The Industrial Revolution completely changed the way people traveled and how goods were transported. Before the Industrial Revolution, transportation relied on animals (like horses pulling a cart) and boats. Travel was slow and difficult. It could take months to travel across the United States in the early 1800s.
Steamboats by William M. Donaldson
Steamboats and Rivers
One of the best ways to travel and ship goods before the Industrial Revolution was the river. Boats could travel downstream quite easily using the current. Traveling upstream was much more difficult, however.
The problem of traveling upstream was solved during the Industrial Revolution by the steam engine. In 1807, Robert Fulton built the first commercial steamboat. It used steam power to travel upstream. Steamboats were soon used to transport people and goods along rivers throughout the country.
In order to make better use of water transportation, canals were built to connect rivers, lakes, and oceans. The most important canal built in the United States was the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal ran 363 miles and connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean. It was completed in 1825 and became a source of commerce and travel from the western states to New York.
The invention of the railroad and the steam powered locomotive opened up a whole new world in transportation. Now trains could travel wherever tracks could be built. Transportation was no longer limited to rivers and canals. Starting around 1830, railroads began to be constructed in the eastern part of the United States. Soon they stretched across the country with the First Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869.
Railroads changed the culture of the United States and made the country seam much smaller. Before railroads, it could take months to travel across the United States. California seemed like a different world from east coast cities like New York and Boston. By the 1870s, a person could travel from New York to California in just a few days. Letters, goods, and packages could also be transported much faster.
Macadam Road Construction by Carl Rakeman (1823)
Even with steamboats and railroads, people still needed a better way to travel between rivers and train stations. Before the Industrial Revolution, roads were often poorly maintained dirt roads. During the Industrial Revolution, the government became more involved in building and maintaining good roads. A new process called the "macadam" process was used to create smooth gravel roads.
Interesting Facts about Transportation During the Industrial Revolution
There was a boom in canal building in Britain in the early 1800s. By 1850, around 4,000 miles of canals had been built in Britain.
The first public railway to use steam locomotives was the Stockton and Darlington Railway in northeast England.
One of the first railroads built in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). The first section of the railroad opened in 1830.
Boiler explosions were fairly common on steamboats. Mark Twain's brother, Henry Clemens, died after being injured in a boiler explosion.