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  • Emmanuel Mehr

How the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Shaped Baltimore’s European Immigration Histories

BHW 26: July 29, 2023


A map of the Mid-Atlantic United States showing the B&O railway system as of 1866. The furthest point west on the mapped system is Columbus, Ohio.
Figure 1. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, “The Baltimore & Ohio System, 1866,” public domain [1].


In 1828, the first commercial steam railroad in the United States was established in Baltimore. [2] In late-1866 or early-1867, this Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) signed a partnership agreement with the North German Lloyd Steamship Company to provide single-ticket passenger fare from Germany to Baltimore. Then, in 1868, the B&O expanded its operations to Baltimore’s Locust Point and built two immigration piers at the site. [3] This opened the floodgates for European immigrant arrivals to the United States via Baltimore. From the 1968 B&O expansion to the immigration cut-off sparked by World War I in 1914, 1.2 million European immigrants arrived at Locust Point. [4] The B&O Railroad turned the previously sparsely developed Locust Point into a hub of industrialism and mass transportation. The company’s already well-developed rail system connecting Baltimore to the Midwest provided the connecting infrastructure. This made Baltimore the most efficient link for passengers and goods from Europe to reach the Midwest for the next five years. At that point, in 1873, the B&O rerouted all westward passenger traffic from Baltimore through Washington, D.C. as the company pursued a newly national identity. [5] This did not stop the massive influx of goods into Locust Point, but it did take away Baltimore’s key advantage over other East Coast port cities for passenger arrivals. The city’s arrival numbers slowed but remained steady until 1914. Some immigrants chose to remain in Baltimore rather than continuing west, building ethnic communities around the city. The B&O Railroad was a vital force driving European immigration to Baltimore City from the end of the Civil War to the start of World War I. The growth of the railroad system itself, together with its expansion to Locust Point, are both deeply impactful developments in Baltimore immigration histories.

The ceremonial laying of the “first stone” of the B&O Railroad on July 4, 1828, ushered in the American railroad age. It also launched a new form of capitalist development in transportation industries. [6] As historian David Schley argues, the B&O started as a public-private partnership with both Baltimore City and Maryland State governments. The private interests then grappled with both governments to wrest control over the company as it grew into an industrial conglomerate. By the end of the Civil War, Schley suggests, “American railroads took an unmistakably private form.” [7] Schley only briefly mentions European immigration in his recent book about the B&O, and it will be a central focus here. If we accept Schley’s timeline for railroad privatization and place it alongside that of the Locust Point immigration piers, they largely align. The B&O German steamship immigration deal and the Locust Point infrastructure launch both occurred between late-1866 and 1868. Both also represented control over mass transportation by private interests. Private companies had long controlled commercial ship traffic, but now this was linked with unprecedented corporate transportation infrastructure. With these two roughly concurrent developments, the B&O accelerated the flow of European immigrants through the Port of Baltimore.

The late-1866 or early-1867 contract between the North German Lloyd Steamship Company and the B&O regularized the already significant ship traffic between Baltimore and Germany’s Ports of Bremen. As historian Dean R. Esslinger emphasizes, “By 1830, Baltimore had firm trade links with Liverpool [England] and Bremen, both major ports for emigrants leaving northern Europe. Many immigrants no doubt ended up in Baltimore simply by chance as a result of the shipping patterns that existed.” Indeed, pre-1868 immigration to Baltimore largely served as an uncoordinated by-product of trade. [8] The Baltimore-Liverpool trade network was flawed from the start, and Bremen emerged as a key Baltimore shipping partner. [9] Historian Seth Rockman provides an insightful example of this from his research. He writes, “[T]he Bremen ship Gustav arrived in Baltimore in August 1837 carrying forty families, some with as many as seven children under the age of sixteen.” [10] They arrived alongside shipments of trade goods. A significant number of the arriving immigrants signed contracts with the B&O itself to work on the construction of the railroad. [11] By doing so, these newcomers directly built the infrastructure that facilitated booming European immigration for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Baltimore businesses leaders swiftly proceeded with the B&O’s development in anticipation of competing infrastructure development around other East Coast cities. According to the company’s official corporate history, these concerns directly contributed to the company’s creation in 1828. Indeed, “Early in 1826 it became evident to the merchants and bankers of Baltimore that the construction of the Erie and Pennsylvania canals would divert Baltimore from the trade with the Ohio Valley… [and] proposed construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, with its eastern terminus in Georgetown, D.C., would still further deprive their city of trade.” [12] Competition anxiety similarly fueled the decision to expand to Locust Point, thus creating the infrastructure that enabled later immigration. Locust Point set B&O apart from its regional competitors by directly linking rail traffic to the water. The company eliminated the need to haul cargo from ships to trains by building right on the water. As Schley notes, “Other trunk rail lines eventually created their own rail-to-water facilities, but only many years later. More than a decade after Locust Point opened, for example, the Pennsylvania Railroad still used horses to haul freight to the Delaware River docks in Eastern Philadelphia.” [13] This added to Baltimore’s geographical advantage of being “as much as 150 miles” closer to the industrial Midwest than other East Coast ports. [14] A major reason the B&O dominated regional transport networks in the decades after the Civil War was the company’s ability to innovate technological advancement in advance of its competitors.

The direct rail-to-water innovation at Locust Point was also very impactful for immigration. It enabled arriving newcomers to walk practically directly off the ships and onto awaiting passenger rail cars. This provided a measure of order to the logistical chaos of migrating to and arriving in a new country in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Local ethnic communities also developed their own aid societies to help arriving migrants. But these groups generally only sought to help arrivals from their own ethnic group. As a result, German arrivals received beneficial treatment by virtue of German immigrants being the most prominent Baltimore European immigrant group. In 1909, Louis P. Hennighausen wrote in the official history of the German Society of Maryland that, “[T]he society did its utmost under the circumstances to aid and relieve emigrants in distress.” [15] Implied here is that as an explicitly German ethnic organization, the society specifically sought to help German arrivals. This ethnic aid targeting explains how the Locust Point expansion balanced the scales somewhat on the fates of new arrivals. With direct ship-to-rail passage, all newcomers received some of the protections previously reserved for ethnic groups with strong local institutional presence. These late-1860s infrastructure improvements quickly boosted immigration numbers. In 1866, fewer than 4,000 immigrants arrived in Baltimore. By 1873, this number skyrocketed to nearly 18,000. [16]

Also in 1873, the B&O built its new “Metropolitan branch,” which rerouted westbound passenger traffic from Baltimore through Washington, D.C. This meant Baltimore lost its logistical advantage over the nation’s capital for passenger rail. In the late-nineteenth century, the B&O rebranded itself as a national infrastructure system. In the process, it separated itself from its Baltimore roots and chose the new westbound East Coast terminus of D.C. as a symbol of its avowedly national stature. Schley strongly articulates how these events impacted Baltimore, writing, “As the B&O became a national enterprise, the city became a node in a railroad system.” [17] However, Schley’s lack of focus on immigration impacts is reflected in the omission from this narrative of the continued Locust Point traffic. The well-established infrastructure system linking Locust Point with the Midwest continued to operate as designed. The main impact of the D.C. rerouting was that Baltimore lost its regional advantage for dual passenger-goods ship traffic. This lost regional advantage stagnated immigration numbers as incoming traffic no longer had strong reason to arrive in Baltimore instead of the more prominent New York Harbor. In New York, the less-than-perfect Castle Garden immigration depot in Battery Park continued to operate until 1890. It was replaced by the truly modern immigration processing center at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, setting New York further above Baltimore and other competitors. [18] This remained the case for the remainder of the period of relatively open immigration to the United States, which after a World War I intermission screeched to a halt with the restrictionist Immigration Act of 1924. [19]

The development of the B&O Railroad placed Baltimore at the center of American East Coast westbound trade in the years following the U.S. Civil War. Expansion to Locust Point and the construction of immigration infrastructure at the site linked the B&O’s extensive transportation network to European immigration. B&O leaders added to Baltimore’s geographical advantage of being closer to the Midwest than other major East Coast ports through technological innovation. The Locust Point expansion linked together rail traffic and ship traffic, streamlining an entire logistical stage. Direct transport of trade goods from ships to railcars was accompanied by the ability of immigrant arrivals to directly disembark via immigration piers. Newcomers could then either hop on waiting westward-bound railcars or journey into Baltimore City itself. The B&O contracted with the German North Lloyd Steamship Company shortly after the Civil War, providing the corporate basis for shipments of migrants and goods from Germany. Ships swarmed into Locust Point carrying goods and passengers in both directions. When the B&O rerouted westward traffic from Baltimore through D.C. in 1873, it ended Baltimore’s direct advantage of being the rail system’s westbound passenger nexus. Nevertheless, Baltimore City had an amazing nineteenth century in which it rose to prominent national industrial and economic stature. B&O infrastructure provided not just the transportation networks fueling this growth, but also significant numbers of European immigrants eager to go to work building Baltimore City and the United States.


[1] The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, “The Baltimore & Ohio System, 1866,” in Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, A Corporate History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company (The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company Valuation Department: Baltimore, 1922), 54,

[2] Dean R. Esslinger, “Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” in Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States (Philadelphia: The Balch Institute Press, 1988), 62,

[3] David Schley, Steam City: Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020), 179 Kindle edition; Thomas L. Hollowak, “Listening to their Stories: Polish Deportations at the Port of Baltimore, Locust Point, Maryland, 1882-1914,” Polish American Studies 74, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 53-83,

[4] Ron Cassie, “How Baltimore Became the New York of the South: European Immigration between 1867-1914 and the Development of Ethnic Neighborhoods Around the Port of Baltimore” (MA thesis, Georgetown University, 2016), 38,

[5] Schley, Steam City, 187-188; Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, A Corporate History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company (The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company Valuation Department: Baltimore, 1922), 11,

[6] B&O Railroad Company, A Corporate History, 2; Schley, Steam City, 1.

[7] Schley, Steam City, 2-3.

[8] Esslinger, “Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” 64.

[9] Schley, Steam City, 179-180.

[10] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 32,

[11] See Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 91,; Rockman, Scraping By, 245.

[12] B&O Railroad Company, A Corporate History, 1.

[13] Schley, Steam City, 120.

[14] Roderick N. Ryon, “Baltimore Workers and Industrial Decision-Making, 1890-1917,” The Journal of Southern History 51, no. 4 (November 1985): 566,

[15] Louis P. Hennighausen, History of the German Society of Maryland (Baltimore: Press of the Sun Job Printing Office, 1909), 69,

[16] Esslinger, “Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” 70.

[17] Schley, Steam City, 187.

[18] Vincent J. Cannato, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (New York: Harper, 2009), 54,

[19] See Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 3; Michael Yudell, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 32.


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