Category Archives: capital flows

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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154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

112: David Harvey’s From Space to Place

In “From Space to Place and Back Again,” David Harvey theorizes the relationship between space and place as they relate to capital and globalization since 1970.  Coming out of the Marxist tradition, Harvey argues that capitalism since 1970 has become global, and places are both nodes in the network of capital flows that are set up to catch and keep capital for as long as possible AND potential sites of resistance.  These dual purposes of places are reflected in their material forms, representations of them, and symbolic landscapes within them, because places are constructed via struggle between residents and capital.  Places thus exist somewhere between the universal and the particular in a global network of historical-geographical difference.  Space, on the other hand, is abstract and wholly constructed by capital.

Harvey jumps through a lot of theoretical hoops to make this argument.  The one that I least expected from him is also the most interesting: that Heidegger and Marx can be reconciled into a definition of place within global capitalism.  Here, Marx’s argument that repression, misconception, and exploitation are the result of a “purely place-based politics in a spatially dynamic capitalist world,” combined with Heidegger’s emphasis on place-based dwelling as an escape from modern capitalism, creates a definition of place as the site of both global capitalist exploitation AND place-based resistance, a site mutually constituted by the struggle between the global and the local.

My only question in all of this has to do with the nature of space.  If place is the point of struggle between local dwelling and global capital flows, what is space?  Where in the world is there no resistance to outside domination?  I imagine even Monsanto cornfields in Kansas and the office buildings on Wall Street contain seeds of dissent somewhere.