Travel and Transportation

Transportation Developments in the Early Republic

Early 19th-century America was a rapidly expanding nation and its people constituted a highly mobile population, pushing further west into newly opened lands, blazing trails and clearing passages for others to follow.

However, as the number of westward migrants increased, the small trails could not accommodate the heavy traffic, nor did the existing modes of transportation facilitate quick and easy access to the nation's interior. For the people, inadequate transportation was more of a stumbling block than an actual hindrance to the settling of western territories. For the nation, the absence of good transportation prevented its ability to transport goods and produce from the interior to Eastern markets at reasonable costs.

Thus, the future of American's economic system depended upon the nation's ability to design and construct a network of transportation systems that extended from the small villages of the interior to the centers of commerce, manufacture, and trade. To respond to its serious needs, America embarked upon a course of internal improvements and technological developments, labeled by historian George Rogers Taylor as "the transportation revolution."

Internal Improvements in National Politics

The nation experienced a transportation boom in the early 19th century as a result of three major events:

  1. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which increased the land holdings of the United States by some 568 million acres, essentially doubling the size of the nation;
  2. The War of 1812, which brought attention to the need for communication with and security for the interior portions of the nation;
  3. The westward migration, which required the ability to handle people and goods between the East and new western settlements and which also resulted in an emerging political base in the West with which the Eastern establishments had to deal.

One of the earliest allowances for internal transportation developments came in 1803 when Congress provided the new state of Ohio with 5% of proceeds from public land sales for use in the construction of roads.

This Congressional act established a precedent for other states and also opened the door to other federal appropriations through land sales.

The foundation for later transportation developments was the April 1808 report of Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin regarding the construction of public roads and canals throughout the nation. This matter was considered by congressional committee, though nothing was done until after the War of 1812. In late 1816, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina became the prime mover of the "Bonus Bill," which proposed using federal monies, secured from the proceeds of the Bank of the United States, for the purpose of internal improvements.

Calhoun argued: "Whatever...impedes the intercourse of the extremes with the centre of the Republic, weakens the union...Let us then...bind the Republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space." (quoted in Transportation and the Early Nation, p 33).

Despite Congressional approval of the plan, President James Madison vetoed the bill, opposing it on the grounds that the Constitution did not grant such broad authority to Congress to finance, build, and regulate such a network. This stumbling block for internal improvement projects persisted during subsequent administrations.

With growth of the nation came the natural desire for internal improvements; consequently, the National Republicans adopted this as a priority of their organization. Both Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams envisioned transportation legislation as the means by which sectional claims would be harmonized into a national scope. Clay's "American System" proposed to encourage the development of manufacturing in the North through high protective tariffs and thereby build a large working population to consume Western produce and Southern goods.

Through the tariff revenue, the government would be able to build roads and canals and improve rivers and other waterways, thereby contributing to increased production, improved marketing capabilities, and to a system of integrated and complimentary sections.

James Madison

Subsequent administrations took different positions on the issue of internal improvements.

James Monroe favored internal improvements financed by the federal government ONLY if the Congress was empowered to do so by the Constitution; thus, the reason why he vetoed proposed expenditures.

John Quincy Adams claimed "The first duty of a that of bettering its own condition by improvements." (Transportation and the Early Nation, p.43). He supported sales of federal land grants to provide revenue for improvements. During his administration, Adams appropriated over $2 million for improvements, compared to only $1 million by his predecessors.

Andrew Jackson initially advocated internal improvements, even favoring the distribution of federal surpluses to the states in order to finance the projects, though he also wanted the assurance of constitutionality. Later, Jackson believed that internal improvements were primarily the function and responsibility of state governments. Ironically, despite his constant vetoes of appropriations for internal improvements, over $10 million were spent for such projects, having been hidden in various general appropriation bills.

During the period of the "transportation revolution" in America, it is possible to see which political leaders were more responsive to the country's needs for internal improvements.

Men like Clay, Adams, Gallatin, Webster, and Calhoun (prior to 1824) showed foresight in anticipating the future needs of a rapidly growing and diversifying nation in their support for internal improvements through programs of federal -state cooperation.

On the other hand, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Van Buren, and Calhoun (after 1824) opposed federal sponsorship of internal improvement projects since it was not specifically allowed by the Constitution.

Modes of Transportation in the Early Republic

Turnpike Gate George Morland


The first turnpike, built by private stock companies and financed by private investments and toll revenues, opened in 1794 between Lancaster and Philadelphia. Its success stimulated similar projects in New England and the Atlantic states by 1815, and it also influenced the beginning of the National Road in 1811, which reached Wheeling by 1818. "Turnpike fever" raged in the Old Northwest during the 1820s and 1830s, but few roads were completed, except in Ohio. Turnpikes were relatively short-lived because of assorted economic factors: for long hauls, their value was limited because of high tolls and long travel times; the pikes also did not yield good returns for their investors -- in New England, only 6 of 230 pikes barely returned money, while those in Massachusetts earned dividends of only 3.1% in 60 years. Failure of turnpikes could be blamed on the competition of canals and railroads; however, high costs, poor management, and high maintenance costs primarily contributed to their downfall. (Transportation Revolution, 17-28)

Plank Road

Plank Roads

This innovative road was not common in the United States during the early decades of the 19th century. Plank roads were introduced in Canada in the mid 1830s and in New York by the mid 1840s; however, the "boom" period did not arrive until the 1850s.

Plank Road


The canal "boom" began in the 1810s as a means of connecting existing waterways. By 1816, there were 100 miles of canals in the United States; only three canals were longer than two miles, thereby indicating the prevalence of short, local connecting spurs. Major canals of the time included:

  • Erie Canal (1817-1825) constructed by the State of New York; served as a model for other state projects. 364 miles long.
  • Ohio-Erie Canal completed in 1833 at a cost of $8 million, running 308 miles from Cleveland to Portsmouth on the Ohio River.
  • Miami-Erie Canal built in the western part of Ohio, from Cincinnati to Dayton in 1832, and to Toledo in 1845.

Canals were funded by investments, stocks, state bonds, and direct financing by some state governments; the federal government even provided some assistance in later years by allowing proceeds from the sale of public lands to be used for canal projects. State bonds, however, were most important to the success of the projects: value of bonds issued between 1820-1837, $108 million.

By 1840, over 3,300 miles of canals were present in the United States, all but 100 miles of which were built after 1816 and most after 1824. Between 1816 and 1840, over $125 million was spent on canals, causing near bankruptcy for three states.



Flatboats were commonly used until the 1830s when steamboats began to dominate river trade and travel on the Great Lakes. The advantages to this form of transportation were speed and economy, plus connections of internal waterways with major ports. (Transportation Revolution, p.56-73)



The initial development of this system occurred in the eastern United States during 1820s and 1830s. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered in 1828 and had thirteen miles of track operation by May, 1830. Charleston, South Carolina, built the second railroad in the nation by 1833, which totalled some 136 miles. To the north, three short lines operated out of Boston by the early 1830s. During the same decade, roughly three miles of rails were built for every two miles of canal, resulting in the relative parity of both rail and canal systems by 1840. In 1850, the number of miles of rails exceeded total canal miles by nearly two times. (Transportation Revolution,p.74-103)

DC Canal

Changing Costs of Transportation

In 1816, the Senate reported that one ton of goods from Europe, traveling 3,000 miles, could be shipped for $9; the same shipment could be carried only 30 miles overland in the United States for the same price.

Between 1810 and 1819, the average cost of .30 per ton-mile prohibited the long distance movement of goods. More specifically, in 1817, New York found the cost of transportation from Buffalo to New York City was three times the market value of wheat, six times of corn, and twelve times of oats. By the 1820s, ton-mile prices dropped as low as .12, attributed in part to price deflation and the spread of turnpikes and canal systems.

With the network of rails, canals, and roads established prior to the Civil War, some transportation costs were reduced to roughly .01 per ton-mile, thereby attesting to the positive effect of transportation developments on shipping costs and the price of the marketed items. (Transportation Revolution, p.132-152)

Transportation in Indiana

By the mid 1820s, there were several well defined lines of travel to Indiana's interior; however, their conditions were deplorable. With the absence of rails, canals, and pikes, individuals faced only blazed trails, bad roads, and obstructed rivers.

For years, beginning in 1816, the state legislature discussed assorted schemes for internal improvement in an effort to modernize the state and to tie Indiana into the larger regional and national markets.

horses and delivery wagon stuck in the mud

River Travel

Rivers provided an important means of transportation and communication during the early years of life in Indiana. Their importance could be seen by the establishment of towns and villages along their banks and cutting of roads to follow their courses.

The Ohio-Mississippi river complex was the major highway of the developing West. At seasonal highwater, fleets of flatboats carried Midwestern produce down to New Orleans and other lower Mississippi markets. The Wabash River, which fed into this system, was also a main trade route to the south and provided the means by which flatboats and some steamboats navigated successfully.

The White River was not a major commercial route, though more traffic occurred south of Indianapolis than north. Travel was more restricted to flatboats which carried small amounts of produce to local markets, simply because the White River was navigable. In 1831 one steamboat, the "Robert Hanna," arrived in Indianapolis with much fanfare over the navigability of the White River; however, on its return journey, it hit several sandbars and became grounded for some six weeks, thereby effectively ending steamship travel on the White River until 1865. (Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, 1:19)

Canoes were probably used on Indiana rivers for personal transportation.

Other river vessels included: flatboats, or framed rectangular rafts roughly 8-10 feet wide and 30-40 feet long, which were capable of carrying immigrants and produce downstream (see Schramm and Mace letters) keel boats, which were light draft boats of 5-12 feet wide and up to 80 feet long, could be used to transport passengers and goods up- and downstream – even William Conner secured a keel boat from Indianapolis in 1821 to haul away a surplus load of corn; by the 1830s, steamboats were the primary means of moving goods down the major rivers of the nation's interior.


The so-called roads in Indiana were in very poor condition. Personal travel was limited to foot or horse; sturdy wagons were used to transport goods and immigrants. Governor Jonathon Jennings endorsed a state-wide system of roads and canals to be financed with a "3% fund" from congressional allocations obtained from public land sales. In 1822, a contract was let for a road from Richmond to Indianapolis, to be built in one mile increments, 48 feet wide, cleared of trees though allowing stumps to project twelve inches above the ground.

The Michigan Road, which resulted from the 1826 treaty with the Potawatomi Indians, was the first major road in the state, targeted to run from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River. The route was selected in 1828 to pass through Michigan City, South Bend, Logansport, and Indianapolis. Surveying began in 1830, contracting in 1832, and the road was cleared by 1836. With the coming of the financial crisis of 1837, county boards were given jurisdiction over appropriate sections of the road and empowered to call out local labor for fourteen days to build the remaining portions of the road. The Michigan Road became a major thoroughfare for passengers and hog drives.

The National Road was intended to be the principal route of travel for westward migrants; however, the road was not fully completed until the late 1840s, just in time to be replaced by the expanding network of rails.

National Road Map

The following is a list of significant dates regarding construction of the National Road in Indiana:

1827 – surveying on Indianapolis portion completed on July 5, with hook-up with Washington Street and extending to city's west boundary. Survey west of city completed by September with recommendations for bridge over White River.

1829 – work begins in Richmond.

1829 - 30 – government appropriates $50,000 for road 16 miles east of Indianapolis and 12 miles west.

1830 – lines run, timber cut, some grubbing but no road.

1831 - 34 – bridge over White River planned and built.

1832 – line cleared, grubbed 15 feet each side and some grading.

1833 – National Road completed to Columbus, Ohio.

1837 – contracts for portion from Columbus to Indiana border let and finished following year.

1850 – road completed to Indianapolis, though having been granted to state control in 1848. Road 149 miles long.

The National Road was not finished through Indianapolis in 1836 for various reasons.

  1. First, the government had failed to appropriate sufficient money for the project.
  2. Second, despite the availability of state money and importance of Indianapolis as the commercial center of the state, engineers and road commissioners held back on the continuation of the project for reasons unknown.
  3. Finally, the project was handled in a piecemeal fashion; plans called for construction in small sections, such as east and west of the Wabash River before the Indianapolis section, rather than in a continuous line from Columbus, Ohio.

Therefore, by the end of 1836, the National Road was planned and surveyed to pass through Indianapolis, but the road certainly was not completed, though travelers still passed over the cleared path. Even at this time, the U.S. House Committee on Roads and Canals was not firmly committed to the continuation of the road west of Ohio; during 1836, the committee discussed the possibility of constructing a railway from Columbus to the Mississippi River instead. (The Cumberland Road, p.85)

National Road sign

Several stage lines intersected in Indianapolis during the 1820s and 1830s. The lines ran from Indianapolis to Madison, Cincinnati (via Brookville), Lawrenceburg, Lafayette (via Crawfordsville), and to Columbus, Ohio, on the National Road. The average resident had little occasion to use the stage; stage lines carried primarily travelers, immigrants, and the mail.


Ohio was the leader in canal construction in the Old Northwest with 813 miles completed by 1846. Indiana began its planning 1816 for a project to circumvent the falls in the Ohio River (not completing until 1830). The governors of Indiana were strong supporters of canal construction in the state. When the Congress appropriated land for canal projects in 1824 and when Ohio planned to expand its own canal system, Indiana residents of the Whitewater region called for the creation of an Indiana canal company that would push for developments within the state.

By 1826, Governor Ray joined to support their efforts:

"On construction of roads and canals, we must rely on the safest and most certain state policy, to place us amongst the first in the Union... The rough appearance of nature must be overcome and made to yield to human enterprise. Our waters must be imprisoned in new channels and made to subsume the essential purposes of commerce." (Ray Papers, p.168)

In March 1827, Congress granted some 527,000 acres of land from Tippecanoe on the Wabash River to Auglaize on the Maumee to facilitate the construction of the Wabash-Erie Canal, a project to be commenced within five years and to be completed within twenty years. Over the next nine months, state officials battled over the merits of canals and railroads, with Governor Ray proclaiming his support for rails in December 1827:

"Railways are rapidly bearing away the palm of usefulness...from all other commercial facilities. They can be constructed at about half the cost of a canal, carry as much freight with double the velocity and operate in all seasons."

Nevertheless, the state legislature's committee on internal improvements was still insistent on building a canal system, claiming that canals were a more "democratic" means of transportation:

"every consideration of usefulness, practicability, durability and economy point to Canals and render it obviously inexpedient to waste time upon the subject of railways."

The canal/rail battle persisted for several years, thereby delaying work on the Wabash and Erie Canal. In fact, only ceremonial work was begun on the canal on Feb. 22, 1832, days before the congressionally imposed deadline for the commencement of construction. Over the next few years, work progressed on the Wabash and Erie. By July 4, 1835, 32 miles had been opened from Ft. Wayne to Huntington. On this occasion, Calvin Fletcher commented: "this good project will exalt Indiana among the nations of the earth."

Canal supporters received a boost on January 27, 1836, when the Indiana Legislature passed and Gov. Noah Noble signed the "Mammoth Improvements Bill," which established a $13 million appropriation (or one-sixth of the state's wealth) for internal improvement projects including: the Whitewater Canal from Nettle Creek (Hagerstown) to Lawrenceburg; the Central Canal from the Wabash and Erie through Indianapolis to Evansville; an extension of the Wabash and Erie from Lafayette to Terre Haute; a railroad from Madison to Lafayette, through Columbus and Indianapolis; a macadamized road from New Albany to Vincennes; removal of obstructions in the Wabash River; and surveys to examine the feasibility of other canals, railroads, or roads within the state's interior. The purpose of this massive venture was to remove the bonds of isolation which hindered the development of Indiana as a viable part of regional and national markets.

By the summer of 1836, surveys on the Wabash were completed to Lafayette, and the channel was opened to Wabash. That same year, Brookville residents celebrated the beginning of the Whitewater Canal. By late 1836 - early 1837, the Wabash-Erie Canal had reached Peru.

Indiana Governor, James B Ray
Wabash and Erie Canal map
canal design

Over the next few years, the Board of Internal Improvements continued on a spending spree, letting contracts, seeking expansion of existing systems, and buying bonds on credit, despite the financial panic of 1837.

By 1839-40, Indiana was nearly $10 million in debt and incapable of paying the interest on its loans. With the collapse of its funding sources, Indiana's internal improvements system faltered.


Rails did not play a significant role in the transportation system of 1830s Indiana, despite support from various sectors of the government. The first "railroad" in the state was built in Shelbyville in 1834; however, it consisted only of horsedrawn carriages on rails. According to the "Mammoth Improvements Bill", the state proposed a Madison-to-Lafayette railroad; that same year, the Lawrenceburg-Indianapolis railroad was chartered. However, the first true railroad, which ran from Madison to Indianapolis, was not operational until 1847.

Failure of Indiana Transportation — "A Hoosier Boondoggle"

With most of the other states proposing internal improvements and successfully constructing vast transportation networks, why did Indiana fail in its efforts?

  1. Indiana lacked an orderly, systematically-planned organization. The absence of coordination resulted in a system of scattered projects. The Indianapolis Sentinel of 1837 charged the state with "scatteration of jobs" and funds by supporting eleven different projects around the state instead of concentrating on the completion of one project at a time.
  2. The state proposed massive projects with insufficient financing and poor credit; in fact, at one point, state bonds dropped to a 50% discount. By 1841, the state had incurred a $13 million debt, nearly $9 million of which could be attributed to internal improvement costs.In his book on Indian canals, Paul Fatout criticized the state's "Mammoth Improvements Bill" of 1836, claiming it was "conceived in madness and nourished by delusions." It was a grandiose scheme for a backward state. The state's proposal for a loan of $10 million at 5% interest meant that the annual interest due was ten times the state's revenue from taxes; yet, the plan made no provision for payment of the loan's interest.
  3. Canals served local purposes and never came to mean as much to Indiana and Illinois as they did to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  4. Indiana was outdated and nonprogressive. State planners dwelt on the romantic glory of canals when, in fact, the new age of rails was sweeping across America. The lack of foresight by Indiana's leaders resulted in massive over-expenditures on a transportation network that was quickly superseded by rails and steam travel, thereby leaving much of the planned system uncompleted and unused.
Indiana map

Travel Times 1820–1843

The following are a series of travel times taken from various sources in the Conner Prairie Research Department. Unless otherwise indicated, horseback was the mode of travel used.

Noblesville to Indianapolis – 4 to 6 hours (1835-1843)
Corydon to Conner's Trading Post – 6 days (1820)
Indianapolis to Lawrenceburg – about 3 days. (1843)
Indianapolis to Cincinnati – 2 days (1834)
Cincinnati to Indianapolis – 2 1/2 to 3 days (1834)
Madison to Indianapolis by stage – 2 days (1834)
Richmond to Indianapolis on National Road – 2 1/2 days (1840)
Richmond to Terre Haute through Indianapolis – 6 to 7 days (1840)
(This may be an excessive amount of time)

Indianapolis to Fort Wayne – 5 days (1824)
Fort Wayne to Indianapolis – 5 days (1835)
Indianapolis to Westfield – 54 hours (1843)
Philadelphia to Indianapolis – about 3 weeks (1841)
Philadelphia to Indianapolis – record time – 6 1/2 days (1841)
Driving hogs, Indianapolis to Cincinnati – 15 - 20 days
Driving hogs, Noblesville to Indianapolis – 3 to 4 days

Additional Readings:

Esarey, Logan; History of Indiana.
Fatout, Paul; Indiana Canals, Purdue University Studies, 1972.
Gephart, William; Transportation and Industrial Development in the Middle West, Octagon Books, 1908, reprint 1976.
Hulbert, Archer B.; The Cumberland Road, Arthur H Clark Co., 1904.
Hunter, Louis B.; Steamboats on the Western Rivers, Harvard, 1949.
Indiana Historical Society; Transportation and the Early Nation, Indianapolis, 1982.
Meyer, Balthasar; History of Transportation in the United States before 1860, reprint by Peter Smith, 1948.
Searight, Thomas B.; The Old Pike: A History of the National Road, Uniontown, Pa., 1894.
Taylor, George Rogers;
The Transportation Revolution 1815-1860, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1951; Harper Torchbooks, 1968.