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Natural Waterways And The Merchant Marine

( Originally Published 1918 )

Importance of the minor waterways. If anyone is anxious to see the development of American industry as it really has been, he must not shut his eyes to the importance of even the smallest type of our natural waterways. For the eastern half of our country, as it developed, there was on the one side the sea and on the other the Mississippi and its great tributaries - the importance of these cannot be overlooked by anyone. But the whole country between was a network of protected tidewater bays, inlets, and small streams on the east, and, farther west, of innumerable small tributaries to the great river system. But the small streams and the upper courses of the larger ones, far above the point of steamboat navigation, were of great service in floating products of various sorts down to the navigable waters. Small boats penetrated long distances upstream and tapped many small springs of trade which without them could not have contributed to the great currents of commerce.

The traffic of the natural waterways. The canals did not diminish the importance of our natural waterways, large or small ; on the contrary, they increased it. They were generally laid out for the purpose of connecting ways already provided by nature, and they increased the traffic on such ways up to the time when the railroad succeeded in rendering other forms of internal transportation, for a time at least, obsolescent. There are not many statistics to be had covering the traffic upon natural waterways, least of all upon the smaller ones ; the government did not assume control of the waterways as it did of the railways, and the water carriers were not obliged to submit to the authorities such statistical reports as those required of the railroads. Consequently, even for the period when the inland waterways did the bulk of the carrying business, there are no very complete returns of an exact nature. General considerations, which are, however, no less true for being general, are about all that we can cite for the earlier period.

The two great systems. The two great natural systems were the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, the latter taken in connection with the Great Lakes. For over two centuries many events had conspired to increase the significance of these two water routes. They had been of great utility to the American Indians, and had then been traversed by explorers, missionaries, fur traders, soldiers, and sailors of various nations — of France, Spain, Great Britain, the Thirteen Colonies, and the United States. Then came the rapid settlement of the Western states, from Canada to the Gulf ; and presently there was an enormous supply of products and demand for merchandise from distant parts, which called for channels through which extended freight transportation might take place. But there were really only these two alternative routes — in fact, most regions had no choice at all, for it was clearly indicated to them which of the two routes represented the easier and cheaper means of communication with the outside world.

Early river traffic. There was relatively little traffic on the interior waterways, especially on the Mississippi, before the day of the steamboat. The movement between the Ohio River settlements and New Orleans was abruptly interfered with in 1785, when Spain enforced commercial restrictions on the lower Mississippi ; and it was well along in the last century, after the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, before the obstruction and annoyance to traders were sufficiently removed to allow of steady traffic. We have already spoken of the flatboat trips down the Mississippi. It is hard to realize the difficulties of the early river navigators, who, besides contending with the snags and shifting shoals of the Mississippi, had to maintain a constant watch against hostile savages. The settlements down river were small and the people had no great purchasing power ; there was not much use stopping north of the delta. But two events came about soon after the War of 1812, which had a great influence on the development of the West, and so of river navigation. These were, first, the introduction of the steamboat upon West-ern waters and, second, the spread of cotton culture into the Southwest.

Factors favoring river navigation. The steamboat was introduced upon the Western interior waters in 1811, and by 1817 was becoming common upon the Mississippi and its tributaries ; and now, for the first time, the Northwest was put into easy communication with the East, with the result of an immediate increase of trade. It was the introduction of cotton-raising in the South-west that gave to the Northwestern states their first important market. These two events happened at about the same time, in the second decade of the century ; and a trade between the farmers of the Northwest and the cotton planters of the Southwest, unimportant before 1815, soon grew to large proportions.

The river steamboat. With the steamboat it was possible to make trips up the river as well as down ; but it was some time before the steamer was able to eliminate the cruder crafts — rafts and flatboats — from the river. A good deal of experimenting had to be done before a type of boat adapted to river traffic was evolved ; it proved to be a broad, shallow craft, able to carry a thousand tons, though drawing but four feet of water. By 1826 nearly 60 per cent of all the freight brought down the river to New Orleans came by steamer, and from this time the steamboat traffic continued to increase until the outbreak of the Civil War. By it freight rates were lowered, as well as trade increased, and it continued to be important until the extension of the railways marked its downfall ; at first the railways assisted it, by serving as feeders to water lines, but this was for a brief period only. By 1860 the through Chicago-New York route was drawing traffic eastward at the expense of New Orleans.

Competition of the railroads. Until the middle of the century Mississippi Valley freight was moved chiefly by water. The rail-way lines were short and were interested for the most part in the passenger traffic ; in so far as they carried freight at all they carried it to the nearest water line. But shortly after 1850 the railroads began their destructive competition with the water routes, and by 1860 they were endangering the river traffic. Then came the Civil War, which closed the Southern ports, and traffic toward the South ceased. But the railways continued to extend during the strife and to gain greater and greater advantages in the competition. Then, after the war, the lines running east and west were much improved, with the result of drawing the river commerce across the mountains to the East. In 1869 it was said that grain could be moved by rail from St. Louis to the North Atlantic seaboard much more cheaply than from St. Louis to New Orleans by steamboat. By 1873 the railways were carrying to market over four fifths of the grain and provisions of the West, and by 1874 they had paralleled the route from north to south by a line running along the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans.

Present-day river traffic. At the present time the most important features of the river traffic below St. Louis are two : local trade between villages scattered along the river, and the transfer of cotton along the lower Mississippi. There is, however, consider-able traffic down the Ohio. The water traffic of the Mississippi, like that of the Erie Canal before it was modernized, was not properly organized and supplied with mechanical appliances for loading and unloading adequate to enable it to compete with the railways. The vessels were owned largely by private individuals who showed little desire to cooperate. The coal-carrying business on the Ohio has been well managed, but it is an exception.

The Great Lakes system. The Great Lakes constitute the grandest inland waterway of the country and of the world. They are connected with the Atlantic by a channel available for vessels of fourteen feet draft at its shallowest point, namely, the short artificial stretch known as the Welland Canal, between Lakes Erie and Ontario ; this canal is now being deepened. The largest ocean-going vessels can come up to Quebec and Montreal, although originally the St. Lawrence was shallow at several points between these cities, so that during a large part of the season of navigation vessels drawing over ten or twelve feet could not get to the latter city. Of course the greatest handicap of the whole system is that it is usually ice-bound from the end of November to the end of April.

Improvement of the Lake system. The Canadian government has spent large sums of money in improving the St. Lawrence and in building the Welland and other canals. In 1851 they commenced to deepen the river channel and by 1882 had a depth of twenty-five feet, which has now been increased to upwards of thirty. The American government also has spent a great deal, especially on the "Soo" canal, between Lakes Superior and Huron. This improved system of waterways is of inestimable benefit to the industries of both countries ; the total navigable length of the Great Lakes is one thousand four hundred and ten miles, and they are the bearers of the greatest bulk of shipping upon any body of inland water in the world.

Lake traffic. Our merchant fleet on the Great Lakes is a large one. About six sevenths of this is steam-driven. The average size of the steamers is small, but recent additions to the fleet are as large as many ocean liners. Of the Lake traffic 90 per cent is confined to four articles : iron ore, grain (including flour), lumber, and coal —the first of these forming about half of the total annual tonnage. And 90 per cent of the ore has, for its destination, ports on Lake Erie, the only important receiving point not on that lake being Chicago. Wheat is received mainly at Buffalo, lumber at Chicago, while anthracite generally starts from Buffalo, and soft coal from several Erie ports.

Organization of the service. The organization of the transportation service on the Great Lakes has been so perfected that the average freight charge per ton mile is slightly less than one tenth that of the average railroad rate for the whole country. There is much saving in shipping by water. Freight shipments on the Lakes are ordinarily over long distances, and nearly all the steam-boat lines operate on two or more lakes. The eastbound tonnage far exceeds the westbound. Most traffic of the Great Lakes is raw material carried in great bulk. Time is a factor of small importance in the transportation of such material, and so it can be handled, going by water, at a rate which renders railroad competition impossible.

Extent of our inland waterways. Our wealth in inland water-ways is not exhausted with the consideration of the Mississippi and Great Lakes systems. The extent of our inland waterways is unmatched in any other country, and they are so distributed as to be readily available for commerce. The Mississippi system alone furnishes i6,000 miles of waterway. In all there are 25,000 miles of river that can be navigated, and as much more that can be made navigable. Then there is a series of sounds and bays along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf which can be connected by canals to form a continuous inner route for coastwise traffic of about 2500 miles in length. Adding in the Great Lakes route, the present and planned waterways of the country would reach the figure of 55,000 miles, of which only about half is now used for navigation. There are many plans being considered for improving the waterways to supplement the railways as commerce-carriers. The movement toward improvements has taken form in a number of waterways associations, some with local aims and others with national programs. The ideal system of internal transportation is where the waterways and railways complement and cooperate with one another. This is more common in Europe than it is here.


The salt-water fleet. The traffic of the Great Lakes is carried on by a section of our merchant marine, but it is not of the fresh-water fleet that we wish now to give an account ; in what follows the merchant marine means the ships that perform their trading function on salt water.

The colonists were seafarers. A large proportion of the settlers in the earliest colonies were familiar with the sea, and the conditions of life here were such as not by any means to wean them away from it. It is not strange that the sea and shipping so thoroughly monopolized the attention of the settlers, and that the coast was dotted with shipyards before the interior had been penetrated to any great extent. The building of vessels is among the oldest colonial industries. They were very small at first ; in 1641 a ship of three hundred tons was built at Salem, which was pronounced " prodigious," — in fact, as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century a three-hundred-ton vessel was regarded as a large one. New England, New Amsterdam, and other colonies were active in building vessels. Types of boats improved as time went on, and the settlers extended their trade to the West Indies, finding there a ready market for colonial staples — dried fish, lumber, and rum—and a return cargo of sugar and molasses. This trade was very dangerous, for the coasts were neither charted nor lighted, and pirates infested the West Indies.

Colonial shipbuilding. There was constant encouragement lent to the shipbuilding industry ; ship carpenters were urged to come to the country, and as early as 1639 there was for them, in New England, exemption from compulsory military service. The early merchant vessels had no navy to protect them, but went out pre-pared to protect themselves. A merchant seaman of that time not only had to know all there was to be known about handling a ship but he must also be an expert in the use of cannon, musket, cutlass, and other weapons of the time. In pursuance of their trade these shipbuilders and seamen, early in the eighteenth century, arrived at the schooner design. The name is said to have come from the verb "to scoon," meaning to skip over the water in the manner of a flat stone, and was applied under the following circumstances : when the first schooner, built at Gloucester, was being launched, an enthusiastic spectator is said to have exclaimed, in admiration, " See how she scoons ! " This type of boat speedily proved itself well adapted to the demands of the time ; it was superior to the square-rigger with two or three masts and required fewer hands to operate it. At the close of the colonial period, in 1769, this model was making its way at the expense of the older ones; for in the year mentioned there were constructed in the colonies 113 square-rigged vessels as against 276 sloops and schooners. The total tonnage was 20,000 tons, as we have elsewhere mentioned, showing an average of 50 tons per vessel.

Expansion of the merchant marine. On December 31, 1789, our merchant fleet amounted to some 200,000 tons, of which 124,000 were registered for the foreign trade ; a little over 68,000 tons were enrolled for the coasting trade, and the rest were engaged in fisheries. The wars in Europe during the last years of the eighteenth century and up to 1815 gave the neutral American merchants their opportunity; they became the principal carriers between the fighting nations and their colonies. " While the great commercial nations were fighting one another for the carrying trade of the world, America ran away with the bone over which they were quarreling." There was a big expansion of American commerce and shipping after 1789, the tonnage of the foreign trade fleet rising from 124,000 in that year to 744,000 in 1805 — an increase which, measured in percentage, is probably unparalleled for such a length of time. Then came the hindrances to trade connected with the Embargo and other events incident to a troubled period in our international relations, and the figure for our tonnage had increased by 1815 only to 854,000.

The American ship. At this time the commercial relations with Europe were regular enough to warrant schedules of sailing ; the first packet line, so called because it carried the mail packets, was started in 1815. This and other such lines were operated with success and gave this country a position in the ocean carrying trade that was altogether enviable. The American clipper ships were famous in their day (the name coming from the sharp lines and long overhanging bow characteristic of them) and represented an effort on the part of American builders to bring out a fast-sailing ship to compete with the British steamers. The first is said to have been built in Baltimore in 1845, about five years after the steamer had been introduced, and when it was threatening to rob the American sailing vessels of both passenger and freight business.

The golden age of American shipping. The golden era of the American sailing vessel was the decade preceding 1860. During that time the building and operating of such vessels was attended with great gain. The oversea commerce was carried mainly by sail, and there was a large passenger and freight traffic between our Eastern and Western seaports which called for numbers of sailing vessels. Even after the California gold fever began to abate, there was still the demand created by the Crimean War, for both France and the United Kingdom purchased large numbers of American ships for use as transports. In 1855 over 980,000 gross tons were launched in American yards, this representing the highest mark of ship construction for any year of the nineteenth century.

Decline of the merchant marine. The decline in tonnage connected with foreign trade has been rather marked since the Civil War ; in 1861 the fleet thus engaged amounted to almost 2,500,000 tons, a figure never attained before. Among the causes for decline are mentioned withdrawal of subsidies, burdens on the yards from internal-revenue taxation and high tariffs, and the extraordinary development of industry, coupled with the opening up of the West, which drew attention away. The complete and satisfactory explanation of this decline is a hard matter. The Great War caused a marked revival in shipbuilding, entirely aside from the war policy of the government which called for many vessels ; it was the prospect of extraordinary profit that gave the first stimulus. The figure for the tonnage of registered ships was, in 1912, something over 900,000 ; by 1913 it exceeded 1,000,000; and in 1918 reached 3,599,000, of which only 585,000 tons were under sail. It was after the Civil War that the steamer began to supersede the sailing ship in our merchant marine ; but it has not altogether driven out the older type and probably will not. In fact, in the case of freight that can take its time, a return to wind power may easily occur, especially if it remains needful to economize on coal.

The steel ship. Another change that the modern age has seen has been that from wooden ships to steel ships. Until 1840 or later wood was the universal construction material ; then about the middle of the century Great Britain began to use iron extensively, building but few wooden vessels after 1850. At this period we had cheap wood and expensive iron, and so stuck to the old material until about 1870, while by 1880 the British were ready to advance yet farther, from iron to steel. The result of our backwardness has been that we became dependent upon the rest of the world, and especially upon Great Britain, for the carrying of our commerce. During the last half century there were such tempting opportunities for capital and labor in land-development that they were less attracted to the water.

Terminals. Because of the tremendous expense involved in providing terminals for much larger craft, it seems that the size of vessels, especially ocean liners, has reached, or is approaching, a limit. Docks and piers are already strained in their capacities for taking care of our biggest ships, and until there shall be some epoch-making improvements in terminals the increase in size of vessels must necessarily proceed at a slow pace.

The coastwise fleet. We shall conclude with brief allusion to our coastwise traffic. Only American vessels may engage in this, a regulation which sets it under conditions quite different from those of foreign commerce. Thus the growth of the coastwise fleet has been automatic ; unless trade was to be hampered, the coastwise fleet had to keep pace with the economic expansion of the country. At present our enrolled vessels, which include not only those engaged in coastwise trade but also those upon inland waterways (which must likewise meet the needs of our expanding economic life), total well over 6,000,000 tons — this figure not including ships of less than 20 tons.

Shipping as an investment. It is plain enough that the destiny of our merchant marine is closely linked up with the question as to where we can put our money to best advantage. If profitable opportunities come in shipping, and capital is allowed to make use of them without unreasonable restriction, its flow will set in automatically toward the marine just as it automatically withdrew from it when conditions became unfavorable as compared with those existing in other enterprises. We shall doubtless find ourselves from now on in possession of a large and growing merchant marine.

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