The Transportation Revolution: Turnpikes to Steamboats to Railroads

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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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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

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

In the half-century before the Civil War, America experienced a transportation revolution that improved the way people and goods crossed the nation, opened up new areas for settlement and altered the centers of economic power.

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.


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.


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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