Its opening created the first inland trade route from a port that was still better connected by sea than by road or rail to the rest of England.
That the Whitby and Pickering Railway still exists is testament to the volunteers who have, since its decommissioning by British Railways half a century ago, run it as the North Yorkshire Moors heritage line.
Now, the 18-mile route, the third longest of its kind in the country, is poised for its biggest overhaul since George Stephenson drew up the original plans.
The charitable trust which runs it wants to invest £8m to improve services and boost the county’s tourism economy.
Its application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for half the cash is supported by Pickering town council, anxious not to lose income from tourists to what is now the rival attraction of Whitby.
The trust’s chairman, John Bailey, said: “We want to provide 21st century standards of access and to enhance the quality of interpretation and learning for tomorrow’s visitors, families, adults and school groups.”
Around 1,000 volunteers and more than a hundred paid staff keep the railway on track. Its annual payload of 350,000 visitors contributes an estimated to the local economy.
Mr Bailey said: “The recent extension to Whitby Station has opened more journey opportunities for visitors to Whitby and the North York Moors National Park. Delivery of the project will secure all this and create more jobs and apprenticeships.”
A previous grant from the lottery fund helped restore Pickering Station, the line’s terminus, to its 1937 state.