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  • OTVI.USA
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FreightWaves ClassicsInfrastructureInsightsNewsRailTechnology

FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Gridley Bryant’s Granite Railway was America’s first

Construction engineer Gridley Bryant built the first commercial railroad in the United States and invented most of the basic technologies used in its operations. Bryant died 155 years ago today, (on June 13, 1867), in Scituate, Massachusetts, the town in which he had been born in 1789. 

Gridley Bryant. (Image: asce.org)
Gridley Bryant. (Image: asce.org)

Early construction career

Bryant demonstrated strong engineering and construction abilities early in life. As an adult, he recalled, “I was generally at the head of the young urchins of our neighborhood, and when there was a fort to be constructed, or a cabin to be built, in our plays, I was always appointed chief engineer, by common consent, and some of our juvenile structures are still in existence.”

His father died when Bryant was very young, and he was apprenticed to a Boston builder when he was 15. In 1810, at the age of 21, he started his own construction business. By the 1820s, Bryant had established a reputation as a master structure builder. This was further enhanced in 1823 when he invented the portable derrick.

Bryant’s reputation earned him two major contracts: the United States Bank in Boston (as well as other public buildings in the area); and the Bunker Hill Monument in nearby Charlestown, which would commemorate the historic American Revolutionary War battle. 

One of Bryant’s key challenges involved how to most effectively move the blocks of granite for those projects from the quarry in Quincy. Investigating how to move the granite to the work sites, he developed a plan to build a railroad, which he based on plans he had read about for England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway. That railroad was under consideration but had not yet been built. 

The Bunker Hill Monument in 1890. (Photo: Library of Congress)
The Bunker Hill Monument in 1890. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Granite Railway

Bryant’s idea was initially met with considerable skepticism; after all, railroads were a virtually unknown entity at the time. Members of the Bunker Hill monument association consented to the project, though most were doubtful of its success. The Massachusetts legislature hesitated to charter Bryant’s corporation; when it finally granted the charter it “was encumbered with vexatious restrictions.”

State legislator and Bunker Hill monument director Thomas H. Perkins was the principal financier and owned the majority of the railroad’s shares. One of North America’s first railroads, construction of the Granite Railway began on April 1, 1826. 

Looking down the Granite Railway's incline in a 1922 photo. (Photo: Warren S. Parker/Thomas Crane Public Library)
Looking down the Granite Railway’s incline in a 1922 photo. (Photo: Warren S. Parker/Thomas Crane Public Library)

When completed on October 7, 1826, the railroad was four miles long, including branches. The horse-drawn trains transported blocks of granite from the quarry in Quincy to a wharf on the Neponset River, where they were loaded on boats and then delivered to Boston.

The key difference between the Granite Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was in how they were powered. Bryant’s Granite Railway was a gravity and horse-drawn railroad, while the Liverpool and Manchester used steam locomotives that were invented in England.

Loading blocks of granite on the railway cars. (Image: Warren S. Parker/digitalcommonwealth.org)
Loading blocks of granite on the railway cars. (Image: Warren S. Parker/digitalcommonwealth.org)

Bryant’s railroad-related inventions

Because railroads were a brand-new form of transportation, Bryant developed numerous technologies to keep his trains running.

Bryant designed and developed a swing platform, balanced by weights, to receive the loaded railcars as they came from the quarry. The platform was connected with an inclined plane, on which the railcars were lowered, by means of an endless chain, to the railroad, 84 feet below. He also designed, developed and built a turntable at the foot of the quarry. 

Replicas of Granite Railway equipment. (Photo: funimag.com)
Replicas of Granite Railway equipment. (Photo: funimag.com)

Bryant also created designs for the railcars, track, switches, wheels and load transfer equipment. His railcars had four-wheeled trucks, which were used singly, or were joined in pairs, by means of a platform and kingbolts, to form eight-wheeled cars (one of his most significant innovations). While some of these features were in use on England’s early railroads, Bryant’s modifications allowed the transportation of heavier, more concentrated loads.

Unfortunately for Bryant, he did not seek patents for the turntable, switches, railcars, turnouts and his other inventions. As other railroads were built, his inventions were used by them and Bryant did not profit from his pioneering contributions to rail transportation.

Details of the remains of one of the two parallel inclined tracks with the pulleys which was supporting the chain (1934) (document Library of Congress)
A 1934 photo shows details of the remains of one of the two parallel inclined tracks with the pulleys that supported the railroad’s chain. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Legacy

As noted above, in 1834 Ross Winans patented an eight-wheeled railcar with appliances and improvements adapted for general railroad use. He claimed the invention of the principle of eight-wheeled railcars. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which controlled the Winans patent (as well as other railroads), used similar eight-wheeled railcars based on Bryant’s prior invention. 

After five years of litigation, the courts decided against Winans’ patent. Bryant’s testimony was crucial in the lawsuit. He was quite poor at the time, but was encouraged by repeated promises of compensation from the railroad companies that sought to invalidate Winans’ patent. However, after the suit was settled in their favor, the railroads reneged on their promises to Bryant; he never received any royalties from the railroads for the continued use of his design. He became deeply depressed and this likely hastened his death from paralysis.

These plaques were placed at the railroad's site in 1926, the 100th anniversary of the Granite Railway. (Photo: Library of Congress)
These plaques were placed at the railroad’s site in 1926, the 100th anniversary of the Granite Railway. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Because he was not recognized or compensated in the wake of the patent lawsuit, Bryant’s many contributions to the railroad industry were underappreciated at the time of this death. However, in later years “his trailblazing role in the evolution of railroads was less reservedly acknowledged and more wholeheartedly celebrated.”

An example of “this posthumous reassessment” was an article in the Indianapolis News nearly a decade after Bryant’s death. The newspaper stated, “The success of the fast train in its flight across the continent brings up memories of Mr. Gridley Bryant, the constructor of the first railroad in America – that from the Quincy granite quarries to tide-water in 1826 . . . His achievement put him in his right place as the most progressive railroad man of his time.”  The article continued, “The absolute necessity of [Bryant’s] inventions to railroad success, and his genius in overcoming the obstacles along the way, are now fully recognized.”

Gridley Bryant later in life. (Image: Public Domain)
Gridley Bryant later in life.
(Image: Public Domain)

Gridley Bryant is among the hundreds of unsung heroes of the early decades of the United States who contributed their intellect, wisdom and hard work in ways that built our nation and its transportation network. FreightWaves Classics will continue to recognize the contributions of these pioneers.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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