Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 4. Segment 3
In Love With Progress

The early nineteenth century also became the era of canals. They were quieter, smoother, and more reliable than roads. The challenge was to get goods from the Midwest to the East Coast—quickly and inexpensively. Now it happens that the Great Lakes are an inland waterway that stretches from Minnesota to Wisconsin to New York state See It Now - A Map of New York. If you could build a canal from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, why you could float goods and people from New York all the way to Chicago and beyond Check The Source - Robert Fulton: A Letter to George Washington. But it meant digging a ditch 363 miles across the wilds of New York. No canal that long had ever been built Check The Source - DeWitt Clinton's Dream. Connecting the ends would be no easy job; Lake Erie is 568 feet higher than the Hudson. The engineers who took on the task had never even seen a canal. They didn't know they weren't qualified. They just got to work. The job took eight years and $7 million. And it required eighty-three locks to raise and lower boats, and an aqueduct to carry them across the Mohawk River. Somehow it all got done See It Now - Digging the Erie Canal.

The Erie Canal was the nation's pride Check The Source - The Erie Canal: "Low Bridge, Everybody Down"See It Now - Opening the Erie Canal. It was four feet deep and forty feet wide—a manmade river, an engineering marvel! But you couldn't steam up and down it—steamboats were just getting perfected and it wasn't deep enough for them anyway. What you did was hitch your barge to a mule and let her pull away. Soon canal barge drivers were singing this song:

I've got a mule and her name is Sal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.
She's a good old worker and a good old pal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.
Low bridge! Everybody down.
Low bridge! We're a-coming to a town.
You'll always know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

Before the canal was opened, in 1825, it cost $100 a ton and took two weeks to ship grain from Buffalo to New York. By the 1830s it cost just $8 a ton and took only three-and-a-half days. Immigrants climbed on barges and headed west to build homes and lives See It Now - The Erie Canal in Rochester. New towns got built along the canal's edge. And, in good part because of canal traffic, New York became the nation's largest city.

Canals are easy to navigate—they have no current to resist. But rivers are a different tale. You can float down a stream, but how do you go upriver against the current? Towards the end of the eighteenth century, several people figured out that steam—from boiling water—can not only blow the lid off a teapot, it can push a boat. The best steamboats in America were built by an artist and inventor named Robert FultonSee It Now - Robert Fulton. In 1807, Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont, chugged 150 miles up the Hudson River, from New York to Albany—against the current—in an astonishing thirty-two hours See It Now - A Steamboat.

Could steam power be used on land too? In 1830, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad opened thirteen miles of track. The railroad cars were pulled by horses See It Now - The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Peter Cooper, a Baltimore inventor, See It Now - Peter Cooper had earlier said he could put a steam engine on the tracks. In 1829 he built a small locomotive he named Tom Thumb, and invited the railroad directors for a ride See It Now - Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb. Cooper wrote: Hear It Now - Peter Cooper "We started—six on the engine, and thirty-six on the car. It was a great occasion. We made the passage to Ellicott's Mills in an hour and twelve minutes Check The Source - Horsepower Meets Steampower."

Trains were the future. Canals froze in winter, but railroads could be used year-round. The great English writer Charles Dickens came to America and took a train ride. He wrote: Hear It Now - Charles Dickens"On, on, on tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars; scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its wood fire; screeching, hissing, yelling, panting; until at last the thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink and you have time to breathe again."

By 1840, more than 3,000 miles of track had been laid. By 1860, the year before the Civil War, there were 30,000 miles of track. Traveling by train, at an unbelievable thirty miles an hour, you could go from New York to Chicago in only two days See It Now - Illinois Central RR.

It was a head-over-heels affair. It was technology that captured us. We Americans, in the nineteenth century, became fascinated with machines and scientific advances. We fell in love with speed—with locomotives and steamboats and clipper ships. We fell in love with inventions—with John Deere's steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's reaper, Elias Howe's sewing machine See It Now - Howe's Sewing Machine, and Samuel Morse's electric telegraph. We fell in love with progress.

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