Skip to main content

Transportation And Travel


TRANSPORTATION AND TRAVEL. Travel in the United States for most of its history was arduous. Nineteenth-century transportation systems, notably the railroad, improved travel between and within cities, but most Americans could go only as far as their horses could carry them. The vast country remained largely inaccessible to all but the most intrepid pioneer or explorer.

The United States was transformed in the twentieth century into the most mobile society in human history. Americans traveled far more often and covered many

more miles during the twentieth century compared not only to their ancestors but also to their contemporaries in other countries. The principal agent of the unprecedented ability to travel was a transportation system based on near universal ownership of private motor vehicles.

Colonial Era

Most settlers lived near a body of water, so water transportation was the usual means of travel. A short journey down a river could be undertaken by canoe, while a longerdistance trip across a protected bay or sound could be made by shallop, sloop, schooner, or other small sailboat.

For those who could afford a horse, land-based travel could be accomplished by riding on a trail traced initially by deer, buffalo, and other animals. Otherwise, a traveler had to set off on foot. Colonists moved goods between east coast cities by mule and packhorse. In the west, fur traders, farmers, and settlers widened footpaths by riding horses or attaching horses to wagons.

Colonial road building officially started in 1639, when the Massachusetts General Court directed that each town lay out roads connecting it with adjacent villages. Roads were built by other colonial governments, but the condition of these dirt roads was generally poor and money was not available to maintain and improve them. Operating horse-drawn passenger vehicles was difficult during much of the colonial era because of the poor roads.

The first regular stagecoach route was inaugurated on 8 March 1759, between New York City and Philadelphia, and by the end of the colonial period a network of services connected the larger towns. A covered wagon service known as the "flying machine," operated by John Mercereau during the 1770s, was advertised as a miracle of speed because it covered the 100-mile distance between New York City and Philadelphia in only a day and a half, and it had a reputation for sticking precisely to a published timetable.

Nineteenth-Century Transportation

Through the nineteenth century, the top transportation objective in the United States was to open routes between eastern population centers and sparsely inhabited territories to the west. In the first quarter century after independence, construction of roads across the Appalachian Mountains received priority. As American settlement pushed further westward during the nineteenth century, first water and then rail transport emerged as leading forms of transport.

Turnpikes. To stimulate road construction during the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth, states chartered private companies to build, operate, and maintain turnpikes, so named because poles armed with pikes were turned to allow travelers to pass through after paying. The first turnpike, between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was chartered in 1790, begun in 1792, and completed in 1794. The sixty-two-mile road was thirty-seven feet wide, paved with stone, and covered with gravel. Its high quality and financial success generated interest from hundreds of companies in turnpikes. By 1811 New York had chartered 137 companies, which constructed 1,400 miles of roads, and Pennsylvania had 2,380 miles of road built by 102 companies. High tolls discouraged using the turnpikes to transport bulky products at a profit.

Some turnpikes were built with state and federal government aid. Most prominent was the Cumberland Road or National Pike, authorized by Congress in 1806. Financing was arranged through an agreement in which states exempted from taxation for five years federal land sold to settlers in return for the federal government agreeing to appropriate 5 percent of the proceeds from the land sales for building the road. The first 130-mile stretch of the National Pike from Cumberland, Maryland, west to Wheeling, West Virginia, was completed in 1818.

The National Pike was an engineering marvel, eighty feet wide, with bridges across streams. Its most distinctive feature was a thirty-to forty-foot-wide center track made not of dirt but of the new macadam technology, a ten-inch layer of compacted small stones. The route reached what proved to be its westward terminus at Vandalia, Illinois, in 1852 and was not extended further west to Jefferson City, Missouri, as planned, because water and rail had by then emerged as better choices for long-distance travel.

Canals. Movement of people and especially goods by barge was much cheaper than by road because a horse could drag a load that was fifty times heavier on water than across land. But water travel to the west from east coast population centers was impractical because navigable rivers, especially in the Northeast, such as the Delaware and Hudson, flowed generally north-south.

Water routes to the west were opened through canals, a technique already widely used in Great Britain. New York State under the leadership of Governor DeWitt Clinton authorized construction of the Erie Canal in 1817 to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Forty feet wide and four feet deep, the Erie Canal rose over 500 feet through 83 locks. The first 15 miles between Utica and Rome were opened in 1819, the entire 363-mile canal between Troy (Albany) and Buffalo on 26 October 1825. With the opening of the Erie Canal, transporting a ton of freight between New York City and Buffalo took eight days instead of twenty and cost about $10 instead of $100. Cities in Upstate New York along the route, such as Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, thrived, and New York City surpassed Philadelphia as the country's most populous city and most important seaport.

In the Midwest, the state of Ohio in 1825 authorized two canals to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River, including the Ohio and Erie, completed in 1832 between Portsmouthand Cleveland, and the Miami and Erie between Cincinnati and Toledo, substantially finished in 1835, though not completely until 1845. In Indiana, the Wabashand Erie Canal, begun in 1832 and completed in 1843, connected Evansville on the Ohio River with Toledo and the Miami and Erie Canal near the Ohio-Indiana state line. The United States had 3,326 miles of canals in 1840, and 3,698 in 1850.

Canals were built and financed mostly by states because private individuals lacked sufficient capital. But states overreached, constructing canals that could never generate enough revenue to pay off the loans. Inability to repay canal construction loans was a major contributor to the panic of 1837, the worst economic depression of the nineteenth-century. Subsequent nineteenth-century transportation improvements would be financed by private speculators.

Robert Fulton first demonstrated the practicability of steam power in 1807 when he sailed his boat the Clermont 150 miles up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours. On the western rivers such as the Ohio and Mississippi, flat-bottomed two-deck steamboats quickly became the cheapest means for long distance hauling of large quantities of goods. The 1,200-mile journey up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis could be completed in four days. More than 1,000

steamboats plied the Mississippi and its tributaries during the 1850s.

Railroads. It was the railroad that first succeeded in knitting together a unified coast-to-coast transportation network for the United States. The first railroad in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio. Given the honor of placing the first rail, on 4 July 1828, was the Maryland native Charles Carroll, who as the country's only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence symbolically linked the political revolution of the eighteenth century with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth. The first 13 miles, between Baltimore and Ellicott City, Maryland, opened in 1830, and by 1835 the B&O had 135 miles of track. Other early-1830s U.S. rail lines included New York's Mohawk and Hudson and South Carolina's Charleston and Hamburg, a 136-mile route, then the world's longest.

U.S. railroad mileage grew rapidly through the nineteenth century: 23 miles of track in 1830,2,818 miles in 1840,9,021 miles in 1850,30,626 miles in 1860,52,914 miles in 1870,93,296 miles in 1880,163,597 miles in 1890, and 193,346 miles in 1900. Rail companies succeeded in digging through the Appalachians and bridging the Mississippi during the 1850s. Barely a decade later, the first transcontinental railroad was completed.

Congress created the Union Pacific Railroad Company in 1862 for the purpose of building a road from Nebraska west to California. Meanwhile, Sacramento, California, merchants organized the Central Pacific Railroad to build eastward. To encourage rapid construction, the two railroads were granted ownership of ten square miles of federal land for every mile of track laid, raised in 1864 to twenty square miles. They also received subsidies of $16,000 for every mile of track laid in the plains, $32,000 in the foothills, and $48,000 in the mountains. The two lines met at Promontory Point, Utah, on 10 May 1869, where Leland Stanford, a California grocer and Central Pacific investor, drove in the last spike, made of California gold. Several other transcontinental railroads were quickly constructed, also backed by generous grants of public land.

Rail-based transportation systems were also built within cities during the nineteenth century to help ease congestion resulting from rapid growth. Horse-drawn streetcars were widely used beginning in the 1850s until replaced by electric streetcars during the 1880s and 1890s. In larger cities, elevated railroads were constructed beginning in the 1870s, and the first underground railroad (subway) opened in Boston in 1897.

After a half-century of rapid construction, the United States had 40 percent of the world's total rail mileage in 1900. For every 10,000 inhabitants, the United States had 27 miles of tracks, compared to 4.8 miles in Europe and 1.3 miles in the rest of the world. For every 100 square miles of territory, the United States had 9.6 miles of tracks, compared to only 5.1 miles in Europe and 0.3 miles in the rest of the world.

Train service made possible rapid movement between major cities in the late nineteenth century, but for the majority of Americans who still lived in rural areas railroads offered little service because they stopped infrequently between major cities. The routes of the main rail lines controlled the fate of rural communities. The rural and small-town stations where the trains did stop were like pearls strungalong the railroad line. Around the stations economic and social activity bustled. Beyond a ten to-twelve-mile radius of the stations, most farmers lived in isolation, able to reach the outside world only by riding horses over dirt trails. In 1900, the United States still had 30 million horses, an average of more than one per household.

Seven groups—Vanderbilt, Pennsylvania, Morgan, Gould, Moore, Harriman, and Hill—controlled two-thirds of U.S. rail service in 1900. To most Americans, the railroad owners were hated and feared robber barons insensitive to the public interest. As monopolies, U.S. railroads paid more attention to wealthy riders willing to pay high

prices for a luxurious ride than to average Americans eager to travel but unable to afford a ticket. The railroad was ripe for a challenge from a viable alternative for intercity travel. In the twentieth century, that viable alternative turned out to be the private motor vehicle.

Twentieth Century

Nineteenth-century transportation improvements made it possible for groups of Americans to travel long distances together with relative speed and comfort. The twentieth century brought personal and affordable travel to each individual American. Itinerary and departure time were determined by the stagecoach, steamboat, or railroad operator during the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the motor vehicle enabled individuals to decide for themselves where and when to travel.

Motor vehicles. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company, organized by brothers J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, was the first company in the United States to manufacture automobiles in volume, thirteen in 1896. Duryea had gained fame by winning a race through the streets of Chicago on 28 November 1895, the first important event involving motor vehicles in U.S. history.

Because motor vehicles quickly captured the public imagination for their speed and performance, early producers assumed that the market was primarily for highend recreation and leisure purposes. Early vehicles were purchased as novelty items, akin to motorized bicycles, and with an average cost of about $2,000 only wealthy people could afford them. Motor vehicles in fact were known as pleasure cars until World War I, when the motor vehicle industry launched a successful campaign to call them passenger cars instead, because "pleasure" sounded unpatriotic in the midst of a world war.

The Ford Motor Company, organized in 1903 by Henry Ford, led the transformation of the motor vehicle from a toy into an indispensable tool of daily life. Ford believed that desire to own motor vehicles was universal, limited only by their high cost, and that once in possession of them Americans would find them extremely useful and practical. To build cars cheaply, Ford pioneered such production methods as offering only one model, designing an easy-to-build car, standardizing parts, placing machines in a logical sequence in the factory, assigning a very specialized job to each worker, and above all bringing the tasks to the workers along a continuously moving assembly line.

Sales of the Ford car, known as the Model T, increased from 13,840 in 1909, its first year of production, to a peak of 1.4 million in 1924. When production ended in 1927, the Model T cost only $290, and Ford had sold more than 15 million of them over eighteen years. During the 1910s and 1920s, half of the world's motor vehicles were Ford Model Ts.

General Motors overtook Ford as the leading motor vehicle producer in the 1920s by offering a wide variety of vehicles with styling changed every year. GM stimulated sales through readily available low-interest loans and

increased profits through innovative financial management practices.

At the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the number of motor vehicles in the United States was nearly as great as the number of families, at a time when possession of a motor vehicle was extremely rare in the rest of the world. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the United States accounted for more than three-fourths of the world's production and sales of motor vehicles. As a result of a high car ownership rate, the United States had a very different transportation system for much of the twentieth century than anywhere else in the world. As early as 1930, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that one-fourth of U.S. cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants had no public transit and so depended entirely on cars for transportation. Even in the country's largest cities, most trips were being made by car in 1930.

Use of motor vehicles had been limited during the first two decades of the twentieth century by poor road conditions. The first inventory of U.S. roads by the Office of Public Roads Inquiry in 1904 found only 153,662 miles of roads with any kind of surfacing. The 1916 Federal Aid Road Act appropriated $75 million over five years to pay half of the cost of building rural post roads, with states paying the remaining half. In 1921 the amount was increased to 75 million per year. The amount of surfaced roads in the United States increased from 257,291 miles in 1914 to 521,915 miles in 1926. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 called for designation of a national highway system of interconnected roads. The complete national system of 96,626 miles was approved in 1926 and identified by the U.S. highway numbers still in use.

The first limited-access highway—the Pennsylvania Turnpike—opened in 1940. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 called for construction of 44,000 miles of limited-access highways across the United States. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the cost to construct the highways. Most of the miles of interstate highways were constructed to connect cities, but most of the dollars were spent to cross inside cities.

Construction of new highways could not keep pace with increased motor vehicle usage during the second half of the twentieth century. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of Americans nearly doubled and the number of roads doubled, but the number of vehicles more than quadrupled and the number of miles driven more than quintupled. As a result, the United States had more motor vehicles than licensed drivers in 2000.

The federal government played an increasing role in the design of safer, cleaner, more efficient motor vehicles, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety and Highway Safety Acts of 1966 mandated safety features, such as seat belts. A cabinet-level Department of Transportation was established in 1967 to coordinate and administer overall transportation policy. The 1970 Clean Air Act specified reductions in polluting emissions. The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act specified minimum fuel efficiency. However, improvements in passenger car safety and fuel efficiency during the late twentieth century were offset by Americans' preference for purchasing trucks instead.

Aviation. The federal government was crucial in shaping the role of aviation in the U.S. transportation system during the 1920s and 1930s. After the Wright Brothers' first successful manned flight in 1903, airplanes were flown primarily for entertainment and military purposes until 15 May 1918, when Army pilots started daily airmail service between New York and Washing ton. The Post Office—then a cabinet-level federal department—was authorized under the 1925 Kelly Act to award private aviation companies with contracts to carry mail on the basis of competitive bidding. Because carrying airmail accounted for 90 percent of airline revenues during the 1920s, carriers with contracts were the ones to survive the industry's initial shakeout and then evolve into the dominant passenger-carrying services during the 1930s.

The first privately contracted airmail routes started on 15 February 1926, from Detroit to Chicago and Cleveland, and the federal government stopped flying its own airmail planes on 31 August 1927. Regularly scheduled passenger service started in 1926, when airmail contractors first provided a limited number of seats in their planes. Aviation companies started carrying cargo that year as well.

The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, originally called the Civil Aeronautics Authority), created under the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act, certified airlines as fit to fly, specified pairs of cities between which they could fly passengers, and regulated their fares. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), established in 1958, regulated safety and other standards for aircraft, airports, and pilots.

Passenger service grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the introduction of large jet-engine planes capable of flying more people longer distances at higher speeds. Between 1938 and 1978, the number of passengers increased from 1 million to 267 million and revenue passenger miles increased from 533 million to 219 billion. Routes supported by the Post Office back in the 1920s formed the backbone of the passenger services certified during the next half-century of government regulation.

The federal government dramatically restructured the industry in 1978 through passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. Airlines could now fly wherever they wished inside the United States and charge passengers whatever they wished. The CAB—its regulatory role rendered obsolete—was disbanded in 1984, and its safety oversight functions transferred to the FAA.

Deregulation set off a wave of airline acquisitions, mergers, and bankruptcies during the 1980s and 1990s. A handful of surviving airlines dominated the U.S. air system by terminating most point-to-point flights between pairs of cities and instead concentrating most flights in and out of a few hub airports. Regional airlines fed more passengers from smaller cities into the hubs. As a result, most airports offered nonstop flights to fewer cities but one-stop flights (via transfer at a hub) to many more cities. Low-cost airlines filled in gaps in the hub-and-spokes system by offering inexpensive flights between pairs of underserved airports.

In the first two decades of deregulation, U.S. air travel increased even more rapidly than in the past—from 275 million passengers in 1978 to 466 million in 1990 and 666 million in 2000, and from 219 billion passenger miles in 1978 to 458 billion in 1990 and 693 billion in 2000. Free to charge passengers whatever they wished, airlines employed sophisticated yield management models to constantly change fares for particular flights depending on demand.

Surviving nineteenth-century transportation systems. Squeezed between motor vehicles for shorter distances and airplanes for longer distances, the railroads lost nearly

all of their intercity passengers during the second half of the twentieth century. The handful of remaining intercity passenger routes were taken over in 1971 by Amtrak, with federal financial support. Most of Amtrak's 22 million passengers in 2000 were traveling between the large cities in the Northeast. Amtrak operated some suburban commuter rail lines, although most were transferred to local or regional public authorities.

Railroads and truck companies shared about evenly in the growth of freight handling during the first half of the twentieth century, but after completion of the interstate highway system trucks captured virtually all of the growth while railroads stagnated. Conrail was created by the federal government in 1976 to take over a number of bankrupt freight-hauling lines, including the Penn Central, the nation's largest when it was created in 1968 through the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads.

Within urban areas, rail-based transit enjoyed a modest revival in the late twentieth century, especially in construction of new subway and streetcar (now called light rail) lines. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and 1998 Transportation Equity Act enabled state and local governments to fund a mix of highway and transit improvements.

On major inland waterways, such as the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the federal government widened and straightened river channels and constructed locks and dams to make shipping by barge faster and safer. Dredging operations permitted oceangoing vessels to reach inland cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 2000, the United States had about 25,000 miles of navigable inland channels, not including the Great Lakes. Movement of freight became much easier in the late twentieth century by packing goods in containers that could be moved easily from ship to rail to truck.

Into the Twenty-first Century

The United States entered the twenty-first century with the prospect that travel would be slower and more difficult than during the twentieth century. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon employed four airplanes as weapons, strict security checks instituted at U.S. airports increased total travel time and made more Americans afraid to fly. On the ground, roads and bridges deteriorated at a faster rate than they could be repaired, while motor vehicle usage continued to increase. As a result, driving time between and within cities increased.


Air Transport Association of America. Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: Air Transport Association of America, published annually.

Davies, R. E. G. Fallacies and Fantasies of Air Transport History. McLean, Va.: Paladwr, 1994.

Dunbar, Seymour. A History of Travel in America. 4 vols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1915.

Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

Hilton, George W., and John F. Due. The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Jarrett, Philip, ed. Modern Air Transport: Worldwide Air Transport from 1945 to the Present. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 2000.

Rubenstein, James M. Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. New York: Rinehart, 1951.

Vance, James E., Jr. The North American Railroad: Its Origin, Evolution, and Geography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Vranich, Joseph. Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do about America's Passenger Trains. New York: St Martin's Press, 1997.

Womack, James P., Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. The Machine That Changed the World. New York: Rawson, 1990.

James M.Rubenstein

See alsoAir Transportation and Travel ; Airline Deregulation Act ; Amtrak ; Cumberland Road ; Erie Canal ; Federal-Aid Highway Program ; Federal Aviation Administration ; Interstate Highway System ; Railroads ; Railways, Interurban ; Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit ; Transportation, Department of .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Transportation And Travel." Dictionary of American History. . 13 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Transportation And Travel." Dictionary of American History. . (November 13, 2017).

"Transportation And Travel." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved November 13, 2017 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.