Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)
Part III. Water and the Making of the Modern Industrial Society
Chapter 11. Water Frontiers and the Emergence of the United States
The global ascendance of the United States closely paralleled its mastery of its three disparate hydrological environments: its rainy, temperate, river-rich eastern half, dominated by the continent’s arterial Mississippi River; its predominantly arid, drought-prone, Far West extending to the Pacific Ocean from the 100th meridian of the high Great Plains; and its frontage on the sea-lanes between the world’s two largest oceans. By fusing these diverse water frontiers into a coherent national political and economic realm, America leveraged its favorable geographical location and the abundant natural resources of its vast island-continent to become civilization’s world superpower in the twentieth century.
Like other great states’ rise to power, America gained command of its native resources for the main conventional uses of water as well as made innovative responses to special challenges that mobilized water’s inherent transformational powers to produce spectacular breakthroughs that defined the age. The first phase, which was fully realized by the end of the nineteenth century, featured the westward expansion of its frontier from the coastal states east of the Appalachian Mountains throughout the rich farmland of the Mississippi River Valley as far as the beginning of the dry belt in the Great Plains of Kansas and Nebraska. Development was activated mainly by the application of “Yankee ingenuity” to existing European economic technologies. This enabled America to take advantage of the region’s abundance of lakes, rivers and fast-flowing streams, rich farmland, wooded forests, and long indented coastlines, and to compensate for the young nation’s shortages of labor, capital, and technical expertise. Waterwheels and early water turbines powered the rise of homegrown factories and later provided the key to exploiting America’s huge potential hydroelectricity. The enormous farm and raw materials wealth of the Mississippi Valley heartland was unlocked by the advent of river steamboats and canals, which created an inexpensive, long-distance inland water transport network linking the markets of New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. Steam locomotives thickened and extended the transport web across the continent by 1869, adding momentum to America’s industrial ascent. By the late nineteenth century, when the age of iron and steam was superseded by the mass production technologies of steel, electricity, petroleum, and the internal combustion engine, American industry was the most productive in the world.
While America rose to power on its eastern resources, it truly distinguished its destiny as world superpower by overcoming and harnessing the latent potential of water obstacles within its two other hydrological frontiers. Its global primacy was first declared through its completion in 1914 of the grandest water engineering challenge of the age—the Panama Canal. At a stroke, the Canal established America as the commercial fulcrum of maritime world trade, launched the sea power of its increasingly formidable “big stick” navy across two oceans and quickened the linkages between its underdeveloped Far West and its productive eastern economy.
Even greater impetus was generated by the water innovations that transformed its inhospitably arid, virgin, western frontier lands into a cornucopia of irrigated agriculture, mining, and hydroelectric-powered industry. The original Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River provided the technology prototype for the giant, multipurpose dams erected worldwide in the twentieth century that facilitated the extraordinary prosperity of the agricultural Green Revolution and global industrialization. Midwestern farmers created a breadbasket from a dust bowl when they became capable of tapping the enormous water wealth hidden away in the huge fossil aquifer—an underground lake the size of Lake Huron—submerged deep beneath the high central plains through the advent of more powerful pumping and irrigation technologies. By the 1940s, in short, America was exploiting its ample natural water resources in a more intensified and enlarged manner than any society on Earth—a reliable leading indicator and catalyst, in every age of history, of robust prosperity and civilization.
Eastern U.S. & Mississippi
Water was a key strategic determinant of America’s victory in its War of Independence from England in the late eighteenth century. By fortuitous timing the American Revolution occurred at the end of the age of sail and prior to the beginning of naval steam power. This effectively enlisted the sea itself as a natural ally of the secessionists and minimized England’s greatest military advantage—sea power. The arduous, six- to seven-week transatlantic sail protracted British supply lines and complicated execution of its command and control. Every British soldier, every cannon and musket, and every food ration had to be shipped 3,000 miles across the sea. Had the British already possessed steam gunboats, they could have easily maneuvered up America’s inland rivers to impose their will militarily upon the inland population as they did from the 1820s onward in Burma, India, and China. Instead they were confined to their more cumbersome sail age tactics, such as blockading harbors, raiding and seizing seaport cities, patrolling traffic on the high seas, and convoying troops and supplies among coastal ports. Suppressing the rebels required large troop deployments over expansive distances and rugged interior terrain, exploited by the American Continental Army’s hit-and-run tactics, which would have been a challenge even for the brilliance of Napoléon. The British army of the day was not up to the task, militarily or logistically. England therefore pinned its main hope of victory on rallying the active supply and intelligence support of colonial Loyalists.
Three of the Revolutionary War’s decisive battles, in fact, turned on the control of strategic waterways—Washington’s surprise attack across the Delaware on the British garrison at Trenton at Christmas 1776, Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, following Britain’s failure to secure the Hudson River, and Cornwallis’s final surrender at Yorktown on the Chesapeake Bay four years later when combined French and American forces cut off the British army from naval resupply or escape route. Even in precipitating the Revolutionary War, water had figured symbolically in awakening the public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. On December 16, 1773, colonial radicals, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, dumped 342 chests of tea belonging to the East India Company into Boston harbor to incite against the company’s tea monopoly and British taxation. With the war enjoined in earnest in the summer of 1776, the central theater focused on strategic New York, America’s second-largest city after Philadelphia with 22,000 inhabitants. In addition to having an excellent harbor for supplying and deploying troops, New York was a vital choke point from which an army could strike east into New England, north up the Hudson River Valley, or west into New Jersey. General George Washington put his army’s best efforts into holding New York and was nearly destroyed in failing. The British made the city its central base of operations throughout the war.
Defeated at New York, Washington’s Continental Army was forced to retreat through New Jersey. In early December 1776, Washington saved his beleaguered troops from destruction by escaping across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Before crossing, he gathered all the boats he could find on the Jersey side. Since there were no nearby bridges across the river north of Philadelphia, British forces had no ready means to give chase without boats. Thus the defensive barrier of the Delaware River, and the onset of winter, deprived the British of early victory. Nevertheless, Washington’s defeats had demoralized his troops, whose enlistment tours were set to imminently expire, while sympathetic colonists began to succumb in large numbers to British offers of clemency. This desperate reality drove Washington to make an inspired gamble. On the frigid night of December 25, 1776, he ordered 2,400 weary, underclothed soldiers, horses, and 18 cannon to be ferried back across the icy Delaware into New Jersey. They started at 7:00 p.m., and the ferrymen worked all through the hours of darkness. By sunrise all were across, marching through the sleet and rain toward Trenton. In one of the most celebrated victories in American history, their surprise attack caused the surrender of 900 unprepared German mercenary troops employed by the British, along with their six cannon and 1,200 small arms. No Americans were killed. Only four were wounded, while two froze to death marching to the battle. The victory’s effects were electrifying. Reenlistments promptly increased and new troops surged to Washington’s side. Sentiment among wavering colonists was buoyed. The Revolution survived to fight another season.
When the war resumed after the winter, the British ministry in London launched a new campaign to subdue the rebels. Two British armies, one moving south from Canada and the second moving north from New York, were to execute a pincer movement to take control of the strategic Hudson waterway. By controlling the Hudson, the British could sever the radicals of New England from the rest of the colonies. But slow and poor communication across the Atlantic from London hindered British execution. While 8,000 troops under General John Burgoyne launched the campaign from Canada, General Sir William Howe’s New York force became diverted by its seizure of Philadelphia and did not remobilize in time to close the southern pincer. Fighting alone, Burgoyne’s army became seriously encumbered by patriot resistance and its own heavy supply logistics. As it marched across the wild Hudson Valley terrain, rendered even less passable by the rebels’ systematic destruction of bridges, tree felling and stream diversions, Burgoyne’s army was slowed at times to covering but one mile per day. It had to rebuild over 40 bridges along the way. Nor did it help that Burgoyne, known as “Gentleman Johnny” for his playboy ways, traveled with a personal entourage some three miles long, including 30 personal baggage carts, his mistress, and numerous bottles of claret and port. Patriot troops led by General Benedict Arnold and Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys inflicted defeats that degraded Burgoyne’s forces, whose Mohawk Indian allies began to slip away. Finding few Loyalists en route and without Howe’s army in rendezvous, Burgoyne’s supplies and manpower ultimately gave out. Trounced in two bloody battles near Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered his 6,000 man army on October 17, 1777.
The Americans’ triumph reverberated across the Atlantic. Persuaded that the rebels had a chance, France’s Louis XVI finally acceded to ambassador Benjamin Franklin’s entreaties for a Franco-American alliance. In a late bid to head off just such an alliance, the British government prepared to offer the colonists everything they had asked for prior to the Declaration of Independence, including freedom from loathed Parliamentary taxation. But the conflict had escalated too far. On February 6, 1778, the French and American governments signed treaties dedicated to obtaining British recognition of America’s independence. Within two years other European nations joined what amounted to world war against England. In England itself the war was growing costly and politically divisive. But the autocratic King George III overruled all Parliamentary dissent—he insisted that the rebels be put down firmly and, if necessary, ruthlessly.
The whole New World was now in play, including the fabulous wealth of the Caribbean islands, which were more preoccupying concerns to England and France than the fate of the relatively poor American colonies. Over the next couple of years, a military stalemate prevailed. Washington lacked the naval power to evict the British from New York, an effort the French were reluctant to undertake with their forces. The British, meanwhile, facing a hostile populace avoided undertaking unsupported invasions deep into the interior. The situation changed in the summer of 1780 when the British under General Lord Charles Cornwallis took Charleston, South Carolina, by amphibious assault. Cornwallis’s plan was to take the Carolinas and Virginia, where Loyalist sympathies were stronger, and to try to overwhelm the rebel colonies from the South. The Continentals, with substantial difficulty, managed to impede Cornwallis’s campaign. In the spring of 1781, Cornwallis began building a base at Yorktown, Virginia, a Chesapeake peninsula flanked by the York and James rivers, where he planned to receive supplies and troop reinforcements by sea. The Americans and French, however, seized it as a chance to entrap him.
The denouement of the Revolutionary War began with France’s decision to wholeheartedly invest its navy at Yorktown. Having learned its lesson about the importance of sea power from its disastrous defeat in the Seven Years’ War, France had been straining its Treasury for a decade to build up its navy. By 1781, it had attained near parity with England’s. A French fleet under Admiral François de Grasse sailed from the Caribbean to blockade the Chesapeake Bay from British resupply. After an elaborate feint at invading New York that successfully misled the British as to the rebels’ genuine target, a large force of American and French troops were dispatched to confront Cornwallis. The crucial sea battle was fought in the afternoon of September 5, 1781. De Grasse’s 24 French warships outgunned 19 British ships, which sailed away to New York for repairs. With the Chesapeake blockaded, George Washington and the French generals, with a combined force twice that of Cornwallis’s nearly 8,000 troops, amassed for the siege of Yorktown. It began on September 28. Artillery bombarded the British position. Several raiding parties struck, one led by Washington’s favorite, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, later U.S. treasury secretary and influential Federalist. Although casualties were light, Cornwallis realized his plight was hopeless when his two small wooden forts were overrun and his army’s escape attempt across the York River failed in a squall. He was cut off from both naval resupply and retreat route. On October 17, four years to the day after Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, he put up the white flag to discuss terms. Two days later he surrendered his entire army. The war was over.
The Revolutionary War was a decisive victory for the spread of liberal democracy. An influential republic was born in North America. In England the war subdued King George III’s bid to reassert personal monarchal authority, with the result that full Parliamentary government was permanently established in Britain on the eve of Britain’s influential age of empire. On the European continent, too, Louis XVI’s monarchy soon was toppled in 1789 by a French revolution inspired partly by American success and the repercussions of the treasury’s depletion in having spent so much to assist them.
Although the war had been fought along the eastern seaboard, a principal battlefield of contention was the land west of the Appalachian Mountains leading to the expansive Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. For the founding fathers, the western frontier was the gateway to America’s destiny. British policy had long aimed at fencing in the colonists east of the Appalachians where they would stay more closely linked to England’s maritime empire. But native colonial leaders saw the beckoning Mississippi Valley farmland and intersecting navigable rivers beyond the mountains as the vital keys to a prosperous western empire of America’s own. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were among many land speculators in the western farming frontiers who believed it would be the main source of America’s wealth for years to come. Thomas Jefferson envisioned the expanding frontier of self-reliant, individualistic, yeoman farmers as the quintessence of America’s democratic character. The free land of the frontier was a safety valve that would attract settlers westward when urban conditions grew too squalid, thus protecting America’s uniqueness and inhibiting the transplantation of Europe’s class-based and industrial inequities to American soil. Jefferson and others also imagined an American continental destiny that fulfilled the old dream of a Pacific trade route to the Orient. Although the early U.S. political landscape was split by the sharp divide between industry-promoting Hamiltonian Federalists and agrarian Jeffersonian Republicans, both sides were united in the importance of securing western expansion.
At the heart of fulfilling America’s westward destiny was control of the continent’s mighty river, the Mississippi. The Mississippi was America’s Nile, its twin rivers, its Indus and Ganges, its Yangtze and Yellow rivers. By length, the Mississippi-Missouri system was the world’s fourth longest at 3,740 miles, after the Nile, the Amazon, and the Yangtze. Only seven rivers carried a greater volume of water. Most important was its fertile valley that stretched some 1,250 miles across America’s heartland between the Rocky and Appalachian mountain chains, north to Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi valley was double the size of the valleys of the Nile or the Ganges, and 20 percent bigger than north China’s Yellow River valley. It encompassed over two-fifths of the continental United States, draining hundreds of rivers and streams, including the Ohio, the Missouri, the Tennessee, the Platte, the Illinois, the Arkansas, and the Red. In the world only the Amazon and the Congo had a larger drainage basin. It alone could sustain American ambitions for a national empire.
The Mississippi was both an arterial and a flooding, irrigable river. Its navigability offered the potential of a natural inland waterway transport network that could almost instantly integrate the scantly populated nation over unimaginably expansive distances that were virtually impassible overland. Especially from its western tributaries, the “Big Muddy” carried more silt than all but six world rivers that it spread as a thick fertile residue over midwestern farmlands during its many floods. At the confluence with the Ohio River, the Mississippi doubled in size and often stretched a mile and a half from shore to shore as it meandered through the floodplain in its lower reaches to its exit in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans.
The Mississippi was also a highly complex, turbulent river, driven by the peculiar dynamics of its size, diversity of its four component parts, deep channels, snaking pathways, tidal forces from the Gulf, multiple currents and velocities, and its penchant for massive flooding and unpredictable changes of course. An unusual feature of the lower Mississippi was that for its final 450 miles its riverbed lay below sea level to a depth of 170 feet at the port of New Orleans. One effect was that the higher water tumbled over itself at a much faster speed than below, sometimes generating such an enormous force that it sheared away and broke through entire riverbanks and the levees that man erected to try to contain it. At its mouth, the sediment loads spewed out by the river created gigantic sand bars that sometimes blocked shipping access to the Gulf of Mexico for weeks and months at a time.
After 1850, the American government toiled relentlessly, much like the river irrigation civilizations of antiquity, building and rebuilding thousands of miles of levees and spillways in an effort to control the lower-Mississippi flooding and enhance its navigability. But every so often a surging flood overwhelmed man’s best artifices. The giant flood of 1927, driven by months of heavy rains, turned the Mississippi into an immense continental drain that obliterated the entire network of flood control levees created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Cities and farmland were submerged across the expanse of the Mississippi Valley in one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history. Half a million people were displaced. The force of the flow was so strong that it temporarily forced the mighty Ohio to flow upstream. At its mouth, New Orleans was saved from destruction only by dynamiting levees upriver to divert the floodwaters in other directions. The flood exposed the Army Corps’ disastrous error in trying to control the powerful river only with levees and without extensive reservoirs and cutoffs. The water engineers rebuilt, this time creating large spillways to accommodate the river’s extreme swells and reduce the pressure on the levees. The river was also straightened, heavily dammed and channelized so that nearly half its flow was contained within man-made barriers; at the same time, however, over 17 million acres of surrounding wetlands—now understood to be a critical, natural, buffering sponge against floods—were filled in for development. Once again, another great Mississippi flood in 1993 defied man’s ablest efforts to manage nature. Although only about one-third the force of the 1927 disaster, the 1993 flood nevertheless overflowed the levees, and turned 1.2 million acres of its natural midwestern floodplain into a giant lake that did not recede for months.
America first gained access to the Mississippi in the 1783 Peace of Paris that ended the War of Independence. Throughout the long, complicated multinational negotiations, America’s main representatives, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, held out obdurately, and when necessary inveigled, to obtain U.S. domain over the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains as far as the Mississippi River. In the end, the parties agreed that the independent United States was to be bounded in the west by the Mississippi and in the north by British Canada. The southern boundary was Spanish Florida, whose elongated panhandle extended across the entire Gulf of Mexico, including the strategic mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans. The Spanish holdings formed a land bridge from the western side of the Mississippi to the Louisiana territory that France had reluctantly ceded to Spain in the 1763 settlement of the Seven Years’ War.
The Peace of Paris left unresolved several territorial and commercial disputes that within a decade flared into renewed contentiousness with Britain. To avert war with England, and to safeguard the basis for America’s western expansion, Washington’s government in 1794 signed a controversial treaty that resolved many outstanding territorial and commercial disputes and formalized U.S. commerce with the British West Indies. The treaty paid the unanticipated dividend of encouraging Spain, which feared ulterior American and British designs on its Louisiana possession, to seek appeasement by agreeing to withdraw from many contested positions east of the Mississippi and granting America free navigation rights on the lower Mississippi and transit at New Orleans, the coveted gateway port to the Gulf and the Caribbean. Postrevolutionary France, which had resumed its superpower rivalry with England with the outbreak of a prolonged, new period of warfare during which Napoléon Bonaparte came to power, however, viewed the 1794 treaty as a blatant tilt of America’s professed neutrality in favor of England. Franco-American relations deteriorated. By 1798, the two former allies were fighting what was in effect an undeclared naval war in the Caribbean.
This was the belligerent backdrop to a series of dramatic events that unexpectedly led to one of the greatest land deals in history—the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. With it, America secured control of the whole Mississippi Valley. Yet in an age when colonial territories continuously changed hands with each shift in the balance of power among the great European nations, America’s legal grip on the mostly unoccupied Mississippi Valley remained vulnerable to reversal. Indeed, the grandiose plans of Napoléon, then rising to supreme power in France, included the establishment of French dominion over America’s west, Florida, and Canada. In expectation of a French invasion of America, America began actively fortifying its navy and army at the end of the eighteenth century. Invasion fears temporarily abated after Nelson’s victory in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile trapped Napoléon’s army in Egypt. But they soon rekindled following a failed U.S.-French peace negotiation and the revelation in 1801 of the secret retrocession to France by Spain of its rights to Louisiana. War fears heated in 1802 when Napoléon deployed tens of thousands of French troops to nearby Haiti to suppress the slave rebellion in France’s prized sugar- and coffee-producing colony. They became febrile later that year when Spain suddenly rescinded transit rights to U.S. traffic at New Orleans, effectively closing America’s Mississippi River access to the Caribbean.
Although a famous Francophile, President Thomas Jefferson became so alarmed at Napoléon’s designs on America that in April 1802 he wrote to America’s ambassador in France, Robert Livingston, exhorting him to negotiate a solution because, “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” With war tensions rising, Jefferson a few months later dispatched specific additional negotiating instructions to his ambassadors in Paris. The United States, he instructed, was to offer up to $10 million to buy New Orleans and the Floridas outright. The price for New Orleans alone was $7.5 million. If France still refused to sell, they were to try to negotiate a perpetual right of transfer. All failing, Jefferson said, the American emissaries were to begin secret communications with England for the closer entangling alliance he fervently hoped to avoid.
Through no action on America’s part, circumstances at this juncture unexpectedly broke to the young nation’s advantage. The large French campaign to suppress the Haitian slave rebellion went badly awry. Rebel resistance was part of the reason, but far more debilitating to France’s 33,000 troops was the yellow fever epidemic inflicted upon them by the waterborne mosquito indigenous to the Caribbean tropics. Thousands died or became too enfeebled to fight. It was not the first nor the last time that waterborne diseases altered the course of history. Napoléon was forced to abandon Haiti, and with it his dream of rebuilding France’s New World empire, lest it compromise his grander strategy of invading England. According to Napoléon’s new political calculus, Louisiana would be better placed in American hands than to be left vulnerable to British seizure.
Thus on the very day Napoléon broke diplomatic relations with England, April 11, 1803, Napoléon’s minister, Talleyrand, stunned U.S. ambassador Robert Livingston at their day’s meeting by suddenly inquiring, “What would you give for the whole of Louisiana?” Livingston, regaining his composure, offered $4 million. “Too low!” Talleyrand said. “Reflect and see me tomorrow.” By April 30 the deal was done: for about $15 million, America got all of the Louisiana territory, including New Orleans, a claim on part of the western panhandle of Florida, and some of Texas. The entire fertile Mississippi River Valley—the key to the midwestern empire—was now officially within America’s grasp. Transfer to the United States was expeditiously completed in December 1803, the same month France withdrew its last troops from Haiti, which soon became the world’s first independent nation created by former slaves.
Yet Jefferson did not depend on legal negotiation alone to win America’s claim on the western frontier. Several months before the Louisiana Purchase was agreed, he took steps to launch the famous, 50 man Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 to follow the Missouri River in search of a northwest water passage to the Pacific. Establishing viable water transportation routes, Jefferson reckoned pragmatically, would stimulate settlement and trade, and win possession of the unsettled territory by the de facto force of occupation. Soon thereafter he sent other, less-celebrated expeditions to explore the courses of the Red and Ouachita rivers and the source of the Mississippi; the latter went astray and instead tracked the Arkansas River to its headwaters in the Rockies.
Although by the early nineteenth century the western Mississippi Valley frontier beckoned with promise, it remained an unsettled wilderness. The majority of America’s population of almost 4 million still lived along the eastern seacoast. There was no ready transport route through the Appalachian Mountains to join the two regions by commerce, emigration, and common political destiny. Almost immediately after the Peace of Paris was signed, George Washington returned with urgency to the project that had absorbed him before the Revolution—to convert the rocky Potomac River into a navigable waterway that would become the primary gateway through the mountains to the west. As a statesman, Washington was preoccupied by the necessity of opening inland navigation to bind the western settlers to the United States instead of to the British or Spanish to the north and south. As the largest landowner along the Potomac and owner of over 33,000 acres of prime bottomland in the Ohio River Valley, Washington stood to profit handsomely from such a waterway. In 1785, after personally surveying the Potomac route and looking for a way to connect it to the Ohio, he became president of the Patowmack Canal Company. With the backing of influential fellow Virginians who stood to benefit most, he raised capital from private investors to build the project. In the end, he failed. The stony, waterfall-strewn, and sometimes too shallow Potomac proved too technically challenging. In 1788 Washington retired from active management to take up his new job as first president of the United States.
Settlement of the western farming frontier thus proceeded modestly. Yet the new nation had fertile, rain-fed cropland in the east as well as other water resources to launch its growth. From the outset, America’s long coastline and its British heritage had bred a vigorous maritime culture. Whaling and fishing were major activities in the northeast. Dried fish and whale oil, timber from America’s virgin woodlands, and agricultural surpluses from the middle colonies were traded up and down the Atlantic seaboard through the many good natural harbors from Boston to Baltimore to Charleston, into the Caribbean, and across the ocean to southern Europe. Often they were transported in American-built ships. New England’s abundance of tall trees, notably the 120-foot white pine that was ideal for cutting sturdy, single-piece masts, had made it a major shipbuilding center for over a century. Indeed, Britain’s early deforestation had spurred English orders from colonial shipbuilders; on the Revolution’s eve, some one-third of Britain’s fleet came from U.S. shipyards.
With a few notable exceptions such as Alexander Hamilton, most of the founding fathers quite reasonably believed that there was little prospect for rapid industrial development in a country so rich in farmland and raw materials and so short of capital, labor, and technical expertise. One comparative advantage America could exploit, however, was the cheap waterpower from its large number of swift-flowing rivers and streams. Indeed, settlement patterns since colonization had tracked good waterpower sites as well as navigable water routes. Many inexpensive wooden and cast-iron waterwheels were built from local supplies to power town gristmills and sawmills and the bellows and trip-hammers of the surprisingly widespread industry of small iron forges and foundries. Due to the availability of cheap waterpower and wood charcoal fuel, in fact, colonial ironmongers were actually producing more total pig and bar iron than England, and one-seventh of total world output, at the time of the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, there was scant reason to think such rudimentary beginnings could provide the springboard of a homegrown American industrial revolution.
One unlikely motor of the U.S. industrial revolution was in textile manufacturing, notwithstanding Britain’s growing global dominance in inexpensive, high-quality textiles produced in its state-of-the-art, steam-powered factories. To protect its textile technology monopoly, moreover, Britain vigorously enforced sanctions against machinery exports and the emigration of skilled textile workers. America’s industry got its start because one ambitious young Englishman defied British sanctions to seek his fortune across the Atlantic. Samuel Slater had worked for years as a teenage apprentice and risen to the job of overseer in the textile mill of one of the partners of cotton manufacturing tycoon Richard Arkwright. A skilled technician with a gifted memory, Slater managed to memorize the design of the entire Arkwright factory. He disguised himself as a simple farm boy, and in 1789 sailed for America. Straightaway he entered business as a partner of a wealthy Rhode Island merchant, Moses Brown, who had been vainly trying to build an efficient cotton factory. Within a year, Slater reproduced an Arkwright-type mill in Pawtucket on the Blackstone River. But when opening day came, the machinery failed to function properly. It turned out that Slater had failed to remember the correct angle of the carder teeth. Following a tedious adjustment, America’s first automated cotton mill was operational. It had three carding machines and a spinner with 72 spindles—tiny in comparison to the 1,000 spindles at Arkwright’s original 1771 mill—and was run by a workforce of nine children, aged seven to twelve. By 1801, the profitable mill was powered by the falls of the Blackstone River with over 100 employees.
Many of the millwrights and workers who trained under Slater spawned a new generation of water-powered cotton mills. Most, however, failed because they couldn’t compete with imports from English factories. America’s infant textile industry was saved from premature demise by a radical change in business conditions caused by President Jefferson’s 1807 imposition of a foreign trade embargo. The embargo was intended to discourage the ongoing seizure of neutral American vessels on the high seas by both France and England during an escalation of the Napoleonic Wars. Like many embargos, it had unintended consequences. Exports and imports, including British textiles, froze. Any domestic American manufacturer able to make goods that substituted for the absent imports, suddenly could earn handsome profits. In 1809 alone, some 87 new cotton mills were built, nearly sextupling the 15 in existence. It was one of the ironies of U.S. history that it was the embargo policy of the agrarian champion Jefferson that galvanized the American industrialization he feared and that had been so ardently championed by his arch political opponent, Hamilton.
Yet early industry couldn’t have so responsively taken root had not England’s free enterprise culture already been transplanted in American soil. Indeed, America’s water geography further invigorated that culture. Its sea coastal economy linked it to Europe’s maritime free-market trading traditions. Its temperate, rain-fed, and small-river-rich landscapes promoted self-sufficient, independent communities with the wherewithal to safeguard its private property rights from any excessive commanding impulses of the central government, which in any case, as a practical matter, wished to encourage market entrepreneurialism in the economic realm. The rustic necessity of clever tinkering to make things work within the available physical resources and limited human labor at hand furthermore bred a distinctive practical innovativeness tailored to American conditions. This “Yankee ingenuity,” whet by the incentive of large pecuniary reward, yielded many original industrial inventions that spurred private enterprise. In 1787 Oliver Evans—who later invented the high-pressure steam engine that pumped Philadelphia’s waterworks and a gigantic steam-powered amphibious dredger—built a fully automatic, water-powered flour mill that processed wheat into flour with virtually no need for human labor; by 1837, 1,200 automated factories were at work on the frontier west of the Allegheny Mountains. What Evans did for flour, Eli Whitney did for cotton with his 1793 invention of the cotton gin that cleaned cotton with fifty times greater efficiency than by human hand and could be powered by water or animate force; overnight cotton became a thriving cash crop of the American South, reviving the waning institution of slavery in order to meet the surging demand for raw cotton. No innovation of Yankee ingenuity had so far-reaching, long-term impact as Whitney’s 1801 machine tool that produced standardized and therefore interchangeable parts—the core technology of the mass production methods that became the signature of American industry.
In textiles, the next important entrepreneurial breakthrough was made by Francis Cabot Lowell. While on a two-year family sojourn in England, Cabot, a well-to-do merchant from a prominent New England family, took special interest in his visits to the cotton mills of Birmingham and Manchester. At each stop he endeavored, like Slater before him, to remember as many details as he could about the mills’ layout and design of its machines. Upon his return home, Lowell raised capital from an association of wealthy Boston families and hired a master mechanic, Paul Moody, to help him build America’s first power loom to weave cloth. His 1813 spinning and weaving mill on the Charles River near Boston became America’s first integrated cotton factory, turning raw cotton into finished cloth. It was so successful that within a decade it became the model for the first planned industrial town. Located northwest of Boston at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord rivers near a 30-foot waterfall with enough waterpower to drive its factory system on a massive scale, the new town was named Lowell by the founding entrepreneur group in memory of Lowell, who had died in 1817 at age forty-two. At its peak in the late 1840s, Lowell’s complex of 10 major factories employed 10,000 workers. Its waterpower system included six miles of canals, dams, and reservoirs and the extraction of more than 10,000 horsepower from the falls. The company became the largest cotton producer in a national industry that by 1840 had grown to 1,200 factories with 2.25 million spindles. The village had become an industrial city of over 20,000 inhabitants. As late as 1870, cotton goods were still America’s second largest industry, surpassed only by indispensable flour mills that produced Americans’ daily bread.
What made Lowell’s factory system the object of wide admiration of Europeans for whom it was a fixed stop on their American tour, however, was not its productive output but its unique approach to labor management relations. The high-minded Lowell, influenced by utopianist Robert Owen and the ideals of nineteenth-century New England, conceived his factory system to demonstrate that profitable industry need not be accompanied by the satanic conditions of squalor, filth, poverty, illiteracy, and moral depravity that characterized the crowded British mill towns he’d seen. To attract enough farm girls in a chronically labor short, rural environment to his factory, he offered good living conditions and high enough wages to allow them to be able to save for a small dowry after two or three years. At the company town of Lowell, the neatly dressed girls lived in chaperoned boarding houses, with no more than two to a bed, around a square landscaped with trees and shrubs. Although their lives were regimented and they worked twelve hours per day, six days per week, they were edified by a literary weekly, company-organized lectures, and religious instruction. In his 1842 American tour, famous British factory system critic Charles Dickens extolled the Lowell system’s virtues.
Yet Lowell’s novel industrial labor relations proved to be less enduring when challenged by the fierce realities of free-market competition. Living and work conditions did not keep pace with business expansion and the company’s quest for profits. Early strikes in 1834 and 1836 were crushed. From the 1840s, the Lowell girls were replaced by vast numbers of unskilled, illiterate, low wage, and compliant European immigrants who began swarming across the Atlantic with the advent of ocean steamers in search of better lives. In the twenty years leading up to 1840, the number of immigrants rose ninefold to 90,000 per year. In 1850, 300,000 came over; in 1854, nearly 500,000. By the mid-nineteenth century, foreign immigration had ended America’s chronic labor shortage. Domestic businesses had accumulated ample capital to finance large-scale investment. Technical expertise, too, was available. Other bottlenecks to growth, including transportation, had been alleviated. America was beginning the industrial takeoff that fully flourished after the Civil War.
In contrast to the steam-driven industries of England, the U.S. industrial revolution was distinguished by its heavy emphasis on the inventive exploitation of America’s waterpower. Experimentation with waterwheels and power designs steadily improved horsepower output and ultimately surpassed the limits of the steam engine. Lowell’s textile industry was a creative fulcrum of the development of the seminal water turbine, a derivative of the waterwheel, which harnessed greater energy from falling water by channeling it through enclosed passages to spin finlike rotary blades. By the mid-nineteenth century, water turbines were used to drive sawmills and the elaborate gears, camshafts, pulleys, and belting of large textile mills. As early as the 1840s, one of Lowell’s textile companies on the Merrimack River began using turbines capable of 190 horsepower. A watershed innovation was made by James B. Francis, chief engineer of Lowell’s waterpower works. Through the combination of methodical scientific analysis, theory, and testing, and the expert craftsmanship of Lowell’s famed machine shop, Francis produced a highly efficient, new class of turbine design in 1848. The water turbine’s heyday arrived in the late nineteenth century when an evolved iteration of the Francis turbine with its rotating shaft attached to a dynamo proved to be the most effective motor for the mass generation of electricity.
Ever since British scientist Michael Faraday’s 1831 discovery that electricity could be produced by rotating magnets inside of copper coils, inventors had been seeking ways to tap the awesome potential of the new energy source. Morse’s electric telegraph in the 1840s revolutionized communications and linked continents. The industrial electricity age arrived with the advent of the modern electricity-generating dynamo and early applications like Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and Werner Siemens’s electric streetcar in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But to achieve takeoff required a means to generate massive amounts of electrical power. It was in the ensuing quest to extract hydroelectricity from large waterfalls, notably the pioneering effort at Niagara Falls in the 1880s and 1890s, that the water turbine found its great historic application. Just after the turn of the century, the Niagara Falls Power Company was generating hydroelectricity from 5,500 horsepower Francis turbines that spun under 135 feet of water; two years later Francis turbines capable of generating 10,000 horsepower were being built.
Electricity was the only form of energy that was easily stored and transmitted over long distances. Wherever it was applied on a large scale, it transformed almost every aspect of human life. Cities were illuminated; homes eventually got washing machines, telephones, and radios. Refrigeration allowed food to be stored longer and transported over long distances. Transportation accelerated. Precision increased. Compact electric engines were fitted on all sorts of work products to boost productivity. Entire new industrial sectors came into being. Aluminum, for example, could be cost-effectively extracted from its ores and refined only with massive amounts of electricity. Countries rich in hydroelectric power, such as the United States, Canada, and Norway, became world leading aluminum producers. Cheap aluminum, in turn, spurred advances in manufacturing airplanes, ships, and cars. Along with steel, petroleum, and the internal combustion engine, electricity became one of the dynamic foundations of the mass production industrial revolution that superseded the age of steam and iron.
Hydroelectricity helped elevate America to world leadership in the new industrial age. Between 1907 and 1929, U.S. nonfarm homes with electricity multiplied tenfold to 85 percent. By 1930, Americans were consuming more electricity than everyone else in the world combined, as well as providing half the world’s industrial output. Hydroelectricity’s legacy in America’s history loomed even larger than that because it was one of the core technologies that ultimately unlocked the wealth stored in the nation’s arid, western hydrological frontier. Nature offered few sites like Niagara between Lakes Erie and Ontario with the high falls and steady, year-round flow suitable for mass production of hydroelectricity. Around the turn of the century, however, industrial technologies converged to provide an artificial, man-made alternative—giant concrete dams. The pioneering, giant, multipurpose Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the southwestern United States, completed in 1936, provided flood control, irrigation, and vast amounts of hydroelectricity through each of its 100,000 horsepower Francis turbines. It and subsequent similar giant dams modeled upon it became the critical infrastructure of America’s development of its Far West. Hoover was the largest hydroelectric facility in the world; at the end of the twentieth century, its 17 upgraded Francis turbines were capable of producing some 2.7 million horsepower of clean, endlessly renewable energy.
Other turbine designs and applications also helped to foster America’s rise. The screw propeller turbine, a derivative of the Francis turbine, powered fast naval vessels. As good hydroelectric sites grew scarce, steam turbines powered by fossil and nuclear energy plants instead of falling water evolved to produce mass electricity alongside rivers, whose water was used as coolants. By the end of the nineteenth century, the temperate, rainy, river-rich half of the United States from the East Coast through the heart of the Mississippi Valley, was on the verge of overtaking Britain as the world’s greatest economic power. Yet this historic transition in the global balance of power could not have occurred without a prior revolution in transportation that forged America’s many navigable rivers into an interconnected, inexpensive, inland waterway network. The water transport network was galvanized by two developments in water history in which America not merely followed, but took the lead from industrial Europe in applying new technologies—steam-powered, wooden riverboats, and modern, long-distance canals.
George Washington’s unfulfilled ambition of a Potomac passage through the Alleghenies had faltered partly due to the lack of a commercially viable steamboat capable of traveling upstream. Washington’s hopes had been pinned on a steam-pump-powered boat built by Virginian James Rumsey in 1784, a year after the French had pioneered early steamboats on the Saone River. In 1787, the eccentric, ill-starred American silversmith and inventor John Fitch launched a stern paddle-wheel-driven steamboat on the Delaware—even giving rides to members of the Constitutional Convention then meeting in Philadelphia—but its commercial viability was undermined by unreliable boilers and an inability to stay on schedule. In 1802, the first successful, practical steamer gave very brief service as a canal tug that crossed Scotland. The era of commercial river steamboats began full throttle in August 1807 on the Hudson River when American Robert Fulton’s 149-foot, twin-side paddle-wheeled North River Steamboat, later popularly called the Clermont, completed the 150-mile journey from New York to Albany in only 32 hours at a time when competing sail-powered sloops required four days.
A failed painter, self-made engineer, astute calculator of business costs, and ambitious schemer, Fulton was living in Europe in pursuit of his painting career when he encountered the burgeoning ferment over steamboats. Soon, he gave up painting, wrote a treatise on the efficiency of inland transport using small canals and invented a submarine that he tried to sell to Napoléon for his war against England. His main chance came in Paris in 1801, at the age of thirty-six, when he met Robert Livingston, the U.S. minister to France who soon was to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, and who had presciently obtained a twenty-year monopoly for steamboat navigation in New York before taking his post. The two men formed a partnership. Managing to obtain a 24 horsepower steam engine from Boulton and Watt, Fulton returned to America and built his historic steamboat. It was financially successful from its first run. Fulton and his associates soon launched a steamer on Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River that made the nearly 2,000 mile downstream trip on the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans in only two weeks. By 1815 the first riverboat was able to steam its way against the Mississippi current to complete the return trip in about four weeks. Previously crops and other goods had been floated downriver in one-way wooden flatboats that had to be dismantled and sold for lumber at journey’s end. The era of Mississippi shallow-draft riverboats and two-way western river cargo transport had begun. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started its career assisting navigation by removing snags and sandbars from the major rivers. Within five years some 60 steamers plied western rivers; by 1840, 536. Freight costs plummeted and commerce boomed throughout the Mississippi River Valley. By the end of the decade, western river steamboats were carrying freight comparable to that of the entire British Empire.
The boom in western river steam commerce could not have occurred without the conquest in the meantime of the long-insuperable obstacle—the absence of a trans-Appalachian water route. Without such a passage, the western rivers remained unconnected to the vibrant industries, farming and markets of the East, where the vast majority of Americans still lived and traded along the seacoast, effectively hemmed in by the Appalachians. Yet at the start of the river steamboat age, the grand engineering breakthrough that unified America, unlocked the wealth of the Mississippi Valley, and recast its historical orientation from north-south toward western expansion was on the verge of being launched—the Erie Canal, built from 1817 to 1825.
While George Washington was dreaming of a Potomac waterway to the west, he was keenly aware that a rival group was striving to transform New York’s Mohawk River into the main western gateway. The Mohawk had the advantage of being the only American river that cut through the mountains, which it did via a 500-foot-deep gorge. Although it had many waterfalls, rapids, and rocky shallows like the Potomac, it had an invitingly gentle slope for most of its route. If extended to Lake Erie south of Niagara Falls, it offered a potentially fabulous trade water route from New York City and the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and, with some adaptation, down the Mississippi to New Orleans. As with the Potomac, the initial effort to convert the Mohawk into a navigable waterway failed. But the New Yorkers hit upon another scheme—a 363-mile canal alongside the river. It was an audacious, grandiose plan. One early advocate was Robert Fulton. In 1807, he meticulously (and with remarkable accuracy) calculated the costs and rewards of building it for the federal government’s report on how to improve U.S. inland transportation. Fulton enthusiastically concluded that “when the United States shall be bound together by canals, by cheap and easy access to market in all directions, by a sense of mutual interests arising from mutual intercourse and mingled commerce, it will be no more possible to split them into independent and separate governments.”
Nevertheless, on the eve of its construction, little more than 100 miles of canals had been built in the entire United States. While proponents pointed with encouragement to the successful model of Europe’s epoch-making canals, the truth was that the 1761 coal-carrying Bridgewater Canal that spurred England’s canal craze had been only 10 miles long, while France’s more complex, 150 mile, 1681 Canal du Midi joining the Atlantic and Mediterranean, had been built across a civilized, heavily populated landscape. The much longer Erie was to traverse vaster expanses of untamed, barely inhabited wilderness. Large government financial support was needed. Thus when the project was presented in January 1809 to President Jefferson, the usually visionary leader passionate about promoting improved internal navigation, dismissed it as a wonderful but unrealistic idea that was a century ahead of its time. “It is little short of madness to think of it at this day,” he told his disappointed visitors.
The project might have died at that point had not an outstanding New York politician, De Witt Clinton, stepped forth to become its champion. A longtime mayor of New York, U.S. senator, scion of a leading political family, and later to be New York governor, Clinton had been persuaded to steam up the Hudson in early July 1810 on Fulton’s Clermont to embark on what would be a revelatory, nearly two-month round-trip expedition between Albany and Buffalo to study the feasibility of the canal. He came back inspired to make the Erie Canal the capstone of his political career. Over the next seven years he determinedly overcame all political obstacles, technical doubters, and the disruptions of the War of 1812 to win the backing of the New York legislature for the state-financed canal. Finally on July 4, 1817, three days after Clinton himself had been elected governor of New York, ground was broken on what his many critics called “Clinton’s ditch.”
Building the four-foot-deep, 40-foot-wide canal and mule towpath was an immense technical and financial challenge. The work was done in three stages, entirely by hand labor, horse, oxen, and blasting powder. European canals provided engineering experience to cross rivers and build locks. But clearing and excavating through hundreds of miles of thick, forested wilderness was an utterly novel challenge. Ingenious solutions were found by work teams on the job through trial and error to expeditiously fell trees, remove stumps, and slice through the tangle of tree roots by the use of plows. When common quicklime proved unstable for lining and sealing the culverts, locks and aqueducts, the engineers found a source of inexpensive New York state limestone that acted like waterproof Roman cement when it hardened. By the fall of 1819, the midsection of the canal, which ran through the state’s lucrative salt-producing region, was finished and filled with water. The first tolls were collected along the finished stretch in July 1820.
The moment of financial truth for the canal came with the Panic of 1819, and the related bank lending contraction and national economic depression, which had initially been triggered by the depleted Treasury’s urgent 1818 calling in of $3 million in gold in order to meet a large debt payment due to France for the Louisiana Purchase. From the start, many of Erie’s doubters contended that Clinton’s $6 million budget was simply beyond the wherewithal of the state and nation’s limited capital. But the steadiness of state financing enabled work on the canal to continue without interruption, insulating New York from the worst of the national depression. The national economic collapse, moreover, caused capital market borrowing rates to plunge. With the canal increasingly looking like a viable project and few other attractive issues being offered, demand for New York’s new issue of canal bonds surged, lowering the cost of the project. Previously cautious large investors jumped in. So did British speculators, as the frenzy for Erie paper spread overseas; by 1829, foreigners held over half the canal’s $7.9 million in obligations.
By 1821, 9,000 men were working to build out the midsection in the canal in both directions. At each extreme it faced its toughest geographical challenges. To negotiate the steep gorge that sliced through the Appalachians, an aqueduct was built some 30 feet above the rushing white water and falls. Farther east, the steep descent toward the Hudson River was managed by the construction of long aqueducts, one supported by 26 piers, which crisscrossed the river. The greatest challenge of all lay at the western end, where the canal had to surmount the precipitous six story high cliffs leading to the escarpment from which Niagara Falls poured 17 miles away. At the end of two and a half years, workers had completed five flights of giant, 12-foot locks and sculpted a canal and towpath channel through seven miles of solid rock face. When it was finally finished in October 1825, the Erie Canal was the nation’s marvel. Across its 363 miles it had 83 locks and 18 aqueducts that carried 50 ton, mule- or horse-pulled freight boats up and down over 675 feet.
The two-week-long dedication was led by Governor De Witt Clinton, who paraded through Buffalo before setting out on a triumphal week-long journey on the canal to Albany—a trip that had taken him thirty-two days by land fifteen years earlier. At Albany he and his entourage boarded the Hudson steamer for New York. At the mouth of New York harbor, Clinton performed a symbolic wedding of the waters by pouring water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic. Other dignitaries stepped forward to pour water bottled from 13 of the world’s great rivers—Ganges, Indus, Nile, Gambia, Thames, Seine, Rhine, Danube, Mississippi, Columbia, Orinoco, Rio de la Plata, and Amazon.
The Erie Canal was an immediate, heroic success. At four cents a mile, it slashed freight transportation costs by 90 percent overnight. Toll collections surged as some 7,000 boats plied the canal the very first year; within just twelve years, the entire canal debt had been paid back. Relieved of the stultifying burden of transportation costs, midwestern wheat, corn, and oats quickly won new markets throughout the East Coast and across the ocean in Europe. Farm production soared, prices plunged, and settled cropland throughout the Mississippi Valley expanded. Georgia’s governor was shocked to find that New York State wheat sold in Savannah for less than wheat from central Georgia. Philadelphians awoke to discover that the cheapest route to Pittsburgh was up the Hudson, across the Erie Canal and south from Lake Erie by canal or wagon. As world markets opened wide to America’s interior beyond the Appalachians, east-west commerce in other goods also took off at an astonishing pace. Between 1836 and 1860, total tonnage on the Erie Canal multiplied thirty-one-fold.
The Erie Canal’s catalytic impact was even more dramatic than its opulent profitability. Over 100 new canal projects were launched across America within a year of its opening. By the late 1840s, a full-fledged canal boom had produced more than 3,000 miles of canals—three-quarters, following Erie’s lead, financed with public funds—to connect America’s navigable rivers into an integrated, inexpensive highway extending from New York to the Gulf of Mexico. Canals joined the Great Lakes to the Mississippi via the Illinois River in the west and via the Ohio River in the east. In the 1830s a canal spur also joined Erie to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, while early steam railroads linked canals across terrain that canals didn’t traverse. Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh became bustling inland port cities. The marriage of steamboats and canal-linked rivers quickened farming and burgeoning industrial activity throughout the Midwest.
While the Erie-ignited canal boom had many parallels with England’s forty-year canal craze following 1761 that transformed the Midlands and northern England into the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, its dynamic impact was more fittingly compared to that of the Grand Canal upon medieval China. Like the Grand Canal, America’s Erie-inspired waterway network united a continental-sized nation-state challenged by splintering regional divisions, geographical impediments, slow travel and communication, and divergent economic and social organization. Inland navigation routes supplanted each country’s reliance on coastal sea commerce, extended the reach of the central government, tightened webs of mutual economic interest, and spread common political and cultural discourse over a wide landscape. As the Grand Canal invigorated China with a stronger south-north orientation, Erie and its offspring reoriented America from its traditional north-south axis toward the more unifying east-west continental destiny envisioned by Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. With a traversable route through the Appalachians, settlers began to pour into the western lands. By 1840 two out of five Americans lived west of the mountain barrier. National economic growth accelerated notably after Erie’s opening. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the economy expanded on average about 2.8 percent per year; from 1825 to 1850, 4.8 percent annually—the fastest growth spurt in all of U.S. history. By the 1840s the inland transportation infrastructure, influx of immigrant labor, and large accumulations of domestic capital had structurally transformed America into a nation that was ready to embark upon its great economic takeoff.
The Erie Canal boom also created the platform for the frenzy of steam railroad building that succeeded it. The speedy, all-season railroads effectively extended the waterway network, and finally surpassed it as America’s leading freight hauler after midcentury. Like the medieval Islamic camel caravans, the steam and iron railroads ultimately provided the means for crossing the expansive desert and mountain frontiers of America’s Far West and fusing its resources with the mass production industrial economy of its temperate, eastern half. Steamships carrying iron ore from the western Great Lakes met up with railroad and canal barge shipments of coal to mass-produce various shapes of carbonless iron, or steel, at huge steel mills from the 1870s. As iron improved upon weaker wood, incredibly strong yet resilient steel improved upon iron that tended to bend and snap. Steel—which used water prodigiously for cooling—became the basic building material of the most dynamic industries and cities of the new era. Steel cable wires were used to support the landmark 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, then the world’s longest suspension bridge. In combination with energy harnessed from petroleum, which began to be drilled in significant volumes from the 1860s, and the electric dynamo, steel provided one of the core technologies of America’s rise to world economic leadership in the second great phase of the Industrial Revolution.
The transportation revolution ignited by the Erie Canal also shaped the urban hierarchy of the nation. As the main commercial gateway between the world and the fertile, huge U.S. interior, New York became America’s leading city. Its port, which had ranked fourth in tonnage in the colonial era behind Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston, swelled with traffic equal to all other U.S. ports combined by the mid-nineteenth century. Likewise, its small capital market of brokers—24 of whom had formalized a trading agreement among themselves in 1792 under a buttonwood tree on the street where the city’s Dutch founders had erected a protective wall in 1653 and had continued to meet in various local taverns until 1817—formed the forerunner of the New York Stock Exchange, and in 1825 moved into a fixed location. The post-Erie fever in canal and railroad securities made it America’s premier center of finance. Between 1815 and 1840, the city’s population tripled to 300,000, then more than doubled to about 700,000 by 1850.
To the west, the canal and steam railroad booms similarly vaulted Chicago on Lake Michigan to regional metropolitan leadership. From a population of only 350 in 1833, Chicago grew rapidly on grain and raw materials freight connecting to the Erie Canal, then even faster after the 1848 opening of the 96-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal linking Chicago with the Mississippi. By 1850 it had 30,000 inhabitants. The city’s destiny as the key midwestern transit point for the crops, livestock and raw materials of America’s interior was solidified from the 1850s when Chicago became the central hub for the steam railroads. Travel time to New York fell from three weeks by boat to three days by train. Slaughterhouses, meat-packing enterprises, and transit by refrigerated railway cars soon followed. By 1890 Chicago was the nation’s second largest city.
Rapid urbanization evoked a sanitary awakening in America, as it had in Europe. New York led the way. Manhattan island, surrounded by undrinkable, brackish rivers and possessing only one wholesome freshwater source on its low-lying, settled southern tip, entered the era as one of the most parched cities in the country. Reflecting its rise in status, by the 1880s it had built the world’s most abundant urban water supply system providing each of its over 1 million inhabitants with a lavish 100 gallons of water per day—a modern urban incarnation of ancient Rome in its glory days.
From the colonial era through the early decades of the American republic, New York City’s public water had been so notoriously bad that residents seldom drank it untreated. Instead they consumed it for breakfast as warm beer, in disinfecting alcoholic drinks at the city’s many taverns, or boiled in hot chocolate or tea. Well water, often briny and hard tasting, was rarely consumed. Lower Manhattan’s single freshwater pond, called the Collect, by the early nineteenth century had become such a dumping ground of sewage, excrement, dead animals, and occasional human corpses that the only available wholesome water came from a lone, pumped spring. Known as the Tea Water Pump because its purity favored its use for making tea, it was sold throughout the city in water carts by “tea men” for a handsome premium that only the well-to-do could regularly afford. By the time New York’s population began to swell from the Erie Canal’s influence, the water system was already at the breaking point.
Catastrophic epidemics and fire finally broke through the political and business intrigues that for decades had stymied the clamoring for water reform. Yellow fever had killed 2,000 in 1798 and various plagues had visited the city periodically before the disastrous global cholera epidemic struck New York in 1832. The horrible dehydration and rupturing capillaries of the bacteria killed 3,500 New Yorkers—almost 2 percent of the population—and sent 100,000 people, or nearly half the city, fleeing to the greener suburbs north of 42nd street and beyond. The lack of a good water system also had left New York vulnerable to the great fire of 1776 and numerous other successive blazes. In December 1835, with residents barely recovered from the cholera epidemic, a terrible fire, fanned by high winds, destroyed some one-third of the city, including much of its commercial and shipping businesses in lower Manhattan. The blaze exhausted the resources of the city’s new fire reservoir, while cisterns froze and river water turned to ice in the pipes of volunteer firemen’s hand pump carts.
The disasters of the 1830s finally galvanized the city’s resolve to build the 42-mile-long Croton Aqueduct system. Its chief engineer, John Jervis, had learned his trade on the Erie Canal. The aqueduct system included a dam, reservoirs, arched bridges, and tunnels and brought water from the Croton River north of the city to a showy distributing reservoir on Murray Hill at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue at the site later conspicuously occupied by New York’s central public library. Designed to look like an Egyptian temple, the reservoir’s completion in October 1842 was wildly celebrated with fountains being turned on at City Hall and Union Square, cannons firing from the Battery, church bells ringing, the singing of a specially written “Croton Ode,” and a seven-mile parade attended by some quarter of a million people. The mood was captured in the journal entry of a future New York mayor, Philip Hone: “Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water; fountains, aqueducts, hydrants and hose…It is astonishing how popular the introduction of water is among all classes of our citizens, and how cheerfully they acquiesce in the enormous expense which will burden them and their posterity with taxes to the latest generation. Water! water! Is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.” During the 1850s a sewerage system was begun. Bathrooms became a common feature of New York life. Never again was New York plagued by terrible cholera epidemics and great fires. As in London following its sanitary reforms, childhood mortality plunged and average life spans leaped from historic trend lines.
The Croton water supply had been expected to last for sixty years. Within a decade, however, it became evident that additional supply would be needed to meet the growing population and the surge in per capita consumption that accompanied the sudden availability of freshwater. By 1884 engineers began work on a second Croton aqueduct system with three times the capacity of the original. Even before the New Croton system was completed in 1911, groundbreaking had begun a still larger, new municipal water supply project. The Catskill aqueduct system brought water some 100 miles from the mountains west of the Hudson River to satisfy the thirst of New York’s over 3.5 million inhabitants. Completed in 1927, the Catskill system featured a water tunnel 1,114 feet under the Hudson riverbed. Reflective of the era’s prevailing Go-Go culture, authorities used high-handed land appropriations to displace entire rural towns and citizens to make way for the system’s massive reservoirs.
To carry water throughout the growing metropolis, New York also built its first deep, high-pressure subterranean conduit—City Tunnel Number 1, some 18 miles long—in 1917. Working at perilous atmospheric pressures requiring careful bodily acclimation, workers nicknamed “sandhogs” bore through the solid bedrock under the city and its rivers and harbor at a depth of some 750 feet, or the equivalent of an inverted skyscraper. In 1936 City Tunnel Number 2 added another 20 miles of water distribution capacity far below the city’s streets, subways, and buried electrical and gas service pipelines. Work on Tunnel Number 3, one of the world’s most monumental engineering projects at the turn of the twenty-first century, started in 1970 and was still being done at the end of the century’s first decade.
As the population of New York City climbed toward 8 million in the 1950s, still more water supply was needed. Between 1937 and 1965, the city built its largest aqueduct system with water from the Delaware River that flowed between New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Construction of the Delaware system proceeded only after a 1931 Supreme Court ruling, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, rejecting downstream New Jersey’s effort to stop the project. Holmes’s opinion established the guiding water-sharing principle of “equitable apportionment without quibbling over formulas” because “a river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”
In the early twenty-first century, the water system that keeps New York City running is still an engineering marvel. Although leaky and in a dire race to modernize several critical components ahead of a catastrophic collapse, it delivers, almost entirely by gravity, some 1.3 billion gallons to 9 million people each day—enough for over 140 gallons per person—through three primary aqueducts drawing from 19 reservoirs and three managed lakes across a 2,000-square-mile watershed. Its sewerage counterpart of about 6,500 miles of pipes carries away an equal amount of wastewater each day to 14 treatment plants, 89 wastewater pump stations, and other facilities. History had once again repeated itself: as in ancient Rome and other leading civilizations of the past, the water infrastructure of the foremost center of the greatest power of the age was both a bellwether and a key contributor of its preeminence.
By the late nineteenth century, while New York’s water system was being rapidly expanded, America had begun to assert its status as the world’s awakening industrial giant. Pivotal to its transformation of the 1900s into the American Century was the nation’s response to the challenge of harnessing the untapped resources of its remaining two frontiers—its arid Far West, and its seascape alongside the Earth’s two largest oceans. The clarion call west had been sounded on January 24, 1848, when workers erecting Swiss émigré Johann Sutter’s new waterwheel-powered sawmill on the south fork of the American River near modern Sacramento, California, found 1.5 ounces of gold dust and nuggets in the millrace. On May 4 news of the gold strike spread wildly through the small town of San Francisco. The following year, word reached the larger world. The California Gold Rush was on. By land and sea, “forty-niners” flocked to California to prospect. By 1853 more than 100,000 had arrived, including 25,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Chinese. Hundreds of thousands more followed. Within a matter of months, San Francisco swelled into a booming city of over 20,000.
Prospectors panned streams and dug shafts into hillsides. But most effectively, they rigged old Roman hydraulic methods to shear away the rocky skin and foliage of the foothills with high-pressure water jets to expose the underlying gold veins. Water was lifted by wooden waterwheels—called hurdy-gurdy wheels by the miners who improvised them—and funneled through pipelines to fill tanks and dams several hundred feet above the mining site. It was then released in torrents through piping and small diameter metal nozzles to generate pressures up to 30,000 gallons per minute. Hillsides everywhere were stripped bare by the environmental carnage. The residue of smashed rocks and topsoil from neighboring farms washed away toward San Francisco Bay. Farmer pressure finally outlawed the practice in 1884. But by that time the gold had been mostly plundered from the hills and the miners had moved on to the next strike. Johann Sutter, meanwhile, died in Pennsylvania in 1880, at the age of seventy-seven, a man ruined by the unstoppable invasion of squatters and lawless theft of his stores and property.
One of the lasting imprints of the Gold Rush on America’s western destiny was the blazing of two main transportation routes linking the East with the nation’s western frontier. The parched, overland trails across the Far Western deserts and high mountains drew 300,000 to California by 1860, many of whom later settled down as early farmers and merchants. California’s precocious development, in turn, hastened the building of the transcontinental steam railroad. When the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were linked up in in 1869, travelers could cross the country in comfort from New York to San Francisco in only ten days.
The search for a faster, cheap sea route to California, meanwhile, spurred the epic quest to build a transoceanic canal passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. Until the building of the Panama Canal, the voyage required 15,000 miles and sailing around South America’s treacherous Cape Horn. In a single month in 1850, 33 sailing ships arrived in San Francisco after an average 159 days at sea. Speedier, full-rigged clippers later reduced travel time to about 97 days. Before the Gold Rush, in 1840, President James Polk, inspired by America’s growing continental ambitions, had already recognized the sovereignty of Colombia over the Isthmus of Panama in exchange for right of American rail passage through it. If the acquisition of California after the 1846-1848 war with Mexico heightened momentum for a canal, the Gold Rush gave it urgency. By 1855 the Panama railway bridging to the oceans was completed with American capital. In the next decade, 400,000 people crossed its tracks, including an army of California-bound miners. To compete with the Panama railway, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, notorious baron of Hudson River steamboats (and later railroads), ran steamers across the large lake at Nicaragua that connected to the Pacific coast by mule and schemed of his own interoceanic canal at Nicaragua; in 1855 one of Vanderbilt’s hired associates, William Walker, managed to set himself up as Nicaragua’s president. For the rest of the century, powerful interests in the United States and Europe took sides in the mounting high-stakes, multilateral battle to make either Panama or Nicaragua the chosen route for the interoceanic canal that would shape world power in the twentieth century.