Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad

Map of the PW&B
Map of the PW&B
Maryland Historical Society

Today’s Amtrak high-speed Baltimore-Philadelphia main line had its genesis in the late 1830s as a combination of four separate connecting railroad companies to link the two cities. The route’s Baltimore end was first incorporated as the Baltimore & Port Deposite [sic] Rail Road in March 1832, with the obvious goal of reaching the Susquehanna River opposite Port Deposit.  At about the same time, three other companies were created to build a continuous line from Philadelphia to Port Deposit.  There, an existing wooden highway bridge was to carry connecting rails across the wide river barrier.

The various independent projects were slow to start.  In the meantime, it proved impractical to use the creaky Port Deposit bridge, but also too expensive to build a true railroad bridge.  So, the Susquehanna River terminals were changed to Perryville on the north and Havre de Grace on the south, to be connected by a ferry.  By 1838, all four lines were complete and, with the ferry, able to offer the semblance of a through Baltimore-Philadelphia service.  In the same year, they all merged as the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad (PW&B).  Linked with the Baltimore & Ohio’s Baltimore-Washington branch and other railroads between Philadelphia and New York Harbor, the new PW&B quickly became a strategic link in the chain of railroads handling the growing passenger travel along the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York corridor.

The PW&B’s strategic position served the Union well when the Civil War broke out. Despite occasional depredations, the PW&B steadily funneled troops and war materials from the Northeast to and Washington Union troops in the South.  It also played the major role in the war’s first bloodshed. On April 19, 1861, an angry mob of Southern sympathizers in Baltimore attacked Union troops that were attempting to transfer from the PW&B’s President Street terminal to the Baltimore & Ohio’s Camden Station. In what became known as the Pratt Street Riots, at least 12 people were killed, most of them civilians. (Both stations have been preserved and restored.)

Following the war, the railroad finally bridged the Susquehanna River, eliminating the awkward, time-consuming ferry trip. The graceful wood truss bridge, the first of three to occupy the site, opened in 1866. Between 1853 and 1866, the PW&B also built and absorbed rail lines on the Delmarva Peninsula and came to dominate that entire area. Its Eastern Shore main line extended down the peninsula’s spine from Wilmington through Dover, Delaware, and Salisbury, Maryland, ending on the Chesapeake Bay at Crisfield, Maryland. (In 1884, this line was extended to Cape Charles, Virginia, where steamers took passengers and freight to Norfolk.) Various tendrils off the main line extended to the Maryland towns of Centreville, Easton, Oxford, and Cambridge.

By the mid-1870s, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad was the only remaining independent railroad in the Washington-New York corridor, and soon became the center of a tug-of-war between the rival Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroads.  The PW&B’s Boston owners decided to grab the opportunity to sell their railroad before one or the other built a paralleling line and, in 1881, the B&O’s President John W. Garrett negotiated a secret purchase. But the wily Pennsylvania Railroad outmaneuvered him just as secretly, offering a higher price, and snatched the prize away.

Afterward, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad became an integral part of the Pennsylvania’s vast Eastern system and the centerpiece of its Washington-New York main line. Over the years, it became one of the Pennsylvania’s busiest lines, not only linking cities all along the Eastern Seaboard; but, like the Northern Central Railway and the Baltimore & Potomac, its story merged with that of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The original Baltimore-Philadelphia route, now under its fourth owner, remains a thriving operation.

—Herbert H. Harwood, Jr.
CSX Transportation (retired)

Further Reading

Burgess, George H. and Miles C. Kennedy. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 1949.

Roberts, Charles S. and David W. Messer. Triumph VI: Philadelphia, Columbia, Harrisburg to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts & Co., 2003.

Hayman, John C. Rails Along the Chesapeake: A History of Railroading on the Delmarva Peninsula; N.p.: Marvadel Publishers, 1979.

Additional Websites

Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.

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