The first railways

The first railways

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  • The first railways.

    BEUZON Jean-Louis

  • Diligence and railroad or "the different ways of traveling".


  • Steam car and railway.


The first railways.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

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Title: Stagecoach and railroad or "the different ways of traveling".

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

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Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Storage place: National museums and domain of Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Picture reference: 96-008906 / Prints

Diligence and railroad or "the different ways of traveling".

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Steam car and railway.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: September 2006

Historical context

At the beginning of the XIXe century, France is still an essentially rural country where dispatches are conveyed on horseback and where journeys are made on bumpy roads, in the discomfort of stagecoaches and mail trunks. Nevertheless, psychological reluctance and the opposition of a multitude of interests slow down railway development: the belief that speed can make travelers blind or mad is added to the hostility of valet drivers, innkeepers, and farmers who fear for their cattle, the lack of capital and the distrust of savers who would rather stick to solid state rents than to finance such an enterprise.

In France as in England, the first railway lines appear in the mining regions. 1er January 1828 the Saint-Étienne-Andrézieux line was inaugurated, created to transport coal to the nearest waterways, Loire and Rhône. Opened on August 24, 1837, the Paris-Saint-Germain-en-Laye line was the first to be primarily intended for passenger transport; it marks the beginning of the great French networks which will leave Paris.

It was from 1850 that the railways were built at an accelerated pace to constitute a rail network connected to that of neighboring countries. The State fixes the layout of the tracks and takes into account the infrastructure expenses: earthworks, works of art ..., but it concedes the operation of the lines to large private companies - Compagnie de l'Ouest, Compagnie du Nord , PLM, Compagnie de l'Est… The rail network then becomes an essential factor in regional planning.

Image Analysis

The extraordinary novelty of these early railroads naturally nourished the inspiration of painters, lithographers, illustrators and caricaturists, who often liked to draw surprising parallels between these noisy metal monsters and traditional horse-drawn transport.

Poster artist, occasional illustrator of the Post and Telegraph almanac, Jean-Louis Beuzon has associated, on this color engraving taken from the first book of French History by Gauthier-Deschamps-Aymard, a steam train and a stagecoach of the horse post. In the foreground, a stagecoach from the Compagnie des Messageries Royales is launched at full gallop on a road carved with deep ruts. It provides the Paris-Rouen link. Sixteen to twenty travelers are housed in four separate cabins: the front coupé, the interior, the rear rotunda and the covered or imperial gallery. The postilion who drives the team is clearly identifiable by his well-known uniform: short jacket of royal blue cloth with facings, rolled up and waistcoat in red cloth, patent leather hat in a truncated cone. In the background, the train is traveling on an elevated track and has just crossed a stone bridge that spans the road. Leaving a long plume of gray smoke in its wake, the steam locomotive pulls three passenger cars.

These same means of transport are also associated on the anonymous lithograph which illustrates "the different ways of traveling". A massive mountain range dominates a small village camped by a lake. In the foreground, a Messageries diligence, led by a postilion on horseback, travels on a dirt road. In the distance, we can make out a train with a steam locomotive pulling the wagons. Between the stagecoach and the railroad tracks, in a field, two peasants watch the train go by.

Produced in the late 1830s, the third lithograph contrasts two revolutionary means of transport for the time: the railway and the steam car. In the foreground, the uncovered car - more exactly a steam tricycle - seems to be engaged in a speed contest with the train. It is led by a dandy in a frock coat and top hat, leaning over the steering bar - the "cow tail" - which he holds firmly. Sitting behind him, his elegant passenger raises her hand to his hat for fear it will fly away. In its frantic race, the vehicle loses a passenger who was seated on the outside jump seat.


Before the communications revolution of the mid-19th centurye century, slowness, discomfort and high cost were the major drawbacks of horse-drawn traction. In 1830, the mail trunk was the fastest means of transport, from Paris to reach Lyon in 47 hours, Bordeaux in 45 hours, Toulouse in 72 hours; a letter took ten days to get from Paris to Marseilles. Familiar with prints and popular imagery, the majestic stagecoaches of the great courier companies were much slower still.

The appearance of the railroad, and therefore of speed, sounded the death knell for the horse post: the last mail trunk, which linked Toulouse to Montpellier, ceased its service on August 23, 1857; the last line of stagecoaches, between Rouen and Amiens, disappeared in 1872. However, horse-drawn vehicles and rail transport coexisted for a long time still, in fact as well as in imagery, as can be seen from these three engravings. The train surprises and scares. Witness to the construction of the Montpellier-Sète line (1837-1839), Jean-Marie-Isidore Boiffils de Massane evokes "the astonishment mixed with terror" that as a child he felt at the sight of the first locomotive, "this brutal monster , endowed with movement and incomparable strength, animated by two large eyes of flame, blowing smoke ”. The railroad raises serious concerns for the health of passengers. The scientist François Arago affirms that “the transport of soldiers in wagons would effeminate them”; he warns the population against the tunnel of Saint-Cloud, which would give "chest influxes, pleurisy and catarrh". The rail network nevertheless developed rapidly: it reached 9,178 kilometers on December 31, 1859, which represents an average of 622 kilometers of tracks built per year. The railway is now part of the French landscape that it is changing profoundly: crossing waterways and obstacles opposed by the relief require the design of structures, such as the Garabit viaduct built in 1888 by Gustave Eiffel. It will be necessary to wait for the middle of the XXe century so that the automobile could seriously compete with the train.

  • railway
  • industrial Revolution
  • campaign


Clive LAMMING, Les Grands Trains de 1830 à nos jours, Paris, Larousse, 1989. Clive LAMMING and Jacques MARSEILLE, Le Temps des chemin de fer en France, Paris, Nathan, 1986. François and Maguy PALAU, Le Rail en France, tome I, “The Second Empire, 1852-1857”, Paris, Palau Edition, 1998. Jean PECHEUX, The Birth of European Rail, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1970. Pierre WEIL, Les Chemins de fer, Paris, Larousse, 1964.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The first railways"

Video: The History of Rail Travel in Under 6 Minutes


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