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Turns of the Centuries Exhibit > The Land 1780-1820 > Industry
This theme in other eras: 1680-1720 | 1780-1820 | 1880-1920

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.

Industry : Transportation Technology


The idea of a manmade system of waterways carrying people and freight throughout the new nation captured the popular imagination in the decades following the American Revolution. Canals were monuments to ambitious financing, spectacular engineering and backbreaking labor. Building a canal required a survey to determine the best route. In addition to digging the canal, builders needed to construct a road alongside for the horses that would tow the canal boats. Engineers also had to devise a system of hand-operated locks that canal operators could open and close single-handedly. The locks allowed a canal boat to pass smoothly and safely through hilly regions by raising and lowering water levels. Digging the canal took the backbreaking labor of thousands of workers. Economic recession and waves of immigrant laborers kept pay rates low for much of the canal building era. Many worked for as little as fifty cents a day, the equivalent of minimum wage in the twentieth century.

What was it like to ride on a canal boat? One traveler declared that being able "to sit on the deck of a boat and see the country slide by you, without the slightest jar" was one of life's "exquisite luxuries." More important than the delights of canal travel to canal investors and users were the profits the canal promised. Goods traveled far more quickly and more cheaply than they could in wagons lumbering overland. What canal enthusiasts did not anticipate was the way in which overland freight costs dropped in response to canal competition. Nor were canals not the only infrastructure improvements in the new nation. State governments also granted numerous charters to turnpike corporations hoping to build a network of toll roads. It was the railroad, however, that spelled doom for most canals. As early as 1839, Henry David Thoreau noted that the Middlesex Canal, which ran from Lowell to Boston, Massachusetts, exhibited "almost an antique look beside the more modern-railroads" materializing beside it.

This image of a canal appeared in a schoolbook discussion of American industry and progress. The long list of canals and their connections suggested how strongly the vision of a nation connected by a network of waterways appealed to Americans in this period.


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"A Practical System of Modern Geography"

author   Jesse Olney (1798-1872)
date   1828
location   Hartford, Connecticut
height   6.5"
width   4.0"
process/materials   printed paper, ink
item type   Books/Textbook / Schoolbooks
accession #   #L00.018ex

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"A Practical System of Modern Geography"

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