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 Coastquickly and inexpensively. Now it happens that the Great Lakes are an inland waterway that stretches from Minnesota to Wisconsin to New York state . 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 . But it meant digging a ditch 363 miles across the wilds of New York. No canal that long had ever been built . 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 .
The Erie Canal was the nation's pride . It was four feet deep and forty feet widea manmade river, an engineering marvel! But you couldn't steam up and down itsteamboats 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,
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 . 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 navigatethey 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 steamfrom boiling watercan 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 Fulton. In 1807, Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont, chugged 150 miles up the Hudson River, from New York to Albanyagainst the currentin an astonishing thirty-two hours .
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 . Peter Cooper, a Baltimore inventor, 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 . Cooper wrote: "We startedsix 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 ."
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: "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 .
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 speedwith locomotives and steamboats and clipper ships. We fell in love with inventionswith John Deere's steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's reaper, Elias Howe's sewing machine , and Samuel Morse's electric telegraph. We fell in love with progress.
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