Transportation was a critical element of any migration in the 1800's and early 1900's. Many dirt roads were not paved until well into the 1900's, which made transportation challenging. The roads, such as they were, were built and maintained by local people, by towns, for the states had few sources of revenue and found it difficult to raise taxes. As a consequence, transporting goods even short distances inland from coastal cities could be as expensive as transporting the same goods across the Atlantic from Europe.

Starting 1815, transportation underwent a revolution, as private companies, states, and the federal government began financing the construction of roads that could be used in inclimate weather conditions.

Prior to 1815, settlements in Virginia and the Carolinas had not reached beyond the fall line. Settlements tended to be self-sufficient, with little contact with the world outside of the settlement. The only cost-efficient methods of carrying freight over long distances were the use of sailing ships and downriver flatboats. Most roads were rutted dirt paths that were all but impassable in severe weather. Traveling from Cincinnati to New York took a minimum of three weeks. The only feasible way to ship freight was down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, and then by ocean along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts - a trip that took at least seven weeks.

Transatlantic trade exceeded internal commerce, and most manufactured goods purchased in the United States came from Great Britain. Products that were manufactured in the United States were mainly custom goods sold in local markets. Farmers living more than a short distance from navigable water consumed most of what they raised, and the economy grew little if any faster than the growth of the population.

Harrison Land Act of 1800

The Harrison Land Act of 1800 was more liberal than its predecessor. A person only had to buy 320 acres (half section) at a time instead of 640 acres, paying 50 cents per acre down and the rest of the $1.50 an acre in installments in four years. The Land Act of 1804 lowered the minimum purchase amount to 160 acres. Cheapening the land created a boom in land sales. In 1800, the United States government sold 67,800 acres; in 1813, 500,000 acres; in 1818, 1,306,400 acres; and in 1819, 3,491,000 acres. The population on the west side of the Appalachian Mountain chain doubled between 1810 and 1820 and then doubled again between 1820 and 1830

Causes of the Transportation Revolution of 1815

There were numerous precursors that led to the Transportation Revolution of 1815.

    • On March 2, 1807, the United States Senate asked Albert Gallatin, who was then Secretary of the Treasury, to prepare a plan that would allow for the opening of roads and canals in the United States.

    • Had state governments, and the national government to some extent, not abandoned free enterprise theory and intervened in the economy, the transportation revolution would not have occurred.

In transportation, states bought stock in transportation companies or otherwise facilitated the selling of stock; they granted monopolies; they built canals; they subsidized railroad companies; and they granted businesses corporate charters, a business device which allowed the raising of large amounts of capital but limited liability if the business failed.

Planned Roads

Braddock Road

The Braddock Road had been opened by the Ohio Company in 1751 between Cumberland, Maryland, the limit of navigation on the Potomac River, and the forks of the Ohio River (a site that would later become Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). It received its name during the French and Indian War when it was used in the Braddock expedition, an attempt to assault the French Fort Duquesne by General Braddock and George Washington. Construction of the Cumberland Road (National Road) was authorized on March 29, 1806 by President Thomas Jefferson.

The Cumberland Road would replace the Braddock Road for travel between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, following roughly the same alignment until east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. From there, where the Braddock Road turned north to Pittsburgh, the Cumberland Road would continue west to Wheeling, West Virginia (then part of Virginia), also on the Ohio River. Construction of the new Macadam road began on November 20, 1811 at Cumberland, and the road reached Wheeling on August 1, 1818. On May 15, 1820 Congress authorized an extension to St. Louis, Missouri, connecting it directly to the Mississippi River, and on March 3, 1825 to Jefferson City, Missouri. Work on the extension utilized the pre-exisiting Zane's Trace between Wheeling and Zanesville, Ohio, and was completed to Columbus, Ohio in 1833 and Springfield, Ohio in 1838. On April 1, 1835 the section east of Wheeling was transferred to the states, which made it a turnpike.

The last Congressional appropriation was made May 25, 1838, and in 1840 Congress voted against completing the road, with the deciding vote cast by Henry Clay. By that time railroads were proving a better method of transportation; the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was being built for the same purpose - connecting Baltimore via Cumberland to Wheeling. Construction stopped in 1839, and much of the road through Indiana and Illinois remained unfinished, later transferred to the states.

In 1912 the National Road was chosen to become part of the National Old Trails Road, which would extend further east to New York City and west to San Francisco, California. Five Madonna of the Trail monuments were erected on the old National Road. In 1927 the road was designated part of U.S. Highway 40, which still follows the National Road with only minor realignments. Most of the road has been bypassed for through travel by Interstate 70, but between Hancock in western Maryland and Washington, Pennsylvania I-70 takes a more northerly path to reach the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Breezewood. The later Interstate 68 follows the old road from Hancock west to Keysers Ridge, Maryland, where the National Road and US 40 turn northwest into Pennsylvania. The whole of I-68 in Maryland has been designated the National Freeway. One of the original toll houses is preserved in La Vale, Maryland and another in Addison, Pennsylvania. Many of the old arch bridges also remain on former alignments. Notable among these is the Casselman River Bridge near Grantsville, Maryland; built in 1813-1814 it was the longest single span stone arch bridge in the world at the time. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River, opened in 1849, also stands along the old road.

National Road

The National Road went from Cumberland Maryland to Wheeling, (West) Virginia, with construction starting around 1811 (Route 40). It later expanded into Ohio and then further west. It followed much of Braddock's Road, which went from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. My understanding of the condition of Braddock's Road is that using the term 'road' is an overstatement! You also had Forbes Road that went from Bedford to Pittsburgh (Rte 30), and there was a road built from Cumberland to Bedford (Rte. 220), built by George Washington at the same time Forbes built his road. Both Braddock's Road and Forbes Road were migration routes of early settler's after the treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, between the British and the Native Americans, opened up much of Western PA to settlement.

The Old National Road - approximately US 40 (paralleled by I-70) - was originally started as Braddocks Road - from Cumberland MD to Uniontown PA in 1755. Early routes connected to it from several directions - one becoming the Baltimore Pike. This section of the Baltimore Pike and Braddocks Road - continuing on through Washington PA to Fort Henry on the Ohio River (Wheeling) became the Cumberland Road. In 1825-26 this was extended across Ohio, ending here at Richmond IN (the deep Whitewater River gorge). In 1837 the gorge was crossed by a covered bridge and the road was extended to Vandalia IL (capitol), where it met an existing road coming east from St Louis (actually - East St Louis IL). - It was SMOOTH -it was "Metal Surfaced" (?) - yes, they graded it with a metal blade - once a year!

While Forbes Road was almost as early as Braddocks Road -beginning at Gettysburg PA (the Great Wagon Road - to Philadelphia) - going to Pittsburg. Both Braddocks Road and Forbes Road of the French and Indian War (1755-56), followed existing Indian and settler routes (used by Brethren going to Brothers Valley, and to Washington County - 1750), and both fed the flatboat migration down the Ohio River - some of these going as far as western Kentucky. The River route was used as early as 1780 (some came that way even before -but seldom by flatboats). Elder George Wolfe and Sons was a flat boat building company - somewhere between old Fort Redstone (Brownsville PA) and Turtle Creek (Braddock - outside Pittsburg) on the Monongehela (I've heard these and several other places identified for him). Henry Rhoads almost certainly went this way - to western Kentucky - in 1785 - landing at The Falls (Louisville), and going south and west.

The original settlement at The Falls was by the Cumberland Gap and across Kentucky - with Squire Boone (brother of Daniel) an earliest settler - and a reputed Brethren Baptist minister (the Southern Baptists claim him as their first minister - but there weren't Baptists there then).


Turnpikes were the first solution. In Pennsylvania, the state started building the Philadelphia to Lancaster Turnpike in 1792 and opening it in 1794. It was financially successful, setting off a wave of turnpike construction.

The turnpike boom would run until the beginning of the Civil War. By the time it was through, there would be thousands of miles of hard surfaced roads, many of which would fall into disrepair during the war.


Robert Fulton's Clermont proved the practicality of steamboats in 1807. By 1820, there were 60 steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and countless others elsewhere.

Between 1817 and 1820 the number of steamboats in America jumped from 17 to 69, and by 1855, the number had reached 727.

Erie Canal

New York State pioneered the canal era by building the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo, linking New York City to the Northwest by water and setting off a frenzy of construction that produced 3,700 miles of canals by 1850.

Started in 1817, it turned a profit long before it was finished in 1825.

1840 the United States had over three thousand miles of canals.Except for the Erie, most of the canals were not commercially successful; they were hastily built at great expense and often inadequately maintained


The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) was the first in 1828. By the 1860s, there were many railroads and some 31,000 miles of track laid.They were eclipsed by the iron horse in the 1850s. The 9,000 miles of rail in the United States by 1850 led the world. In the next decade there were an additional 21,000 miles. By 1860 the United States had a larger rail network than the rest of the world combined.


The pre-industrial world could not survive the transportation revolution, which possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markers. More and more farmers specialized in crops for which ttheir soil and climate were most suitable.

Merchant capitalists of industrialists reorganized and standardized production of goods for large volume sale in regional and eventually national markets. By 1860 the outline of modern American economy of mass consumption, mass production, and capital intensive agriculture was visible. The wave did not encompass the country evenly as it progressed.

The transportation revolution produced the rapid growth of towns and cities. In 1820, 6.1 percent of Americans lived in places with populations of greater than 2,500 people, and only New York City and Philadelphia had more than 100,000 people. By 1860, however, nearly 20 percent of the population lived in places of 2,500 or more, and New York City's population had climbed from 124,000 to 800,000.