Effects of Transportation on the Economy

Effects of Transportation on the Economy

The construction of roads, canals, and railways in the 19th century accelerated the rise of the massive United States economy.


3 - 12


Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History


Train Governor Stanford

The locomotive revolutionized commercial transportation with a durable, faster, cheaper way to move goods. The Governor Stanford was the first train on the Central Pacific, the first transcontinental line in 1869 when joined with the Union Pacific.

Photograph courtesy of CSU Archives/Everett Collection
The locomotive revolutionized commercial transportation with a durable, faster, cheaper way to move goods. The Governor Stanford was the first train on the Central Pacific, the first transcontinental line in 1869 when joined with the Union Pacific.
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For a country to grow, it must be able to move people and goods. Such transport must be done cheaply and easily. The early days of the United States show why. During this time, Americans built new roads, canals, and railroads. This transportation network grew fast. It made economic growth possible.

In the 1700s, most of the people of European descent in North America lived near the Atlantic coast. The roads there were narrow. They were not big or smooth enough for wagons full of goods. Commonly, rivers and boats were used to move big shipments. However, river transport was slow. It was also expensive. Farmers and traders found it hard to get their goods to town.

Roads Pave the Way for Success

In 1794, a new road opened in Pennsylvania. It was the country's first toll road. In other words, people paid to use it. It was built by private businesses instead of the government. This road was bigger and better built than others of the time. It soon proved successful. Traders and farmers could now get their products to market more easily. By the early 1820s, more such roads were built. Thousands of kilometers of roadways soon crisscrossed the region.

The national government paid for one major highway during this era: the Cumberland Road. Began in 1811, it extended westward from Cumberland, Maryland. By 1818, it had crossed the Appalachian Mountains and reached Wheeling, Virginia.

Goods Flow from East to West

Canals made water transport easier and faster. The largest and most important was the Erie Canal. New York State lawmakers approved its construction in 1817. Work crews dug it across the state. It was 12.1 meters (40 feet) wide. It was only 1.2 meters (four feet) deep. The Erie Canal connected Buffalo to Albany. Lumber and crops could be moved from west to east easily now. Other products could travel from east to west. The canal opened new opportunities for farmers and traders.

Other states tried to copy New York's canal. They began digging their own. By 1840, the United States had more than 4,828 kilometers (3,000 miles) of these waterways. Cities along the canals grew.

Railroads Crisscross the Country

Railroads were the next big step in a national transport system. Trains were fast. They were powerful and could haul big loads farther and faster. In 1827, the first railway in the United States was built in Maryland. It only went a short distance. That quickly changed. More and more railroad track was laid. Finally, in 1869, a railroad crossed the entire country. It was the first transcontinental railroad. People could travel across the continent easily. Products could move faster and more cheaply. New towns and cities sprung up wherever the railroads went.

The economy of the country grew. This system of roads, canals, and railroads made it possible.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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