Advances in transportation

Table of Contents:

Transportation was important in the early United States for moving products as well as people. Growing great crops did no good if there was no way to get them to the people who wanted to buy them. New forms of transportation led to the growth of the new United States.

The canal system

The Dutch, French, and British all had big canal systems before the American Revolution. The United States was late to the party but made up for its slow start with enthusiasm. First came the completion of the Erie Canal (1825), which connected over 300 miles between the Hudson River in New York and Lake Erie. Between 1825 and 1840, the United States dug more than 3,000 miles of canals. Making an artificial river may not seem that high tech, but canals were a hundred times faster and stronger than trying to get little wagons down muddy and often-frozen dirt roads. Before canals, crops and resources never got far from home; after canals, the idea of a national marketplace seemed possible.

Steamships and water travel

In 1807, American inventor Robert Fulton (1810) built the double-paddle-wheeled steamboat Clermont which traveled up the Hudson River from New York faster than traveling via a canal or horse-drawn wagon. By the mid-1850s, steamboats driven by large paddle wheels were carrying passengers on all major U.S. rivers. Oceangoing steamships, constructed with strong iron hulls, reduced the time needed to travel to Europe from weeks to days. The Savannah in 1819 was the first ship equipped with a steam engine to cross the Atlantic Ocean. By 1838, several steam-powered paddle wheelers were crossing the Atlantic, and in 1840, the first regularly scheduled steamship service began.


Canals got to be the latest thing for only a few years, because railroads were faster and could go anywhere. In 1830, the first little American steam engine pathetically lost a race with a horse. Getting it right didn't take long: By 1840, the U.S. boasted 400 railroads and more miles of track than canal. By the time of the Civil War, America was the world railroad leader with close to 30,000 miles of track.

The Industrial Revolution

Industrial work was a new way of life — not exactly fun, but at least a way to get off the farm. Men, women, and children worked 12-hour days, six days a week. The first labor unions originated to fight for better working conditions, but that battle took a hundred years to win. Factories made products people wanted, and people made money they needed to buy the products. Skilled workers like steam engine builders, printers, and carpenters did much better than the more common unskilled workers, who had to take any job they could get and were easy to replace.

The first Industrial Revolution in the United States started off, humbly enough, making thread in small water-powered mills at the time of the American Revolution. Fast forward 30 years, and steam-powered factories provided jobs off the farm for around 5 percent of the people. This was the small beginning of the get-ahead capitalist spirit that still drives Americans.

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