By Prof. G.L. VOSE.
Few persons, even among those best acquainted with our modern railroad system, are aware of the early struggles of the men to whose foresight, energy, and skill the new mode of transportation owes its introduction into this country. The railroad problem in the United States was quite a different one from that in Europe. Had we simply copied the railways of England, we should have ruined the system at the outset, for this country. In England, where the railroad had its origin, money was plenty, the land was densely populated, and the demand for rapid and cheap transportation already existed. A great many short lines connecting the great centers of industry were required, and for the construction of such in the most substantial manner the money was easily obtained. In America, on the contrary, a land of enormous extent, almost entirely undeveloped, but of great possibilities, lines of hundreds and even thousands of miles in extent were to be made, to connect cities as yet unborn, and accommodate a future traffic of which no one could possibly foresee the amount.
Money was scarce, and in many districts the natural obstacles to be overcome were infinitely greater than any which had presented themselves to European engineers.
By the sound practical sense and the unconquerable will of George Stephenson, the numerous inventions which together make up the locomotive engine had been collected into a machine which, in combination with the improved roadway, was to revolutionize the transportation of the world. The railroad, as a machine, was invented. It remained to apply the new invention in such a manner as to make it a success, and not a failure. To do this in a new country like America required infinite skill, unbounded energy, the most careful study of local conditions, and the exercise of well matured, sound business judgment. To see how well the great invention has been applied in the United States, we have only to look at the network of iron roads which now reaches from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
With all the experience we have had, it is not an easy problem, even at the present time, to determine how much money we are authorized to spend upon the construction of a given railroad. To secure the utmost benefit at the least outlay, regarding both the first cost of building the road and the perpetual cost of operating it, is the railroad problem which is perhaps less understood at the present day than any other. It was an equally important problem fifty years ago, and certainly not less difficult at that time. It was the fathers of the railroad system in the United States who first perceived the importance of this problem, and who, adapting themselves to the new conditions presented in this country, undertook to solve it. Among the pioneers in this branch of engineering no one has done more to establish correct methods, nor has left behind a more enviable or more enduring fame, than Major George W. Whistler.
The Whistler family is of English origin, and is found toward the end of the 15th century in Oxfordshire, at Goring and Whitchurch, on the Thames. One branch of the family settled in Sussex, at Hastings and Battle, being connected by marriage with the Websters of Battle Abbey, in which neighborhood some of the family still live. Another branch lived in Essex, from which came Dr. Daniel Whistler, President of the College of Physicians in London in the time of Charles the Second. From the Oxfordshire branch came Ralph, son of Hugh Whistler, of Goring, who went to Ireland, and there founded the Irish branch of the family, being the original tenant of a large tract of country in Ulster, under one of the guilds or public companies of the city of London. From this branch of the family came Major John Whistler, father of the distinguished engineer, and the first representative of the family in America. It is stated that in some youthful freak he ran away and enlisted in the British Army. It is certain that he came to this country during the Revolutionary War, under General Burgoyne, and remained with his command until its surrender at Saratoga, when he was taken prisoner of war.
Upon his return to England he was honorably discharged, and, soon after, forming an attachment for a daughter of Sir Edward Bishop, a friend of his father, he eloped with her, and came to this country, settling at Hagerstown, in Maryland. He soon after entered the army of the United States, and served in the ranks, being severely wounded in the disastrous campaign against the Indians under Major-General St. Clair in the year 1791. He was afterward commissioned as lieutenant, rose to the rank of captain, and later had the brevet of major. At the reduction of the army in 1815, having already two sons in the service, he was not retained; but in recognition of his honorable record, he was appointed Military Storekeeper at Newport, Kentucky, from which post he was afterward transferred to Jefferson Barracks, where he lived to a good old age.
Major John Whistler had a large family of sons and daughters, among whom we may note particularly William, who became a colonel in the United States Army, and who died at Newport, Ky., in 1863; John, a lieutenant in the army, who died of wounds received in the battle of Maguago, near Detroit, in 1812; and George Washington, the subject of our sketch. Major John Whistler was not only a good soldier, and highly esteemed for his military services, but was also a man of refined tastes and well educated, being an uncommonly good linguist and especially noted as a fine musician. In his family he is stated to have united firmness with tenderness, and to have impressed upon his children the importance of a faithful and thorough performance of duty in whatever position they should be placed.
George Washington Whistler, the youngest son of Major John Whistler, was born on the 19th of May, in the year 1800, at Fort Wayne, in the present State of Indiana, but then part of the Northwest Territory, his father being at the time in command of that post. Of the boyhood of Whistler we have no record, except that he followed his parents from one military station to another, receiving his early education for the most part at Newport, Ky., from which place, on July 31, 1814, he was appointed a cadet to the United States Military Academy, being then fourteen years of age. The course of the student at West Point was a very satisfactory one. Owing to a change in the arrangement of classes after his entrance, he had the advantage of a longer term than had been given to those who preceded him, remaining five years under instruction. His record during his student life was good throughout. In a class of thirty members he stood No. 1 in drawing, No. 4 in descriptive geometry, No. 5 in drill, No. 11 in philosophy and in engineering, No. 12 in mathematics, and No. 10 in general merit. He was remarkable, says one who knew him at this time, for his frank and open manner and for his pleasant and cheerful disposition.