How can a transportation system shape history?

Transportation means have been the real pioneers of progress throughout the world and especially in the world’s most popular country, they have shaped development.


Peoria Steamboat_transportation_clarence gooden

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In the early days of the United States, as the country grew in size and population, the need for an efficient transportation system that linked the cities of the coast to the rich agricultural lands of the interior became increasingly urgent.

The first significant progress in national transport was the navigation of rivers on steamboats, the pioneers of these mean were Fulton and Livingston in the Hudson River, and Henry Miller Shreve on the Mississippi. Steam navigation could reduce the time of a trip between New York and Albany by two thirds.

The second most important improvement was the construction of the canals, among the important people of New York who supported the construction of the Erie Canal was Stephen Van Rensselaer III. The Erie Canal which connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie was opened in 1825 and had a huge impact on the economic development of the city of New York. It firmly established New York as the first city in the United States with its rivals being Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. These last cities responded with their own channel projects, in particular the ones of Chesapeake and Ohio and the Delaware and Hudson. But the construction of canals was slow and expensive, so when the first railways were built in England, the pioneers in the United States closely followed their development.


Men working on the steam train, Essex, Connecticut_clarence_gooden

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Steam railway companies were formed in several places, the most successful among them was the Baltimore & Ohio, which operated a train in the 15 miles of trails that existed from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills in 1830. The beginnings were difficult and it took another generation of railway construction before the first fortunes derived from railways appeared. The first major consolidation in the U.S. railroad industry took place in 1853, with the merger of 15 local railways in the New York Central of about 600 miles long.

Congress approved a transcontinental railroad in 1865 and hired two companies to build it: the Union Pacific which built westward from Omaha across the Rocky Mountains, and the Central Pacific, which began in Sacramento and built eastward through the Sierra Nevada. Widely financed by loans and grants of Government lands, these private enterprises created large fortunes because they had powerful sponsors in Washington.

Politics in railroad building

19th century transcontinental railroads were the first corporate giants. Their attempts to profit through the issuance of debt caused devastating panic effects in the economy of the United States. Their dependence on public funds led them to initiate new forms of corruption, their operations reorganized space and time and transformed the landscape of the West. With wheels and rails, wagons and coal, they opened new forms of life, also their discriminatory ticket price caused a widespread opposition and new antitrust policies.

The money that built these lines did not come from the same railway moguls that had built railways before, but came from these men persuading The Congress to give them huge subsidies, while the federal Government wanted to build the transcontinental railroad, it didn’t see how it could make money from operating it, however, there were many ways to make money in the construction and financing processes. The railroad magnates of the West had close ties with The Congress and received land, guarantee bonds and help to control the organized workforce.

Railways and their influence at that time indicate the beginning of the political lobbying that we know of today. The Union Pacific only received $43 million in subsidies from interests on federal loans, and the railways that went from the East to the West of the Mississippi River received more than 131 million acres of land for free.

The car rules.

old car_transportation_clarence_gooden

Image courtesy of Berit Watkin at

Up to the Decade of the 1920’s, North America still had a semi wide range of transportation options: trams, bicycles, carts pulled by horses, electric cars, petrol cars, city trains and long-distance trains. But the car started to replace more and more other means of transport, and not only because of the love people had for cars. U.S. regulatory policies and industry practices prompted the decline of transportation means different from the car. Consumption psychology was not as evident in any other industry as it was in the automotive industry.

The different means of transport have extraordinary relevance in society because they allow the moving of goods and people, even achieving social integration that promotes development. In this sense, there is now a real interest in achieving transportation means that can use less energy or alternative forms of energy to circulate, partly because of the problems that may exist in the future regarding the oil provision.