Transportation: Canals and Waterways

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Transportation: Canals and Waterways

Long-distance travel in early America meant travel by water. Throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, the coastal trade linking the major port cities of the east coast helped to build critically important economic and political ties that created a sense of unity, mutual interest, and common purpose.


Great open waterways, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the north to the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays on the mid-Atlantic coast, offered the earliest explorers a route into the interior of the continent. Trade and settlement moved inland along the great rivers: the St. Lawrence, the Connecticut, the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Delaware, and the Potomac. No early explorer made better use of the inland waterways than the Frenchman, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Between 1673 and 1682 he traveled up the St. Lawrence, through the Great Lakes, and down the length of the Mississippi River.

As European settlements extended west across the Allegheny Mountains, the network of inland rivers became the major transportation arteries. The Ohio River stretches over 980 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to its juncture with the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. The major watershed for thirteen states, it was the principal route into the western country during the period of expansion that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806) traveled up the Missouri River to its headwaters in present-day

Montana, crossed the Rocky Mountains on foot, and descended the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

Rivers were the key to the early western economy. In the early nineteenth century, western farmers often floated their products down their local tributaries to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and on to New Orleans aboard locally constructed flatboats. These unpowered craft were often crewed by local men or boys who sold the boats at their destination and returned home on foot along the Natchez Trace or other land routes. Keelboats, designed to be poled upstream, also carried goods on the western rivers. Keelboat men like Mike Fink, along with such notable outlaws and "land pirates" as John Murrell and the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, earned an enduring place in western legend and lore.


The advent of the steamboat opened a new era in the history of American transportation. Both John Fitch (1743–1798) and James Rumsey (1743–1792) had conducted early experiments with steam-powered river vessels, but neither was able to develop a practical, marketable design. With the support of Chancellor Robert Livingston, a wealthy New York landowner, Robert Fulton (1765–1815) succeeded where others had failed. On 17–19 August 1807 he rode 150 miles upstream from New York to Albany on his famous North River Steamboat, later rebuilt and known as the North River Steamboat of Clermont, in honor of Clermont, Robert Livingston's Hudson River estate. The first voyage took thirty-two hours over a two-day period. Granted a monopoly for steam navigation of the Hudson River, Fulton and Livingston were able to force John Stevens, their great rival, into operating his steamboat in Delaware Bay.

In 1810–1811 Nicholas Roosevelt, an associate of Fulton's, built the steamboat New Orleans in Pittsburgh. He set off down the Ohio in the spring of 1811 with a party of eight. For the next eight months, the New Orleans and its crew would face one hazard after another, from low water and the threat of Indian attack to the New Madrid earthquake, which caused the Mississippi to run backward for a time. The first steamboat to travel the Ohio-Mississippi system arrived in New Orleans on 12 January 1812 and delivered a load of cotton consigned to it in Natchez.

Over the next two decades, the advent of the steamboat would shape the economic, political, and cultural life of the West and the South. Cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Memphis, and Natchez prospered as major inland ports. By 1840 New Orleans was one of the busiest ports in the world and a major entry point for European immigrants to the United States. During the nineteenth century, an estimated four thousand steamboats were operated on the Mississippi River system.


The rise of commerce on the western rivers was a matter of serious concern for the citizens of east coast ports, notably New York. In 1817 New Yorkers began work on the Erie Canal in an effort to attract the western trade. Connecting Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, the Erie was an artificial waterway furnished with a series of locks to raise and lower canal boats, compensating for the different elevations of the two bodies of water. The construction of the canal was one of the great civil engineering projects undertaken in the first half of the nineteenth century. A generation of engineers who would go on to supervise the construction of roads, bridges, and railroads learned their profession as young men working on the Erie Canal or one of the other waterways that it inspired.

The completion of the canal in 1825 reduced the cost of shipping a ton of produce from Buffalo to Albany from one hundred dollars by road to just ten dollars. The three weeks required for an overland journey across the state was reduced to eight days by canal. The commerce of the expanding Old Northwest began to flow eastward along the new waterway, while waves of European immigrants traveled west by canal to the Great Lakes. As the planners had hoped, New York City remained the nation's leading business and population center.

The success of the Erie Canal underscored the importance of internal improvements, governmentfunded road and canal projects designed to encourage commerce and economic growth. A wave of canal building swept the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, several dozen canals had been constructed in twenty-one states, from Maine to Oregon.

The history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was typical of many others. President John Quincy Adams broke ground on 4 July 1828 for a canal that would run alongside the Potomac River for over 180 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Georgetown, in the District of Columbia. By the time the work was completed in 1850, the canal included 160 culverts that allowed small streams to pass under the canal and eleven aqueducts carrying the waterway over larger rivers and roads. The Potomac dropped 605 feet from Cumberland to Georgetown. A canal boat making that journey passed through seventy-four lift locks along the way. The most difficult construction challenge was to bore a 3,118-foot tunnel through a hard rock ridge. The labor force was a mix of local farmers and immigrant labor.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which served the same geographic area, was completed eight years before the C&O Canal and earned much higher profits. The canal survived as a less expensive means of transporting coal from Cumberland to Washington, D.C. The old rivalry finally came to an end in 1889, when a flood devastated the canal and the railroad was able to take control. The B&O restored the canal and kept it in operation until 1924, when another major flood brought an end to traffic on the old C&O.

In the age of air travel and coast-to-coast super highways, the waterways that were so important to commerce and transportation in the new American nation remain important economic arteries into the twenty-first century. Engineers have transformed the St. Lawrence River, which allowed the French to travel inland from the coast, into a seaway that connects to the Great Lakes, opening the Midwest to the commerce of the world. The keelboats, paddle wheel steamers, and canal boats have vanished, but the products of American fields and factories still move up and down the Mississippi and its two great tributaries, the Ohio and the Missouri.

See alsoErie Canal; Exploration and Explorers; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Mississippi River; New Orleans; New York City; Steamboat .


Baldwin, Leland D. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.

Flexner, James Thomas. Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.

Shaw, Ronald E. Canals for the National: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790–1860. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

Tom D. Crouch

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Transportation: Canals and Waterways

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Transportation: Canals and Waterways