The Vault

The “Can’t Get There From Here” Railroad Map of 1854 New England

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This map shows the reach of railroad and telegraph infrastructure in New England in 1854. Notched lines signify extant railroads. Double lines show telegraph wires (often, if not always, built alongside and with the cooperation of railroads). A single line indicates railroads under construction. 

The first short railroads in the United States were built in the 1830s. The depression of the late 1830s slowed development, but railroad building rebounded in the 1840s. Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message from D.C. to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, and, by 1851, 50 companies had already sprung up to build telegraph lines.

In New England, a decade after development took off, the railroad reached only partway out on Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket were still telegraph-less. On the other hand, you could already take the Long Island Railroad to Greenport—though to reach the Hamptons, you would have to disembark and take a stagecoach or wagon.

It’s fun to look at the map and think about the different itineraries that the railroads would have forced upon the traveler. To get to the eastern side of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which were just coming into their own as a tourist destination, the traveler would have to take the railroad from Boston up the New Hampshire and Maine seacoasts to Portland, and from there ride the Grand Trunk Railway inland to the mountains.

English writer Anthony Trollope followed this route in 1861. He recommended that his readers get off the train in Gorham, then take a wagon “through primeval forests” to the famous Glen House Hotel. The next day, one should do as Trollope did, and ascend the heights of Mount Washington on a pony—a trip, he reassured his readers, that was both “de rigeur” and worth it.

Click on the image below, or visit the map’s page in the digital collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, to get a closer look.