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Setting the Stage

Historical Context

The expansion of the United States increased rapidly between 1800 and 1860. Developments in transportation, brought about by the industrial revolution, allowed resources and goods from the interior of the nation to be brought to port cities like Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. Canals, turnpikes, and eventually, railroads increased internal and foreign trade, helped settle the interior of the country, improved communications, sped up travel and changed the country dramatically.

Prior to the industrial revolution, travel and trade was difficult and time consuming to say the least. The area now known as the United States was geographically large, with difficult natural barriers such as mountains and large forests. Early European settlers faced unfamiliar wildlife and an often hostile native population. These difficulties led many Americans to settle along North America’s Atlantic coast, staying close to its bays, rivers, and streams. Americans realized the internal transportation network had to be improved for the country to grow.

Waterways and roads were used as a major mode of travel well into the nineteenth century. Initially, canals and improved roads known as turnpikes were seen as the quickest and easiest way to improve travel and trade. By the end of the eighteenth century, the transportation network east of the Appalachian Mountains had grown to include a substantial number of roads, but these roads were poor and impassable in bad weather.

Improvements in transportation between the years 1815-1860, had a revolutionary affect on the country, linking the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. The completion of early turnpikes and the National Road (1818) improved transportation in Maryland. With the successful completion of the Erie Canal (1825), local businessmen looked to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to link the port of Georgetown (located near Washington DC) with Pittsburgh. Baltimore businessmen feared the loss of business since the canal would not terminate in Baltimore. They looked to England and advances in technology that resulted in the world’s first railroad and decided to use this technology and build a railroad that would stretch from Baltimore to the Ohio River. The railroad would transform the region and eventually the country by reducing the cost of moving goods and travelers, stimulating business, and helping the country grow.


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