Full Chisel Blog

September 30, 2008

Railroads & Steamboats & Canals

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 7:08 am

The Railroad played an important part in American culture ever since it was introduced long before the steam engine.  It may come as a surprise to some that railroads existed long before the Iron Horse was introduced.

Of course the width of the rail was based on the width of the Roman Chariot (normal gauge) and the first ‘coaches’ were altered stage coach bodies.  Many of the old terms like Iron Horse were replacements for the original source of power, the Horse.  Horsepower and all of that, although there is a difference between ‘Locomotive’ and ‘Braking’ Horsepower, but I won’t get into that.

Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb Steam Engine

The first steam powered locomotive built in America was the ‘Tom Thumb’, a diminutive engine built by Peter Cooper, yes that Peter Cooper!  Workers on the railroad said that the engines couldn’t make the sharp turns on the logging rails.  The first engines were not articulated, but this one was small enough to manage the tight curves.

Initially fueled by cord-wood, rails on wooden ties, wooden bodied railroad cars, bridges, trestles, lumbering and woodworking played a significant role in Western Expansion brought on by the technological advancements of the early nineteenth century.  Wood made the locks, the canal boats are constructed of wood as were the steamboats, all relied on wood.

But then there was the early Canal trade brought on by this countries interest in getting low friction methods of transportation.  Flat boats could float down river and flat canals could be traversed in both directions.  Up river traffic is another story.  The canals in early times were built on relative flat terrain to reduce the number of locks to adjust to different water levels.

Erie Canal

Canals in the East were different that those made out here in the Wild West.  Out here our canals were mainly used for irrigation.  Brigham Young introduced irrigation to the West and it was one of his greatest contributions, among others.  These canals were also used to float large blocks of Granite to build the Mormon Temple, and ox carts and later a narrow gauge railroad that went to a regular railroad line, that delivered almost all of the granite blocks to Temple Square.

The tonnage of material that was moved around this country was astounding, if they needed to move something, they needed to find the easiest way to get the job done.  Put it in a barrel and roll it on to the conveyance and it is bound or its destination.  Markings, labels, brands, stencils, stamps and other items of lading signified both the maker, user and sometimes shipper.  Shipping one ton of merchandise from
St. Louis or San Francisco to Great Salt Lake City in the 1850’s was $250.00 a ton or one bit or 12 and a half cents a pound for freight.  The price went down after the Railroad finished up.

But with the introduction of the steam engine for water borne  transportation greatly reduced the voyage from Europe to America.  The side wheel, stern wheel and newly introduced turn screw cut down travel time.  Instead of weeks at sea the voyage was cut to days.

Steamboat Yellowstone

One of the problems with steam boats is that they incorporated high pressure boilers, highly inefficient but very high power.  At these high temperatures, high pressure and proximity to water, of all of the 800 odd steamboats that plied the rivers of North America in the nineteenth century, all of them blow up, burned or sank.

A bit latter technology was to equip the tenders with a scoop on the underside.  Certain ‘watering stops’ were replaced with a long metal lined trough set up between the rails.  As the train approached it lowered the scoop and the forward momentum caused the tender to fill with water.  At the end of the trough the scoop was closed and the train didn’t need to stop for water hence the term ‘jerk-water town’.

 On May 10, 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad met at Promontory Point in Utah to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. (The Transcontinental Telegraph was completed in October of 1861 in Utah and The Transcontinental Telephone was hooked up on the Utah and Nevada Border in  1914).  And I think we were one of the first hookups to the Internet.

All these advancements in transportation brought shipping costs down dramatically in the areas they served.  This contributed to the expansion of the country and its economic and social development.  Lower costs of imported goods left more ‘cash’ to stay within the communities. 



  1. Stephen,

    Where’d you get the color version of the canal image? — great visual.

    Plus, a chance to plug my favorite steamboat-archaeology book — Treasure in a Cornfield, by Greg Hawley. Good read for those interested in 19th century western America.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — September 30, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

  2. Ken,

    I just did a search and found that color image.

    As for your new favorite book, I had an opportunity to go through the book, I did not read it but I felt that there was too much emphasis on the story of digging up the boat and way too little in terms of artifacts.

    Although I did keep saying “Well, I’ll be dipped…”, on several occasions, when seeing some of the artifacts which I have in my collection. It is too bad they don’t publish a catalogue of the collection. I really need to visit the Steamship Arabia Museum and see the stuff myself.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 1, 2008 @ 6:06 am

  3. There was a PBS show on it several years ago — the excavation of the Arabia — and the variety of goods on that boat was staggering. The assumption is that it was a standard cargo of the 1850s, with no reason to think otherwise.

    I think if you had to dig something like that — under the water table of the Missouri River, and facing a farmer’s deadline — you might be inclined to go into some detail on the digging as well. But a reading does go into the stock, and you can order the French perfume that they found from the museum’s website. They don’t say that they offer the pickles.

    So, how’s my other favorite book?


    Comment by Ken Pollard — October 1, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  4. Ken,

    Perhaps I dismissed it too quickly, will try to look at it more seriously. I just like more pictures, the ones in there weren’t bad.

    The other book is coming along.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 1, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress