The majority of the population in the United States in the early 1800’s was located in the Mid-Atlantic area North and South of
Delaware. Travelers along the East Coast from highly populated areas such as New York and Philadelphia had to go through
Delaware to reach Baltimore and Washington DC. During this time of increased overland travel the roads of Delaware were poor and travel by water required a three-hundred-mile journey around the Delmarva Peninsula. The first attempt at
providing an alternative route involved the development of improved roads such as Turnpikes (New Castle and
Frenchtown Turnpike 1816) and canals (Delaware and Chesapeake Canal 1829). The turnpikes were hard to maintain
and the canals would freeze over in the winter months. Steam provided the answer, with the invention of the steamboat
and the steam-drawn carriage. Interest increased in this new mode of travel and Maryland took the lead, making provisions for the railroad in legislation enacted in December of 1827; the Legislature of Delaware followed suit by pass ing a similar act on February 7, 1829.
The result was the New Castle and Frenchtown Rail Road, which for sixteen miles ran a nearly straight course from New Castle, on the Delaware River, to Frenchtown, Maryland, on the Elk River at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, travelers from Philadelphia, the financial capital, heading for Washington, the political capital, would take a steamboat down the Delaware River to New Castle where they would board the train to Frenchtown. At Frenchtown passengers boarded a steamboat for the final trip down the Chesapeake to Baltimore. It was among the first railroads in the United States and was the first in Delaware.
The first locomotives were imported from England and local stagecoach builders made the coaches. They resembled a horse drawn stagecoach with modified wheels to ride on the tracks. The freight cars were little more than ordinary wagons. The first experiment in NewCastle and Frenchtown Railroad railroad building consisted of literally nothing more than a road with rails for the horse drawn coaches to ride on. The smooth rails enabled the horse to pull a load ten times the amount it could pull on a dirt road.
John Randel, Jr., was employed as the engineer in charge of the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad. He had gained his early experience as a surveyor on the Erie Canal, but become known to Delawareans chiefly for his work on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. In July 1830 the work began and the route was divided into seventeen sections. Each section had a contractor who supervised the excavation of the roadbed, (especially where inclines had to be overcome), the erection of embankments over marshes and low areas, the digging of drains, and the construction of culverts.
The roadbed was constructed after the fashion of early English railroads. Rails were placed about the same distance apart as in
modern roads, but instead of being laid on wooden sleepers, rails were placed upon blocks of stone thirteen to eighteen inches square laid in a base of sand and gravel. Wooden plugs were inserted into two holes that were drilled in the stones eight inches apart. Wooden rails, about six inches square and ten or twelve feet long were fastened to the stones by a piece of flat iron shaped like the letter “L”. The stones were placed about three feet apart and each stone had two of these iron attachments, one on each side of the rail, spiked into the wooden plugs, Fifty-eight thousand stones were needed for the entire length of the railroad. Bars of thin flat iron imported from England were spiked on top of the wooden rails, with spikes manufactured by the Troy Nail Works of New York.
The railroad was first opened for full passenger service on February 28, 1832. The trip was a success and took only an hour and twenty minutes being pulled by horses. The first steam engine ordered for the Frenchtown Railroad was made by The American Steam Carriage Company of Philadelphia but it proved inadequate and was later replaced. The railroad directors had arranged as early as June of 1831 for a steam engine to be constructed by Robert Stevenson of New Castle, England for £850. The “Delaware" was to make its maiden voyage on September 1, 1832.
The Niles Register of Baltimore, of March 3, 1832, reported: "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."
By 1837 the railroad had progressed from a rudimentary horsedrawn train to one of the most modern lines in the country. A
second track was laid parallel to the first and four trains began to run daily, two in each direction. The three newer engines, the
"Maryland", "New Castle" and "Virginia" were made by the New Castle Manufacturing Company's foundry and shop.
After the completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad in 1838 the need for the Frenchtown Railroad
began to diminish and it was discontinued in 1853.