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The Transportation Revolution of the 19th Century

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 2 years, 2 months ago

Focus Question: What were the impacts of Transportation Revolution of the 19th century?


Building the National Road (Image from National Park Service)


Building the National Road; Image from National Park Service



Topics on the Page


Before the Transportation Revolution

Building Roads

Transportation Revolution in Massachusetts

  • Boston Landfill Project (completed 1828)
  • South Hadley Canal
  • First Subway in America in Boston (1897)


Era of Good Feelings


Steamboats and Canals


The Erie Canal

Early Railroads and the Transcontinental Railway


The Start of the Automobile Industry





 Who Came Down That Road? by George Ella Lyon


Roads, Highways and Automobiles

          • The National Road
          • Route 66
          • The Interstate Highway System 
          • Bourbon Street in New Orleans


  Link to AP United States History Period 4.2:  Economic Transformations in Antebellum America

 Learning Plans


The Progression of Transportation in Ohio and the West


Railroads, Canals and Factories in New Jersey



Before the Transportation Revolution 

Prior to the transportation revolution, the mid western states were fairly isolated from markets in the eastern part of the United States.


  • People often had to use wagons drawn by horses to transport goods over poorly maintained roads. This primitive mode of transportation took a lot of time and man power.


    • Consequently, it was difficult to connect eastern and western markets.
      • For example, it took four days to go from New York City to Boston or Albany or Washington, DC, a week to get to Pittsburgh, and twenty-eight days to get to Detroit.


  • The problem is also illustrated by the cost of shipping goods in the more settled eastern parts of the United States.
    • In 1816, the cost of shipping a ton thirty miles overland in the United States was the same as shipping the same ton to England.


  • Throughout the 19th century, America experienced a Transportation Revolution.
    • This revolution consisted of the development and widespread use of canals, roads, bridges, turnpikes, steamboats, and railroads. These developments made the transportation of goods significantly easier.


  • As a result, westerners were no longer isolated from eastern markets, there was an increase in production and trade, and the increased modes of efficient transportation made it quicker, easier, and cheaper to travel.




external image Wabash_and_Erie_Canal_%28Delphi%29.png external image Blackstonevalleymap.png




Building Roads

Roads were built and maintained by local people, by towns, and for the states that had few sources of revenue and found it difficult to raise taxes.

  • This was an unsatisfactory solution for anyone traveling very far because different towns along a route would have different commitments to finding revenue sources sufficient for the task at hand. 


  • Turnpikes were the first solution. In Pennsylvania, the state started building the Philadelphia to Lancaster Turnpike in 1792. It was opened in 1793. It was financially successful, setting off a wave of turnpike construction.

The National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road or the National Pike)

For an easy explanation of the Transportation Revolution, watch this video

Click here for a timeline of the transportation revolution

Click here for a timeline of the Department of Transportation 





Transportation Revolution in Massachusetts


One of the largest projects that took place in Boston during the Transportation Revolution was the Boston Landfill Project.  Before Boston became the flat, 90 square mile landmass that it is today, it was a tiny peninsula that was less than 800 acres wide.  By 1775, there was a long wharf that was built that created a pond colonists named Mill Pond because it was used to power sawmills in the area.  By the early 1800s, Mill Pond had become dirty and polluted, and the mills were no longer needed, so the pond was filled.  It took 21 years to complete because of the primitive tools that were used, but in 1828 it was finally done.  This land was then sold to working class people in Boston, and houses began to pop up.  


History of Boston - Wikipedia


Boston Landfill Project Video about the creation of modern-day Boston.

For more on the development of economic systems in the Connecticut Valley region see, "The Roots of Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860" by Christopher Clark, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut.


December 1, 1826, First Steamboat Passes Through the South Hadley Canal

Northampton to New Haven Canal
external image South_Hadley_Canal_%28Massachusetts%29_map.jpg


History of the Boston Subway:  The First Subway in America, 1897




Era of Good Feelings

The "Era of Good Feelings" was known as the wide spread of economic growth.


  • What sparked this growth was the Transportation Revolution. The growth of this industry created growth in other industries such as agriculture. Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin proposed a plan called "internal improvements" that called for the improvements of roads and other transportation systems. However, this proposal was denied.


  • In the wake of the War of 1812, where people realized how cumbersome the transportation system was, private corporations built roads and attempted to profit from tolls but people just walked around these tolls and eventually these tolls were unprofitable.


Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground, George Caleb Bingham, 1847
Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground, George Caleb Bingham, 1847


Market Revolution Crash Course video about the Market Revolution and the Era of Good Feelings.



The National Road 


Before the Transportation Revolution, there were few roads in the United States, and the few that existed were often muddy and difficult to travel on with a wagon.  

  • In 1817 however, Congress authorized the construction of the National Road which is also know as the Cumberland Road.  This road started in Maryland, crossed the Ohio River in Virginia, and became the first road to pass through Northwestern states.


  • The road was made with crushed stone, which was a large improvement to the muddy roads that once existed.along the National Road were turnpikes and other toll roads that allowed for easier travel and revenue to be collected for the states.  


  • These early roads largely improved trade and travel in the United States. 




Steamboats and Canals


Robert Fulton

Fulton Statute
Fulton Statute

external image Clermont_illustration_-_Robert_Fulton_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15161.jpg



Robert Fulton, in 1811, put steamboats in commercial use. Since rivers only flowed one way and boats had to be scrapped one they made it to there destination the steamboat was created which was powered by a steam engine and could travel up and down river.


  • From 1820-1850 it was of the "Age of the Steamboat." 
    • But you could only transport items along rivers. So to effectively and efficiently transport good canals were built. 
    • To overcome obstacles such as mountains, cable cars were made to transport canal boats. The cost of canals was expensive in building and in up keep.


  • Canals were replaced by the railroad system that used the same type of steam engines in trains as did the steam boats.


  • The railroads were the end of the Transportation Revolution.

Click here for a history of steamboats from the University of Virginia. See also History of Steamboats from the Army Corps of Engineers

Click here for an overview of the age of Canals.

Click here for a map of canals built in the 19th century

external image Test_hq3x.pngTest Question
In the mid 19th century, before railroads were constructed, people in the United States transported commercial materials, such as timber and coal, over long distances primarily by means of
A. rivers and canals
B. turnpikes and freeways
C. pack horses and mule trains
D. ox carts and Conestoga wagons

Read about African-Americans' involvement building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, here

The Erie Canal


Lockport on the Erie Canal, W.H. Bartlett, 1839

Lockport on the Erie Canal, W.H. Bartlett, 1839


  • The Erie Canal was designed to connect the port of New York City and Lake Erie.


  • Built from July 4, 1817 to October 25, 1825


  • Congress approved funding for the Great Western Canal
    • President James Monroe felt it was unconstitutional and vetoed the bill


  • New York State approved funding and would pay back the State Treasury with tolls


  • Wealthy farmers along route were contracted to build small sections
    • British, German, and Irish immigrants were the people who actually dug out the canal


  • The canal cost $7 million to create


  • Before the canal, shipping from New York to Buffalo cost $100


  • The canal dropped shipping to $10


    • Click here for more details on the Erie Canal


    • Click here for information on the boats used in the Canal.



 Building the Erie Canal, an interactive lesson with student writing about how the Erie Canal affected the geographic, economic, and political character of the United States, from Teachers Domain

Images of the Erie Canal

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngFor more on the Erie Canal, see the book Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein (W. W. Norton, 2005).

external image Test_hq3x.pngAn important result of the building of canals in the United States in the 1800s was that:
A. slavery spread to the western states
B. people stopped building railroads
C. more people traveled to California to farm
D. trade increased among the states

Correct Answer: D (Question taken from the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress)

One of the oldest American locomotives, 1832. Photo by JGHowes
One of the oldest American locomotives, 1832. Photo by JGHowes


Early Railroads and the Transcontinental Railway

Railroads could be built anywhere and carry many tons of freight and people.


  • Americans were inspired by the English, who were the first to lay railroads. 


  • Baltimore, the third largest city in the nation in 1827, soon recognized that the development of a railway could make the city more competitive with New York and the Erie Canal in transporting people and goods to the West. 


  • The result was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first railroad to be charted in the United States. New railroads came swiftly.

See Tears, Trains and Triumphs: The Historical Legacy of African Americans and Pennsylvania's Railroads from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. 20,000 slaves were utilized in building railroads in the South before the Civil War

"Crash Course: The Railroad Journey and the Industrial Revolution

The Transcontinental Railroad



    • Click here for a brief Overview of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Perhaps the greatest physical feat of 19th century America was the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. It was to be made up of two combining railroads: the Central Pacific (starting from San Francisco) and the Union Pacific (starting in Omaha, Nebraska). The railway was completed on May 10, 1869.

Route of the Transcontinental Railroad
Route of the Transcontinental Railroad

Despite its huge impact on the nature of transportation and the benefits it afforded merchants and travelers, the Transcontinental Railroad adversely impacted the lives of Native Americans.

  • Read about it here

During the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, many laborers came over from China and worked under poor conditions.

  • Stanford University has collected a large amount of information on these workers. Access their archive here.

Bridging the Mississippi

  • Learn how railroad builders dealt with issues such as preexisting bridges and water masses that effected railroad building and how these problems effected larger issues such as commerce

WATCH: "The Transportation Revolution: From Turnpikes to Steamboats to Railroads

Read an emigrant woman's letter home detailing her experience on the Transcontinental Railroad, here

Click here for a BBC documentary all about the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. It is separated into 5 different parts.

Click here for an interactive map to track the progress of the Transcontinental Railroad

Click here and here for lesson plans on the Transcontinental Railroad


  • Click here for excerpts from primary sources on the Transcontinental Railroad


    • Click here for the Pacific Railway Act


Click here for information on the workers who created the Transcontinental Railroad

 Click Here for a list of several work songs sung by crews building the railroads.


  Click here for an article about women in the railroad industry today.

Click here to read about how the Transportation Revolution led to the upsurge in market economy.

Link Describing the Evolution of US transportation

Transportation Revolution Lesson Plan 


Transportation Revolution Online Games Link to a website that provides educational video games for kids about the Transportation Revolution.


Transportation Revolution Summary Link to a YouTube video that provides a summary about the Transportation Revolution. 



The Start of the Automobile Industry



Before Henry Ford, they were the Duryea brothers. Charles Duryea and J. Frank Duryea designed one of first gasoline powered car in America in 1893.


They also race this car in the first American automobile race in 1895. The Duryea brothers also sold the first gasoline powered American car!


The Duryea Motor Wagon Company what is established in Springfield Mass in 1895.


Read here to learn about the Duryea brothers

Watch here to learn about the Duryea brothers

Read this biography of the Duryea brothers                                                                                                                                           






























Haven, Janet Retrieved April 12, 2007, from Inland Navigation: Connecting the New Republic Web site: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/transport/front.html

Noble, Matt The Transportation Revolution and the Rise of Cities. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from SparkNotes Web site: http://www.sparknotes.com/history/american/westwardexpansion/section5.rhtml

Woddman, Harold Transportation Revolution. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from Answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/transportation-revolution

America On the Move. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from Smithsonian: National Museum of American History Web site: http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/

Image IDs from left to right

1. Erie Canal Wikimedia Commons, "Wabash and Erie Canal (Delphi)".
2. Blackstone River Map Wikimedia Commons, "Blackstonevalleymap".
3. South Hadley Canal Map Wikimedia Commons, "South Hadley Canal (Massachusetts) map".
4. Era of Good Feelings Youtube from user theinstructorchrisS, "James Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings".
5. Robert Fulton Wikimedia Commons, "Fulton".
6. Steam boat Wikimedia Commons, "Clermont illustration - Robert Fulton - Project Gutenberg eText 15161".

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