Before the railroad era the United States had a few tramroads. For example, a tramline was operated in Boston in 1795 to haul brick. The first line that could properly be called a railroad, that is, one with raised track traversed by flanged wheels, was the Granite Line, which was built in Massachusetts in 1826 to bring granite for the Bunker Hill Monument from the quarry to a wharf on the Neponset River. The cars on this short line were moved by gravity and by a team of horses, except on a short incline where power was supplied by a stationary steam engine with a continuous chain.
Some years previously, in 1815, the first railroad charter in the United States had been granted by the state of New Jersey to the inventor John Stevens, father of Robert L. Stevens (the inventor of the T rail) and sometimes called the father of American railroads.
John Stevens was the original organizer of the Pennsylvania Railroad but could not finance his project. Actual construction of the rail network in the United States was not begun until 1828, when work was started on the first section of the Baltimore & Ohio.
This 20.9-km (13-mi) line was opened to traffic in 1830, when construction of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, parent line of the New York Central, was begun. In that year the country had a total of 37 km (23 mi) of railroad in operation. Five years later the national total was 1,767 km (1,098 mi), and by 1848 it had become 9,650 km (5,996 mi), with virtually all of it in states along the Atlantic seaboard. Rails then began to reach into the Middle West, and soon the new towns of the Mississippi River valley were connected with the eastern seaports.
News of the discovery of gold in California in 1849 greatly stimulated railroad building, which was favored at that time by general prosperity. Whereas previous construction had proceeded at an average rate of 509 km (316 mi) per year, through the 1850s the annual average was 3,200 km (2,000 mi). Federal aid, in this period extended indirectly through state governments, was important in fostering the boom. The aid was usually in the form of grants of alternate sections of public lands bordering railroad routes. In return, the railroads gave the government substantial reductions in rates.