Object post. Ground was broken in Baltimore for the B&O on July 4, 1828, when Charles Carroll III, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped lay the cornerstone for what was to become America’s first Common Carrier Railroad. In the 1820s, Baltimore was the nation’s third largest city, competing with New York and Philadelphia for trade to the Midwest. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was established to facilitate the movement of both freight and people over the Allegheny Mountains to new settlements along the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. Finished goods produced along the Atlantic Seaboard traveled west, and on eastward-bound return trips, agricultural products, steel, and coal filled the train cars.

As an interesting aside, ground was broken in Georgetown, DC on the same day for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. Over the next several decades, the B&O and the C&O competed for dominance in the blossoming transportation industry, with the railroad ultimately coming out the winner.


A nineteenth-century locomotive.

The first thirteen mile stretch of railroad opened in May of 1830 and the company immediately found itself with more demand for its services than it could handle (Jacobs 1989:15; Wortham 1939). By 1835, seven locomotives, forty-four passenger cars and over 1,000 freight cars were in operation (Jacobs 1989:25). While the first train cars were pulled by horses, steam locomotives were in use by 1831. Track reached the Ohio River in January, 1853 and a trip that had previously taken several days by coach had been shortened to sixteen hours (Jacobs 1989:29). By 1858, the rail line transported 224 thousand tons of freight per day (

18bc27 plate

B&O Rail Road plate from the Federal Reserve Site.

The Civil War was the first armed conflict in which rail transportation was available and the B&O Railroad, with its route straddling the North and the South, played a crucial role. B&O president John W. Garrett allied his company with the Union, predicting that the interests of his railroad would be better served with this allegiance. During the conflict, the route between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. was the only rail line connecting the Federal capitol and the North. The railway system provided an efficient means for moving troops and supplies, and thus the tracks were a frequent target for destruction by southern forces. The B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore ( has created a number of exhibits and lesson plans that document the role of the B&O during the Civil War.

An early piece of Maryland’s railroad history (and the inspiration for this post) was brought to light during the 1980 archaeological exploration of the Federal Reserve Bank Site (18BC27) in downtown Baltimore. Approximately one third of a plate printed with an early steam locomotive was removed from the fill of one of the numerous privies revealed during excavation. A bit of poking about in the library and online showed that this pattern was entitled “The Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road,” manufactured in the late 1820s or early 1830s by the English pottery firm of Enoch Wood & Sons.


A complete example of the Enoch Wood & Sons B&O Rail Road plate clearly shows the locomotive and several train cars.

Perhaps you might be wondering why a British pottery would produce tableware depicting an American train. Between 1815 and 1840, many Staffordshire potters appealed specifically to the American market by producing wares depicting American landmarks, such as churches, hotels and resorts, homes, city vistas, and natural wonders. The railroad—a new and exciting development both in England and the United States—would have been considered a subject worthy of commemorating in this fashion. The actual pattern on the plate was based on an engraving of the British Hetton Railroad first published in The American Traveller Broadside in 1826 (Dunbar 1915). Thus, one of the first depictions of the railway system in the United States was actually not even based on the B&O. The pattern was probably produced to commemorate the laying of the first rails or the actual opening of the railroad itself (Halsey, 1899; Snyder 1995).

The development of the railroad system greatly facilitated the expansion of the lower continental United States, and trains today still play an important role in moving people and freight around the country. What makes the locomotive plate from Baltimore a particularly poignant find is that the row houses whose residents purchased and used the B&O plate were destroyed in the early twentieth century by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in order to expand the terminal at Camden Yard.

[1] A common carrier is defined as an individual or company that transports persons or merchandise for any person or company under the authority of a regulatory body.

References Cited

Dunbar, Seymour.
1915 A History of Travel in America. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis.

Halsey, R.T. Haines.
1899 Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Staffordshire Pottery; Together with Pictures of Boston and New England, Philadelphia, the South and West. New York.

Jacobs, Timothy, editor
1989 The History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; America’s First Railroad. Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.

Wortham, Alvin.
1939 Staffordshire and the Baltimore and Ohio. American Collector. December 1939.

Snyder, Jeffrey B.
1995 Historical Staffordshire; American Patriots and Views. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pennsylvania.


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