By Beverly C. Tyler
The changes in transportation that began in the early 1800s were dramatic and far-reaching. They made it possible to lower costs of food and fuel, expand settlements, open western New York and the Midwest and provide employment for thousands of immigrants. Before steam power, transportation on land was limited to walking, riding horses and going by horse and wagon. On the water there were sloops, schooners and larger ships that traveled around the world. All of these were dependent on organic modes of transportation: wind, current, animals and feet.
By the 1850s and 1860s schooners, barks and full-rigged ships were setting speed records on the China trade route and around Cape Horn to the California coast. Sloops and schooners brought goods to and from Long Island, carried cordwood into New York City and eventually carried coal from Jersey City and Newark to communities on Long Island.
Because it was so difficult and time consuming to sail upstream, great American rivers such as the Hudson in New York and the Connecticut River remained underutilized. It was realized that the steam engine applied to a boat would allow for on-demand propulsion for the first time in human history. In the first decade of the 1800s, New York State offered a prize, the exclusive commercial route up the Hudson River, for the first steamboat to travel the route at an average of 4 mph.
Robert Fulton, an artist in Paris and a self-styled engineer, with financing by Robert R. Livingston, realized that a large paddlewheel, attached to the side of the vessel, rather than a screw propeller at the stern, was the answer to go upstream. In August 1807, Fulton’s North River Steamboat achieved 5 mph from Manhattan to Albany, and he received the prize.
DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York and former U.S. senator, was elected governor in 1816. He began construction of the Erie Canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River with state and private funding on July 4, 1817. The canal opened in sections and every section became proof of the canal’s value as a propeller of commerce. Completed in 1825, the canal quickly exceeded all expectations. Goods from Cleveland got to Manhattan within days. Chicago was easily accessible from New York. The Erie Canal was the first large commercial canal in America.
By 1862, the canal had a depth of 7 feet and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. In 1882, the canal was made free. It had earned $42 million above the original cost and the expenses of enlargement, maintenance and operation. The success of the Erie Canal set off canal mania in other states: the Ohio and Erie Canal from Cleveland to the Ohio River 350 miles south and the Miami and Erie Canal from Toledo to Cincinnati. By 1830, the population in the Northwest (now the Midwest) doubled to 1.6 million and by 1840 doubled again to 3.3 million. Canals had opened what is now known as the Midwest. By 1850, the two major American ports were New York and New Orleans.
Now areas near the Great Lakes — from the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh and the Monongahela to the Ohio to the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico — were commercially more connected to the American south than to the Atlantic coast with its population in the millions. The Wabash and Erie Canal was a shipping canal that linked the Great Lakes to the Ohio River via an artificial waterway. The canal provided traders with access from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Over 460 miles long, it was the longest canal ever built in North America. Due to canal mania in the north, the railroads were slow in starting, lacking investment and behind the British in the manufacture of iron. By 1837, there were only 1,500 miles of track in America. Track construction accelerated right after the panic of 1837. By 1840, Cornelius Vanderbilt had bought and sold enough steamships and steamship routes to amass a fortune. Running through Long Island Sound, Vanderbilt had the fastest boats from Manhattan to Providence to Boston. Canals and steamboats made long-distance transportation viable, but canals were a temporary solution. The railroads would soon become the vehicle that united America with steam power.
In the next History Close at Hand article, railroads, specifically the Long Island Rail Road, will be explored. Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.