Category Archives: canals

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.

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142: Marcus & Segal’s Technology in America

Alan Marcus and Howard Segal’s Technology in America: A Brief History is a clear, readable, social constructivist history of technological development in the United States from the early 17th century to the late 20th.  While its scope keeps the history of any particular technological development to the length of an encyclopedia article, its investment in social construction means that technologies are contextualized within social, economic, cultural, and historical developments.  The result is a history of America told through the history of technology, with an emphasis on the ways in which American culture determines technological development.

Throughout, Marcus and Segal focus not on why things didn’t happen, but on how things did happen.  What made a technology acceptable and therefore applicable was a) how it was conceptualized and b) how it was explained to and understood by the people who would use it.  Both technologies & their implementation are the products of what their inventors, investors, and potential users understand of their situation and whether they think a particular


technology is a likely solution.  Therefore, in the early 1800s, the government sponsored roads, turnpikes, canals, and bridges to facilitate the pursuit of individual opportunity in commerce, while entrepreneurs imported skilled mechanics and machines from Europe because America lacked both skill and cheap labor for production.  Before the steamboat, America imported most technologies, from mills to railroads to guns, from Europe, sometimes resorting to corporate espionage, and made only minor adaptations to these technologies once they brought them to America, often under federal sponsorship and always under the guise of promoting individualism and entrepreneurship.  Technological development in the mid-19th century followed systems thinking, which was mirrored in the social systems envisioned by late 19th century reformers.  After the 1950s, technology developed not in relation to massive industrial systems but relative to the human body.  With each period, Marcus and Segal provide short summaries of major economic, social, and cultural developments, which provide points of departure for discussions about sociohistorical context.

I appreciate their clear periodization and their emphasis on contextualization, and I think their argument for the uniqueness of American technological development is actually somewhat valid (they argue that all cultures are different, and technology develops within culture, so American technology is unique – but not better).  However, I’m concerned that their emphasis on social construction doesn’t leave any room for internal technological development, which means that it proceeds as though technologies don’t have a history apart from culture.  Technologies may only “work” if they are accepted by culture, but they still have to function, at least somewhat, for culture to consider them in the first place.

63: George Rogers Taylor’s The Transportation Revolution

In The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860, George Rogers Taylor argues that transportation played a key role in the shift from a “colonially oriented economy” to a “national economy” by 1860 by facilitating the shift from an “extractive-commercial” economy to an industrial one.  Because the US is so vast, revolutions in transportation and communication were the only way to connect the country enough to facilitate the massive growth in the later decades of the 19th century.

This book was published in 1951, and it provides a clear, readable survey of the development of the various transportation networks in the US.  Taylor builds his history out of histories of the various transportation modes, economic data from government sources, photos from Culver and other readily accessible archives, and detailed tables that piece together the costs associated with building roads, canals, steamboats, and railroads, with an eye toward the rather substantial federal subsidies that went into transportation in the 19th century.  He also integrates economic history, labor history, and discussions of industrialization and urbanization, so that transportation development occurs within its larger social, geographic, and economic contexts.

Taylor’s layered, chronological narrative clearly periodizes the transportation revolution.  It traces mercantile capitalism, the mostly privately-funded early road-building initiatives; the more expensive state-funded canals; the relatively low-capital but highly-regulated steamboat industry; the increasing corruption of railroads; and the rather fascinating story of the development of the merchant marine from small ships to clippers to packets and steamers.  Throughout his narrative, Taylor “follows the money,” and as he moves slowly through increasingly capital-intensive transportation modes he is careful both to tabulate relative costs (of shipping by one mode versus another, or of building one mode versus another) to show the increased cooperation between business and state that went into building them and to rationalize shifts in consumer choice.  He then links transportation to different components of an emergent industrial capitalism, particularly proletarianization, which he links to the new mass markets for standardized goods made accessible by improvements in transportation.  He also shows how decreased over-land shipping costs and the growing network of Western markets shifted the focus in east cost cities from the wharves to the tracks in this time period, as well as how low costs and high speeds facilitated regional specializations.

Most importantly for American Studies – he shows how this new transportation network ultimately knit together a new nation, united geographically under a new industrial capitalism and an emergent mass market. While this book probably needs to be more critical of this process (if only to inquire what happened to the displaced Native Americans and the slaves and immigrants who built the railroads, for instance, or to investigate the environmental impact of the transportation revolution), it still provides an interesting history of technology, geography, and economics of the development of transportation in the early 19th century.