america's first great industrial boom -- 3/03/17

Today's selection -- from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar. By 1810, America had constructed only 100 miles of inland canals. Thirty years later, "canal mania" had catapulted that total to 3,300 miles, which powered America's first great industrial boom. The overcapacity in canals that resulted also led to the Panic of 1837 and America's so-called "First Great Depression":

"It was not really until the advent of the steamship [in the 1700s] that the notion of changing the features of the landscape to suit the mode of trans­portation, rather than the other way around, was born. The resulting canal boom came late to America. Whereas in Europe the heyday of canal build­ing was already well under way by the turn of the century, following the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in northwestern England in 1761, there were still fewer than 100 miles of canal in the United States a half century later, and only two of these man-made waterways were more than a couple of miles long. There was no shortage of ambitious projects being put for­ward by entrepreneurs, but few canals were actually built.

"As with the turn­pikes, the nascent road network, it was the difficulty of finding capital, together with the failure of early ventures, that underlay this lack of inter­est. America's belated canal mania was triggered by the brave decision to build the Erie Canal, an astonishingly ambitious project, which stretched 363 miles across New York State between the lower Hudson River at Al­bany and Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie. First proposed in 1807, it was built remarkably quickly between 1817 and 1825, becoming, by far, the longest man-made waterway in the world. Despite the difficulties of operation -- there was only one towpath, and every time two boats met, one had to drop its towline into the water to allow the other to pass -- its eco­nomic impact was immediate. Even before the canal's completion, traffic crowded onto the finished sections, and there was soon talk of overcrowd­ing and expansion.

"The wider economic impact of the canals demonstrated the same pattern that would later be seen in the railroad boom. Transportation costs to the interior were reduced dramatically, by as much as 95 percent according to some assessments, and trade between the East Coast and the Midwest expanded dramatically. The Erie Canal stimulated early westward migra­tion and enabled farm produce from the interior to be transported east, beginning the process of uniting America. From Maine to Virginia, the success of the Erie set off a nationwide enthusiasm for canal building with the expectation that similar ambitious projects would be equally profitable. Projects that had been put forward before the construction of the Erie were quickly dusted off and now found ready investors, though for the most part this was through bonds sold and guaranteed by state governments. Even when canals were built privately, they often relied on some form of finan­cial support from the states. These canals were mostly designed to improve connections between the Atlantic ports and inland communities and wa­terways, and, in the West, to connect the Ohio-Mississippi river system with the Great Lakes. Despite the fact that many of the projects did not, ul­timately, see the light of day, there were more than 3,300 miles of canal in the United States by 1840.

"The canals, however, struggled. The biggest failure of the period was the 365-mile Pennsylvania Main Line between Philadelphia, Pennsyl­vania, and Columbus, Ohio, an attempt to marry railroad and canal tech­nology. It consisted of canals for most of its length except on the steep gradients through the mountains, where there were inclined planes on which a cable system hauled canal boats over the brow and then eased them down on the other side. The inclined-plane railroad sections proved to be a bottleneck, as they had less capacity than the rest of the system, and the scheme never became a true competitor to the far more successful Erie, not least because it had 174 locks, more than twice the number of its rival. Indeed, most of the canal projects never made money for their in­vestors, and the brief canal boom came to an end by the late 1830s because of two financial crises and a general lack of confidence in the idea. The failure of the canals stemmed from several internal factors: they were ex­pensive to build, had severe capacity limitations (which meant that even at times of maximum usage, many remained unprofitable), and were vulner­able to severe weather conditions (most crucially, they had to close in win­ter when they froze over and were also susceptible to floods -- which made towpaths unusable -- and droughts). On top of all this, the canal compa­nies were bedeviled by management failures, reflected in poor mainte­nance of the water in the canals and the encroachment of vegetation.

"However, they might have survived all these difficulties had it not been for the arrival of the railroads, which proved to be their undoing."



Christian Wolmar


The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America




Copyright 2012 by Christian Wolmar


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