The Conquest of Distance

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Impact of Mobility

Travel in America in 1800 was basically at the speed of the horse. Contours show travel time from New York in days and weeks. Coastal travel by ship was a little faster, thus the contours spread out a little along the coast. Travel into remote, roadless regions like the Appalachians or northern New England was slow.

Bruce Catton's Civil War work This Hallowed Ground begins in the spring of 1856. In that year several events took place that foreshadowed the Civil War. The war was already on in Kansas, where an ugly guerrilla conflict pitted pro- and anti-slavery settlers, each wanting Kansas to be admitted on its terms. That spring pro-slavery night riders burned much of Lawrence, Kansas. In retaliation the abolitionist radical John Brown and his followers killed several pro-slavery settlers. A fiery speech by a Northern Congressman provoked an assault from a Southerner on the House floor that almost killed the victim. And then Catton shifts to a completely unexpected topic, one that shows the kind of society America will eventually become. The prose is magnificent and for us in the Midwest, the topic is especially pertinent. The important things in history are not always the things that make the biggest splash in the history books

Yet fate can move in two directions at once. At the same moment that it was driving men on to destroy the unity of their society it was also making certain that they would not be able to do it. Men who were whipping themselves up to the point where they would refuse to try to get along with one another were, at the same point of time, doing precisely the things that would bind them together forever whether they liked it or not. The impulse to disunion was coming to a land that, more or less in spite of itself, was in the very act of making union permanent.

The steamers came down from Lake Superior that spring, carrying iron ore to furnaces on the lower lakes, and this was the first spring it had happened. Always before, Lake Superior had been landlocked - forever blue, forever cold, the scent of pine in the clean winds that blew over the water. In the mountains by the lake there was a great wealth of metals, but this wealth was locked up, out of reach, and the St. Mary's River came tumbling down in white foam through a green untouched wilderness. A few schooners had been hauled overland, creaking on rollers, dozens of oxen leaning into heavy wooden yokes. Some of these vessels, once afloat on the upper lake, brought small deckloads of red iron ore down to the Soo, where it was shoveled into little cars that ran on wooden rails, with teams of horses to haul the cars down below the rapids, where the ore was loaded into schooners that had come up from Lake Erie.

In midsummer Indians would camp by the rapids, to cast their nets for whitefish, having week-long feasts in the little clearings by the river.... Jesuits in their black robes had been here in the old days, and trappers bound for the beaver country, and a handful of soldiers - soldiers of the French King once upon a time, and then British redcoats, and at last United States regulars. ...And the river and the land about it were empty, the north wind murmuring across a thousand miles of untouched pine trees, the whole of it as remote (as Henry Clay once contemptuously pointed out in the Senate) as the far side of the moon, and as little likely to affect anything that happened in the rest of the country.

All of that was changing. A canal had been dug around the rapids in the St. Mary's, with two locks in it - men hauled the lock gates around by hand, and the water came burbling in to rock the little wooden vessels that were being locked through - and now the steamers could go all the way from Cleveland and Detroit to the new ports of the Marquette range, to bring ore down to the new furnaces. Eleven thousand tons of it would go down this year, ten times as much as had ever gone down before, and nothing would be the same again. Nothing would be the same because the canal and the shipping were the visible symbols of a profound and unsuspected transformation.

The puffing wooden steamers, stopping at the old sailors' encampment to take on wood for fuel...were part of a vast process that nobody had planned and that nobody could stop; a process that was turning America into an entirely new sort of country which could do practically any imaginable thing under the sun except divide into separate pieces. In Ohio and Pennsylvania the blast furnaces and foundries and rolling mills were going up, railroads were reaching from the forks of the Ohio to the Lake Erie shore to take coal one way and iron ore the other, and there would be more trains and steamers and mills and mines, year after year, decade after decade. America would cease to have room for things like an empty wilderness at the Soo.... It would have no room, either, for a feudal plantation economy below the Ohio, veneered with chivalry and thin romance and living in an outworn dream, or for the peculiar institution by which that economy lived, or for the hot pride and the wild impossible visions that grew out of it. The old ways were going, an overpowering compulsive force was being generated, and the long trails of smoke that lay on the curving blue horizon of Luke Huron were the signs of it.

It was not just iron ore. The Illinois Central Railroad was finishing the seven hundred miles of its "charter lines," running from Chicago down to the land of Egypt, where the Ohio met the Mississippi, with a cross line belting the black prairie from east to west with a terminus at Dunleith on the upper Mississippi. It was running fabulous "Gothic cars" for sleepers, with staterooms and berths, and washrooms fitted in marble and plate glass, and in Chicago it had just built the largest railroad station in the world. (Too large by far, said eastern railroaders, and here on the edge of nowhere not half of the station would ever be used. Within a decade it would be outgrown, needing enlargement.)

Wheat was the word, along with iron. America was beginning to feed Europe, and the price of grain had gone up and up. Farmers were driving a hundred miles or more, in Illinois and Wisconsin, to reach railroad stations and lake ports with wagonloads of grain, and there were long lines at the elevators; often enough a man had to wait twenty-four hours before he could discharge his load. On the lakes a grain schooner could earn her cost in a single season. ... On the docks at New York were crowds of immigrants, many of them knowing no single word of English except for some place name like Milwaukee or Chicago; somehow they found their way to the comfortless trains that would take them West, and at Buffalo they boarded the creaking side-wheelers, barrels of bedding and crockery and crates of furniture on the decks, wagon wheels lashed in the rigging, to finish the journey to something that they could find nowhere else on earth.

In the East men who looked to the Pacific coast looked overland now, and not around the Horn. The great day of the clippers was over. The noble winged Sea Witch was a forgotten wreck on a reef off the Cuban coast, the Flying Cloud lay idle at her wharf for want of a charter, and it no longer paid to build ships that could advertise ninety days to California. California was peopled and fully won, the great leap to the Pacific had been made, and what was important now was to fill in the empty space.

American sails once covered the oceans, but that day was already over. When the U.S. Navy sent the ill-fated Jeanette into the Arctic in 1876, American leadership in sailing ships was so far in the past that most of the crew was foreign.

In this year 1856 there was a typical family opening a new farm in Iowa, and this family's story expresses the whole of it.

For a quarter of a century this family had lived in Indiana, settling there when a good farm could be bought from the government for two dollars an acre, building in the wilderness a home that was almost entirely self-sufficient; one man recalled that "We could have built a Chinese wall around our home and lived comfortably, asking favors of no man." This was sturdy frontier independence, romantic enough when seen from a distance, but nobody wanted to put up with it any longer than he really had to. For there were no markets - "no demand and no price." A drove of hogs might be chivvied 150 miles through the woods to Cincinnati, to be sold there for $1.50 per hundred pounds; what could be bought with the money thus obtained was costly, with calico selling for 40 cents a yard and muslin for 75 cents, and with tea costing $1.50 a pound.

As the western country opened, this isolation ended. As roads were built and people moved in and cities and towns sprang up, with steamboat and railroad lines handy, new markets were opened; crops could be sold for a decent sum, necessities and luxuries could be bought; and the mere fact that there were people all around brought prosperity, so that this particular family at last sold its Indiana farm for $100 an acre and moved on to Iowa, to do the whole thing over again.


On the map, historically important canals don't look impressive. The point of a canal is not to create a new river but to connect existing rivers or bypass impassable sections of rivers. England, where distances are short and terrain fairly level, had an extensive network of canals by the late 1700's.

By far the most important American canal was the Erie Canal. The significance of the Canal is that it provided access via the Hudson River from the sea to the upper Great Lakes and thence far into the interior of North America (the immigrants above boarded steamers at Buffalo). Another important link was the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that paralleled the Potomac River for almost 300 kilometers. It bypassed rapids, allowing boats to get as far upstream as possible before offloading cargo to wagons for the trip over the Appalachians. Catton's passage above dramatically tells of the importance of the canal at Sault Sainte Marie.

Wisconsin's major venture into canal building was a short canal (still visible) at Portage, joining the upper Fox River to the Wisconsin River, and thereby connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. The canal itself was successful, but the upper Fox River is so shallow and winding that the route never became practical.


Between steamboats, early railroads, and canals, it was possible to get to almost anywhere east of the Mississippi in two weeks by 1830. The Erie Canal has made it possible to reach the Great Lakes. However, in the Appalachians, northern Maine, Wisconsin and Minnesota, once the limits of mechanical transportation is reached, travel is still at the speed of a horse.
By 1857, travel was rapid east of the Mississippi, but beyond about 4 day's travel from New York, everything was still at horse speed. Overland stage routes and trails created two corridors of relatively rapid (three weeks!) travel to California.

Almost as soon as the steam engine was invented, inventors began trying to adapt it to vehicles. The Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot built an unsuccessful prototype steam vehicle in 1786. The problem with powered land vehicles was the uneven and unpredictable nature of the land surface. Rails had long been in use in mines to ease the movement of ore cars, so the concept of building rail lines of much greater length was fairly straightforward. In fact, the first locomotives, designed by George Stephenson, were used to haul mine cars in England. From there it was a short step to building a rail line from a remote and hence undeveloped coal field to a nearby seaport. Before railroads, a mine even a few miles from its market was almost useless. The project was soon conceived as a passenger line as well as a freight line, and was opened in 1825. It was the first operating railroad in the world. By 1829 a rail line had been built between Manchester and Liverpool. Five years later there were 1000 miles of track in the U.S., rising to 3000 miles in 1840, 30,000 miles in 1860, and 200,000 by the end of the century.

By 1860, America had more rail mileage than the rest of the world combined. With its far-flung population, America was ideally suited to railroads. And, considering how railroad imagery permeated American culture (don't get sidetracked, on the fast track, one-track mind...), it seems that railroads were ideally suited to America as well. There's something about a model railroad that a model Interstate system will never quite capture.

Railroads had a complex effect on ordinary roads. One of the most productive engineers of the day was Thomas Telford, a prolific builder of canals, bridges, harbors and improved roads. Telford's projects involved earth-moving on a scale never before seen. Thanks to Telford, Britain by the 1830's had the best road system since the Roman Empire. He discovered that while old-fashioned roads were rutted and damaged by wheels, properly packed and graded roads were damaged much more by horses' hooves. He began advocating steam-powered road vehicles to save wear and tear on the roads as well as increase travel speeds. A prototype commercial steam carriage actually ran for three months in 1831. But by this time rail technology was firmly entrenched, Moreover, owners of regular stage lines were fiercely opposed to mechanical road transport. Ironically, in Britain the stage lines were all but driven out of business by the railroads by the 1840's, toll road revenue plummeted, and road technology stagnated. If the automobile eventually drove passenger rail out of business in many cases, the railroad may well have delayed the automobile by half a century.

In studying the history of railroads, it is important to realize that trains are not automobiles. They cannot climb or descend grades as steep as automobiles can, nor can they make turns as tight. Thus routes that are obvious for highways are impossible for railroads. On the other hand, railroads are a good deal narrower than highways. For example, auto travellers from Sacramento to Reno use Interstate 80 over the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass. The ascent up the west side of the Sierra is relatively smooth and straight, but the descent down the eastern side is quite steep and curving. Automobiles could travel this route, trains cannot. The rail route follows a largely inaccessible canyon (by road) where the ascent and descent can be made more smoothly.

The Golden Spike

The task of building a railroad across the United States was once dismissed as hopelessly visionary, but construction began in 1866. The Union Pacific headed west from Omaha where existing rail lines ended. The Central Pacific started eastward from Sacramento.

Today, we would regard it as a matter of common sense that the Federal government should support such a project. It's an obvious matter of national interest. But it was not at all obvious in 1866. The U.S. had just ended a bloody Civil War over the issue of whether States had the right to leave the Union; it was by no means clear that the Federal government had the duty or even the legal authority to fund a project that would benefit a few States directly at the expense of all. So the project was funded "creatively." There was some Federal subsidy, some bonds were backed by the Government, the railroads were given large tracts of Western land as partial payment, and mostly the Government turned a blind eye to some of the wildest and most irregular, if not flatly illegal, financial shenanigans in American history. Railroads sold bonds and took out loans in a way that make the junk bond and savings and loan scandals of the 1980's look like conservative finance. It all worked out for one simple reason - the project succeeded.

The Union Pacific, heading west across the Plains, had the easier route and made rapid progress. The Central Pacific spent most of the first two years laboriously carving a route across the Sierra Nevada, a formidable (many said impossible) mountain barrier in an age without heavy earth-moving equipment. Once over the mountains, the Central Pacific also made rapid progress, but they were behind the pace of their rival. Their objective was to get to Salt Lake City, since ending their line in the middle of nowhere would accomplish nothing. The Union Pacific got there first and the two lines met north of Great Salt Lake.....

And kept right on going! Nowhere in any of the legislation enabling the railroad was there any stipulation as to where the lines should meet or what criterion would be used to decide that the project was complete. So the two companies kept right on building, laying parallel tracks for about a hundred miles and surveying parallel routes for about 400. By the time the race stopped, the Central Pacific had built tracks in to Salt Lake City and had surveyed a route to the Wyoming border, and the Union Pacific's surveyors were into central Nevada. The Union Pacific line west from Salt Lake City was built at a leisurely pace and soundly engineered; the last Central Pacific tracks were hastily and sloppily built. Just east of where the tracks eventually joined, both lines crossed a ravine. The Union Pacific tracks crossed on a soundly-built fill, but the Central Pacific threw a trestle across that contemporary travelers said shook like jelly. The cuts in the rock made by both lines, as well as the Union Pacific fill, are still visible. (Interestingly and in a sense fittingly, just visible from this site is the entrance to the Morton Thiokol plant, where the solid-fuel boosters for the Space Shuttle are manufactured.)

The issue was finally resolved by an agreement whereby the Union Pacific sold its track into Salt Lake City to the Central Pacific, and the rails were joined at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. Contrary to the name, the site was nowhere near Great Salt Lake and was nothing more than a scruffy tent camp. Flying over the scene (and the historic site today) was a historical oddity - a 20-star flag. It seems that when the great day came, nobody had thought to bring an American flag, and the only one in the camp was a family heirloom belonging to one of the workers. The gold and silver spikes driven during the ceremony are in the Smithsonian; the rails themselves had a different fate. Shortly after 1900 a causeway was built across Great Salt Lake and the rail line north of the lake fell into disuse. In 1942 the rails were pulled up, complete with a ceremonial pulling of the spike, and the steel contributed to the war effort. The rails that first spanned America could be on the bottom of Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal or in a skyscraper in Houston, for all anyone knows. Maybe continuing to build America is a more fitting fate for them than sitting in a museum.

By 1930 surface travel within the U.S. is at essentially modern speeds. The automobile frees Americans from railroad schedules and provides mobility where railroads don't go, but by 1930 America is already a nation of high-speed travel.

Personal Mobility: The Automobile

The First Personal Vehicle

The first personal mechanized transportation was not the automobile, but the bicycle. Bicycles were originally two-wheeled coasters for riding downhill - toys for the wealthy. Pedals were initially attached directly to the front wheel, but that arrangement requires too much effort to be practical. One solution was to make the driven wheel larger, resulting in the famous high-wheeled bicycles of Victorian times. The other approach, which eventually prevailed, was the familiar chain and sprocket. The technological importance of the bicycle was that it paved the way for all sorts of developments that would be necessary for the automobile: harder steel (for long-lasting chains), improved ways of machining, and improved ways of mass producing parts (thousands of bicycles imply millions of chain links). By the 1880's, bicycles of fully modern design, even including derailleur gear shifts, existed.

(As exasperating as they can be at times, bicycle derailleur mechanisms are really pretty daring concepts. In almost all belt or chain-driven machinery, the overwhelming concern is to keep the belt or chain on. Causing the chain to slip deliberately is pretty imaginative.)

Bicycles seem so benign it's hard to imagine how controversial they once were. It was now easier than ever before for young women to go off unchaperoned and get into who knows what sort of trouble (actually, then as now, their male relatives - who did not require chaperones - knew perfectly well what sort of trouble! The old double standard in action.) This controversy, like a number of others in the late 19th century, was put to rest when Queen Victoria ordered a dozen bicycles and made them instantly fashionable.

Bicycles made it possible to move quickly without being tied to trolley schedules and more importantly, to get to places where trolleys and trains did not. However, bicycles have drawbacks: they are hard to pedal uphill, can carry only limited cargo, have no protection against inclement weather, and are useless in mud or snow. Clearly, they would benefit from being motorized.

The Automobile

The internal combustion engine was originally invented as a stationary device hooked to a gas line for powering small machines. In 1892 Wilhelm Maybach invented the carburetor, which made it possible to fuel internal combustion engines using liquid (and hence portable) fuels. In short order bicycles had been motorized to create the first motorcycles, and automobiles were being manufactured. A number of bicycle manufacturers like Cadillac simply adapted to the new technology and began making automobiles. Two other bicycle manufacturers who turned the internal combustion engine to a new purpose were Wilbur and Orville Wright.

As for Maybach, he and his co-worker Gottlieb Daimler also went into manufacturing automobiles. One of their best customers was an Austrian diplomat, Count Jellinek, who was fascinated with the new playthings. He offered to steer the manufacturers a lucrative deal to provide automobiles for the Austrian Embassy, on one small condition. They had to name the car after Jellinek's daughter, Mercedes.

If you think automobiles are polluters, it's because Americans have largely forgotten the horse. In the late 19th century, New York had to clean up 2000 tons of horse manure a day off its streets. And if you think a stripped derelict car is unsightly, just imagine a dead horse. Horses were often cruelly overworked, and when they died of age, disease, or exhaustion, they were often simply abandoned, sometimes laying for days before being carted away.


One reason surface transportation developed so slowly in history was that effective surface transportation - by canal, railroad or highway - requires reconfiguring a large part of the Earth's surface. Thomas Telford and Scotsman John Macadam built the first modern roads. Until the 19th century, the intuitive way to build roads was to use large rocks for bulk and durability, with earthen fill as needed to repair potholes. Telford and Macadam discovered that the large rocks created potholes as vehicles passed over them, and that earthen fill only created mud and dust. The secret to durable roads was to use fine crushed stone for good drainage and uniform texture.

Roads were of comparatively little importance in America before the automobile. What roads there were were poor and mostly served local needs. Long-distance transport, first by water, later by rail, was faster and easier. In those cases where neither was an option, such as the Oregon Trail, the route was not so much a prepared surface as a broad track connecting a series of landmarks, easy routes around or over obstacles, and supply and water points. In fact, for half a century in America, road meant railroad, and other routes were called trails.

One of the first true highways, the National Road, was authorized by Congress in 1806, for the purpose of creating an easier route over the Appalachians to the Ohio River (where travellers and cargo could then be transported by water - note that land transport was still clearly subordinate to water). It reached its goal of Wheeling, West Virginia a few years later, and languished for two decades before being revived with the more ambitious goal of reaching the Mississippi. (Note that from Wheeling to the Mississippi is hardly a short cut between rivers. By this time, thanks in part to railroads, purely overland transportation had become important in its own right.) The road headed west in nearly a straight line but sputtered to a halt at Vandalia, Illinois in 1838. By that time there were already roads and rail lines extending from there to the Mississippi. The road had been overtaken and rendered obsolete by the very westward expansion it was intended to promote, which, in a way, marks it as a success. Thereafter, as in Britain, road-building languished in America; railroads ruled.

Before the automobile, there was little need to mark roads. The locals already knew where roads went and the few outside travelers simply had to inquire locally. As automobiles created more travelers venturing into unfamiliar territory, the problem of bad and unmarked roads became more acute. During World War I the Army discovered that railroads, having grown fat, lazy and inefficient on subsidies, were wholly inadequate for transportation and began moving men and cargo by truck convoy. Civilian motorists soon discovered that military convoy routes offered such unheard-of radical innovations as: regular maintenance, snow removal, and route markers.

In 1919 the U.S. Army sent a truck convoy from Camp Meade, Maryland to San Francisco to see if transcontinental truck convoys were practical. They weren't. The convoy, led by a young lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower, took two months. In 1922, General John "Blackjack" Pershing (commander of U.S. forces in World War I) presented to Congress a map of a proposed national highway system, shown below. It looks much like the Interstate Highway System. It should; it was based on the same logic - join America's major cities by the most direct routes. But there are some interesting differences as well. Pershing wanted roads close to the borders; Canada was no threat but memories of Pancho Villa's raids into the U.S. were still vivid. In a world without air transportation he placed more emphasis on access to seaports, and in a world without military air power he wanted roads close to the coasts for coastal defense. He also placed emphasis on access to the iron ports on Lake Superior. There's no highway to Miami because Miami simply did not exist at the time. (Almost everything Pershing proposed eventually became a Federal highway, if not an Interstate.)

Before Pershing's map could become reality, America first had to begin building decent roads. Following World War I numerous auto societies began issuing road maps and guidebooks, putting up route markers, and lobbying for better roads. Carl Fisher, founder of the Prestolite Corporation and the Indianapolis 500, began lobbying for $10 million to finance a gravelled road from New York to San Francisco. By 1915 he had enough money to start. Fisher stretched his dollars by building "seedling miles" between towns, thus encouraging towns to put up money of their own to link to the good road. The highway, called the Lincoln Highway, opened in 1923. It was the first transcontinental highway in the world.

Some historians claim that America's freeways were inspired by the German Autobahns. Others disagree, pointing out that the first superhighways were actually built in America. The reality is that both views are correct. The first superhighways were built in America; one of the first long-distance highways was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940. Even with the incentive of joining Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, two of the largest cities in America, the Turnpike, with numerous tunnels cutting through great ridges, seems extravagant. It was hailed, rightly, as an engineering wonder, and in fact much of the route already existed as a railroad grade; the turnpike itself was partly a means of creating jobs during the Depression. The Germans were inspired by the American highways they saw and began their own freeway network. Given the smaller size and higher population density of Germany, it took a lot less time to build a national highway system there. Our own eventual leap to a national superhighway system was delayed by the great size of America and our involvement in World War II. American leaders, impressed by the German system, began supporting an American counterpart, so in reality both systems inspired each other. The act authorizing the Interstate Highway System was signed in 1956 by the former truck convoy commander, Dwight Eisenhower. It was originally termed the Defense Interstate Highway Act, thus accounting for the perplexing fact that Hawaii has Interstate Highways (connecting all its major defense installations). The Interstate System is shown below.

Next: The Consumer Society


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Created 18 September 1998, Last Update 10 December 1998

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