As I was putting this piece together, railroad safety was front and center in our 21st-century news media. Two big train derailments, one spewing toxic chemicals in an Ohio town. Who’s to blame? What should be done? How can railroad safety be improved?
I don’t have answers to those questions, but I can tell you about the birthplace of railroad safety—the very first place in America where planners grappled with the problem of train derailments and came up with a strategy to prevent them. It happened right here on the Delmarva Peninsula. As we shall see, that story involves a doomed cow, a repurposed peach basket, and a modern-day cocktail.
A Pioneer in the Railroad Revolution
The Frenchtown New Castle Railroad ran for 16 short miles between a long-gone wharf near the mouth of the Elk River on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore and the town of New Castle, Del. on the Delaware River. When the railroad started running in 1831, it was the first-ever line in Delaware and among the first in the country. The nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, was just four years old. A dozen or so other lines had popped up, almost all of them quite short by today’s standards and completely unconnected one from the other.
That Railroad Traveled a Route Thick with History
The Frenchtown New Castle Railroad may have been a groundbreaking innovation, but it followed a path that was already steeped in history. During late colonial times and in the early decades of a new nation, more than half of the U.S. population lived in the Mid-Atlantic region.
But that proximity did not translate into easy travel and trading routes, and the Delmarva Peninsula was partly to blame for that. Overland roads were in dreadful shape, filled with ruts that were more like canyons and vulnerable to flooding every time it rained or snowed.
Boats were much more reliable, and much preferred by travelers and businesses. But the Delmarva Peninsula was in the way. The only all-water route between Philadelphia and other points to the northeast and the young-but-growing metropolises of Baltimore and Washington, DC involved a 300-mile trip around the peninsula—through the Chesapeake Bay, along the Atlantic coast, through the Delaware Bay, and along the Delaware River.
The Frenchtown New Castle route came into being as a solution to this peninsula problem. Folks would travel from Baltimore to Philadelphia by sailing across the Chesapeake Bay to Frenchtown, then disembarking to travel overland on a “turnpike” to New Castle before hopping on another boat for the sail up to Philadelphia.
This alternative saved a ton of time. As a result, scads of VIPs traveled the Frenchtown New Castle Turnpike. One of them, the artist Benjamin Henry Latrobe, memorialized Frenchtown in an 1806 painting titled View from the Packet Wharf at Frenchtown Looking Down Elk Creek showing the Mouth of Pates’ Creek. The work is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
During the War of 1812 the British Navy regarded Frenchtown as so important that they burned it to the ground. But the Frenchtown route recovered quickly—and became even more popular when the first commercial steamship to offer regular service across the Chesapeake Bay made it a prime stop. Other steamboat lines soon chose the same route.
In those pre-railroad days of the early 1800s, the overland part of the Frenchtown New Castle route operated in privatized fashion, with passengers paying a fee to a company that was obligated in turn to manage the wagons and coaches used in the journey and to maintain road so that it was relatively free of the ruts and muck that made overland travel elsewhere such a pain.
No one back then seems to have had big objections to such privatized travel arrangements. Fee-based turnpikes were a reasonably well-known phenomenon, and folks regarded the idea of paying a company that maintained a road and often kept up a fleet of vehicles that operated in ride-sharing fashion.
That peaceful state of affairs hit a bump in the road when a Delaware legislator came up with the idea of imposing a tax on turnpike passengers to fund the development of a public university. All hell broke loose. Newspapers as far away as New York published blistering letters and editorials denouncing the “vile,” “wicked,” and unconstitutional idea that a person could be taxed by the government for moving from one place to another. One newspaper described an anti-turnpike-tax protest in Wilmington, Del. as nothing less than a full-fledged “riot”—the first in that city’s history.
From Turnpike to Railroad
The transformation of the Frenchtown New Castle turnpike into Delaware’s first railroad line happened as part of a battle for economic supremacy in the transportation sector. Over those turnpike years, the business powers that be in New Castle had grown quite fond of being a key cog along a popular and prosperous transportation route.
But that road to riches came under threat in the 1820s by plans to dig a canal across the upper Delmarva Peninsula and create an all-water route between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Once the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was completed, goods and people would pass through the fledgling town of Delaware City, bypassing New Castle. The latter town’s businessmen set out to beat back this challenge by constructing a newfangled railroad line that would be faster and more comfortable than the old wagons and stagecoaches.
Spoiler alert: You can tell who won that contest in the end by the fact that the Frenchtown wharf is no more, while the C&D Canal still thrives.
Early Railroads Were Odd Things to Our Modern Eyes
In the early days of railroading, no one saw how the future would unfold. Most railroad pioneers had their eyes set simply on getting from point A to point B, that’s it. They didn’t foresee how a network of railroad lines crisscrossing the country might transform the national economy. Most early railroads resembled Frenchtown New Castle—short, stand-alone segments unconnected with other lines.
The Frenchtown New Castle Railroad arrived so early in the iron-horse game that it bore little resemblance to modern railroads. The earliest incarnation of the railroad was constructed not with wooden railroad ties, but atop blocks of stone. Its railroad “cars” looked more like repurposed stagecoach carriages than anything we would recognize today as a railcar. Those cars had humongous wheels. They had the upturned crescent shape of a smile. In addition to interior seats, passengers could also ride up on the rooftop, just like you see in the horse-drawn stagecoaches depicted in old Westerns.
The Niles Register newspaper in Baltimore: “The Frenchtown and New Castle Railroad was open for transportation of persons and goods on Thursday last. One of the coaches, built to run upon it may well be called a traveling ‘Palace’, because of its conveniences, and it will comfortably seat fifty persons inside and out.”
One more oddity: During the first year of “railroad” operations, those weird cars were pulled along the tracks by teams of horses. Steam engines did not arrive on the scene until year two of the Frenchtown New Castle Railroad.
Holy Cow! The Birth of Railroad Safety
I wish I knew the name of the wandering bovine who launched railroad safety in the United States. Even the name of that cow’s owner would help—that way maybe I could try and turn the lumbering creature into Delmarva’s own version of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, of Great Chicago Fire fame. Alas, no such luck.
The steam engine arrived in 1832. Things got off to a respectable start that spring, with some 200 passengers a day riding the newfangled rails. The busiest runs had the engine pulling as many as 11 passenger carriages and four baggage cars.
The first major mishap happened in April 1832. A cow stepped in front of a train, causing one railroad carriage to veer off the tracks. No humans were seriously hurt, though the cow died.
The Frenchtown New Castle Railroad team responded by leaping into action. They knew that in such a competitive environment they couldn’t afford downtime due to accidents or public-relations hits caused by injuries to passengers. They set up a system of safety signals, the first in the country.
There were no radios or telegraphs yet, so tall posts were erected at three-mile intervals along the track. As a train approached one of those posts, a guy stationed there would raise a flag. Three miles up the track, another guy would be peering through a telescope to keep an eye out for the flag that told him a train would be coming soon.
Primitive gates were erected at key crossroads where people tended to walk or ride horses and wagons across the tracks. The flagmen along the line would lower those gates as trains approached. There you have it—the first-ever railroad-safety initiative in the United States.
Wait, What About that Peach Basket You Promised? And When Do We Get Our Cocktail?
That first system wasn’t perfect. In the absence of wind, the flags would droop in ways that made them hard to see.
Getting to the next step in the evolution of railroad safety in America involves a brief detour. In the 1820s peaches were just starting to become a big thing in Delaware. One of the state’s peach pioneers was Phillip Reybold, who transformed his farmland near Delaware City into giant peach orchards. Early on, he sold the fruit to feed the thousands of men at work on construction crews building the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. After the canal opened, he started shipping peaches up to Philadelphia and other cities.
Other farmers watched Reybold get rich and followed his lead. Peaches were on their way to becoming a centerpiece of the region’s farm economy. Fast forward 50 years and Delaware would be shipping 6 million baskets of peaches a year to nearby big cities. The state had more than 800,000 peach trees in the 1890s, which is when the Delaware legislature decided to name the peach blossom the state’s official flower.
Back to the railroad and the 1830s. What the Frenchtown New Castle Railroad pioneers did next to promote safety on the line was replace those drooping flags with inverted peach baskets. The baskets’ bottoms were covered with highly visible white cloth. When the basket was at the top of the pole, train engineers knew the road ahead was clear. A peach basket down at the bottom meant they should slow to a stop and wait for the all-clear signal.
Later, those peach baskets would be replaced by large hollow balls—four feet in diameter and with words like “danger” painted on them. These balls would be rotated sideways by 90 degrees to become invisible when the route was clear. Lanterns illuminated them at night.
This is where the railroading term “highball” came into existence. That word that arose here on Delmarva then stuck through the centuries that followed, with all of their innovations. Whether delivered by telegraph, radio, or computer, “highball” stayed in use as a reference to any signal that gave an engineer the all-clear to run his train at full speed.
Which brings us at long last to your cocktail. There are several theories about how the “highball” came into being. The most popular version of how the cocktail got its name has bartenders aboard food-and-beverage cars on trains naming it in honor of that full-speed-ahead bit of railroad lingo.
I am thinking the best way to close this little history lesson is with a couple of highball recipes. Here’s one. And here’s another. In 1949 no less an authority than Esquire magazine called the highball the “high priest of tall drinks.” Some day soon, perhaps you can mix one up and then raise a toast to that Doomed Cow of Delmarva. Maybe make a peach treat for dessert that night?
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in March 2023. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: Don’t forget! I have an entire book of fun stories from days gone by. Here is info on You Wouldn’t Believe! 44 Strange and Wondrous Delmarva Tales. Perhaps this story will make it into a second collection of those, if I ever get around to it.
NOTE #2: An old ticket booth from the Frenchtown New Castle Railroad has been restored and stands as a tourist attraction today in New Castle’s Battery Park. Nearby is an interpretive marker about the railroad’s history.
I have not yet tried to go out hunting for remnants of the old rail line, but this document from the National Trust for Historic Preservation might offer some ideas if you are interested in such an adventure. The reader comments on this post about the railroad might offer a few further hints.
NOTE #3: In an article for the Cecil Whig newspaper back in 2019, Francis Newtown explored connections between the wharf at Frenchtown and the Underground Railroad, detailing a couple of notable escapes tied to the place. You can read that here.
NOTE #4: That state legislator who tried to tax turnpike travelers and caused such an uproar was hoping to transform a small college in Newark into a big public state university. While his tax plan failed, the concept eventually came to life in the form of the University of Delaware. No offense to modern-day Newark people, but I can’t resist including another fun old newspaper quote of opposition to his taxing proposal:
Newark is nothing but “a small village in an obscure corner of this state, where it is impossible [that such a university could] ever flourish.”
NOTE #5: While historians agree that the Frenchtown Newark Railroad was the first line in the United States to grapple with railroad safety matters, I’m sorry to report that their efforts were not the first such initiative in the world. The Brits—you remember, the same people who burned Frenchtown to the ground during the War of 1812—beat Frenchtown to the punch by a few years by launching a flag safety system along the Liverpool and Manchester railroad line.
NOTE #6: Delaware’s peach boom came to an end in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to a deadly disease called “the blight” that spread down the peninsula from north to south over the course of a few decades.