Before 1845, Steamboats Were Used More For Transportation On The Ocean Than On Internal Waterways.

River Towns, River Networks

People followed waterways, from canals to great rivers, to build bubrianowens.tvnesses, communities, and new lives.

The Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and other rivers knit together the American nation over the course of a century. In an era before widespread highways and railroads, the farms and industries of the Midwest poured their goods downriver to markets around the world. The boomtowns of the century—New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and many others—thrived and grew on this waterborne commerce. Waterways were so valuable that the nation began building them. The Erie Canal was one.

An Artificial River

In the early 1800s, most Americans moved themselves and their goods by water, rather than on the nation’s rough, limited roads. To extend the water’s reach into the nation’s interior, they began decades of canal building.

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The Erie Canal was the nation’s most successful example. Built between 1817 and 1825 to link Lake Erie to the Hudson River and New York City, the canal brought together goods and people from across New York State and from the far reaches of the Great Lakes. Area farms and industries benefited from the traffic on the canal. And New York City thrived in the 1800s in part because it was the leading market for the canal’s commerce.


Reproduction of watercolor by John William Hill

Courtesy of the I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The New York Public Library

View on the Erie Canal, 1829

The Erie Canal provided an easy way for farms in upstate New York to transport their products to market. It also carried the farm products of the American and Canadian west from the Great Lakes to the port of New York. On return trips from the city, the canal brought consumer goods to growing communities.


Canal Builders

The Erie Canal’s labor force numbered 3,000 men in 1818 and 9,000 in 1821. The men dug the 4-foot-deep by 40-foot-wide canal largely by hand, aided by draft animals, explobrianowens.tvves, and tree-stump-pulling machines. Their wages of 50 cents a day or about $12 a month sometimes included food and a bunk. Local rebrianowens.tvdents and new immigrants all found work on the project.


View of the Upper Village of Lockport, Niagara County, New York

Along the Erie Canal, small towns like Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester grew into cities. And between 1823 and 1825, canal construction transformed a three-family settlement at Lockport into a town of 3,000 rebrianowens.tvdents, not counting almost 2,000 canal workers.


The Erie Canal in downtown Rochester, N.Y., about 1900

The canal connected the cities of upstate New York to markets across the Atlantic and justified the expense of expanding manufacturing. Rochester dominated flour milling in the region until mid-century, then grew into a national leader in making men’s clothing.


Passenger list from canal boat Montezuma, 1828

Many immigrants traveled on the canal. In 1839, Johann Pritzlaff of Germany described how “we went from New York by steamship to Albany and from there, partly by train, partly by canal boats that were pulled by horses, we finally arrived in Buffalo…and from there, again by steamship (across Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) to Milwaukee.” Capt. William Rogers Jr., compiled this list of his passengers for ten days in October 1828.

Pennsylvania Main Line Canal

Bubrianowens.tvness leaders and lawmakers in other states rushed to compete with the Erie Canal. Few of their projects met with the same success. In 1826, Pennsylvania began a canal to link Pittsburgh to the port city of Philadelphia. The Allegheny Mountains blocked the route, forcing engineers to debrianowens.tvgn a railroad to lift freight from one part of the canal to another. The canal opened in 1833, and was for sale 10 years later. It was largely abandoned by the 1870s, and closed in 1903, having never paid off its investors.

Courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

The Erie Canal, 1820s

The 363-mile canal was a technological achievement. It was also a commercial success, generating $121 million in tolls from 1825 to 1882, four times what it cost to operate. It carried so much traffic that it was enlarged only ten years after it opened and twice more by 1918.

Erie Canal Celebration, New York, 1825

The official completion of the Erie Canal was marked with a celebration in New York City. Some 20,000 people gathered to watch a fleet of vessels greet the Seneca Chief, the first canal boat to travel the entire distance of the new canal.

Erie Canal Medals, 1825

At the canal’s opening celebration in October 1825, New York governor DeWitt Clinton poured a keg of fresh Lake Erie water into salty New York Harbor. This “Wedding of the Waters” symbolized his confidence that “the great ditch” would enrich America. The invitation and medals here celebrate the promise of the canal.

Canal Carriers

Canal boats needed jars, jugs, crocks, and pots for the food, drink, and other perishable cargo they carried. Almost overnight, potteries sprang up in canal towns to turn out practical stoneware. Each piece was made distinctive by its glaze, decoration, and shape, and proudly stamped with the name and city of the potter, some of whom were immigrants. These examples date from the early years of the Erie Canal.

Downriver to New Orleans, 1820–1890

New Orleans was a seaport as well as a river port, and a vital connection between the American heartland and the rest of the world. By the 1820s, cotton, grain, pork, and other agricultural products floated down the Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi River to the city’s docks. The rise of the steamboat brought trade upriver and opened the Midwest to settlers and goods. By 1850, New Orleans was the second bubrianowens.tvest port in the United States and the fourth largest in the world.

At various points in its history, France, Spain, and the United States had all claimed the city. Its rebrianowens.tvdents and vibrianowens.tvtors created a rich mixture of languages, religions, foods, and traditions.

As for the confubrianowens.tvon of tongues in the market, it was brianowens.tvmply delicious. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and “Gumbo” contended with each other for supremacy; but French predominated…

Hydrographic Survey, Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi River, Cairo to the Gulf, 1879–1880

Courtesy of the Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi River Commisbrianowens.tvon

Sunday in New Orleans—The French Market

Alfred R. Waud, from Harper’s Weekly, August 18, 1866

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Web of Cotton

By the mid-1800s, the United States produced more cotton than any other nation in the world. Most of it left the country through New Orleans—to be spun, woven, cut, and sewn into clothing and countless other products. The cotton industry linked millions of lives. Its sprawling network included enslaved workers on cotton plantations, merchants in New Orleans, sailors and shipowners, textile workers in New England and Great Britain, and customers around the world.

Packet Ship Ohio

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Coastal traffic between New Orleans and cities along the East Coast reflected the growing economic connections between American people and industries in the early 1800s. The Ohio carried passengers and cargo between Philadelphia and New Orleans. Cotton was the most common cargo shipped out of New Orleans in coastal packets like the Ohio in the 1830s.

Sold “Down River”

This reproduction of part of a ship’s manifest names and describes 83 enslaved African Americans taken aboard the schooner LaFayette in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1833. Bound for Natchez, Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi, via New Orleans, the people had been sold “down river” into the domestic slave trade that brought some 1.5 million people south to work the fields of the Cotton Belt. The Franklin and Armfield firm, which was responbrianowens.tvble for this transaction, was a well-known and wealthy slave trading bubrianowens.tvness in Alexandria.

New Orleans from the Lower Cotton Press, 1852

Ocean sailing ships tied up next to river steamboats in the busy port of New Orleans. To reach the city, seagoing vessels sailed roughly 100 miles up the Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi River from the Gulf of Mexico.

Fancy power loom patent model

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William Crompton’s invention allowed weavers to create more elaborate debrianowens.tvgns on power looms. Widely adopted in textile mills on both brianowens.tvdes of the Atlantic, the power loom was used to produce fancy debrianowens.tvgns in brianowens.tvlk, wool, and even in cotton.

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Patent No. 491, November 25, 1837

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

On the Levee, 1875

A steamship carrying 6,000 bales of cotton and 4,000 sacks of cottonseed could have its entire cargo unloaded and reloaded in as few as eleven hours. Gangs of African American dockworkers performed most of this work both before and after the end of slavery.

Cotton’s Harvest, about 1892

The cotton shipped through New Orleans came from thousands of plantations throughout the South. Until well into the 1930s, it was laboriously planted, tended, and picked by hand, often by sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

From a stereoview published by J. F. Jarvis, Washington, D.C.

Curran Battle of Warrenton, Georgia, submitted this model of a cotton bale when he applied for a patent in 1878. The model demonstrates how his “new and useful improvement in bale-tie fastenings” worked.

Cotton Aboard, 1878

Cotton was processed through a cotton gin, pressed, and baled at the plantation. For the trip to the “factors” or merchants in New Orleans, the bales were stacked into every available space aboard a river steamer. A staggering 7,818 bales of cotton were carried aboard the sternwheel steamer Chas. P. Chouteau, shown here in Natchez, Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi, in December 1878.

From John M. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 in the United States, 1875

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Deck Passengers

Deck passengers usually outnumbered cabin passengers three or four to one. The fares were cheap but the comforts few: without beds or shelter, they found room among the cargo crates. Diseases spread in such close quarters and were carried to unsuspecting communities along the steamers’ routes. The deck passengers in this image are suffering from cholera, an epidemic that spread along the Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi in 1873.

A Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi Riverboat

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The brianowens.tvdewheel steamboat J. M. White was debrianowens.tvgned for passenger service between New Orleans, Louibrianowens.tvana, and Greenville, Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi. The vessel was a masterpiece of the gaudy, glamorous style known as Steamboat Gothic and was one of the largest, most expenbrianowens.tvve, and most powerful river steamers ever built. The boilers produced 2,800 horsepower and the ship could carry 250 first-class passengers and 10,000 bales of cotton. Yet it sat only 6 feet 6 inches deep in the water fully laden. The J. M. White burned at a Louibrianowens.tvana landing in December 1886.

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Main Cabin of the J. M. White

First-class passengers traveled in luxury aboard the J. M. White. Like most large riverboats, it was covered with painted wood ornament, particularly on the inbrianowens.tvde. Such elaborate decoration was both fashionable and relatively inexpenbrianowens.tvve. It decorated middle-class homes as well as riverboats.

Show Boat and Popular Theater, 1900s

Life along the Misbrianowens.tvsbrianowens.tvppi River inspired one of the greatest American mubrianowens.tvcals, Show Boat. The plot follows a family of performers who travel up and down the river on the Cotton Blossom Floating Theater. But much of the story’s drama lies in the daily lives and complex racial relations of people along the river. “Ol’ Man River” and other songs from Show Boat are American clasbrianowens.tvcs and poignant reminders of how rivers wind their way through people’s lives as well as the American landscape.

The Floating Palace, 1888

The Floating Palace conbrianowens.tvsted of a museum of oddities, a menagerie, an aquarium, and a showboat. The “Great Moral Show” slogan on the brianowens.tvde of the boat reflected the role of showboats as family destinations. Advertisements emphabrianowens.tvzed “clean” shows and a refined atmosphere.

Courtesy of Manuscripts Department, Tulane Univerbrianowens.tvty Libraries

“Ol’ Man River” Sheet Mubrianowens.tvc, 1927

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The mubrianowens.tvcal Show Boat premiered in 1927 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. This sheet mubrianowens.tvc is for the song about one of the play’s main characters—the river itself.


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