Transportation and Communication Systems in the New Nation

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Transportation and Communication Systems in the New Nation

When the United States gained its independence from England in the American Revolution (1775–83), the majority of American colonists lived within one hundred miles of the East Coast. They received manufactured goods, such as clothing, tools, and pottery, from Europe and paid for them with American raw materials, particularly timber, tobacco, fish, and grain. But as the nineteenth century began, available farmland along the East Coast of the United States was decreasing and large numbers of people began moving to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. There were few roads in the western United States and it was highly expensive and time-consuming to transport goods there. Not only did farmers in the West need manufactured goods from the East, but East Coast merchants also needed crops from the West, and early textile industrialists needed cotton from the South. What was sorely lacking was the means to efficiently move goods where they were needed.

Most Americans understood that building transportation systems was essential to the prosperity of their new country, but the size and complexity of the job ahead of them was daunting. It was not clear whether private individuals, states, or the federal government would pay the tremendous expenses. Furthermore, as the century began, many forms of transportation that would prove useful in the future—particularly steamboats and railroads—had either not been invented or had not been adapted to the needs of the rugged American landscape. Despite the obstacles, roads, canals, steamboats, and railroads spread throughout the young nation over the next fifty years, built by the initiatives of the local and federal governments, private investments, and rising new businesses. Communication systems, connecting people across the vast country through letters, newspapers, and, later, telegraph messages, followed the path created by transportation systems.

Words to Know

A tube (or several connected tubes) in which water is heated to steam.
Accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods.
A tube-shaped chamber or tank.
People who engage in profitmaking enterprises that manufacture a certain product, such as textiles or steel.
The exclusive possession of or right to produce a particular good or service.
steam engine:
An engine that burns fuel to heat water into steam, which becomes the power that turns the parts of the engine.
Any system that transmits encoded information by signal across a distance.
A road which people have to pay to use.


At the time of independence, the only roads available to most Americans outside of the northern East Coast states were rough rural roads, many of which had been created by Native Americans in eras before the colonists arrived in the New World. The existing roads were muddy, prone to flooding, and filled with stumps and boulders, making travel by stagecoach or wagon difficult and dangerous. A few wealthy businessmen in the East had invested in turnpikes, roads built for profit, which people had to pay to use. But the turnpikes were expensive to build and usually did not make a profit. Additionally, none of the turnpikes crossed the Appalachian Mountains, which left the West and much of the South without good road systems.

In 1817 Congress authorized the construction of the National Road, also called the Cumberland Road, from western Maryland to the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (in present-day West Virginia). It was the first road to run across the Appalachian Mountains and into the territory known as the Old Northwest, which was composed of the modern-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The National Road, the largest single road-building project to occur before the twentieth century, caused considerable controversy, as many people firmly believed the federal government should leave internal improvements to the states.

Nonetheless, by 1818 a useful roadway had been built, with gravel surfaces graded, or leveled off, to limit water damage and stone bridges to cross waterways. For a few decades, the National Road operated very much like a modern interstate highway. Every day commercial carriers, family passenger vehicles, and public conveyances maneuvered for room on its 30-foot-wide surface.

River traffic

For many Americans in the early nineteenth century, water transportation along the nation's river systems was the only way to move goods and produce. Before 1840 most of the produce grown in the Old Northwest was carried to market by flatboats on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Flatboats were light, shallow boats about eight to ten feet wide and thirty or forty feet long with a cabin on deck. Rivers presented a very basic problem: traveling downstream was relatively easy, as flatboats were built to travel downstream, but moving upstream was extremely slow and difficult. Keelboats, constructed around a rigid timber in their center, were equipped with sails and built to go upstream. However, there was little wind in the heavily forested Mississippi Valley, so keelboats often relied on the muscle power of eight- to twenty-man crews to pole, row, or drag (using ropes flung over tree limbs) them upstream. Flatboats and keelboats were the most common kinds of river craft used in the early part of the century. Each year between 1815 and 1840 an average of 2,500 flatboats carrying the surplus grain, flour, pork, whiskey, and lumber of the Ohio Valley sailed down the smaller rivers of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio and on into the Mississippi River, bound for the markets of the South or for the bustling city of New Orleans.


By the late eighteenth century, many engineers in the United States were exploring the idea of powering boats with steam engines. Steam engines burn fuel to heat water into steam, which becomes the power that turns the parts of the engine. In 1787 U.S. mechanic John Fitch (1743–1798) demonstrated to potential investors the first working American steamboat, a boat equipped with twelve paddles propelled by a small steam engine. By 1790 Fitch had established passenger steamboat service on the Delaware River, providing service between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Burlington, New Jersey, on steamboats that traveled at a rate of about four miles an hour. Invention was only half the battle, though. Finding the money to fund the new enterprise was more difficult. Like many other inventions of the early industrial era, Fitch's venture failed financially before the public understood its value.

Other inventors continued to work on the design of the steamboat. In 1787 inventor James Rumsey (1743–1792) created the world's first boat moved by jet propulsion. His boat was equipped with a steam engine, which powered a pump that took water in at the helm and expelled it from the stern (rear) in a jet stream, thus achieving a forward push. In 1804 engineer John Stevens (1749–1838) built a successful steamboat with a new high-pressure steam engine and twin screw propellers. He made plans for a bigger boat that he hoped to use to carry passengers and freight across the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, New York. However, steamboat builder Robert Fulton (1765–1815) accomplished this task before Stevens.

Fulton succeeded where others had not because he promoted his steamboat well and worked with talented and influential people. He managed to secure a monopoly (the exclusive possession or right to produce a particular good or service) on Hudson River steam transportation, as state governments were generally happy to grant monopolies as incentives for individuals to create much-needed services and products. Fulton imported an engine built by Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) and used it to power a 133-foot steamboat, the Clermont. On August 17, 1807, Fulton's boat made its maiden voyage from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours. Fulton continued to improve his design and add boats to his fleet.

By the 1830s steamboats crowded the inland waterways of the United States. Steamboats expanded trade to towns and cities located along navigable waterways (deep and wide enough for boats to pass). St. Louis, Missouri, for example, utilized the steamboat to develop trade throughout the entire Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. Steamboat construction became a thriving industry, with towns such as Louisville, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cincinnati, Ohio, becoming centers of technology that supplied most of the steam engines.


Still, many of the best farming districts in the Old Northwest had no river access to the markets back East. Canals, man-made waterways built for inland transportation, seemed to provide a solution. After much controversy over the practicality of building a canal to connect New York City to the Old Northwest, in April 1817 the state of New York authorized funding for the construction of the Erie Canal, a 363-mile canal linking Albany on the Hudson River with Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie.

Upon its completion in 1825 the Erie Canal was already carrying monumental traffic along its 4-foot-deep and 40-foot-wide channel. The canal opened an inexpensive route for Western goods, especially lumber, grain, and flour, to flow into the Hudson and then out into world markets from the New York ports of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Moving in the other direction, manufactured goods swept west along the new channel. The Erie Canal cut the cost of sending goods from Buffalo to New York City from its prior cost of about $100 a ton to less than $8 a ton. Between 1830 and 1847 well over half of all American imports traveled through New York City's harbor, making it the biggest port in the country.

Along the canal new towns and industries were established. The canal provided access to the Great Lakes, which were soon crowded with hundreds of steamships. Small towns on the banks of the Great Lakes, such as Chicago, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio, grew into massive cities. Due to the success of the Erie Canal, many states rushed to build their own canals. Between 1810 and 1840 canal mileage in the United States increased from 100 miles to over 3,300 miles.


As the canals were being built, the most revolutionary effort to expand U.S. transportation was underway: the construction of railroads. Most of the first railroads in America hauled goods short distances, often from ships to warehouses, using horses or oxen for power. The concept of the railroad as a means of long-distance transportation may have originated with John Stevens, the inventor who developed one of the first steamboats. In 1825 Stevens built a half-mile circular track on his estate in New Jersey and created the first steam locomotive to run on rails in the United States. Though his invention was not ready for commercial use, the idea sparked interest among other inventors. Around this time, English engineer George Stephenson (1781–1848) designed a successful steam locomotive in England. The world's first steam-powered, public passenger train, the British Stockton & Darlington Railway, soon began operation, and railroads quickly took over as England's major transportation system.

In 1826 a group of Baltimore, Maryland, businessmen began looking for a way their city could compete with the now-bustling port city of New York. They decided to launch the first American railway, named the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) because it extended between Baltimore and the Ohio River. The businessmen estimated that they would need about three million dollars to fund the venture. They received approval from the state of Maryland to create a corporation—a legal arrangement in which many individuals owned portions, or shares, of one large company. The three million dollars needed to support the venture was to be raised by the sale of stock shares to the public. The public was very enthusiastic about the railroad, and the stock sold in twelve days, distributed among twenty-two thousand individuals. In the end, nearly every family in the state had purchased stock in the company.


An enterprise as costly as building a railroad or creating a factory with heavy machinery and a large work force demanded more money than any one individual could invest. Prior to 1809 people wishing to participate in joint economic enterprises usually formed partnerships, in which each partner was personally liable, or responsible, for the entire debt of the organization. Corporations became the solution for financing such large-scale business ventures after 1809, when courts began to recognize the right of private enterprises to incorporate. State charters set the terms by which these early corporations would be run.

Corporations offered many benefits to industrialists. The corporation was, and still is, a limited-liability organization. That is, each investor risked only the capital (accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods) he or she put into it. Corporations were stable, secure, and protected by state laws. They could endure over long periods of time because they did not have to legally reorganize every time an owner died or transferred his ownership. Additionally, a corporation was treated by the courts as a legal "person"; it could establish contracts, sue and be sued, and own property just like an individual person.

Corporations were essential to the rise of industry in the United States because they could raise huge amounts of capital by "going public," that is, selling ownership shares to anyone who wanted them. The huge amounts of capital made available by public sales made it possible for businesspeople to finance large projects like establishing railroads and factories, which would have been impossible under the old partnership agreements.

After the success of the B & O, other new companies also began building railroads. However, many problems arose during these first years of train travel. The land was vast and the railroad companies did not have a lot of money. Consequently, American tracks were rough and hastily built. The roadbeds were poorly graded and the tracks were often uneven, causing trains to derail. Accidents were frequent. Additionally, most railroads could only afford to build single-track lines. When two trains were scheduled for the same line, one had to get off on a siding (a short track connected to the main track) and wait for the scheduled train to pass before continuing. This resulted in great delays. Other problems existed because the railroad companies all used different gauges, or widths of track, and the competing lines did not connect. Philadelphia, for example, was served by five different railroads, and passengers and shippers had to hire wagons to carry their belongings from one company's station to another.

The iron-covered wooden rails used on early railroad routes simply could not handle the heavy locomotives needed to pull trains over the rugged mountain ranges and deep ravines of the Appalachians. Solid iron rails were the most obvious solution, but the American iron industry had just begun and could not supply enough iron or skilled ironworkers. In 1830 mechanical engineer Robert Livingston Stevens (1787–1856; son of inventor John Stevens) solved the problem by designing a solid iron T-shaped rail. The shape of the rail provided it with more strength than the British rails and did not require the work of skilled metalworkers on site during construction. Initially, Stevens had the rails manufactured in Wales and shipped to the United States. The Stevens T-rail quickly became the standard.

American railways grew from about three thousand miles of track in 1840 to thirty thousand miles of track in 1860—more growth than the rest of the world's rail systems combined. Railroads reduced the price of shipping goods by as much as 95 percent between 1815 and 1860. These lower costs stimulated production and growth in all areas of the nation's economy. In addition, the demands of rail construction and finance expanded the nation's industry. Iron, and later, steel, production rose, and corporation stocks increased in value as a result. The dramatic growth of long-distance railroads signaled the growth of the United States as an industrialized nation. Railroads made industry possible by efficiently moving goods throughout the large nation. The railroad developers were equally vital in setting an example of the tremendous possibilities that arose when large amounts of capital, coupled with innovation, were used to create and improve large, complex enterprises.


In the far-reaching geography of the United States, communication between distant people presented as many challenges as did transportation systems. In 1789 it took twenty days for a letter to get from Savannah, Georgia, to Portland, Maine, and another twenty to get a reply. The nation's federal postal service had existed before it won independence from England in 1783. The postal service contracted stagecoach drivers to carry the mail and required that the mail be carried into the West and Southwest. About 70 percent of the mail's weight was in newspapers, which had a low postage rate. For most people living in the West at the turn of the nineteenth century, the mail and news provided their only contact with the rest of the nation.

The Steam Locomotive

In its simplest form, a steam locomotive consists of a firebox (a box in which the fire burns), a boiler (a tube or set of connected tubes, in which water is heated to steam), a cylinder (a tube-shaped chamber or tank), and wheels, all of which are mounted on a rigid frame. The flames in the firebox heat water in the boiler to create steam. The steam is directed into a cylinder where its force is used to push a plunger (a mechanism that plunges, or is thrust). The plunger is attached to the driving wheel of the engine by a connecting rod. Driving wheels are the wheels that move a train along, as opposed to carrying wheels, which distribute the weight of the engine. The force of the plunger causes the drive wheels to turn, which moves the engine along the track.

Americans relied almost entirely on English steam locomotive technology for their first trains. For example, in 1830 Robert Livingston Stevens (1787–1856), the son of John Stevens and president of New Jersey's Camden and Amboy Railroad, went to England to visit the best steam locomotive factory. Stevens ordered a train, the John Bull, and had it sent in parts to the United States. The John Bull was by far the most advanced steam locomotive in the country, but it was not adapted to the United States. Because U.S. railroad tracks had been built much more roughly than European tracks, the high-performance British locomotive, with its fixed, four-wheel suspension, did not fare well on them, derailing and breaking axles on the uneven rails. To make the John Bull hold to the tracks, mechanics added a bogie truck, a set of four leading carrying wheels that could swivel independently on the track and prevent derailing. With this adaptation, the John Bull was classified as a 4-4-0, meaning it had four leading wheels, four drivers, and no trailing wheels. This design became standard to the American engine, along with other adaptations, such as spark-arresting stacks to prevent fires, cow catchers (implements that pushed objects out of the train's way), and bells and whistles to warn people of their approach. U.S. manufacturers soon took over construction of American steam locomotives in large new factories filled with complex machinery and staffed by highly skilled workmen.

The telegraph

The nation sought more immediate ways of communicating over long distances than the mail. In England in 1837 a successful electric telegraph system was invented by William Fothergill Cooke (1806–1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875). The telegraph system transmitted encoded information by signal across a distance. But even before the English telegraph system was in place, an American scientist, Joseph Henry (1797–1878), had been experimenting with electromagnets (a type of magnet in which the magnetic field is created by a flow of electric current; when the current ceases the magnetic field disappears) and was able to send controlled clicks, or signals, through a mile-long wire to a distant receiver. In 1831 Henry met American artist and scientist Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) and shared his findings with him. Morse and his partners conducted more experiments and introduced new designs to the electromagnetic telegraph before demonstrating the product in 1837.

Morse's telegraph consisted essentially of a battery for electricity, an electromagnet, and an electric switch known as the key. To send a message, the operator pressed down on the key. Electricity flowed out of the telegraph, into external electrical wires, and then to waiting receivers in other parts of the world. The electrical current flowed through the electromagnet, creating a magnetic field. The magnetic field caused the receiver's key to be attracted to the plate beneath it. As the key came into contact with the plate, it made a click. The sender could vary the sound of the click by holding the key down for a shorter or a longer period of time. To read the code, the receiver used Morse's code in which short clicks (dots) and long clicks (dashes) represented letters and numbers.

Morse did not invent the telegraph by himself, but he was largely responsible for establishing it as a communication system in the United States. In 1843 he convinced the U.S. Congress to provide $30,000 to fund a telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The line was completed on May 24, 1844. In front of a crowd in Washington, D.C., Morse sent to Baltimore the first official telegraph message, which read: "What Hath God Wrought."

Within a few years there were fifty telegraph companies in the United States. No other industry, not even the railroad, experienced more rapid growth. In 1848 every state east of the Mississippi except Florida was connected to the growing network. By 1852 more than twenty-three thousand miles of telegraph lines had been built. Newsgathering, business, financial, and transportation interests were revolutionized by the new means of instant communication. The telegraph, like the railroad, symbolized the advent of the new era in which the distances between people, institutions, and political units were drastically reduced.

For More Information


Bailey, Thomas A., David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. 11th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Kornblith, Gary J., ed. The Industrial Revolution in America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

McCormick, Anita Louise. The Industrial Revolution in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Web Sites

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"Steamboats of the Hudson River." Hudson River Maritime Museum.∼hrmm/steamboats/steam.html (accessed on June 30, 2005).