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Ribbons Across the Land: Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

Canals, Rivers, and Railroads

The Erie Canal

Transportation—uniting the county, enabling commerce and tourism—has long been a work in progress in the United States. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, river transportation and the construction of regional canals emerged as a viable means of transportation. Most notable was the Erie Canal built between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. When completed in 1825, the 365-mile canal proved so successful that it spurred a boom in canal building. By 1835, there were over 45 canals consisting of 2,600 miles of canals built from Indiana to Maine and south to the Carolinas and Georgia.

The Erie Canal facilitated commerce and tourism across the state of New York. Note that the boat is for commerce with barrels and crates of goods, while the boat on the right is for passenger service. Engraving by James Eights in: Eaton, Amos, and Stephen Van Rensselaer. A Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District Adjoining the Erie Canal in the State of New York. Part I. Albany: Packard & Van Benthuysen, 1824. View Source.

The Steamboat

In the mid-19th century, steamboat travel also flourished on the Ohio, Mississippi, and other large rivers. Locally, Missouri River steamboat commerce between St. Louis and St. Joseph flourished between 1845 and 1870 with over 50 vessels making regular runs up and down the river. In 1869, the chief mode of transportation shifted to railroads.

An artist’s aerial view of Kansas City in 1869 with the newly completed Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River

An artist’s aerial view of Kansas City in 1869 with the newly completed Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River. Note the steamboat traffic on the river and two northbound trains making their way through the present-day West Bottoms. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Kansas City Bridge

In May 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad between Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California, the first large-scale government-funded infrastructure project, united the nation. The railroad reduced the six-month trip from the east coast to California to two weeks. By the end of the 19th century, it was personal transportation, bicycles and automobiles, which led the movement for a new and improved infrastructure.

 

Illustration of the The Kansas City Bridge in 1869

The Kansas City Bridge, designed and build by Octave Chanute in 1869, was the first bridge across the Missouri River. It turned Kansas City into a transportation hub, connecting the city to the larger network of rail lines. A new bridge replaced the Chanute-designed bridge in 1916 and remains in use today. Chanute, Octave, and George Shattuck Morison. The Kansas City Bridge, with an Account of the Regimen of the Missouri River, and a Description of Methods Used for Founding in That River. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1870. View Source.