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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Connecting the Growing Nation A Century of Progress?
1: Transportation in America before 1876

Connecting the Growing Nation

In 1800, the United States was made up of 16 states, all east of the Appalachians, and most people lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic. Oceans and rivers were the nations’ highways, providing the only viable way to travel long distances. During the 19th century, as the United States expanded across the continent, the transportation landscape changed. Roads, steamboats, canals, and railroads helped link different regions together and spread settlement away from the coast.

Roads

In the early 19th century, most roads were dreadful. They served local needs, allowing farmers to get produce to market. Americans who did travel long distances overland to settle the West rode on wagon trails, like the Oregon Trail, rather than well-defined roads. Still, a few major roads served as important transportation links. The National Road, initially funded by the federal government, stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Columbus, Ohio, by 1833.

Cast-iron milepost from the National Road, 1840s
Cast-iron milepost from the National Road, 1840s
The Fairview Inn near Baltimore, a stopping place on the National Road, 1827
The Fairview Inn near Baltimore, a stopping place on the National Road, 1827
Hudson River steamboat Rochester
Hudson River steamboat Rochester

Steamboats

The first commercially successful steamboat was tested on the Hudson River in 1807. Steamboats were soon introduced on most navigable rivers. They allowed commerce and travel both upstream and down, and encouraged trade by lowering costs and saving time. By 1830, steamboats dominated American river transportation.

Canals

The Erie Canal, built with state funding, was completed in 1825. Running from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, it was a major economic artery through New York. Its economic success sparked a wave of canal building. By 1840, the United States had 3,326 miles of canals.

“Erie Canal at Buffalo” plate about 1830
“Erie Canal at Buffalo” plate about 1830
“Entrance of the Erie Canal into the Hudson at Albany” plate, 1830s
“Entrance of the Erie Canal into the Hudson at Albany” plate, 1830s
 “The Grand Erie Canal” plate, 1830s
“The Grand Erie Canal” plate, 1830s
Telescopic surveyor’s spirit level, about 1785, owned by George Gilpin, chief surveyor of the Potowmack Canal Navigation Company
Telescopic surveyor’s spirit level, about 1785, owned by George Gilpin, chief surveyor of the Potowmack Canal Navigation Company

Railroads

Steam railroads began to appear in the United States around 1830, and dominated the continental transportation system by the 1850s. By 1860 there were roughly 31,000 miles of track in the country, concentrated in the Northeast but also in the South and Midwest.

Railroad lantern, 1850s
Railroad lantern, 1850s
Railroad telegraph key from the Central Pacific Railroad, about 1870
Railroad telegraph key from the Central Pacific Railroad, about 1870
Excursion train on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1858
Excursion train on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1858
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