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Beginnings Of The American Transportation System

( Originally Published 1918 )



Importance of the distribution of products. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of transportation as a factor in industrial development — in fact, for the development of civilization in general. The first operation in economic life is production, to which, in its various forms, we have given considerable attention in the foregoing chapters. But the reason for production is that products may be consumed. And then there is the connecting link between production and consumption, which is distribution ; that is, moving the products to the points where they are wanted. Distribution and its problems enter immediately — unless the case is one of a Robinson Crusoe or a very small and isolated group of people, where things are produced and used in the same locality. Even in such a small group there is likely to be some distribution, for the members will fall naturally into the doing of that for which each has a special bent ; that is, there will be division of labor whereby one member produces only one thing and another another thing. Then the members will trade with one another, and this represents distribution.

Trade between specializing groups. But there are plenty of cases where the whole of a small group or tribe will specialize in the production of a single product, say arrow poison, and another neighboring tribe will make hammocks. The former makes more arrow poison than it can possibly use, and the latter a superfluity of hammocks. But such products could only be stored up in useless amounts unless they could be exchanged and distributed to places where they are wanted. Trade is bound to come in ; it allows specialization, and so accumulation of skill, as well as economy of time, labor, and materials. But this helps along the development of civilization, and the exchange of ideas that follows upon trade relations gives further momentum to that development. No single isolated man or small group of men ever succeeded in working up anything deserving the name of civilization ; it takes numbers and the contact of numbers to do that. Thus distribution of product is essential to the rise of an economic life of any import and to the development of general civilization itself.

Need of transportation. But exchange of products, even on the most local scale, demands that these products be carried from one place to another. The arrow poison and the hammocks will not go of themselves. If there is to be distribution of material products, there must be an immediate development of transportation. Any sort of developed production is useless without distribution of the product by way of transportation. These facts are very simple and obvious, but they are essential — and it is often the simple and obvious that we are likely to lose sight of. This situation might be less simply expressed by saying that even in the very beginnings of the industries, as well as throughout the period of their development, the extent of the market has always been a limiting factor in production.

Development of transportation. When the transportation facilities were slight and freight rates high for even poor and slow deliveries, large districts of this country could not be brought within reach of the outside market at all. In this day of cheap and rapid transfers, by water and by rail, we are likely to take for granted much that has been the product of long and painful growth and to forget that it is our transportation system which has enabled us to assemble upon our dining table, for example, the products of the four quarters of the earth. These products have to be brought here, and then the countries of their origin have to receive another set of products to pay for them. No country's wealth can be utilized to advantage unless there are good transportation facilities. Our great mineral resources would still lie undeveloped and all but unopened, and our agricultural wealth in the Central West would still remain potential rather than actual, were it not for the development of transportation. The presence of such resources has stimulated the development of transportation, which has then permitted their. utilization ; partial utilization has then made desirable, or even necessary, a fuller utilization, and this has called for and into existence improved transportation ; and so the process has gone on rolling up upon itself.

Early American transportation. A general history of the development of transportation would contain many interesting and diverting episodes, as well as much solid and valuable information ; but in this place we are confining ourselves to America, and shall begin with a brief account of the transportation system, if it may be so called, of the Indians who inhabited the country now known as the United States. The natives of Mexico and Peru, being upon a much higher plane of civilization, had of necessity developed methods that were far ahead of those of the northern tribes ; but it was the latter that the colonists met with and that entered as a factor in the early industrial history of our country.

Indian transportation. As the Indians had never advanced very far in industrial development, so they had made but small progress in trade and transportation. Their industrial organization was very well adapted to their conditions of life, and it called for little exchange. Railways and canals would have been as useless to them as their trails and water vehicles would be inadequate to handle the great volume of traffic which to-day moves back and forth across the continent. Naturally the first essential to transportation is a way or road, and the first and most obvious road is a waterway ; it is already cleared, it is smooth, and on it friction, which is the barrier that stands in the way of the movement of bodies, is reduced to a minimum. And the vehicle for such a road is a boat of some sort. Most of what deserves the name of transportation among the Indians was water transportation.

Canoe journeys. The waterways were abundant and convenient for them ; lakes and rivers existed everywhere. Long journeys could be made with only an occasional portage. Canoe navigation was possible from the north to the south of the country by way of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and a trip could be made across from east to west by the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, the upper Missouri, the Columbia, and their tributaries. Not that the Indians often, or ever, made such voyages, but the intervening space was pretty thoroughly cut up by streams and other bodies of water navigable to boats of little draft, like the canoe.

Types of canoe. Now the canoe, as someone has said, "was to the Indian what the camel or horse was to the Arab." The style of this craft differed according to the environment : in the northern regions the rapids and portages made it desirable to have a light craft, and the bark of the birch was present to afford the suitable material ; in the region of the Gulf and Caribbean, on the contrary, the canoe was made from a single tree trunk, hollowed out by fire and the stone ax, or adz — the so-called "dugout." Larger and slower boats were made for the women and children and the baggage, and in these was transported what freight there was. It is now known that the Indians conveyed articles of exchange, such as stone and pipe-clay, across consider-able stretches of country, but it must be realized that such commodities were passed on from hand to hand and that there were no professional peddlers of wares who covered a long route. Whatever trade there was, was within a rather short radius.

The trails. The Indian used also land routes, or trails. These were laid out with reference to such matters as the location of enemies, of hunting grounds, and, later on, of the trading posts and forts of the white man. The historical importance of these trails consists in the fact that they became the roads of the early settlers and later developed into the commercial highways of a succeeding age. They were little more than paths ; but they were of much importance to early explorers, missionaries, and traders, for they were laid out, doubtless without conscious calculation, on the lines of least resistance. For example, the trails which led from the Atlantic seaboard across the mountains went through the valley of the Mohawk, to the north, and through the lower passes, farther south.

Railways follow the trails. The routes of all the main Indian trails are to-day occupied by important railway lines : the New York Central, the Lake Shore, the Pennsylvania, the Toledo and Ohio, the Hocking Valley, the Norfolk and Western, the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton, and other railroad lines followed these trails because they were the lines of least resistance and therefore the lines of business advantage. All of these trails had special names which were pretty well known some decades ago but which would now convey no meaning to any-one not a local resident of the district. But it is interesting and significant to realize that when the white man came he was led to locate his dirt roads and railroads along the Indian trails because they were the natural highways of the country.

Indian land transportation. The Indians did little or nothing to improve the beds of their trails ; few or no bridges were built by them, for the need of these came with the introduction of wheeled vehicles, which were unknown to the natives. The Indians, indeed, had few contrivances to assist land transportation, and no strong beasts of burden or draft at all-unless the women might be regarded as such. The dog was used to some extent. There were sledges of a crude order, but the burdens that were borne were usually for the back and were partially supported and steadied by a burden strap worn over the forehead. The horse was a great boon to the Indian, when it had been introduced from the Old World, and, in imitation of the whites, he employed it as a pack animal. The only vehicle invented for the horse to drag was the so-called " travois " ; tent poles were lashed on either side of the horse and trailed on the ground behind, the ends bumping and scratching over the country, and upon these was strapped the baggage, often with the women and children on top of the whole. Dogs also were thus loaded ; the sign for "dog" in the Indian sign language was two fingers drawn across a surface.

Colonial transportation. The early settlements clung closely, to the water, being established along the seacoast, on islands, or on navigable rivers — the Puritans on Massachusetts Bay, the Dutch on Manhattan Island and along the Hudson, the " Colonies on Chesapeake Bay," and so on. Natural watercourses — for the colonists as for the Indians, and for the same reasons — formed the ways of transportation. And as the interior was penetrated, lines of least resistance lay up the streams — for example, the Delaware and the Potomac. If a settlement was made away from these natural means of communication it remained isolated and had to be self-sufficient in high degree. However, this was the character of the frontier settlement in any case, and there came to be many small groups of population, access to which was by foot along the Indian trails. To such places no bulky goods could well be carried, and the cost of conveyance, even of small articles over much distance, was prohibitive. After a while, however, when necessity demanded it and when some capital had been accumulated, the individual landowners, at first, and then the local and general government of the colony in question undertook to cope with the problem of creating a better system of transportation. Here they encountered a set of physiographical conditions which were very significant to them and which cannot be disregarded even at the present day.

Barriers to communication. The earliest settlements had been made, of course, on the seaboard, and they were necessarily more or less isolated from one another because of the practical absence of means of communication, especially by land. The sea was the only highway of the time, and in the absence of coast surveys and adequate lighthouses this was not available on all occasions. And when these earlier settlements began to expand they were obliged to spread along the coast rather than back into the interior. This was on account of the Appalachian mountain wall in the rear, which formed a barrier very difficult to pass. A few trails led into the back country, and there were passes through the mountains, but even after small settlements had been established west of the Alleghenies, communication with the coast was infrequent and irregular.

Transportation and the settlement of the West. The further development of the settlements west of the mountains was really conditioned on the development of transportation, for there could be no very great advance unless the frontier kept in touch with the settlements of the East, and especially with their markets. But from 1750 to 1800 their isolation was scarcely broken, and they lived for the most part unto themselves, being but little regarded by the more populous communities of the coast. The early history of railroad transportation consists largely of accounts of efforts, originating now in the East and now in the West, to surmount the mountain barrier and to establish regular means of communication and transportation between the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and the Atlantic seaboard.

Colonial roads. The early settlements were soon obliged to give some attention to local roads. Where necessity demanded, individual landowners would work by themselves or would cooper-ate in connecting up adjoining properties. Then there were pro-visions made by the colonial governments for road-making, but it may be said, in general, that these resulted in but few roads. And settlements had been established for a long time before there was enough community of interest to prompt adjoining colonies to cooperate in building intercolonial roads ; there had first to be formed a real necessity for such. There was, besides, an insufficiency of capital to warrant the undertaking of extensive road-building ; and racial and religious differences, as well as differences in the forms of colonial governments, tended to keep people's interests divergent and so to retard the movement to-ward establishment of communications. Trade is a solvent of this sort of mutual indifference, if not hostility ; but trade was not yet strong enough to discharge its traditional function along these lines.

Insufficiency of the roads. As late as the time of the Revolution there was not a good road of any considerable length in any part of the country, nor were there permanent bridges over the large streams. Over most of the American territory no improvement whatever had been made except the addition of the horse. But a marked improvement in available water craft was secured by the use of ships, and a few sections had fair roads. The best substitute for permanent bridges, at points of greatest importance, such as Philadelphia, were floating bridges sustained by boats. Land travel, as we have seen, was almost universally on horseback. The last century was well advanced before traveling in carriages became at all common, ladies as well as gentlemen making all their ordinary journeys on horseback or in heavy farm wagons. Some leading men in the colonies saw the need of roads, but they lacked the influence to make their views heeded — willingness to pay taxes for a public utility is a characteristic of older and more experienced societies. The factors which held the movement back are said to have been the general ignorance of the period as to the best methods of road construction, the indifference or hostility of many shortsighted landowners, who would not give up any of their land for roads, and the scarcity of labor and capital actually available for road construction.

Post roads. The postal service must not be overlooked as an influence on road-building. Intercolonial post roads, which were in reality nothing but paths, began to be opened in the latter part of the seventeenth century, the mails, of course, being carried on horseback. Previous to the opening of these routes mail was sent from one community to another by chance travelers. Postal communication was open between New York and Boston about 1693, the rider who conveyed the mails making the trip in three weeks. A postmaster-general for the colonies was appointed in 1692, but nothing much came of the creation of this office because of " the dispersed condition of the inhabit-ants." By 1695 eight trips a year were made with the mails between the Potomac and Philadelphia. Soon after the close of the Revolutionary War there were to be found in the United States only seventy-five post offices, and the post roads aggregated less than two thousand miles. Between New York and Boston mails were being conveyed in summer three times a week and in winter twice, the trip requiring, on the average, about five days. Two days were necessary to make the distance, one way, between New York and Philadelphia, and five mails a week were forwarded. In some parts of the country the post roads were still only paths, some, in fact, being no more than improved Indian trails; in spite of efforts to improve conditions on the postal routes the roads were still in deplorable condition toward the close of the eighteenth century.

Ferries and bridges. With the real opening up of roads it was necessary that ferries be established where the streams could not be forded ; and bridges succeeded ferries when necessity pressed hard enough. Private parties often secured a grant from the colony and ran ferries, and later built and operated bridges ; or a town might be owner and operator. As early as 1636 authority was granted for a ferry at Beverly, Massachusetts, which was operated by the town of Salem ; not until 1787 was there a bridge at this point. Bridges were small and often shaky affairs and spanned only the

smaller streams ; not until after the Revolution was bridge-building taken up on a more ambitious scale and solid wood and stone structures erected.

Sea traffic. The sea traffic of colonial times was a limited commerce between the colonies and was carried on in sloops, schooners, and other small vessels ; the vessels for transatlantic trade were for a time almost exclusively foreign-built. The largest ships in early colonial times seldom exceeded 100 tons or so. In 1769 the colonies built and launched 389 vessels, 113 square-rigged, and 276 sloops and schooners, aggregating 20,000 tons burden. Of these Massachusetts built nearly half, with New Hampshire and Rhode Island next, while New York had only 5 square-rigged ships and 14 sloops and schooners, aggregating in all 955 tons. Pennsylvania owned 1344 tons, Virginia 1249, North and South Carolina 1396, Connecticut 1542, while Georgia had 1 sloop and 1 schooner whose combined measure was only 50 tons.

Inland water transportation. For the inland waters there were smaller craft, such as skiffs, rafts, and arks. The flatboat came into use on the Ohio and Mississippi. During the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth nearly all the adventurous men of the West near the Ohio River took part in flatboat movements. Many got their start in life by building a flatboat, loading it with produce, and making a trip to New Orleans. The historic case of this sort of enterprise is that of the youthful Abraham Lincoln, an account of which is to be found in any of the Lincoln standard biographies. The flatboats and some of the other river craft could be operated only down-stream, so that it was a common practice, as the Lincoln story shows, to build these boats in rather flimsy fashion — little better than rafts —and sell them at their destination for what the lumber was worth, the owner and crew returning home on foot or in some roundabout way. The incidents of raft life on the Mississippi are touched upon in graphic style by Mark Twain, in his " Tom Sawyer " and " Huckleberry Finn." For rafting went on, as a supplementary form of transportation, long after the introduction of the steamboat.

The coming of the steamboat. It remained for the first quarter of the last century to see the steamboat in practical operation upon our rivers, lakes, and tidewaters ; its introduction revolutionized the system of water transportation, as the steam locomotive did the land transportation. Old methods persisted in out-of-the-way places, but the application of steam ends the first period of the development of our transportation and therefore concludes this chapter.

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