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European Capital, British Iron, and an American Dream

The Story of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad

By William Reynolds

Publication Year: 2002

The Atlantic & Great Western Railroad was one of the earliest and largest east-west railroad projects in the United States. It was the dream of American builders William Reynolds of Pennsylvania and Marvin Kent of Ohio. By using the non-standard six-foot gauge, these men helped construct a trunk line connecting the Atlantic tidewater with the Mississippi River "without break of gauge." Money for the construction came principally from European investors, like Don Jose de Salamanca of Spain, while Great Britain furnished the iron. A strong English support group included James McHenry, Sir Samuel Morton Peto, and the brilliant engineer, Thomas Kennard. This American-European enterprise represented a unique example of intercontinental cooperation in railroad history. Reynolds was the first president of the Pennsylvania and New York divisions of the A&GW. This published history is the first published source on this important railroad. With a memorable talent for detail and authority, Reynolds demonstrates how difficult it was to build a railroad against a backdrop of the Civil War. The lack of capital and resources, the scarcity of labor, the control of the oil market, and the endless struggle against hostile public opinion and fierce competitors like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central posed challenges that were not easily overcome. Yet, as Reynolds states, "in the face of all these formidable obstacles, the enterprise was crowned with success."

Published by: The University of Akron Press


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pp. v-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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Editors' Preface

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pp. xi-xii

A good deal of credit for bringing the memoir to light has to be given to the late Dr. Russell J. Ferguson of the University of Pittsburgh. Some sixty years ago, while doing research on western Pennsylvania politics, Professor Ferguson uncovered the Reynolds railroad history among the papers and letters...

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pp. xiii

While preparing this manuscript, a number of people extended to us assistance which we gratefully acknowledge. We received professional help and cooperation from the staff of the Erie Historical Society, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, the Western Reserve...

Railroad Abbreviations

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pp. xv-xvi

Timeline of the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad, 1851–1864

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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. 1-38

"Americans," remarked Ralph Waldo Emerson, "take to this little contrivance, the railroad, as if it were the cradle in which they were born." What impressed the poet was the nineteenth-century craze for building railroads. In the decade before the Civil War, thousands of miles of track crisscrossed...

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Author's Preface

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pp. 41-42

The full history of the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad1 (A&GW RR) has never been written. As one of the few survivors of those actively interested in the enterprise, I write this history to perpetuate the memory of those citizens who were prominent in the completion of the first railway connection between the Atlantic Seaboard...

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1. "Railroad or No Railroad," 1851–1857

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pp. 43-60

In the decade prior to the Civil War, railroad mania continued to grip the nation. A number of lines had already been constructed or projected in western New York and northeastern Ohio, but the cities of Philadelphia, Erie, and Pittsburgh guarded against railway connection between the two states...

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2. From Ohio to New York, 1858–1859

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pp. 61-84

Reynolds broke off negotiations with Morton and awarded the contract for construction of the road to Henry Doolittle and W. S. Streator. The Meadville RR, now know as the "Atlantic & Great Western RR of Pennsylvania," made bonds and stock available in England for cash and iron. James McHenry of....

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3. Building the Road, 1860

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pp. 85-121

Problems increased for Reynolds and the company. McHenry complained that he was not furnished with an adequate supply of securities. Reynolds responded by accusing McHenry's agents of illegal disbursement of proceeds from the sale of bonds; he feared that lack of control and accountability might...

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4. Challenges and More Challenges, 1861

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pp. 122-151

The contract with Doolittle and Streator was terminated and a new one with McHenry was approved. McHenry and his people began to press for more European representation and authority in the American companies as foreign investment increased. Meanwhile, Reynolds cried out for more efficient...

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5. Difficulties Continue, 1862

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pp. 152-175

With a boom in the oil market, Reynolds and Robert Thallon urged that the A&GW run a branch line into the oil region. McHenry agreed, but he also pleaded for additional securities and threatened to hold back on sending cash until he received them. Reynolds warned that this would be counterproductive...

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6. Pressing On, 1863

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pp. 175-201

The Civil War created distrust of American investments, thus making it difficult for McHenry to raise capital. Nonetheless, he continued to demand more securities. Reynolds remained puzzled by McHenry's position and maintained that the Pennsylvania company, for example, had forwarded securities far...

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7. Finishing the Job, 1864

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pp. 202-219

Reynolds, Kent, and Kennard helped celebrate the completion of the line to Dayton, Ohio. On the negative side, Reynolds regretted the control of the Oil Creek RR by the combined efforts of the Pennsylvania RR and the New York Central RR. He blamed this disaster on the short-sighted policies of McHenry...

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Editors' Afterword

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pp. 220-228

One of the purposes of this afterword is to tell something about William Reynolds and Marvin Kent in the decades following their separation from the A&GW RR. Another aim is to see what happened with this railroad once Reynolds and Kent had departed from it in 1864. Were their fears of the railroad's future...

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pp. 230-237

Born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1817, James McHenry was raised in Philadelphia, where his father engaged in mercantile pursuits. At an early age, James entered a commission house in Philadelphia and succeeded enough to become a partner. After the death of his father in 1845, James founded a company in Liverpool, England...


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pp. 238-245


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pp. 246-249


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pp. 250-254

E-ISBN-13: 9781935603566
E-ISBN-10: 1935603566
Print-ISBN-13: 9781884836916
Print-ISBN-10: 1884836917

Page Count: 255
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 33 photos
Publication Year: 2002

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Subject Headings

  • Atlantic and Great Western Railway Company -- History -- Sources.
  • Reynolds, William, 1820-1911.
  • Railroads -- United States -- History -- Sources.
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