Turnpikes, canals, and steam

Turnpikes, canals, and steam

In 1800, the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the soon-to-be state of Ohio, were connected to the Eastern seaboard states only by trails across the mountains and, in some places, on water via canoe or flatboat. Clearly, the country needed better means of communication between the two regions. The first federally supported project to provide that improvement was written into an 1806 law that set aside two percent of the net proceeds of the sales of public lands in Ohio for the construction of a National Road over the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1815 and 1818, the first section of the National Road was constructed, connecting Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, Virginia. It immediately became the most frequented East-West route. (This was a good quarter of a century before the railroads, remember.) Nobody disputed that it was needed (the difficulties experienced in moving men and material during the War of 1812 made the need clear), but how to provide it was not clear.

The problem lay in people’s view of what the constitution did or did not allow the federal government to do. President John Adams had advocated the construction of roads and canals in his first message to Congress, and to us of a much later generation this seems an obviously appropriate use of federal funds. But former president Thomas Jefferson and others thought that allowing the federal government to fund such “internal improvements” (or protect manufacturing) would require a constitutional amendment.

In 1808, Jefferson’s remarkable secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, had recommended that the federal government finance a system of turnpikes and canals to facilitate movement of goods and people between one part of the country and another. In 1816, President Madison had suggested that Congress consider establishing such a system — but then, when Congress passed such a bill — he vetoed it! (He thought its method of appropriation unconstitutional.)

Then, in 1824, in Gibbons v. Ogden, the US Supreme Court ruled that the constitution conferred to the federal government the power to regulate all aspects of interstate commerce, thus removing the question of constitutionality. In April, Congress passed The General Survey Act, sometimes called the first “Roads and Canals” Act, authorizing the president to survey whatever road and canal routes he might think necessary for commerce and military defense, much as President Dwight Eisenhower would do, more than 130 years later, in instituting the Interstate Highway system.

A second act appropriating $75,000 to remove sandbars, snags, and other obstacles from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers passed in May, and the Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for performing the work. In 1826 new legislation authorized river surveys, to clean out and deepen selected waterways, and make various other river and harbor improvements.

Westerners, particularly Henry Clay of Kentucky, strongly supported the idea of federal support for internal improvements, pointing out that federal appropriations for coast surveys and lighthouses benefited the Atlantic seaboard states specifically, as well as the country at large generally. Clay, Senator Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State Adams — three out of the four candidates for president that year – were on the record as supporting federal involvement in internal improvements. But there was no consensus for federal support for further roads. In its absence, privately financed turnpikes were constructed to connect Cumberland with other population centers in the East.

As to canals, the canal that transformed the face of the country was a state project, not a federal one. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton’s audacious project, the Erie canal, financed by New York public bonds, was begun in 1817 and took eight years to complete. But when completed, the canal stretched from the Hudson River 363 miles to Lake Erie, thus in one jump making New York City the logical, economical, convenient port for transshipment deep into the interior. (Other cities and states would follow New York’s lead. By 1840, more than 3,300 miles of artificial waterways carried the country’s commerce.)

Which brings us to steamboats and steamships. (In nautical parlance the difference between a ship and a boat is primarily size. A ship can carry a boat, but not vice versa.) Invented and improved in the years around the turn of the century. By 1820, all the tidal rivers on the Atlantic (and Chesapeake Bay) enjoyed steamboat service, as did the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Steamboats decreased travel times between coastal ports and cities upstream by weeks, and reduced transit costs by up to 90 percent.

Steamboats were an example of a new technology profoundly altering relationships between federal and state governments. It was a dispute over a steamboat monopoly granted by the state of New York that led to Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court case that said that no one state could obstruct or even regulate commerce that extended beyond its own boundaries. In making that decision, the Court cleared the way for congressional oversight of commerce and transportation. It also cleared the way for the future. Railroads were undreamed of in 1824, but they were on their way. So were airplanes and interstate highways. If the Court had decided Gibbons v. Ogden any other way, it would have had to reverse the decision at some time. The logic of the technology was too compelling.

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