What's in a name? "Railroad" vs. "the cars"

Keyword searches are a wonderful boon to research. When I started researching railroads years ago, I quickly saw that Americans did not quickly settle on one spelling for the railroad. Depending on the sophistication of the search engine, I would do single or multiple searches for "rail road," "rail-road," and "railroad."

But while combing through antebellum records, I also noticed a different term often used to describe the railroad: "the cars." Trains consist of groups of cars, and this seemed to be a linguistic linkage to an older type of transport, the horse-drawn cart or carriage. When I was new to the subject, I didn't even know that this would be a possibility, but it neatly illustrated the challenge of the keyword search: I had to know how things were referred to at the time in order to get the best results. Only by getting into the primary documents and learning about "cars" could I make sure that I was getting all the results.

Google Books's Ngram Viewer allows us to see how "railroad" eventually overtook all competitors for the chief way to refer to this technology ("railroad" is in green, "cars" in blue, "rail-road" in orange and "rail road" in red; click chart to enlarge it):

Despite the quick ascent of "railroad" (it overtakes all competitors in 1835 and never looks back), "cars" still enjoyed a modest rise throughout the antebellum era. To me, this chart illustrates not only the importance of the iterative process of research (search for material, read the material to learn new terms, and search again) but also the variety of ways in which antebellum Americans referred to this new technology. Most of them rode the railroad, but even in the late 1850s plenty of Americans were riding in the cars.