Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Old Railroads


Steam Navigation
This 1836 "Grasshopper" is typical of the first successful American-built steam locomotives. With vertical boilers and indirect gearing, they were slow but surprisingly powerful.
This 1836 "Grasshopper" is typical of the first successful American-built steam locomotives. With vertical boilers and indirect gearing, they were slow but surprisingly powerful.
B & O Railroad Museum

Until the "Age of Steam," neither land nor water transport had changed much for two thousand years. Americans still relied on sheer muscle, using animals to pull wagons laden with as much as' eight tons of freight. A traveler on horseback might manage 40 miles per hour in short spurts, but seldom exceeded that distance in a day's travel.

For most people, transportation on land meant walking. On a good road in good weather, a hearty person could cover 20 miles in a single day; in bad weather, or over rough terrain, half of that was normal. By the early nineteenth century, coach travel was available over main routes along the eastern seaboard and inland to burgeoning cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The roads of the period were muddy in spring, dusty and rutted in summer, and often impassable in winter.

The canal boom of the 1820s sought to lace populated areas together with "ditches" three to six feet deep and anywhere from 20 to 40 feet wide, along which sturdy freighters and packet boats could be towed by animals. Canal transport was cheap and effective, although canals were expensive to build, especially if they required costly stone locks or complex engineering. Traffic was slow, averaging three miles per hour, and canals often froze in winter.

This photograph shows coal being dumped from railroad cars into a waiting canal boat. For transporting minerals, water was still the least expensive option.
This photograph shows coal being dumped from railroad cars into a waiting canal boat. For transporting minerals, water was still the least expensive option.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

More critically, the Appalachian Mountains posed an insurmountable barrier to east-west links. The lack of water in large sections of the country precluded the use of canals, so that despite the immediate success of the Erie Canal (opened from the Hudson River to Lake Erie in 1825), shippers and travelers recognized the limitations of canals as they sought an effective means to reach the rapidly advancing western frontier.

Americans had more success with steam navigation. Both Atlantic coastal and Ohio-Mississippi, or "western," steamboats introduced the nation to fast, cheap, comfortable transportation. The first steam-powered trans-Atlantic crossing and the introduction of steamboat service between Pittsburgh and New Orleans both took place in 1819. By the mid-1820s, well-appointed boats were plying most of the Mississippi River system, the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, Hudson River, and anywhere else there was enough water to float a hull and enough traffic to attract an entrepreneur.

Yet like canals and roads, river traffic was seasonal and subject to the vagaries of weather. Water routes often were roundabout, and there simply were not enough rivers in the right places to serve the entire country. For the prevailing tide of traffic between the East and West, water transportation was important, but at best inconvenient and often inadequate. What Americans really wanted was a steamboat that could run on dry land, anywhere they needed it to go. And that is what they proceeded to build, using ideas stretching back to antiquity.


More to Explore