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Travel by foot and by horse and wagon, familiar and omnipresent means of transportation from the earliest days of settlement, still provided the dominant mode of travel in mid-eighteenth-century America. On the eastern seaboard, many of the major cities had been connected by post roads since the late seventeenth century, and stagecoach lines had just begun to operate from Boston to Baltimore. Further inland, several military roads had been carved out of the wilderness and construction of the Great Wagon Road, which would eventually connect Philadelphia to the Georgia backcountry, had been under way for several decades. In most areas, though, roads remained mere pathways—seldom trodden, primitive, and undeveloped—winding along old Native American trails. Muddy in wet weather, suffocatingly dusty in the dry season, impassably obstructed by foliage and tree stumps all year-round, these roads rendered any significant trip a slow, difficult, dangerous, and uncertain venture.

improving the roads

Following the Revolution, private companies and public institutions built a sophisticated network of improved roads that would, by 1820, connect all of the cities along the seaboard and extend deep into the western territories. Road building was limited to hand labor, picks and shovels, and black powder explosives. Although most roads were built of earth compacted atop large boulders, corduroy roads were built in marshy areas by felling trees, trimming them, and laying them side-by-side on the ground. By the 1820s, road builders were experimenting with British macadamized surfaces. These roadbeds were graded, covered with large gravel, and compacted by heavy-wheeled vehicles. Macadam roads were durable, and their archlike cross sections facilitated drainage into adjoining ditches. Where stone gravel was unavailable, builders substituted oyster shells and iron slag from furnaces. Where there was stone, builders—as early as the 1790s—also constructed small-scale stone arch bridges to ford streams and gullies. Wooden bridges, planks on timber pilings modeled after wharf construction, were not uncommon in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, but bridge building escalated in the early 1800s with the invention of the sturdy and economical wooden latticework truss. Riding these improved roads and bridges were Conestoga wagons, highwheeled, boat-shaped wagons that could carry from four to six tons of freight, and an increasing number of coaches and carriages, particularly after 1826, when the invention of the Concord Coach, cradled by flexible shock-absorbing leather braces, took passenger comfort to new levels.


Throughout the period, overland transport of goods cost approximately twelve times as much as water transport. Ease and economy characterized river transport, and flatboats, large flat-ended floating boxes flowing with the current and carrying from thirty to forty tons of goods, were in use for oneway trips on the rivers early in the eighteenth century. After the Revolution keelboats, maneuverable boats with shallow keels, pointed ends, and sails and poles to move upstream, filled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The two-masted barge, capable of carrying one hundred tons, appeared in 1800 and further increased carrying capacity. Upstream travel took about four times as long as downstream travel, with the attendant increase in costs, and experiments to economize upstream trips included failed attempts at using horse treadmills to run paddle wheels. The problem of upstream travel was solved by the invention of the steamboat. Invented by John Fitch in 1787, the steamboat was put into regular commercial use by Robert Fulton, whose Clermont made the run from New York City to Albany in thirty-two hours in 1807. Improvements over the next decade included moving the boiler up onto the deck to give the vessels a shallower draft and using high-pressure steam to increase the pulling power. Steamboats debuted on the Ohio River in 1811 and soon became the most important mode of shipping on the major waterways.


For much of the eighteenth century, visionaries dreamed of creating waterways to facilitate internal trade. Canal building, however, was limited by the prohibitive costs of constructing canalways, locks, and towpaths and by the fact that technology that had not yet developed brick linings to prevent lock walls from leaking or movable lock gates that could withstand tons of water. After the Revolution amateur engineers, aided by British professionals, solved the technological problems, and joint-stock companies provided the necessary capital. After several small-scale efforts in the 1790s, the first large-scale canal project, the twenty-seven-mile Middlesex Canal, linked Boston and the Merrimack River in 1803. In 1817 ground was broken for the Erie Canal, which—like most of the other great canal projects of the time—was government funded. Over the next eight years, through an incredible combination of engineering skill, human labor, technological innovation, and political determination, the Hudson River was linked up with Lake Erie. Spinoff benefits from the effort included the creation of machines that snapped off trees and plucked up stumps, the development of hydraulic waterproof cement, and the onthe-job education of amateur engineers who would go on to work on other major infrastructure projects. The financial success of the canal spurred a canal mania that swept the growing nation and confirmed many Americans' perception of the country's growing prosperity and unlimited future.


The canal's day in the limelight quickly faded, however, as the railroad, the new symbol of American growth and economic success, emerged. Throughout the 1820s, governments and internal improvement societies sent architects and engineers to England for technical knowledge of locomotives and steam engine construction. Even so, when the first commercial railways were established in the 1830s, imported English locomotives provided the power. Over the course of the decade, an engine factory was set up in Philadelphia, churning out locomotives adapted to American conditions. Front-turning trucks (wheels) were added to accommodate tight curves, and more powerful engines were developed to haul up the steeper grades of American topography. Iron rails pinned to wooden ties replaced the English system of rails placed atop stone foundations or wooden pilings in an effort to reduce the effects of frost heaving in the colder American climate. Technological and managerial expertise would greatly improve the railways in the years to come, and the railroad network would offer the promise of fully integrating the agricultural and commercial areas of the young nation and serve as a great engine of expansion and development.

See alsoRailroads; Steamboat; Transportation .


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David R. Byers