U.S. Transportation Revolution 1815-1830 Term Paper


¶ … TRANSPORTATION REVOLUTION IN THE UNITED STATES BETWEEN 1815 AND 1830? This paper argues that, even prior to the advent of the railroads, a transportation revolution had taken place in the United States in the early nineteenth century. It argues that two developments were most important: steamboat navigation and the construction of the great canals. In particular, the building of the Erie Canal constituted a revolution in its own right. It was on account of the transportation revolution of the 1815-30 period that the American economy was decisively transformed in a capitalist direction.

In 1800, the United States did not lack a transport infrastructure, but it was a very poor one. With the exception of cities and towns located on the Atlantic coastline or along navigable waterways, there was literally no means of transporting agricultural produce and manufactured items to or from market centers other than country roads. These roads were unpaved, infrequently maintained and often impassable in wet weather (Taylor 15-16). A diary passage from 1817 gives some sense of their condition: 'I returned from Baltimore a few days earlier. Had wet weather muddy Roads and my flour condemned' (qted. In Majewski 46). By 1860, however, America's infrastructure had so greatly improved that the country was in the throes of a major economic transformation. On the eve of the Civil War, writes Peter Way, the United States, although still largely an agricultural nation, 'was competitive, market-driven and increasingly dominated by relatively large business organizations fueled by multitudes of unattached workers' (11).

But what was chiefly responsible for the improvement? The greatest part of the transformation can undoubtedly be attributed to the railroads, which were chiefly built from the 1830s onwards. 'Virtually all accounts agree that the railroad was the dominant factor in the development of the nineteenth-century American economy' (Roy 78). Yet it is not hard to see that even before the 1830s American life was already in the process of being revolutionized by developments in the field of transportation. Even if the railroads had never been built, or had not been built until much later in the century, there would still be grounds for thinking of the period between 1815 and 1830 as one in which transportation was revolutionized.

The turnpike roads

In this section, we briefly discuss the toll roads that appeared around the turn of the nineteenth century. So far, we have given a fairly negative impression of the state of the transportation structure in the United States before 1815. It is true that many more substantial toll roads called turnpikes were built from 1794 onwards (Taylor 17-18). Yet it is hard to accord these roads a significant role in transforming the American economy. 'To travelers, whether by carriage or stagecoach, they were an unquestioned blessing,' explains Taylor (26). But they were much less useful for commerce. While they offered advantages for local transportation, they were of very limited value for long freight hauls. That they failed to change economic life to any great extent seems demonstrated by their financial failure. They 'did not cheapen and stimulate land transportation sufficiently to provide satisfactory earnings from tolls' (Taylor 27).

The role of the turnpikes should not be entirely dismissed, however. As John Majewski points out, they were embraced enthusiastically in regions like the Susquehanna Valley, which lacked an easily navigable river (45-48). To such regions, they certainly brought a modest degree of commercial development. Ford notes that, despite the turnpikes' unprofitability to their owners, they brought increasing trade and passing traffic to the Upper Susquehanna Valley in New York State, for example (62-63). This suggests that they were not without historical significance.

We will now address the question of the role the turnpikes played in American history. As we gave seen, they made a perceptible difference to certain regions, but failed to transform the whole. For this reason, the toll roads should be regarded as a minor development of the qualitative kind rather than a major, quantitative leap of the kind that alone is capable of revolutionizing economic life. The two major developments which did constitute such a leap were, first, the successful commercialization of steamboat navigation and, second, the building of the first great canals. During the 1815-30 period, the improvements attributable to the steamboats and the canals was sufficient to ensure the rapid decline of the turnpikes, which were being abandoned from as early as 1817. By 1835, half the turnpikes in Massachusetts and New York...


The possibility of transforming river navigation through the application of steam power was already apparent to engineers by the late eighteenth century. But it was not until the technique of steam engine construction improved markedly in the early nineteenth century that the commercial potential of steamboats could be realized. After experiments conducted by Robert Fulton on the Hudson River (1807) and John Stevens on the Delaware River (1809), steamboats began to be employed regularly on those two rivers. By the winter of 1811-12, the New Orleans made the journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. It was already clear that they possessed enormous potential.
With the conclusion of the War of 1812, the stage was set for the rapid development of steamboat transportation (Taylor 57). With the end of the British blockade in 1815, Robert Fulton and his partner Robert R. Livingston, who had been given a monopoly by the state legislature to navigate New York harbor with ships powered by steam or fire, sent the Fulton to New Haven. Around the same date the first steamboats appeared on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie (Taylor 60). Progress occurred in leaps and bounds between 1815 and 1820. 'The steamboats were such a marked improvement over the slower and less dependable sailing craft that demand' for steamboats surged (Taylor 58). Fulton and Livingston's would-be rival, John Stevens, was prohibited from using New York Harbor, but he was soon operating a profitable steamboat route between Philadelphia and Trenton. Then, in 1818, regular steamboat operation began on the Connecticut river (Taylor 61). By the 1820s, steam power had become so reliable that sails, previous used for auxiliary power, were dispensed with (Taylor 60). In 1825, the Fulton-Livingston monopoly in New York was broken. This was the signal for massive private investment in steam navigation (Taylor 59). By 1830, the steamboat 'dominated American river transportation and for two decades thereafter was the most important agency of internal transportation in the country' (Taylor 58).

The canals

In this section, we examine the canals, which constituted the most revolutionary development in transportation in the United States prior to the advent of the railroads. The first wave of north American canal building occurred between 1785 and 1794, but these were relatively small projects. The second wave was, by the standards of the first, 'monstrous in scale' (Way 49). It began with the construction of the Erie Canal, which was 'certainly the most important American public-works project of the century' (Cornog 158). The origins of the project for a canal from the Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes go back a long way, but began in earnest after the conclusion of the War of 1812. At this stage, economists and politicians grew to appreciate that the 'domestic economy of the United States was "incalculably more valuable" than its foreign commerce' (Cornog 115). It was in the light of the new economic thinking that public opinion turned in favor of government investment in the country's transportation infrastructure.

When did the Erie Canal project 'take off'? On April 15, 1817, after attempts to get federal financial assistance had failed, the New York State Legislature passed a bill authorizing $6 million for the construction of the canal, speaking in elevated tones of 'signal, extensive, and lasting benefits to the human race' (Cornog 117, 160). On July 4, State Governor De Witt Clinton broke the ground for the canal. In 1819, the first boat traveled a section of the Erie Canal from Rome to Utica. Completed in 1825, the canal opened for traffic. The impact on trade between the regions was remarkable. The cost of shipping a ton of goods from Buffalo to New York City, a distance by canal of 350 miles, declined from $100 to $10, and the time in which it took to ship them fell from twenty days to eight (Ford 75). One can easily imagine that now support for similar projects would have been growing all over the country.

We now review the circumstances in which the success of the Erie Canal spawned similar projects elsewhere in the United States. The Erie Canal was an ambitious project that was not easily emulated. However, because it so very successful - it paid for itself in only ten years - it set off a 'veritable canal-building fury' from Maine to Virginia (Taylor 34). Between 1825 and 1833, for example, Ohio built the Ohio Canal, while the Chesapeake and Ohio commenced construction. As infrastructure development in the United States was hampered by constitutional scruples…

Sources Used in Documents:


Boyer, Paul S. et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin, [YEAR?]

Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: De Witt Clinton and the American Experience 1769-1828. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Frost, James Arthur. Life on the Upper Susquehanna 1783-1860. New York: King's Crown Press, 1951.

Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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