Canals and Railroads

The Thomas W. Streeter Collection on transportation forms the core of the American Antiquarian Society's holdings of materials on canals and railroads. This outstanding collection was given to AAS by Thomas Winthrop Streeter, past president of the Society and preeminent collector of railroadiana. The collection now numbers over 6,000 pieces.

The first dated entry in Thomas Richard Thomson's Check List of Publications on American Railroads before 1841 (New York, 1942), is for Oliver Evans's The Abortion of the Young Steam Engineers Guide (Philadelphia, 1805). A copy of this volume survives at AAS. In succeeding years, there were many reports and articles on the possibilities for public roads, canals, and railroads. Some four thousand miles of canals were built between 1815 and 1860, chiefly in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; with the Erie Canal the most successful, but strong regional rivalries prevented the development of a national canal system.

Not until successful trials of the steam locomotive were reported from England was any concentrated effort made to establish railroads in America. The first transcontinental railroad was begun in 1863 and completed in just over five years by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies. A Union Pacific baggage car carried a printing press on which Legh Freeman published the Frontier Index, at twenty-five different locations along the route. The issues from Julesburg, Colorado, and Fort Saunders, Wyoming, are in the Society's newspaper collection. A group of Bostonians made the first transcontinental trip to San Francisco in 1870 and chronicled the events and scenes in The Transcontinental, published in twelve numbers, the first at Niagara Falls on May 24, the last on return to Boston on July 4. A complete set is in the Society's collection of periodicals.

Many of the western railroad companies received large land grants along the right-of-way. As the Society's collection reveals, a flourishing business found land agents with promotional tracts in Europe as well as in the eastern United States. Graft was involved as well, and assorted pamphlets tell of embezzlements, railroad rings, and the Credit Mobilier building company scandal.

Growth of the railroads led to a large service industry, with trade catalogs for engines, cars, and parts, as well as broadsides and brochures for freight rates and regulations, construction specifications, and operator manuals such as The Road- Master's Assistant and Section Master's Guide, by William S. Huntington. Many issues of Appletons' Railway & Steam Navigation Guide and other regional and national timetables and guides are in the collection, as well as business directories issued by the railroads that provided information on the towns and businesses along the routes. The Society's collection includes material on such groups as the Boston Association of Locomotive Engineers, the Master Car Builders' Association, the Eastern Railroad Association, the National Narrow Gauge Railway Convention of 1872, and the New York Sabbath Committee (whose concern was that the railroads cease operating on the Sabbath).

Access to the collection requires persistence. All of the primary source canal material is cataloged, as are most of the secondary works on both canals and railroads. A smaller percentage of primary railroad pieces are cataloged, including a group of official reports concerning western surveys that were part of the collection of western Americana given the Society by Donald McKay Frost. Because so many early references and reports are to be found in uncataloged government publications, researchers are urged to read the section on government documents in this guidebook and to consult the finding aids.

Parts of the railroads collection, those items dated through 1840, and most items which are concerned with Ohio railroads, have been cataloged online. Work proceeds on upgrading existing cataloging of materials from the time period 1801 through 1820 which are cataloged only briefly online.

Still uncataloged are approximately 70 boxes of items which cover general and specific railroads and two scrapbooks of railroad passes. The general boxes contain items such as speeches, trade and commerce reports, route proposals, and convention proceedings, while the railroad company boxes consist mainly of corporate and engineers' reports. A few foreign railroad companies are included. In addition, there are twenty-six boxes of regional and national timetables and guides, and over fifty railroad business directories. Checklists available for these items and also for all canals and railroads represented in the boxed material are located in the reading room. There is also an incomplete checklist of articles on the Blackstone Canal that appeared in Massachusetts and Rhode Island newspapers from 1822 to 1837.

Other canal and railroad material is found in many broadside advertisements, lithographs, maps and charts, railroad bonds, passes and tickets, and sheet music, located in the graphic arts department. Related material may be found in the Society's collections of Newspapers and Serials, Trade Catalogs, American Institutions, Stereographs, and Miscellaneous Pamphlets, as well as the collection of Government Documents.

Thomson's railroad bibliography, Evald Rink's Technical Americana: A Checklist of Technical Publications Printed before 1831 (New York, 1981), and Lawrence B. Romaine's A Guide To American Trade Catalogs 1744-1900, (New York, 1960), are annotated for AAS holdings, and the Society subscribes to the Bulletin of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society.

With over a thousand canals and railroads represented, the collection offers many opportunities for the scholar. Its diversity and depth illustrates not only the growth of a national transportation system, but also chronicles the paths of continental migration and the great influence of canals and railroads upon the people and institutions of the nineteenth century.

- Carolyn A. Allen, former acquisitions administrator. Updated by S.J. Wolfe, Senior Cataloger

Quick Links
Catalog | Login | Digital A-Z

By appointment:
Monday: 9-5
Tuesday: 10-5
Wednesday: 9-5
Thursday: 9-5
Friday: 9-5

Link to AAS Facebook Link to AAS TwitterLink to AAS BlogLink to AAS Instagram   Link to AAS YouTube