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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)


The Transportation Revolution and the Rise of Cities

Summary The Transportation Revolution and the Rise of Cities

All passengers experienced the dangers of steamboat travel. Fires were common because steamboats used huge furnaces and often carried flammable cargo, such as oil or hay. Collisions also occurred frequently. In one 1837 collision, several hundred Creek Indians were killed on the Mississippi while en route to reservations in the West. Debris under the water's surface often cracked the hulls of fast-moving ships as well. Further, because little was known about the reaction of metals under the stress of steam travel, boiler explosions destroyed many a steamer and its passengers. One company carried passengers on a barge behind the steamboat expressly to avoid this common source of injury and death.

The canal system revolutionized American trade. Once thought of by Thomas Jefferson as "little short of madness," by 1825, when the Erie Canal was completed, canals were hailed as the savior of American commerce. In a period of frequent insecurity, the Erie Canal was seen as a symbol of American ingenuity and peaceful progress. The grid of canals spanning the North transformed the methods of commerce and manufacturing, and dramatically changed the fortunes of some towns. In 1836, 365,000 bushels of western wheat entered the milling town of Rochester, New York and left as 369,000 barrels of flour bound for eastern markets. All of this was accomplished by shipment along the Erie Canal. The canal transformed Rochester from a small village of a few hundred in 1817 to a thriving town of 9,000 by 1830.

Cities such as Baltimore and Boston, which lacked connections to the West through waterways, saw the railroad as their opportunity to participate in western trade. The Western Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad proved very successful for Boston and Baltimore, respectively. However, railroads spread slowly despite their advantages over canals. Until 1850, most railroads connected cities in the East rather than East and West, and most carried more passengers than freight. The East was not connected to the Great Lakes by rail until 1850. Many factors contributed to the slow growth of the railroads. Unlike canals that had been built by state governments, railroads were often built by independent contractors. In order to minimize the cost of their initial investments, these contractors often used cost-cutting methods such as using wooden rails covered by iron bars. As a result, American railroads were in constant need of repair, factoring into their slow growth. In contrast, canals, once built, needed little maintenance. Also, large, bulky commodities were more cheaply shipped by canal, keeping canals in demand long after railroads were built.

The rise of cities had the effect of drawing increasing numbers into the already settled areas of the west, since these settlers knew that jobs and shelter waited for them there. Canals and railroads not only carried cargo, but also people, into the west. The growing population of cities contributed to the rise of manufacturing and industrialization, most notably in the North. Furthermore, the growth of cities created an entirely new category of political issues revolving around life in the cities.

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