Transportation Revolution Term Paper

Pages: 6 (2760 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Transportation  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] As infrastructure development in the United States was hampered by constitutional scruples about the proper role of the federal government, the bulk of the canal projects were initiated by state governments (Way 53). Most of the investment capital came from Europe (Way 54). However, many of these later canals were unsuccessful. Some failed altogether, discouraging foreign investment thereafter (Cornog 168-69). Regrettably, the failure of such projects did a great deal to discredit the idea of public investment in economic development from that point on. The projects that failed generally did so because the local conditions were far less propitious. As Cornog appreciates, the Erie Canal had accelerated capitalist development that was already taking place (171). Many of the other canals offered far less by way of access to markets. However, the most successful projects, like the canals of southern New England, enjoyed a superiority over the railroads that lasted until as late as the 1870s and 1880s (Taylor 37). This does not mean, however, that the story of the canal projects did not have a dark side.

The canals, like all monumental projects, were built at tremendous human cost. Constructing them required unprecedented amounts of labor, which was sometimes extremely difficult to find. Unlike infrastructure development in the southern states, which could be performed by slaves, the canals required the exploitation of free labor. In order to attract volunteers, the companies advertised widely, drastically exaggerating wage levels and overestimating labor requirements 'in an attempt to flood the labour market and drive down wages' (Way 55, 101-2). However, the available supply of labor was rarely sufficient. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal's recruiters scoured England and Ireland while advertisements were published in Irish and Dutch newspapers (Way 94). To a large degree, the labor shortage was caused by the fact that canallers were often farm workers (including also a good many children) supplementing their income during the periods when their labor was not needed on the farm. This meant there was too little of it in spring, but often too much the rest of the year (Way 81-82). To compensate, some companies bought or hired slaves (126). One wonders, therefore, whether the experience of the canallers was at all reminiscent of slavery. Not all historians suggest that free labor did so well out of the canals.

Although he admits that canallers received 'relatively high cash wages' (81), at least during the 'balmy' 1820s and 1830s (109), Peter Way argues that canalling brought about an unprecedented degradation of American labor. The workers 'laboured twelve to fifteen hours a day in all kinds of weather. They were exposed to man health-threatening illnesses... As well as work-related injuries.' Brutalized and stigmatized as social pariahs, they constituted 'the first truly lumpen proletariat professions in North America' (10). However, from the depression of the late 1830s onwards, as wages fell (106), and a constant labor surplus came into existence (130), the debasing, irregular, badly-paid work of canalling was largely left to immigrants, above all the Irish (82).

The revolutionary impact

In this section, we address the kinds of changes which would justify the use of the term 'revolution' to describe the results of transportation infrastructure development in the United States between 1815 and 1830. Although the period between 1780 and 1860 saw 'the rise of the industrial-capitalist order and the modern class system in North America'

Way 3), there are good reasons to believe that it was largely on account of the transportation revolution of 1815-30 that the United States acquired its capitalist character. Before 1815, the bulk of the settled part of the north American continent had been devoted to subsistence farming. Yet by 1830, there were many regions in which subsistence farming was becoming a thing of the past, agriculture was increasingly oriented toward the market, and small-scale manufacturing was fairly well-developed. In the Upper Susquehanna Valley, for example, large amounts of profit were increasingly being turned back into the farms (Ford 69). According to Peter Way, 'canal construction played a significant role' in the transformation to capitalism.' It opened up new markets, mobilized an army of workers, created new consumers, developed business strategies, and initiated state-capital ties that would be so important in subsequent years (4). The coming of the railroads seems, therefore, merely to have exacerbated tendencies which were already extremely pronounced by the time the first railroad was laid in 1828. We should think of such tendencies as affecting regions, and affecting cities.

The development of transportation in the period under consideration inevitably expanded opportunities for some regions, but at the cost of heightened competition from others. The Erie Canal, for example, made it possible for a much greater volume of agricultural produce from the Middle West to reach New York at competitive prices than was possible before. But agriculture in places situated nearer to New York, like the Upper Susquehanna Valley, which had briefly benefited from the turnpikes, found itself badly hit (Ford 75-76). (The region was injured even more seriously by the railroads, precipitating, by the 1840s, major diversification from grain production into dairying, hop and potato farming.) The impact on towns and cities was equally diverse.

By the time the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, many insignificant centers in the vicinity of the waterway had already transformed themselves into manufacturing and commercial centers (Cornog 161). By the 1830s, such towns as Syracuse, Rochester, Cleveland, and Buffalo were enjoying unprecedented booms. However, without a doubt New York City emerged as the chief beneficiary of the transportation revolution. After 1815, it was the chief center of eastern steamboat development. Its harbor, the Hudson river, and Long Island sound offered propitious conditions (Taylor 58). Then, after 1825, the ease with which the city could be supplied with grain after the completion of the Erie Canal enabled its transformation into a major manufacturing center. New York State as a whole partook of the transformation. Between 1820 and 1840, the percentage of those employed in manufacturing in the western part of the state grew by 262%; those employed in commerce and navigation increased 1000% (Cornog 161). The state's tremendous success - producing such a major economic transformation in such a short space of time - could only encourage others to see the benefits of public investment in transportation. To a large degree, then, everything that the railroads achieved was premised on the success of the canals.


To conclude: the period between 1815 and 1830 saw a revolution in transportation in north America which deserves recognition quite independently of that associated with the railroads, which have long overshadowed them. Furthermore, a good deal that revolutionized the United States in the period under consideration can be attributed to a single project - the Erie Canal. The endlessly proliferating effects of its construction means that the Canal can almost be termed a revolution in its own right. Furthermore, the canals were so successful that it took years before the railroads realized their potential. According to Paul S. Boyer et al., it was not 1848 that the railroads' freight revenues exceeded the revenues from passenger travel for the first time (248). How much more revolutionary, then, was the combined impact of the steamboats and all the canals put together!


Boyer, Paul S. et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin, [YEAR?]

Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: De Witt Clinton and the American Experience 1769-1828. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Frost, James Arthur. Life on the Upper Susquehanna 1783-1860. New York: King's Crown… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Transportation Revolution.  (2002, April 23).  Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

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"Transportation Revolution."  April 23, 2002.  Accessed February 22, 2019.