Innovation in Transportation
How did innovation in transportation push Americans westward?
Improvements in the 19th century greatly speeded westward expansion across the continent, both directly and indirectly. Not only did improvements in transportation help settlers and migrants, but also facilitated the marketing of crops and livestock and communications with families and contacts back East.
Rivers and lakes were the continent’s first highways. European trappers first entered the Midwest through the Great Lakes and rivers. The Mississippi River had been the backbone of the region for centuries as American Indians created trade routes along it and its tributaries. Early settlers, including Abraham Lincoln, floated supplies down the river on rafts. But returning upstream was a challenge when crafts were powered by hand.
Robert Fulton was not the first to apply steam power to a sailing vessel but he was the first to make establish a successful commercial steam boat. In 1807, Fulton launched "The Clermont" in New York City up the Hudson River to Albany. Steamboats on the Mississippi River transformed river traffic and greatly hastened American settlement of the region. In 1816, a steamboat "Washington" traveled from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in just 25 days. By 1853, that trip took only four and a half days. Between 1814 and 1834, steamboat traffic arriving in New Orleans increased from 20 to 1,200 a year as boats carried cotton, sugar and passengers. Many Europeans reached new homes through the port of New Orleans. The romance of steamboat travel became part of American folklore and inspired many authors, including Mark Twain, to recount experiences on "the Mother of All Rivers."
Railroads Surpass Steamboats
Railroads began to challenge steamboats in the Midwest as early as the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln successfully defended a rail line that had constructed a bridge across the Mississippi. A steamboat company sued the railroad when its steamboat crashed into the bridge, but ruling for the rail company opened the way to expanded track development. Where cargo from steamboats had to be unloaded and carted on land past river rapids, like those between Ft. Madison and Burlington, rail shipments faced no such problems. Likewise, with rising and falling water levels sometimes leaving docks stranded in shallow or flooded waters, trains could always pull up to established points at their stations. Barge traffic was never eliminated by the rails and still plays an important role in getting midwestern grains to New Orleans. From there to distant ports, steamboats never regained their supremacy that they had once experienced pre-railroads.
Rail lines extending across Iowa and the Great Plains often preceded significant American settlement. Towns in western Iowa were usually located and platted by the rail companies to establish refueling stations and collecting points for passengers and cargo. The rail companies themselves cooperated in producing materials in the native languages of Europeans providing information on how to immigrate and how to book transportation on the rails. Once farms and towns were established, railroads carried crops and livestock back to eastern cities and returned with manufactured goods. The first transcontinental rail line had Omaha/Council Bluffs as its eastern terminus, linking the west coast firmly to the rest of the country and doing much to open up the west to further settlement.
The federal government greatly aided rail transportation with land grants to four companies building trunk lines across Iowa. Three of these ended in Council Bluffs, the fourth in Sioux City. For every mile of track they laid, the railroad companies were granted six sections (square miles) along the line. They sold the land to finance their operations. From their starting points on the Mississippi River, all four of the lines connected with Chicago which made the "Windy City" the hub of the Midwest economy. The new arrangement undercut commerce with St. Louis and points south.
Western Migration with Automobiles
The introduction of the automobile in the early 1900s also impacted westward migration. Many families were now able to travel by themselves, unrestricted by train tickets or schedules. Visitation to national parks greatly increased. During the Great Depression, displaced farm families loaded everything they could onto their Model T Fords or other early makes and headed west to California in search of jobs. Author John Steinbeck recreated their struggles in his classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Trucks cut into the dominance of rail transport for livestock, as automobiles reduced sales of passenger tickets. Commercial bus lines further provided travelers a choice in how to get from one point to another. Passenger train service declined rapidly, as did overall rail business. Government support of the interstate highway system began in the 1950s and greatly facilitated cross-country travel.
Americans have been cited as a people on the move. Whether by steamboat, railroad or automobiles, Americans have freely traveled and become familiar with the world beyond our own borders.
What role did waterways play in transportation advancements?
- Petition about Navigation Rights of Mississippi River, 1793 (Document)
- Letter from Robert Fulton to George Washington about Canal Building, February 5, 1797 (Document)
- "The Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi River, and Its Improvements" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1870 (Document)
- "A Great Work Completed" Newspaper Article, August 24, 1877 (Document)
What effect did transportation advancements have on the economics of various regions of the country?
- "New York Canals" Newspaper Article, December 21, 1849 (Document)
- "From Grays Ferry Looking South," 1858 (Image)
- Railroad Map of Iowa, 1881 (Map)
In what ways did transportation advancements encourage westward settlement?
- "Great Central Route, and U.S. Mail Line" Broadside, 1856 (Document, Map)
- "Growth of the Steamboating Business —The Season of 1856" Newspaper Article, November 20, 1856 (Document)
- C.C. Andrews' Letters about his Trip to Minnesota and Dakota Territory, 1857 (Document)
- "Documentary. Iowa — Developments — Resources" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1869 (Document)
What conflict has occurred because of transportation advancements?
- "The Importance of the Mississippi River to the State of Iowa and the North-West," Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1871 (Document)
- Address to State of New York to Improve and Maintain the Erie Canal, December 29, 1885 (Document)
Petition about Navigation Rights of Mississippi River, 1793
Letter from Robert Fulton to George Washington about Canal Building, February 5, 1797
"The Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi River, and Its Improvements" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1870
"A Great Work Completed" Newspaper Article, August 24, 1877
"New York Canals" Newspaper Article, December 21, 1849
"From Grays Ferry Looking South," 1858
Railroad Map of Iowa, 1881
"Great Central Route, and U.S. Mail Line" Broadside, 1856
"Growth of the Steamboating Business —The Season of 1856" Newspaper Article, November 20, 1856
C.C. Andrews' Letters about his Trip to Minnesota and Dakota Territory, 1857
"Documentary. Iowa — Developments — Resources" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1869
"The Importance of the Mississippi River to the State of Iowa and the North-West," Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1871
Address to State of New York to Improve and Maintain the Erie Canal, December 29, 1885
- Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lee County
This document is available through the University of Iowa Libraries and shows a map of Lee County in 1874. Lee County, which is located at the southeastern most part of the state show two transportation ports along the Mississippi River: Montrose and Keokuk.
- Iowa Highway Map
This online resource is a detailed highway and road map of Iowa with cities and towns.
- Comparative Table of Population
This data set shows state population information for the United States, according to the seventh U.S. Census. The population numbers are shown from 1790 to 1850.
- Railroad Map of Iowa
The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) website has a map of Iowa's current railroads, as well as other related maps.
- Iowa Road Map
This map, available through the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), features the roadways of Iowa. The map includes highways, exit numbers, mileage between exits and points of interest.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (8th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are high school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for eighth-grade students.
- SS.8.19. Explain how push and pull factors contributed to immigration and migration in early American history.
- SS.8.20. Explain how global interconnections influenced early American history.
- SS.8.21. Analyze connections among early American historical events and developments in broader historical contexts.
- SS.8.23. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in early American history.