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Turnpikes, Steamboats and Railroads: The Transportation Revolution

Miranda Schouten, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    Miranda Schouten

    Miranda has a BA in English from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing her MA in secondary education. Throughout her coursework she has written and implemented several lesson plans in the classroom setting.

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

    Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Discover how transportation in the 1800s dramatically changed. Explore how the transportation revolution affected railroads, turnpikes, and steamboats in the 1800s. Updated: 04/30/2022

The Transportation Revolution: A Definition

At the start of the 19th century, transportation remained slow and arduous even though the American population was growing and the need for westward expansion was great. Paved roads were a new concept, and most rivers ran north to south, making it difficult to travel any great distance from east to west. The transportation revolution changed all of that. The transportation revolution was a major leap in transportation with the adoption of paved roads, canals, steamboats, and railroads, which had a direct influence on the country's ability to expand westward.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which included the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, steamboats on the Hudson River were used to ship goods between Pennsylvania and Louisiana, resulting in a thriving trade market. Canals were later established, connecting the major waterways, and for the first nearly half of the century, this was the most important method of shipping goods in the interior of the nation. However, that would soon change with the development of the railroad.

A Need for Transportation

Map showing location of the so-called National Road
National Road Map

In the antebellum era, it seems like everything about America was growing: the population, income, immigration and especially the Western frontier. But, there was one big problem: you couldn't get there from the East. Most rivers ran North to South (not East-West), and wagons were slow and difficult over bad roads.

In 1811, the federal government opened the 'National Road,' connecting the Potomac and Ohio Rivers (and expanding every year) to open up the West for settlers. But, this type of internal improvement was hotly contested in the early nation, since states that didn't benefit resented paying for it. As a result, transportation was mostly left to individual states or to private investors. A number of entrepreneurs and inventors did step up in the mid-19th century, and the transportation revolution provided a number of new, reliable, safe and cost-effective ways to travel to different parts of the nation, including new land in the West.

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  • 0:07 A Need for Transportation
  • 1:05 Turnpikes
  • 2:03 Steamboats and Canals
  • 4:44 Railroads
  • 6:55 Effects of the…
  • 7:47 Lesson Summary
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Railroad Transportation in the 1800s

Transportation in the 1800s relied heavily on the railroads. In 1827, Baltimore merchants needed to compete with New York merchants who had the newly opened Erie Canal. Local Baltimore merchants and investors funded a railroad that would eventually connect Baltimore to Ohio, establishing the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Company. Ground broke on July 4, 1828, and in 1830, the first American steam locomotive, Tom Thumb, was put to use.

During the second half of the 19th century, railroad construction in the United States began to increase dramatically, though it did not come without its difficulties. Turnpike operators were opposed to the construction of railroads as well as other business owners who benefited from the use of turnpikes. Additionally, the digging of canals had dried up state funds, and the panic of 1837 limited private funding. Eventually, the benefit of the railroad was realized and in 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act. Despite construction being interrupted during the Civil War, seven years later, on May 10 of 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was complete. Roughly 45,000 miles of track had been laid prior to 1871. Between 1871 and 1900, an additional 170,000 miles were added largely due to the addition of four additional transcontinental railroads. What improvements did the railroads help to create? These improvements include the affordable shipping of goods as well as passenger travel, leading to migration of settlers as well as a prosperous economy.

How Did Railroads Influence Modern Business Practices?

The B&O Railroad quickly became a huge success, transporting goods collectively worth millions of dollars through Baltimore each year as well as transporting passengers. The extension of the railroad had the ability to connect small farm towns and isolated communities along the railroad to the national markets, providing new economic opportunities for the country as a whole. This easy method of transport also led to regional specialization as each region would now produce specific goods based on the natural resources available to them.

When wealthy businessmen and investors began to see the potential in railroad transport, they jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the expansion. This led to unnecessary competition as different companies began to produce several tracks traveling between the same destinations, forcing railroad companies to lower their rates in order to stay in business. Eventually, it was realized that they needed to consolidate, which resulted in a few powerful corporations monopolizing the entire rail system. In 1887, the U.S. government stepped in and established the Interstate Commerce Commission, which ensured the rates set by railroad companies were fair. These practices are still used in modern business today.

Steamboats in the 1800s

In the 1800s, steamboats played a pivotal role in the early stages of the transportation revolution. In 1807, Robert Fulton developed the first steamboat in the United States. His boat, the Clermont, made its maiden voyage up the Hudson River from New York to Albany and proved to be an enormous success. Traveling at a speed of five miles per hour, the steamboat took a third of the amount of time it took a sailing vessel to make the same journey. By 1830, more than 200 steamboats were traveling the country's major inland rivers, including the Mississippi, the Hudson, and the Ohio River, carrying both passengers and cargo. Steamboats provided an efficient and cost-effective method of travel between the east and the west, as ships could easily make their way from Pittsburgh to Louisiana.

Turnpikes

Roads were the most logical place for early improvement in transportation. By 1821, about 4,000 miles of turnpikes, or private roads, crisscrossed the East, connecting to each other and to the National Road (also called the Cumberland Road). They were constructed and maintained by local and state governments or by private investors who made a profit by collecting a toll from people who used the road. Turnpikes were so named because the first such private road had a series of spikes that the toll collector would move aside once the driver had paid. Beginning with the National Road in the 1830s, many of these turnpikes were made from an early type of pavement. But, turnpikes couldn't solve the nation's transportation problems alone; they were slow and uncomfortable for passengers and impractical for shipping large quantities of goods. More Americans considered how they might improve water transportation to meet the needs of industry and westward migrants.

Steamboats and Canals

Back in 1807, Robert Fulton had adapted a steam engine for use in a boat called the Clermont. This kind of power allowed the boat to travel up the Hudson River as easily as it could travel down, but skeptics nicknamed the ship 'Fulton's Folly,' doubting it could be commercially successful. They were wrong; within four years, passengers and goods could travel by steamboat all the way from Pittsburgh to the Ohio River and from there to the Mississippi. Travel time and shipping rates dropped dramatically compared to overland transportation. By 1830, more than 200 steamboats ran up and down the rivers, putting cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis on the map. It seemed now the only limit was in the location of the waterways. But soon, even that obstacle was surmounted.

Robert Fulton developed the steamboat in 1807.
Robert Fulton

The greatest breakthrough in the movement of cargo by water was in canals. English industrialists had been using these man-made rivers successfully since the 1700s, using mules to tow small boats upstream. But, American businessmen had been unsuccessful in convincing the federal government to dig a canal between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River. Finally, the state of New York decided to act and broke ground on the Erie Canal in 1817. It took eight years and $7 million, but it was a political and financial success.

The cost of shipping freight from Buffalo to New York City dropped from $0.19 per ton per mile down to $0.02 during the 1830s. By connecting the interior of the continent to the Atlantic Ocean, the Erie Canal allowed for the settlement of northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It helped open up agriculture and industry since products could now be transported easily, quickly and inexpensively back to the population centers in the East. Chicago boomed and quickly became the most important city in the region. The canal forged a physical and economic bond between the farms of the Midwest and the Northeast that would become important in the political battles over slavery and states' rights. Less productive farms in New England closed down, opening up the labor force for developing industry. Perhaps most significantly, the Erie Canal helped New York City replace Philadelphia as the commercial center of the nation.

Other states quickly jumped on the bandwagon, ushering in the canal era and allowing for the growth of cities, such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. By 1840, more than 3,000 miles of canals connected most major waterways in the nation. For a time, canals were the most important means of shipping goods in the interior of the nation. But, even this breakthrough was about to become obsolete.

Railroads

Tom Thumb was the first American steam locomotive.
Tom Thumb Photo

In 1827, the city of Baltimore did not have a canal, despite being the third largest city in the U.S. A group of merchants and bankers began investigating their options for competing with the Erie Canal and hit upon a completely different idea for transporting people and goods - a railroad.

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Video Transcript

A Need for Transportation

Map showing location of the so-called National Road
National Road Map

In the antebellum era, it seems like everything about America was growing: the population, income, immigration and especially the Western frontier. But, there was one big problem: you couldn't get there from the East. Most rivers ran North to South (not East-West), and wagons were slow and difficult over bad roads.

In 1811, the federal government opened the 'National Road,' connecting the Potomac and Ohio Rivers (and expanding every year) to open up the West for settlers. But, this type of internal improvement was hotly contested in the early nation, since states that didn't benefit resented paying for it. As a result, transportation was mostly left to individual states or to private investors. A number of entrepreneurs and inventors did step up in the mid-19th century, and the transportation revolution provided a number of new, reliable, safe and cost-effective ways to travel to different parts of the nation, including new land in the West.

Turnpikes

Roads were the most logical place for early improvement in transportation. By 1821, about 4,000 miles of turnpikes, or private roads, crisscrossed the East, connecting to each other and to the National Road (also called the Cumberland Road). They were constructed and maintained by local and state governments or by private investors who made a profit by collecting a toll from people who used the road. Turnpikes were so named because the first such private road had a series of spikes that the toll collector would move aside once the driver had paid. Beginning with the National Road in the 1830s, many of these turnpikes were made from an early type of pavement. But, turnpikes couldn't solve the nation's transportation problems alone; they were slow and uncomfortable for passengers and impractical for shipping large quantities of goods. More Americans considered how they might improve water transportation to meet the needs of industry and westward migrants.

Steamboats and Canals

Back in 1807, Robert Fulton had adapted a steam engine for use in a boat called the Clermont. This kind of power allowed the boat to travel up the Hudson River as easily as it could travel down, but skeptics nicknamed the ship 'Fulton's Folly,' doubting it could be commercially successful. They were wrong; within four years, passengers and goods could travel by steamboat all the way from Pittsburgh to the Ohio River and from there to the Mississippi. Travel time and shipping rates dropped dramatically compared to overland transportation. By 1830, more than 200 steamboats ran up and down the rivers, putting cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis on the map. It seemed now the only limit was in the location of the waterways. But soon, even that obstacle was surmounted.

Robert Fulton developed the steamboat in 1807.
Robert Fulton

The greatest breakthrough in the movement of cargo by water was in canals. English industrialists had been using these man-made rivers successfully since the 1700s, using mules to tow small boats upstream. But, American businessmen had been unsuccessful in convincing the federal government to dig a canal between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River. Finally, the state of New York decided to act and broke ground on the Erie Canal in 1817. It took eight years and $7 million, but it was a political and financial success.

The cost of shipping freight from Buffalo to New York City dropped from $0.19 per ton per mile down to $0.02 during the 1830s. By connecting the interior of the continent to the Atlantic Ocean, the Erie Canal allowed for the settlement of northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It helped open up agriculture and industry since products could now be transported easily, quickly and inexpensively back to the population centers in the East. Chicago boomed and quickly became the most important city in the region. The canal forged a physical and economic bond between the farms of the Midwest and the Northeast that would become important in the political battles over slavery and states' rights. Less productive farms in New England closed down, opening up the labor force for developing industry. Perhaps most significantly, the Erie Canal helped New York City replace Philadelphia as the commercial center of the nation.

Other states quickly jumped on the bandwagon, ushering in the canal era and allowing for the growth of cities, such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. By 1840, more than 3,000 miles of canals connected most major waterways in the nation. For a time, canals were the most important means of shipping goods in the interior of the nation. But, even this breakthrough was about to become obsolete.

Railroads

Tom Thumb was the first American steam locomotive.
Tom Thumb Photo

In 1827, the city of Baltimore did not have a canal, despite being the third largest city in the U.S. A group of merchants and bankers began investigating their options for competing with the Erie Canal and hit upon a completely different idea for transporting people and goods - a railroad.

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Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the effects of the transportation revolution in the early 1800s?

The transportation revolution in the early 1800s led to the growth of the nation as a whole. Convenient transportation led to the westward migration as canals and railroads expanded, providing access to previously isolated regions. Goods could now be transported efficiently and cost-effectively, providing farmers access to national markets.

What were three innovations in transportation during the 1800s?

During the transportation revolution during the 1800s, many new innovations took hold. The use of steamboats and railroads made transporting large quantities of goods easy and cost effective. Canals were also dug, providing the interior of the country with an easy method of transporting goods.

What was the fastest form of transportation in the 1800's?

At the start of the 1800s, water was the fastest form of transportation. Large steamships carried both goods and people from port to port. During the second half of the 19th century, railroads took over and provided a fast method of travel across the interior of the country.

What were steamboats used for in the 1800s?

In the 1800s, steamboats traveled along the major inner waterways of the United States. They were used for both personal travel as well as the transport of goods from one port to another. By 1830, over 200 steamboats traveled along the Hudson, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.

Why was the steamboat such an important invention in the early 1800s?

In the early 1800s, steamboats proved to be an important tool in the westward expansion of the United States. Boats on the Hudson River could transport goods from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, officially connecting the eastern and western economies.

Why was the transportation revolution important?

The transportation revolution in the 19th century led to huge changes in the country's transportation networks. Construction of railroads, canals, and roads connected small farm towns to larger markets and allowed their economies to grow. It also facilitated migration as the country began to expand westward.

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