He Built the First Commercial Railroad in the US – But He Died a Pauper

June 13, 1867

Construction engineer Gridley Bryant, who built the first commercial railroad in the United States, died at the age of 77 in Scituate, Massachusetts. Bryant was born in the seacoast town in 1789.  He demonstrated strong engineering abilities early on in life. Bryant recalled as an adult, “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.”

By the 1820s, Bryant had established an enviable reputation as a master structure builder. This reputation earned him contracts for two major contracts in his native Massachusetts: the United States Bank in Boston; and the Bunker Hill Monument in nearby Charlestown commemorating the historic American Revolutionary War battle. One of Bryant’s key challenges involved how to most effectively ship the granite for those projects from the quarry in what was then the town of Quincy, Massachusetts.

Bryant decided that the best method of transport would be a railroad similar to England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which was still under development at that time.  Bryant’s idea was initially met with considerable skepticism, and it was with much reluctance that the Massachusetts state legislature granted him a charter to build his sought-after railroad.

Construction on the Granite Railway started in April 1826 and the first horse-drawn trains along the route began operations that fall. On a regular basis, these trains transported granite blocks from the Quincy-based quarry to a wharf on the Neponset River; boats then delivered this cargo to Boston.

The Granite Railway became the nation’s first railroad used for commercial purposes. Since railroads, in general, were very much still a new phenomenon at that time – the Granite Railway was among the first to operate in North America — Bryant found himself coming up with a large number of the technologies to keep his trains running.

Bryant created designs for the cars, track, switches, wheels, turntable, and load transfer equipment. While a number of these features were already in use on the railroads in England, Bryant made modifications to permit the transport of heavier, more concentrated loads. One of his most significant innovations in this regard was the development of an eight-wheel railroad car.

Unfortunately, Bryant neglected to file patents on any of these inventions and therefore did not profit substantially from his pioneering contributions to rail transportation. An especially egregious example of this took place when he defended his development of the eight-wheel railroad car against a patent filed by another designer. While Bryant won this case in court, he never received any royalties from the railroads for the continued use of his design. Consequently, Bryant was both poor and, for the most part, underappreciated at the time of this death. In the years that followed, however, his trailblazing role in the evolution of railroads was less reservedly acknowledged and more wholeheartedly celebrated.

An illustration of this posthumous reassessment appeared in the Indianapolis News nearly a decade after Bryant’s death. This Indiana-based newspaper proclaimed, “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.”  This Indianapolis News article also stated, “The absolute necessity of [Bryant’s] inventions to railroad success, and his genius in overcoming the obstacles along the way, are now fully recognized.”

For more information on Gridley Bryant, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gridley_Bryant and https://www.asce.org/templates/person-bio-detail.aspx?id=9914.

Additional information on the Granite Railway is available at http://thomascranelibrary.org/legacy/railway/railway.htm.

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