The Pre-Steam Railroads: Rail Transport Before the Steam Engine

The word "prehistoric" refers to the time period before human records were kept, either by writing or artistic murals. While no exact date is agreed upon to which prehistory ended, it is generally accepted that human cultures began to document activities early in the Bronze Age, although culture began much earlier than that in the Neolithic period.

You're probably thinking, what does this have to do with railroad history?

I believe that rail transport history follows a similar progression with regard to its prehistory, although it is much simpler to understand exactly when railroad prehistory ended, right when steam took over.

Railfans' interest in railroad history tends to began with the locomotive. In 1784, prototypes of steam locomotives were being developed, and by 1802, the Coalbrookdale Locomotive was created by  Richard Trevithick. In the next two decades, the concept of steam locomotion and the railroad itself would evolve, and England's Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825 would mark the first passenger operations. But these were not the first uses of rails to aid in transport in the world, nor even in Britain. According to D. Gabe Gabriel, railways existed within mines since at least the mid-1500's.

But even that could be considered a bit of a late start in regards to railroad prehistory, as humans have been using primitive forms of rail lines since at least 600 BC, in Ancient Greece. Today's blog will focus on five rail lines that operated before steam engines came to fruition.

Ancient remains of the Diolkos near the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece. Image: Dan Diffendale

The Diolkos was a paved trackway made of limestone that aided in the transport of ships near the City of Corinth. The line used grooves on either end to keep wheeled carts in place, much different than today's form of heavy iron railroad track. It more resembled a rutway as opposed to a railway. While its principal purpose was likely as a military aid, it also appears to have been used for commerce in peaceful times.

Today this is now an archaeological site that amazingly still has easily traceable remains of the line. While about 2/3 of a mile of the track has been archaeologically preserved, estimates place the entire length at somewhere between 3.7-5.3 miles in total.
Near the City of Corinth, this early form of rail transport was in service from the 6th century BC until early in the 1st century AD, meaning modern railroads have about 500 years to go before they reach the same longevity.
The Roman and Egyptian worlds in BC times also featured trackways that may have had similar designs, but less information is known about them. These stone creations would be the state of the art technology for 1,000 years before wooden rails would be introduced, much more resembling modern railways.

Planks laid in the ground beginning in the early 12th century would begin the next phase of railroad evolution: wooden rails.

A line that originally began in 16th century Salzburg in present-day Austria is still in operation. Known as The Reiszug, or Reißzug in German, it was documented as having been installed to serve the Hohensalzburg Fortress. It uses a cable lift similar to a funicular, however has no evidence that a counterweight was ever used (like how a funicular works).

Reiszug in modern times. Image: Michel Azéma
The Reiszug's true age is unclear, but it was built sometime between 1495-1515, thus regardless it is the oldest railway still in operation by most likely over a century. In its first iteration, it used wooden rails powered by animal, but has since been upgraded to steel wheels and electric motors.

"The Top Station. This view shows the end of the track as well as the engine room". Image: Michel Azéma

The advent of iron and steel rail tracks predated the steam locomotive by about 50 years, first appearing in Great Britain in 1760. This is also the first time that public railways began to form. Wooden railed temporary railways were built to transport coal in Great Britain in 1671, although these were temporary in nature. In Middleton, near Leeds, a proposal to aid in transportation of coal was established as the Middleton Railway in 1758, making it the first permanent railway established by Parliament in Great Britain. 

The one mile route originally used wooden rails before converting to iron rails in 1799. As a heritage line still in operation, it marks the oldest continuously operating public railway in existence.

The current heritage railway operation in red, listed on my map. Image: Google My Maps
Throughout the 18th century, Britain was not the only place beginning to experiment with rail transport. Near the French Fortress of Louisbourg in present-day Nova Scotia, a tramway was built in 1720 to aid in its construction. The Louisbourg Tramway is thus the earliest mention of a rail line in North America. Unfortunately, very little is known about this line, and unlike the Diolkos, there is nothing in the way of archaeological remains. 

Mention of this line appears in the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin no. 78, "...mine tramways were built in France at least as early as 1680, there was a pleasure railway in the gardens of the Chateau at Versailles in 1713, the best French engineers were employed at Louisburg (sic), the surviving remains of the roadbed and the local tradition all point to the possibility and probability of the existence of this tramway from about 1720 until the destruction of the city following second siege of 1758. The Louisburg papers, in the Public Archives of Canada, have not been completely examined and cataloged yet and it is possible that contemporary proof may be found eventually". 

The Fortress of Louisbourg as it appears on Google Maps.
Thus far, any more contemporary information on the line has yet to surface that I am aware of. Know anything about it? I imagine if LiDAR data were available for the site, it may help shed some light on this mystery. I'd also like to know more about the "pleasure railway" built at Versailles.

In the present-day US, there were most-likely tramways or other primitive railroads before the Leiper Railroad, but its status as the first chartered railroad in the US in 1810 deserves mentioning, even if I've talked about it once before. 

Image of the very narrow Leiper Canal. Image: Delaware County Historical Society.

Originally envisioned as a canal in 1790, the railroad came to fruition as the result of a property dispute between Leiper and a neighbor, who believed that the water diversion as a result of the canal's construction would adversely affect his mill. The line originally ran with horsepower, and straddled the line between the horse era and the iron-horse era in railroad history, as it was rebuilt in 1852, well within the reign of steam. 

It amazes me how long some of these lines lasted, and still continue to operate. Each one was an important milestone in the development of the modern railroad lines we know today. Could there have been even older primitive railroads that were never documented?

If you know of any other ancient rail line that predates the steam era, let me know in the comments. 

Thanks as always for reading!


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