American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview
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Frontier and Western
Transportation

H. ROGER GRANT

As the American West developed, settlers commonly sought land, capital, and transportation. If they could realize these desires, they believed that prosperity would surely follow. Because distances were great and natural barriers considerable, frontiersmen readily embraced state-of-the-art travel. In the Trans-Allegheny West, early residents pushed hard for improved water transport, especially canals. But when vast numbers of pioneers ventured into the Trans-Mississippi West, they often enjoyed access to the vastly superior railroad. Thus this region, with few exceptions, skipped the intermediate fad of canal-building that had spawned numerous projects in a belt extending from New York to Illinois between the 1820s and 1840s. Later, demands were made regularly for better roadways, and eventually for commercial aviation. Like railroad promoters, these enthusiasts hailed from all geographic areas, not just from the "West."

Historians have examined various aspects of water transportation in the West. The pre-steam era has received ample coverage. The classic work, Leland D. Baldwin's The Keelboat Age on Western Waters,1 tells how keelboats revolutionized commerce. These vessels bested the flatboats that commonly drifted down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Loaded with pioneers, assorted animals, household goods, farm implements, whiskey, and other miscellaneous merchandise, flatboats could make only a downstream voyage. Keelboats, on the other hand, could travel upstream with the aid of a steerman and from six to ten men involved in hard and fatiguing poling. And there was a major difference in appearance: keelboats sported rounded bows and sterns; flatboats had that crude look and, according to one contemporary, resembled a "mixture of log cabin, fort, and floating barnyard and country grocery."

After Robert Fulton famed Clermont made its maiden voyage on the Hudson River in 1807, the steamboat quickly conquered the waterways. From the early nineteenth century to the formative years of the twentieth century, these sturdy vessels often provided the cheapest and most efficient form of freight transport.

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