In the 1820s the port of Baltimore was in danger. The threat came from the newly opened Erie Canal and the proposed construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that would parallel the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. These new water rail routes promised to provide a commercial gateway to the West that would bypass Baltimore’s thriving harbor and potentially hurl the city into an economic abyss.
Local entrepreneurs looked across the Atlantic to a new transportation system called a railroad for their salvation. In 1828, a syndicate was formed, led by Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. The citizens of Baltimore broke ground for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first Railroad in America. The railroad’s objective was to connect Baltimore with the Ohio River and the West. Initially, the railroad was to be powered by horses.
Most every citizen in Baltimore had invested in the new railroad idea, including Peter Cooper, a successful entrepreneur, inventor, and investor. Peter was so enthusiastic about the railroads prospects that he went so far as to buy 3,000 acres of hill and swamp land east of Baltimore. He was sure it would be worth a fortune once the railroad was operational. Convinced the proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would drive up land prices, Cooper began draining the swamps and flattening hills on his new land. During this excavation he discovered iron ore on his property. Seeing the new B&O as a natural market for iron rails, he also set about building the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore planning on manufacturing rails to capitalize on his ore discovery.
Unfortunately for Cooper and the rest of the citizens of Baltimore who invested heavily in the newly organized B&O, it all came crashing down in 1830 when it became obvious that animal power was no match for the mountainous terrain that needed to be traveled. Cooper for one, was not a man to give up on his investments easily. He was certainly not going to be left high and dry with worthless swamp land and a bankrupt factory. While others were ready to write off their investments, Cooper went into his workshop to solve the problems of the B&O. Using old parts of every kind and odd materials he’d found, he emerge several weeks later having successfully built Americas first steam powered locomotive. He christened his new invention, Tom Thumb.
Cooper was convinced the Tom Thumb locomotive was the answer to B&O’s technical difficulties. It took some time, but Cooper eventually convinced the board of directors of the B&O to visit his shop for a demonstration of his new invention. With the board anxiously assembled, Cooper rolled back the doors to his warehouse only to find vandals had broken in the night before and had stolen all of the copper plumbing from his locomotive. It took days to repair and several more to convince the board to make a return visit. Only this time the Tom Thumb was waiting on the tracks attached to a rail car which they could climb aboard, for an inaugural demonstration. Speeding down the rails at an astounding 18 miles per hour, the board of directors was ecstatic with excitement at having made the round trip in record time.
Investors again flocked to the B&O. So did shippers and passengers. By 1854, there were 380 miles of track and 19 million people had traveled in its passenger cars, which was now generating 2.7 million in annual profits for the stockholders. It also created another fortune for Peter Cooper.
Cooper went on to develop real estate, build business, factories, railroads, and was one of the original partners in the transatlantic cable with Cyrus Field. His philanthropic endeavors built and endowed the Cooper Union School which still provides full scholarships to those who qualify independent of their race, religion, sex, wealth or social status. It was at the Cooper Union that Abraham Lincoln gave his Cooper Union Address which galvanized support for Lincoln, gaining him the Republican Party’s nomination for the Presidency. For all of the many businesses Cooper started and inventions he patented, there is one we are still very familiar with that children and adults throughout the world still enjoy. It was Cooper, along with his wife, who invented and patented the first gelatin, which we all now know and enjoy today, as Jell-O.