In the course of the following year the organization of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a part of which had already been constructed under the immediate personal supervision of Lieutenant Whistler, assumed a more permanent form, and allowed the military engineers to be transferred to other undertakings of a similar character. Accordingly, in June, 1830, Captain McNeill and Lieutenant Whistler were sent to the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad, for which they made the preliminary surveys and a definite location, and upon which they remained until about twenty miles were completed, when a lack of funds caused a temporary suspension of the work. In the latter part of 1831 Whistler went to New Jersey to aid in the construction of the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad (now a part of the Erie Railway). Upon this work he remained until 1833, at which time he moved to Connecticut to take charge of the location of the railroad from Providence to Stonington, a line which had been proposed as an extension of that already in process of construction from Boston to Providence.
In this year, December 31, 1833, Lieut. Whistler resigned his commission in the army, and this not so much from choice as from a sense of duty. Hitherto his work as an engineer appears to have been more an employment than a vocation. He carried on his undertakings diligently, as it was his nature to do, but without much anxiety or enthusiasm; and he was satisfied in meeting difficulties as they came up, with a sufficient solution. Henceforward he handled his profession from a love of it. He labored that his resources against the difficulties of matter and space should be overabundant, and if he had before been content with the sure-footed facts of observation, he now added the luminous aid of study. How luminous and how sure these combined became, his later works show best.
In 1834 Mr. Whistler accepted the position of engineer to the proprietors of locks and canals at Lowell. This position gave him among other things the direction of the machine shops, which had been made principally for the construction of locomotive engines. The Boston and Lowell Railroad, which at this time was in process of construction, had imported a locomotive from the works of George and Robert Stephenson, at Newcastle, and this engine was to be reproduced, not only for the use of the Lowell road, but for other railways as well, and to this work Major Whistler gave a large part of his time from 1834 to 1837. The making of these engines illustrated those features in his character which then and ever after were of the utmost value to those he served. It showed the self-denial with which he excluded any novelties of his own, the caution with which he admitted those of others, and the judgment which he exercised in selecting and combining the most meritorious of existing arrangements. The preference which he showed for what was simple and had been tried did not arise from a want of originality, as he had abundant occasion to show during the whole of his engineering life.
He was, indeed, uncommonly fertile in expedients, as all who knew him testify, and the greater the demand upon his originality, the higher did he rise to meet the occasion. The time spent in Lowell was not only to the great advantage of the company, but it increased also his own stores of mechanical knowledge, and in a direction, too, which in later years was of especial value to him.
In 1837 the condition of the Stonington Railroad became such as to demand the continual presence and attention of the engineer. Mr. Whistler therefore moved to Stonington, a place to which he became much attached, and to which he seems during all of his wanderings to have looked with a view of making it finally his home. While engaged upon the above road he was consulted in regard to many other undertakings in different parts of the country, and prominent among these was the Western Railroad of Massachusetts.
This great work, remarkable for the boldness of its engineering, was to run from Worcester through Springfield and Pittsfield to Albany. To surmount the high lands dividing the waters of the Connecticut from those of the Hudson called for engineering cautious and skillful as well as heroic. The line from Worcester to Springfield, though apparently much less formidable, and to one who now rides over the road showing no very marked features, demanded hardly less study, as many as twelve several routes having been examined between Worcester and Brookfield. To undertake the solution of a problem of so much importance required the best of engineering talent, and we find associated on this work the names of three men who in the early railroad enterprises of this country stood deservedly in the front rank: George W. Whistler, William Gibbs McNeill, and William H. Swift. McNeill had graduated from the Military Academy in 1817, and rose to the rank of major in the Topographical Engineers. Like Whistler, he had been detailed to take charge of the design and construction of many works of internal improvement not under the direction of the general government. These two engineers exercised an influence throughout the country for many years much greater than that of any others.
Indeed, there were very few works of importance undertaken at that time in connection with which their names do not appear. This alliance was further cemented by the marriage between Whistler and McNeill's sister. Capt. William H. Swift had also graduated from the Military Academy, and had already shown marked ability as an engineer. Such were the men who undertook the location and construction of the railroad which was to surmount the high lands between the Connecticut and the Hudson, and to connect Boston with the Great West.
The early reports of these engineers to the directors of the Western Railroad show an exceedingly thorough appreciation of the complex problem presented to them, and a much better understanding of the principles involved in establishing the route than seems to have been shown in many far more recent works. In these early reports made in 1836 and 1837, we find elaborate discussions as to the power of the locomotive engine, and a recognition of the fact that in comparing different lines we must regard the plan as well as the profile, "as the resistance from curves on a level road may even exceed that produced by gravity on an incline;" and in one place we find the ascents "equated at 18 feet, the slope which requires double the power needed on a level road," resulting in a "virtual increase." We find also a very clear expression of the fact that an increased expenditure in the power needed to operate the completed road may overbalance a considerable saving in first cost. To bear this principle in mind, and at the same time to work in accordance with the directors' ideas of economy, in a country where the railroad was regarded very largely as an experiment, was by no means an easy task. The temptation to make the first cost low at the expense of the quality of the road in running up the valley of Westfield River was very great, and the directors were at one time very strongly urged to make an exceedingly narrow and crooked road west of Springfield; but Major Whistler so convinced the President, Thomas B. Wales, of the folly of such a course, that the latter declared, with a most emphatic prefix, that he would have nothing to do with such a two-penny cow-path, and thus prevented its adoption.