OVERVIEW / U.S. History I

Economic Growth & Development
Part 3: Transportation Improves

The period between the end of the War of 1812 and the Civil War was a time of swift improvement in transportation, rapid growth of factories, and significant development of new technology to increase agricultural production. Americans moved with relative ease into new regions and soon produced an agricultural surplus that changed them from subsistence farmers into commercial producers. Manufacturing became an increasingly important sector of the economy and set the stage for rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century. The economic and technological developments brought important changes to American society.

The growth and expansion of the United States in the decades before the Civil War were closely tied to improvements in the nation's transportation system. As farmers shifted from growing just enough to sustain their families ( subsistence agriculture) to producing crops for sale ( commercial agriculture), demand grew for cheaper and faster ways to get goods to market. Steamboats made river ports important commercial points for entire regions; canals had a similar impact in the Northeast and the Midwest, particularly near the Great Lakes. Railroads, which carried mostly passengers at first, became essential for moving both farm products and manufactured goods by 1860.


As settlers moved into the trans‐Appalachian region, they found the river systems crucial for exporting products to distant markets. Many streams were navigable, and they led to larger rivers such as the Tennessee and Cumberland, which in turn fed into the Ohio, which merged with the Mississippi River and flowed past the port of New Orleans. With roads unable to handle bulk traffic, farmers in Tennessee, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley could take their harvest to an eastern city such as New York by riding down river to New Orleans and then taking a ship around Florida. The Mississippi River was thus a major means of transporting agricultural products from the Old Northwest to the East Coast, and its free navigation was vital to American interests.

The simplest means of river transport were rafts, but they were unstable, and rapids especially posed a serious danger. Flatboats could carry more cargo, providing an interior space for the storage of products and supplies. Real improvement, however, came with the keelboat. Its design made it more controllable, and a small crew using poles could propel a keelboat downstream at a fairly rapid rate. As many as one thousand keelboats a year headed down trans‐Appalachian tributaries and rivers to New Orleans in the early 1800s. Unfortunately, rafts, flatboats, and keelboats had one major disadvantages—they could make only a one‐way trip. After arriving in New Orleans, the rafts and flatboats were broken up and sold for wood. Poling upriver in a keelboat was possible, but a trip from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, could take as long as four months, so return trips were usually over land. The Natchez Trace led travelers from north of New Orleans to Nashville. A map from the time would have shown the barest outline of roads radiating from New Orleans and Mobile, a city located about one hundred miles to the east. To call these byways “roads” is misleading though; they were often little more than trails, unsuitable for wagons in many places.

Two‐way river transportation came with the invention of the steamboat, or riverboat. A number of inventors had attempted to use steam engines to power boats, but the most successful design was created by Robert Fulton in 1807 and used on the Clermont. Fulton demonstrated the watercraft on the Hudson River and won a monopoly from the New York legislature to form a steamboat ferrying service between New York and New Jersey. The monopoly was broken in 1824 when Marshall's Supreme Court, in Gibbons v. Ogden, declared that regulation of interstate commerce, a federal power, also applied to navigation.

Steamboat transportation on trans‐Appalachian rivers met with great enthusiasm. Steamboats quickly succeeded rafts, flatboats, and keelboats as the main vehicle for river travel. (Keelboats continued to be used in the upper reaches of tributary streams.) As steamboats evolved, they were built with shallower drafts, so they could operate in as little as three feet of water. Enormous above water, they could carry hundreds of tons of freight and dozens of passengers. Towns along the rivers benefited greatly from the economic exchange provided by steamboats. Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, grew from a small settlement in 1770 to the sixth largest city in the country in 1840 on the strength of river travel. A common scene was the loading and unloading of furniture, farm machinery, bales of cotton, and bulk agricultural products at the town wharf.


After the War of 1812, DeWitt Clinton of New York boldly suggested that a canal be constructed from Lake Erie to Albany (363 miles) using the Mohawk River and then the Hudson River to connect with New York City. Such a project had no precedent in the United States. Clinton obtained a subsidy from the New York legislature and began construction on July 4, 1817. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was an instant success, bringing prosperity and additional settlement to its western terminus at Buffalo and helping to make New York City the preeminent American seaport. Philadelphia merchants, jealous of New York's success, pressed for a canal between eastern Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, but this waterway presented even greater obstacles than the New York project. The 395‐mile Pennsylvania Canal required 174 locks—more than double the number on the Erie Canal—and a funicular railway to get cargo over the Allegheny Mountains. Completed in 1834, it carried considerable traffic but never rivaled the Erie Canal in terms of total tonnage or economic impact.

The success of these projects fed a craze for canal construction throughout the Midwest. By 1837, companies had built 750 miles of canals in Ohio alone. Canals linked Toledo to Cincinnati, Evansville to Fort Wayne, and Akron to Cleveland. While financially risky private investments, canals benefited farmers throughout the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region by providing a relatively inexpensive means to get their produce to market. Even though the barges that carried lumber, coal, hay, wheat, corn, and oats traveled only two miles an hour (they were towed by mules walking along the banks), the canals greatly reduced shipping costs, time, and distances. They also contributed to a shift in population as cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee grew at the expense of such river ports as Louisville.


Railroad construction began in the United States in 1825; by 1860, more than thirty thousand miles of track had been laid. Originally concentrated in the Northeast, by the eve of the Civil War, lines reached as far west as St. Joseph, Missouri. In the South, railroad building lagged just as much as canal building.

Railroads had several advantages over canals. They required a smaller initial capital investment; offered more direct routes; and provided fast, year‐round service (rivers and canals froze in winter). There was little coordination among the different railroads though, which worked against creation of a uniform rail system. Because the companies selected their own track gauge, freight often had to be unloaded at the terminus of one line and reloaded at the start of another line, adding to costs. Despite this shortcoming and their comparatively high maintenance costs, railroads expanded and eventually moved ahead of canals in total tonnage shipped in the late 1840s.


Although road building was the earliest sign of the impending transportation revolution, it was not an important factor in economic development prior to the Civil War. The Lancaster Turnpike (1794), which started in Philadelphia, spurred similar private toll roads. Around the same time, the Wilderness Road into Kentucky was opened to wagon traffic and figured in the settlement of the lower Ohio River Valley. The National Road, a paved highway extending west from Cumberland, Maryland, was financed and maintained through congressional appropriations. It was completed as far as Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1818 and then extended over the next twenty years to Vandalia, Illinois. The federal funding of the National Road was an exception rather than the norm; throughout the nineteenth century, roads were either the responsibility of local government or were built under charters granted by the states.

With the exception of the important east‐west and north‐south turnpikes, roads throughout the country were often narrow and un‐paved, muddy in wet weather and dusty in dry. Moving freight by road was expensive and slow. Roads between towns were often neglected after the railroad arrived, and only the use of the automobile in the twentieth century created the public demand for a modern highway system.