American Transportation: Driving in 1776 (Part 1)

There you are, watching the Declaration of Independence being signed in the year 1776. It’s hot inside and outside, showers are not an everyday occurrence so there is a slight smell, and all you can think about is entering your nice air conditioned Tesla vehicle. Well, actually you didn’t have a Tesla back then … or air conditioning, or cars in general.

early american transportationSince it’s around that time of year with a National Holiday, many of us wonder how people survived back in the beginnings of America. There was no plumbing, heating, air conditioning, or electricity. Let’s face it life in 2018 is pretty darn good. Transportation from 1776 to 2018 has changed tremendously. Only in the past century have things really turned around, and in the past half century have more people really become able to afford cars and flights.

18th Century Transportation

Land Transportation

For those of the lower class the most common transportation was by foot or horse; however, many of the poor only had one or two horses per household if they could afford it. Often times they only used the horses for long trips to town or for work.

The middle class also walked very often to get from one destination to the other. However, some people in the middle class were able to afford carts and wagons pulled by one or two horses allowing easier travel and carriage of goods.

The upper class generally had carriages or stagecoaches pulled by multiple horses and a driver. The stagecoaches were much more lavish and some people decorated the coach to show their wealth.

Wagons and carts were also pulled by oxen and mules transporting goods and personal property. Don’t forget roads were not in existence. The first national road was built during the 1740’s, but nothing like what we would think of as a road today. Travel was difficult as it was dirt paths through forests or open areas that still had tree stumps with carriage marks on either side.

Water Transportation 

The only form of transportation from country to country was a sailing ship. The main ship used was an overseas vessel, transporting people and cargo from England and other countries to America. While these ships were large enough to carry many people and products they were still cramped. A coasting vessel was used to transport goods and people along the coast of a country, such as traveling down the east coast of America in a ship from colony to colony.

19th Century Transportation

Land Transportation

Roads were just beginning to be made, but only large roads all east of the Appalachian mountains such as the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Columbus, Ohio. If a person wished to travel and settle in the West they would take wagon trails that were often dreadful and difficult, like the Oregon Trail.

Just before the mid-1800s railroads began appearing and being built for cargo transportation. Railroads ran from the Northeast, to the South, to the Midwest, unlike many roads in the beginning of the 1800s.

Water Transportation

Steamboats were first commercially tested in 1807 in the Hudson River. These were used for cargo transportation and travel up and down major rivers in the United States. Come the 1830s most rivers were dominated by steamboats, which allowed cheaper trade and quicker travel.

Canals were built throughout the century, for much faster transportation of goods between states. The Erie Canal opened up agricultural hinterlands for trade between states and regions. After the success of this canal, the rest of the northeast began to build these inland waterways to create efficiency and ease of trade.

In only two centuries life changed drastically for people in the United States. New states were founded in America, railroad systems ran throughout the country, and canals and rivers were used as quick transportation. If you’re wondering how much more life changed in the next two centuries come back and read our part 2 in just a few weeks from railroads to autonomous vehicles.