Three short videos provide an overview of American transportation history. Click on the icons to see the videos, or just read the scripts.
Between 1800 and 1900, the way Americans moved around their world changed drastically.
In 1800, the only practical way to travel and trade across long distances was along the nations natural waterways. As a result, settlement clung to the nations coasts and rivers. A few roads connected major cities, but travel on them was difficult and time consuming.
One hundred years later, railroads sped along thousands of miles of track. Large ships moved passengers and freight across the oceans and smaller boats plied the nations rivers, lakes and canals. Bicycles, carriages and wagons rolled over thousands of miles of roads. Seventy-five million people lived coast to coast, many in towns and cities that had sprouted up along the new routes.
One of the fastest growing of these young cities was Chicago. In 1800 the state of Illinois didnt exist; by 1900, its largest city was an economic powerhouse with over 1.6 million residents. Located at the intersection of river, lake and railroad routes, Chicagos industrial, manufacturing and commercial life depended on the boats and trains traveling into and out of the city. Lake steamers carried coal and iron ore to Chicagos steel mills. Railroads brought livestock to the citys stockyards and shipped sides of beef, pork, and lamb to the rest of the country.
Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Wardboth Chicago firms sold everything including the kitchen sink and guaranteed delivery to the nations doorstep, or at least to the nearest railroad station.
The dawning of the 20th century. America was in the midst of great change. Although most of the population lived in rural areas, people were moving to cities in record numbers. Electric trolley lines meant people were less dependent on horse and foot to get around. They could travel farther faster and, because it was relatively cheap, they did. For 5 cents, commuters could hop on a streetcar in downtown New Haven or Memphis and ride to their homes in the new streetcar suburbs…far from the crowds and chaos of the cities.
In the early part of the century, a new vehicle entered the fray. At first cars were fragile luxury items, but thanks to mass production, they quickly became affordable. In 1900, Americans owned 8 thousand cars, in 1920, 8 million. Cities and suburbs both spread out. For those with cars work and shopping were now just a short drive away.
Outside of American cities, however, travel by road was still difficult. It was rails and waterways that made it possible to move people and goods across long distances. Railroads were one of the nations largest businesses. They employed nearly 10 percent of all industrial workers. During World War II, business boomed. Trains carried over 90 percent of wartime passengers and nearly all of the nations long distance freight. After the war, however, as Americans slid behind the wheel in record numbers, railroads lost riders and concentrated on hauling freight.
The nations rivers, lakes, and the oceans remained a critical part of the U.S. transportation story. Millions of immigrants came to this country by ocean liner from Europe or Asia. Others crossed the oceans for business and pleasure.
The 1950s. For many, a set of wheels seemed to guarantee the American dream–the house in the suburbs, the family outings, the freedom to come and go as you please. Nearly 50 million cars were on the roads.
In the year 2000, there were more than 220 millionmore than one car for every person over the age of 18. More people shopped and worked miles from homeoften in sprawling edge cities or far-flung suburbs. Although cars polluted the atmosphere and commuting times rose, for most Americans a car was no longer a luxury…it was a necessity they would be loathe to live without.
A great increase in air travel also changed how we lived. Beginning in the 1960s, airports expanded to serve the millions of new passengers and the flourishing air cargo business. By 2000, 2 million passengers plus millions of packages and high priority cargo took off from Americas airports every day.
Goods of all kinds continued to be moved by rail, truck and ship, as well. But beginning in the 1960s a new innovation–containers–radically changed the way freight traveled the country and the globe. Shippers began to pack goods of all kinds in standardized steel boxes that could be easily and cheaply moved from ship to rail to truck and back again. It meant that shoes, shirts, or stereos made anywhere in the world could be shipped anywhere else at a low cost, changing not just what people bought, but the work they did and the lives they lead.