By the mid-nineteenth century, the American economy that had been based on local commerce and small-scale farming was maturing into a dynamic, wide-reaching capitalist marketplace. As the industrial revolution in the northeast altered the economy and intensified the process of urbanization, an agricultural empire began to emerge in the west.
By 1860, more than one-half of the American population was located west of the Appalachian Mountains. Conditions along the entire Atlantic seaboard stimulated migration to the western regions. The soil in New England was incapable of producing agricultural crops beyond a subsistence level, resulting in a steady stream of men and women moving west to take advantage of the rich land in the interior of the continent. Many people in the Carolinas, Virginia, and the Deep South also moved westward because they had exhausted the soil. A lot of them moved near the Mississippi River because it provided a means for getting their products to coastal markets.
In the early nineteenth century, life was grim for the first pioneer families, who were poorly fed, ill-clad, and housed in hastily built dwellings. Many trudged on foot over hundreds of miles, dragging crude carts loaded with their scanty possessions. More fortunate pioneers traveled on horseback or in wagons—the best known was the canvas-topped Conestoga “covered wagons,” pulled by horses or oxen. These wagons were waterproof, enabled pioneers to travel farther, and allowed families to travel together and bring more of their possessions.
As the nineteenth century wore on and more and more settlers moved west, conditions improved. Many became farmers as well as hunters, and flourishing settlements began to change the face of the west. Land speculators bought large tracts of the cheap land, sold their holdings for a profit, and moved still farther west, making way for new settlers. Artisans and merchants soon followed the farmers west. Rapid growth in the west was the norm. Chicago, Illinois in 1830 was simply a trading village with a fort, but long before some of its original settlers died, it had become one of the largest and richest cities in the nation.
Farmland in the west was easy to acquire. A new land law in 1820 reduced the minimum price of government land from $1.64 to $1.25 per acre and the minimum plot size from 160 to 80 acres. Westerners continued to push for greater relaxation of land laws, and under the Preemption Act of 1830, squatters were allowed to stake out claims ahead of the governmental land surveys and later get 160 acres at the minimum price of $1.25 per acre. Then, after the 1862 Homestead Act, land could be claimed by merely occupying and improving it.
Pioneer families first had to clear the trees and grub out the stumps and underbrush, but then they could grow their own grain, vegetables, and fruit. They also ranged the woods for wild game, fished the nearby streams, and raised livestock. They usually planted their first crop in a natural glade, and then year by year they pushed back the trees until the land was cleared. They discovered corn was very versatile—it could be fed to livestock or distilled into liquor—and it rapidly became the Western farmers’ staple market item. Much of the Westerner’s harvest was sent down the Ohio-Mississippi River system to the booming Cotton Kingdom in the south. The Mississippi River and its tributaries provided a natural highway for western commerce.
Westerners were continually finding ways to bring more land into cultivation. Unfortunately, when they reached the sticky black soil of the treeless prairies, their wooden plows would break, making it nearly impossible to plant. The innovators of the time helped the farmers overcome the challenges they faced. In 1837, John Deere invented a steel plow that could break the soil and was light enough to be pulled by horses.
In 1834, Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical mower-reaper that transformed the scale of American agriculture. Farmers using hand-operated sickles and scythes could only harvest half an acre of wheat a day, while McCormick’s reaper and two men could work twelve acres a day. McCormick’s success attracted other inventors, and soon there were mechanical seeders that replaced the need to sow seed by hand and mechanical threshers to separate the grains of wheat from straw.
With all of the technological advances and continual movement to the west, farming had become a major commercial activity by the 1850s. Large-scale, specialized, cash-crop agriculture dominated the trans-Allegheny west. Soon, the volume of agricultural products became more than the South could consume. However, before the farming community could do more than ship their produce downriver, a transportation revolution would have to occur that would enable them to send foodstuffs east and west.
In the late eighteenth century, primitive methods of travel were still in use in America. Waterborne travel was uncertain and often dangerous, covered-wagon and stagecoach travel over rutted trails was uncomfortable, and all types of travel were very slow. Americans were aware that a transportation network would increase land values, stimulate domestic and foreign trade, and strengthen the American economy.
In 1794, a private company completed the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike, a broad, paved highway that was similar to the good European highways at that time. It was called a “turnpike” because as drivers approached the tollgate they were confronted with a barrier of sharp spikes that was turned aside when they paid their toll. The completion of the Lancaster Turnpike resulted in a turnpike-building boom that lasted nearly 20 years. By 1821, nearly 4,000 miles of turnpikes had been completed, mostly connecting eastern cities. Money needed to build the new turnpikes was coming primarily from state governments and in some cases from individuals.
Constructing decent roads over the Appalachians and in the west was a more difficult task than building those in the east. Although states’ rights proponents regularly blocked spending federal funds for internal improvements, one notable exception was the Cumberland Road. In 1811, the federal government began to construct a turnpike—Cumberland Road, also called the “National Road”—which stretched 591 miles from Cumberland, in western Maryland, to Vandalia, in Illinois. The project was completed in 1852 with a combination of federal and state aid, with different states receiving ownership of segments of the highway.
Americans benefited from the new turnpikes; however, it was not yet economical to ship bulky goods by land across the great distances in America. Businessmen and inventors began concentrating on improving water transportation. In 1807, Robert Fulton sent the first commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont, from New York City up the Hudson River to Albany. Skeptics initially thought the project would never work and nicknamed the boat “Fulton’s Folly.” The Clermont made the run of 150 miles at about five miles an hour, proving that it was an efficient vessel. Thereafter, use of the steamboat spread rapidly, with steamers making the run from New Orleans as far north as Ohio. By 1830, there were more than 200 steamers on the Mississippi.
As early as the 1820s, the successes of the steamboat were clear. Steamboats played a vital role in opening the west and south to further settlement. They stimulated the agricultural economy of the west by providing better access to markets at a lower cost. Farmers quickly bought land near navigable rivers, because they could now easily ship their produce out. Villages at strategic points along the waterways evolved into centers of commerce and urban life. In the 1830s and 1840s, the port of New Orleans grew to lead all others in exports.
Steamboats were also much more comfortable than other forms of land transportation at the time. The General Pike, launched in 1819, set the standard for luxurious steamers with marble columns, thick carpets, ornate mirrors, and plush curtains. Luxury steamers evolved into floating palaces where passengers could dine, drink, dance, and gamble as they traveled to their destinations.
While steamboats were conquering western rivers, canals were under construction in the northeast to further improve the transportation network. In 1817, the New York legislature endorsed Governor DeWitt Clinton’s plan for connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie—the Erie Canal. Completed in 1825, the canal ran 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo. The completion of the canal reduced travel time from New York City to Buffalo from 20 days to six, reduced the cost of moving a ton of freight from $100 to $5, and moved the country a step closer to linking the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic Ocean. The canal also provided a water route from New York to Chicago, via the Great Lakes, and marked the beginning of Chicago’s rapid growth.
The Erie Canal was immediately a financial success, paying for itself within seven years. The success of the “Big Ditch” sparked a canal-building mania that lasted for more than a decade and resulted in around 3,000 miles of waterways by 1840. Ohio built the Ohio and Erie Canal, running from the Ohio River to Cleveland, and Indiana built the Wabash and Erie Canal. Both were feeders that supplied farmers west of the Appalachians with water connections to the east.
The Erie Canal had broad economic implications. The value of land along the route increased, new cities in New York such as Rochester and Syracuse sprang up, industry in New York boomed, and farming in the Old Northwest attracted thousands of newcomers who could now easily ship their goods to market on the east coast.
Both the turnpike and the canal contributed to the emerging national economy, but the most significant development was the railroad. Railroads were faster and cheaper than canals to construct, and they did not freeze over in the winter. Since many states had overextended by borrowing heavily to finance their canals, much of the early railroad growth was developed by private investors.
In 1828, development of the first railroad began in Baltimore, and four years later the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad reached 73 miles. By 1833, the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad extended 136 miles west of Charleston. The Panic of 1837 slowed railroad construction, but by 1840 the United States had over 3,000 miles of tracks, nearly double the mileage in all of Europe. And by 1860, the U.S. saw development of over 30,000 miles of railroad tracks, three-fourths of which were in the industrializing north. There were several southern railway lines, but no one single southern railway system.
Early railroad pioneers faced several challenges: Tracks with steep grades and sharp curves required more powerful locomotives, sparks from wood-burning engines caused fires, brakes were ineffective, and wooden rails topped with iron straps wore out quickly and broke loose, causing dangerous crashes. The intent of most early railroad builders had been to monopolize the trade of certain districts, not to establish connections with competing centers, so few of the tracks were coordinated into railroad systems. Frequently, railroads went so far as to use tracks of different widths to prevent other lines from using their tracks.
Eventually, all of these railway obstacles were overcome. Modifications in locomotive design enabled trains to negotiate sharp curves, engines that could burn hard coal appeared, better brakes were developed, and the iron T-rail combined with crossties increased durability of the tracks. Rail gauges also gradually became standardized, linking the various rail lines together.
Water travel was generally more comfortable than the train, but railway travel became the most popular from of transport because it was economical, reliable, and fast. Trains traveled more than twice as fast as a stagecoach and four times as fast as a steamboat.
The development of so many railroads changed American society. The railroad provided indirect benefits by encouraging settlement and expansion of farming, thus transforming agriculture. Much more of the fertile prairie could be developed because the farmers now had access to national markets via the train. American cities were also influenced by railway development. Eastern seaports, along with other intermediate centers like Cincinnati, benefited from an increase in exportable goods.
Other forms of transportation were also working to bind the United States together and to the rest of the world. In 1845, the first clipper ship, the Rainbow, was launched. Clipper ships were long, narrow, and built for speed. With their taller masts and numerous sails, they could outrun a steamer if there was a good breeze. While in operation, clippers carried highly demanded tea from China to America and transported goods to the prospectors in California. Clippers lasted less than two decades because, although they were fast, they did not have much cargo space.
In 1860 in the far west, the Pony Express was established as a form of transportation for carrying mail. Daring pony riders carried mail from Missouri to California in ten days—an amazing feat for the times. The riders changed horses at stations every 10 miles, and rode summer or winter, day or night, good weather and bad. The Pony Express only lasted 18 months, succumbing to Samuel Morse’s telegraph machine.
The transportation revolution in the United States had been spurred by the desire of the Easterners to tap into all that the west had to offer. Turnpike, canals, steamboats, and railways forged a truly continental economy. Transportation innovations cut the cost and increased the speed of moving goods, helping to create a national market and provide a stimulus for regional specialization. Westerners, with their boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, became important producers of commercial agriculture, supplying both the North and the South with food. Northerners supplied the West and the South with textiles and other manufactured goods. Southerners supplied the North with cotton, the raw material they needed to produce their textiles.
The movement of goods over long distances to the various regions required a supporting infrastructure, which stimulated the growth of market towns where merchants, bankers, warehousemen, retailers, and other middlemen provided the services needed to move the goods from producers to consumers. More extensive markets increased competition, pushing manufacturers to produce better and cheaper products in order to capture a larger share of the market.Transportation innovations encouraged a new sense of connectedness among Americans, encouraging a deeper sense of nationalism. The transportation revolution pushed nineteenth-century America through the process of integrating an entire continent into a single cultural and economic entity.