How Rails Saved a Seaport


The history of the Atlantic ports during this period of change, and indeed since the Revolutionary War, was one of intense competition in every phase of commercial activity. There was competition on the sea lanes as enterprising skippers from Massachusetts Bay or Sandy Hook or the Delaware or the Chesapeake drove their ships and their bargains equally hard in the overseas markets—Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Orient—in ceaseless attempts to outdo Britons, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, and one another. There was competition for the home market, carried on by hundreds of small schooners and sloops in the coasting trade, poking their noses into the myriad inlets and harbors that broke the irregular Atlantic coastline from Passamaquoddy in eastern Maine to the sea-island coast of Georgia.


And following the War of 1812 there was, increasingly, competition for the interior trade. America’s destiny lay westward, and by 1800 the West meant somewhere beyond the Appalachians. As the tide of settlers flooded over the mountains and into the fabulously rich farming country of the Mississippi Valley, merchants along the seaboard cast covetous eyes toward this horde of potential customers and debated the best means of reaching a market so full of promise.

The Mississippi River and its tributaries were the West’s highways, New Orleans its outlet, but this was a roundabout route to Europe and the eastern seaboard even after the steamboat arrived to speed the flow of traffic on the western waters. Textile mills in England and France were hungry for the cotton that yearly whitened the fields of Alabama and Mississippi: north of the Ohio the corn grew tall and went to market in the form of meal and whiskey and hogs to feed the urban workers in the East. The land beyond the mountains also teemed with other products. What was needed was a better means of reaching them than by way of distant New Orleans.

The Appalachians, running in a series of rough parallel ridges all the way from Maine to northern Alabama, constituted a formidable barrier to the western trading ambitions of the Atlantic ports: and the wagon traffic: that jolted over such highways as the National Road offered poor competition for the busy river boats. The first successful challenge to New Orleans came in 1825 when New York completed its Erie Canal across the level farm country between Albany, on the Hudson, and Buffalo, on Lake Erie, and thereby commanded a cheap and direct route to the interior. Traffic on the Mississippi, thanks to the steady over-all expansion of the western trade, continued to grow: but for the other Atlantic ports, New York’s water-level route across the Appalachian barrier posed a serious threat.

Indeed, New York was forging rapidly ahead of her rivals. Leadership in the export of western grain and meat products was bestowed by the Erie Canal, while the establishment of a regular line of sailing packets between New York and Great Britain in 1818— the famous Black Ball Line. soon joined by host of imitators—enabled her to secure the cream of the high-cost freight and passenger business on the Atlantic shuttle. New York further strengthened her position by invading the all-important cotton trade. Her merchants not only made huge profits marketing the crop for the southern planters: they also shipped much of the cotton to Europe by way of Sandy Hook, thus providing eastbound cargoes in the transatlantic trade to balance the costlv western shipments of English manufactures. The other seaboard cities were left far behind by the enterprise that radiated from Manhattan’s countinghouses.

The disappointed rivals pinned their hopes on finding an effective answer to the Erie Canal. Prosperity and growth still awaited any city that could open an economical route to the continually expanding interior market. The eventual solution was provided by the railroad. Alter a quater-century of apprenticeship. the railroad came of age in the 1850’s and conquered the stubborn Appalachians, offering new and steadily improving highways between the West and the seaboard. The key years were 1851, when the Erie Railroad was completed between New York and Dunkirk on Lake Erie; 1852, when the Baltimore & Ohio reached the Ohio valley at Wheeling and the Pennsylvania Railroad was opened between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and 1853, when a series of short roads between Albany and Buffalo were united to form the New York Central System.

These four—the Erie, the B&O, the Pennsylvania, and the New York Central—were the trunk lines, the new implements of the rivalry among the Atlantic ports, destined within the next few decades to extend that rivalry on their own rails as far west as St. Louis and Chicago, to cripple the mighty Eric Canal and virtually sweep the lordly steamboat from the western rivers, to move freight eastward across the mountains at a speed and at a price and on a scale undreamt of even in the heady, expansive years before the Civil War. The trunk lines were to fight, and combine, and fight again for greater shares of the western business. Their scramble for traffic was to reveal the American competitive system at its savage best and unbelievable worst.