The Transportation Revolution in Early America

Enterprise on her fast trip to Louisville, 1815

Americans in the early 1800s traveled more frequently, more widely, and in more different ways than they had only a few decades earlier.

One of the most remarkable things about Americans, according to travelers from Europe in the first part of the 19th century, was how much they moved about. Not only did they routinely travel long distances to attend services in their churches and to shop in their markets, but they also changed residences almost as routinely. And not only did they invent new methods of transportation during the first half of the century, but they also made significant improvements in many of the old methods. Between 1800 and 1850 the physical territory of the United States had quadrupled in size; but measured in terms of travel time, the country had become much smaller.

The Mobility of Americans

A Boston newspaper noted in 1828 that while in America the whole population seemed to be in motion, in Europe millions of people had never been beyond the sound of their own parish bell. Even in rural towns, thirty-five to forty percent of families counted in each regular census had changed their residence by the time of the next census ten years later; in many cities, the rate exceeded fifty percent. Part of this mobility was a result of a revolution in transportation: the first half of the 19th century saw the inventions of the steamboat and the railroad, and the development of canals. But there was also an evolution in traditional methods of travel: roads were widened and extended, and carriages and wagons were designed to carry more people more comfortably over greater distances. In the 1780s a traveler typically took four to six days to go from Boston to New York; in the 1830s a stagecoach could make the trip in a day and a half; and by the 1840s a train cut the travel time to half a day.

Railroad, Steamboat, River, and Canal

The three decades between 1810 and 1840 saw three dramatic innovations in travel. In the 1810s steam-powered riverboats made it possible to transport goods and people not only down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, but back upstream to Pittsburgh. The 1820s saw the completion of the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie, and promoting the growth of both New York City and Chicago. And by the end of the 1830s, thousands of miles of railroad tracks linked the nation’s major cities and many smaller towns in a transportation network that would continue to expand over the next hundred years and more. An American born around 1800 would, by age 40, have lived through a true revolution in transportation.

A Limited Revolution

Momentous and exciting as these changes were, they were not without their dangers and their difficulties, as well as their limitations. Steamboat engines frequently exploded, often because their builders used less expensive, and therefore weaker, materials; nearly a third of all Mississippi steamboats in service before 1850 were lost in accidents. Canal boats passengers were often crammed into filthy berths, like herrings in a barrel, according to one traveler. Trains were subject to derailments and collisions, and were notoriously crowded, noisy, and dirty. Stagecoaches, too, were usually crowded, and exceedingly uncomfortable on roads that were typically not well maintained. The importance of personal mobility to Americans in the early 1800s is perhaps best demonstrated by their determination to travel, despite the fact that travel was usually expensive, often dangerous, and almost never comfortable.

In contrast to the transportation revolution in early America, our own time has seen only two major changes, the automobile and the airplane; and both technologies entered daily life much more gradually than those of two centuries ago. Although both road and air travel are arguably becoming more dangerous and less comfortable (and certainly more expensive) as the 21st century progresses, it seems unlikely that Americans’ devotion to personal mobility will diminish significantly in the foreseeable future.


  1. Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790–1840. New York: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 204–231.