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Works on canals

Waterways Cartography, Part II

Landmarks and Exemplars in North America

by: Gerald A. Danzer

“No part of the world is so well watered as the territories of the United States.” These words of John Phillips in the fourth edition of his General History of Inland Navigation (1803) broadcast what was both a boon and a challenge to Americans. Already a classic work in its own right, Phillips’ lengthy study, first published in 1792, honed the arguments for canals to a wide audience in the English-speaking world. As late as 1819 it was translated into French in an effort to develop and expand Britain’s internal transportation network. As we have seen in the preceding essay on canals and waterways, the General History of Inland Navigation had an earlier and even more forceful impact in North America. No people would benefit more from internal improvements than those in the United States, Phillips declared. “Just look at the map,” his refrain went, starting where you will along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and noting how the bays or rivers reach deep inland, almost touching the great inland lakes and the mighty Mississippi basin. Connections between and extensions of these waterways across the Atlantic Coastal Plain spurred canal efforts in almost every state along the Atlantic littoral, while gaps in the Appalachian barrier incited dreams of monumental public works to climb over the mountains and connect the Atlantic Seaboard with the North American interior by means of artificial watercourses.

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Map of the western part of the Dominion of Canada shewing various routes to the Yukon Dist., 1898

Early Visions

The US version of Abraham Rees’s Cyclopaedia, Or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, which used Phillips’s work to reach a broad audience, has an importance in the story that goes beyond its monumental size. As a series of scientific handbooks, profusely illustrated, it tied the American mind to the Enlightenment and the scientific method more firmly than any other publication. A corollary spelled out the application of this knowledge to the improvement of social and economic life. It was no accident that probably the most influential article in the British edition was a brilliant piece on the steam engine written by John Farey Jr., the son of the author of the entry on canals. These two long articles, one on canals and the other on steam engines, read in tandem, became a primer for the Industrial Revolution in North America. Canals came first, but the nineteenth century was to be the “Age of Steam.”

The massive effort needed to produce such an enormous and expensive set of books as the Rees’ Cyclopaedia required every resource the American printing industry could muster. The first volume of the London edition of this monumental work appeared in 1802. The complete set utilized a hundred contributors and 39 million words in 39 volumes of text, plus five volumes of plates and an atlas. Although the final installment did not appear in print until 1820, Samuel F. Bradford, a leading Philadelphia printer, envisioned an American version, “in about twenty volumes,” with a half-volume appearing every two months.

In spite of many challenges, including the war of 1812, when invading British troops burned down the warehouse where printed pages for the encyclopedia were stored, and the subsequent bankruptcy of Bradford’s publishing house, the Philadelphia-published edition of the Cyclopaedia kept pace with the British original. It was eventually acquired by a group of Philadelphia engravers and copublished by almost two dozen additional firms in the United States, printers and booksellers located from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Kentucky. The US edition also grew like Topsy. In the final push to complete the 47-volume Cyclopaedia, the state of Pennsylvania supported the project by authorizing a lottery. When the final volume, the atlas, appeared in 1824, four years after the completion of the London original, almost two thousand subscribers were listed at the end, including patrons as far west as Kaskaskia, Illinois on the Mississippi River and even readers living abroad, such as the members of the American Missionary Society in Bombay, India. It has been estimated that sixty American engravers worked on the final six volumes of plates. Most of the work involved direct copies of the pirated London version. Like the original atlas, the US edition included only one thematic map, the one on English Canals and Railways first published in 1820. By then, however, several important canal maps had already addressed an American audience, but none of them presented an integrated inland transportation system for the entire nation in the tradition of Phillips and Rees.

The first landmark North American publication on inland waterways was Robert Fulton’s Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation (London, 1796). It has been overshadowed by Fulton’s fame in conjunction with Hudson River steamboats and was soon neglected because he advocated, as the long title of his book explained, “the numerous advantages to be derived from small canals,” rather than expensive, full-scale internal improvements. But if one continues down the page, past the first dozen lines of the title, one notes that the volume also included “Observations on the great Importance of Water Communications.” The volume was published in London at the Architectural Library and attracted the attention of knowledgeable readers, including both John Phillips and Abraham Rees. It swam against the current in advocating small canals when the economics (and politics) involved soon favored larger ones. Fulton’s ideas then faded out of sight until the development of standardized container shipping in our own times.

What Fulton envisaged was a type of container (his small boats were twenty feet long and thirty inches wide) that could be moved over land by way of small canals with portages afforded by different types of lifts and carriages that Fulton described in a series of exquisite plates. Adding wheels would make it possible to load these small boats at a distance from a waterway, convey them to a small canal, and use little tunnels (forty inches wide and nine feet high) to shuttle them through divides into the next waterway.

Thus a modest investment could extend the advantages of canals and waterways “into every nook and corner” where a small cargo could be collected. “The country will be nourished,” he continued, “as veins feed the constitution.” Canals would have many branches, like rivers themselves, and the small boats would then be linked together like chains on the larger waterways. Small units would not only be less expensive but also encourage regularity both in the sense of interchangeable containers and standardized schedules.

Fulton concluded his book with a letter to Thomas Mifflin, the then Governor of Pennsylvania. He pointed out that the Commonwealth’s western lands, currently as “uncultivated as the interior of Africa,” could be transformed by canals. The continent had an abundance of natural rivers beyond the tide, but they should, in Fulton’s view, be used only as feeders to supply water to artificial canals. Rivers were wild, threatening the stability of any artifice people would create for their improvement. They also did not flow directly between settlements. A system of canals, both small branches and trunk lines, could improve the situation and “bind the whole country in the bonds of social intercourse.” The population would then multiply, land values would increase, industry would be stimulated, and the nation would “rise to unparalled importance, by virtue of so powerful an ally as canals.”

Fulton’s book should be considered an engineering treatise because it included “thoughts on, and designs for, aqueducts and bridges of iron and wood” as well as his proposals for a water-borne transportation system. Although he illustrated the volume with seventeen exquisite plates, most of these portrayed machines and devices. A few could be considered landscapes, but they were generalized proposals, not pictures of specific places. There were no maps. The elements Fulton advocated were detached from specific sites and presented for general application. The essential graphics were drawings of canal boats and sketches of mechanical devices in operation. After Fulton published his book, he moved on to Paris and to other interests, maintaining his convictions on the importance of waterways and the future of the US but gaining new insights into the possibilities opened up by the steam engine.

Only a few years later, in 1808, Christopher Colles, the New York engineer and pioneer in American transportation mapping, turned his attention to the construction of canals. Another lengthy title, this time taking up twenty-two lines, started with a general proposition: Proposal of a Design for the Promotion of the Interests of the United States of America, Extending Its Advantages to All Ranks and Conditions of Men. The means for promoting these progressive, democratic interests were Inland Navigable Communications of a New Construction and Mode. It was a “self-evident truth” the author exclaimed “that extensive water communications are the highest improvement any country can receive.” But the expense of canals was more than Americans could bear. They were expensive to dig, especially in a land short of labor. The solution, in the Colles proposal, was to take advantage of the native forests and construct the canals out of wood, above ground.

In essence, Colles would cut a swath through the Great Forest, use the wood to build a superstructure like a long, narrow bathtub, employ windmills to keep it full of water, and then lay out lots along the elevated watercourse to be sold to help finance the project. Holland furnished an instructive example, but a canal made of wood would reduce the initial expense and make it easy to keep in good repair once the trough was drained for the winter. Speed of construction would provide a great advantage, boosting the value of the “town lots” available “which carried the privilege of a barge.” Brisk sales would advance the whole project, reducing the cost to finance the effort.

In addition to listing the advantages of such a canal to various segments of American society, Colles calculated the expenses and the profit to be gained from one mile of a timber canal after the sale of the land along its route. Figure A presented a cross section of the proposed canal, sketching its method of construction. An interesting fold out map showed the route for one such canal across New Jersey to connect New York City with Philadelphia. (Focus Map 1)

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Map of Ohio canals

Practical Beginnings

It is doubtful if Colles made any profit from the sale of his book or the use of his ideas. But at the time of its publication Zadok Cramer, a bookseller and stationer in Pittsburgh, had published the fourth edition of his The Navigator, a guide to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that was becoming an American classic. The early editions of Cramer’s pamphlet did not contain maps, but beginning in 1805, it featured a series of crude woodcuts to show the main channel for the entire river route from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. These maps were different from canal maps because they pictured conditions as they were known to be, rather than how they could be improved. The plates focused on the present rather than envisioning a better future; they were realistic in nature in contrast to the optimism built into most canal maps. Note Cramer’s sheet on the falls of the Ohio at Louisville, for example (Focus Map 2).

Victor Collot, the French traveler, drew a similar map of the same area in 1796 to point out “the shortest and surest way” to portage around the rapids or falls. In the previous decade Christopher Colles also drew up a plan for a canal at the newly founded Louisville, but he could not get support for his project. He even called on George Washington for help, but the general, who readily perceived the value of canals, turned his immediate attention to improving the Potomac rather than the Ohio River. Indeed, a succession of proposals addressed the obstruction to river traffic at Louisville, but funding could not be obtained until after the success of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, had spread “canal fever” throughout the republic.

In fact, DeWitt Clinton, when travelling to Ohio in 1825 to turn the first shovel of dirt for the Ohio and Erie Canal, looked forward to the day when cargoes from New Orleans could be shipped up-river to Portsmouth, Ohio by steamboat, then across the Buckeye State by canal boat to Lake Erie where they could reach the New York Canal System, creating an all-water route from New Orleans to New York City. Hailed in the West as “the father of internal improvement,” the governor of the Empire State spent almost a month traveling around Ohio touting his plans. He may have disappointed his hosts by ratifying the choice of a Kentucky-side canal at Louisville, in large measure, it seems, because the southern bank was more suitable for steamboats coming upstream. At this time, the rapids usually had prevented steamboats fighting the current from reaching Cincinnati, Wheeling, and Pittsburgh. Steamboats in the 1820s, with the aid of a skillful pilot, could, however, run the rapids and proceed downstream.

Thus a careful reader of North American canal and waterways cartography of the early period needs to be aware of the development of steam navigation on inland waters. Flatboats and keelboats were primarily downstream craft and even steamboats faced formidable obstacles when moving upstream. Henry Shreve experimented with moving the steam engine up on the deck and out of the hold to permit a shallow draft, thus minimizing the dangers from snags and rapids. By the late 1820s, his success, primarily in upstream movement, turned the Western rivers into two-way navigation channels, making it necessary to read waterway maps with a new set of eyeglasses.

One also needed a new mindset, as demonstrated by DeWitt Clinton’s thoughts as he considered the way to improve navigation at the falls of the Ohio. He was thinking of rivers and canals as part of a national system with New York and New Orleans as the major terminals for a vast inland navigation system reaching from Tidewater to the Rocky Mountains.

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Map showing the navigable depths of the rivers of the United States and the principal transportation routes on the sea-coasts and Great Lakes in the...

A National System

Up to 1825 most canals and river improvements were shown on maps leading from point A to point B. They envisioned segments of a water-borne commerce rather than a complete voyage within a vast regional, national, and even global commercial system. The Erie Canal changed that mode of map reading, encouraging a Great Lakes and Great River to Great Ocean pattern of thought. A young French engineer immediately perceived the importance of the Erie Canal, not only to the United States, but to the scope of inland navigation projects throughout the Western World, especially in his native land.

In many ways the digging of the Erie Canal set off a cartographic transformation in the United States as well. Early canals had often been featured on state maps and, of course, had been the focus of a variety of cartographic efforts emphasizing individual projects. But with longer routes serving as important traffic arteries, the artificial waterways, both completed and proposed, emerged as important elements on general reference maps. When William Darby published A Tour from the City of New York to Detroit in 1819, he included a route map that featured a larger context. This fascinating sheet pictured the Atlantic Coast south to Cape Henry, all of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Watershed, and the Upper Mississippi Valley from the Falls of St. Anthony to the mouth of the Ohio River. A broad line traced the boundaries of each watershed and the “Grand Canal” prominently appeared on the map even though it was only one-fourth of the way toward completion.

Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1775, Darby became one of the most prominent geographers and cartographers of the Early National Period. He began his career as a cotton planter in Louisiana, but a series of personal tragedies sent him back to Pennsylvania where John Melish published his Geographic Description of Louisiana in 1816, the same year that he married Elizabeth, the sister of Benjamin and Henry S. Tanner who had became celebrated engravers and map publishers. John Melish used Darby’s map of Louisiana as the basis for his influential map of the United States issued in 1819. Darby also probably pushed his brother-in-law, Henry S. Tanner, to issue the classic transportation map of the United States in the Canal Era, (Focus Map 4).

By the time Tanner’s elaborate wall map appeared in 1829, a variety of publishers had issued travel guides with maps to various states and regions of the United States. Darby participated in this movement as well, publishing his Emigrants Guide to the West and Southwestern Territories in 1818. Another notable example of this type of publication is Pratt’s River and Railroad Guide with Illustrated Maps. Focus Map 5 is the 1848 version. Here the spotlight is on the nation’s major rivers (think steamboats) with canals and railroads included as “connecting lines.” The focus would largely shift to railroads in the 1850s, but, at the same time, the general public gave increasing attention to the infrastructure of canals and waterways such as navigational aids, bridges, docks, harbors, and so on. The “Map of the Hudson River shewing location of proposed Dams and Jetties for Permanently Improving the Navigation of the Hudson River” by S. H. Sweets (1856, Focus Map 6) offers not only a prime example of this genre of map but also calls out the themes of betterment, improvement, and progress which would dominate engineering cartography for the next century and beyond.

The 1850s, United States’ “Crucial Decade” in political terms, also witnessed the emergence of the railroad as the major element in its internal transportation system. At first, in the 1830s, railroads were considered as simply adjuncts to rivers, waterways, and canals. But technological advances in steam engines, locomotives, rails, and various types of equipment rapidly overcame many of the drawbacks limiting rail service. When the Civil War broke out, neither the rails nor the waterways were effectively tied together into national systems. The disruption of commerce on the Mississippi River proved to be only one of several factors that tipped the scales during the war in favor of railroads.

At this time, the uncertainty about British intentions made cities on the Great Lakes, both in Canada and the United States, very conscious of their vulnerability to attack across the waters (Focus Map 7). Canal interests stoked these fears and sought to capitalize on the situation. Thus, for example, advocates for canals and waterways in the United States pointed out the limitations of the interior waterborne defense system by noting that the gunboats on the Mississippi River were too large to bring up to the Great Lakes if the need should arise. In 1863, canal advocates staged a great Canal Convention in Chicago that attracted an estimated 5,000 delegates, the largest public meeting of citizens staged during the war years. As the threat of a British alliance with the Confederacy faded, so did the push for enlarging the canal network, especially in the midst of a severe war-time labor shortage.

Nevertheless, the Chicago Canal Convention should be kept in mind when viewing transportation maps in the post-Civil War era. As its delegates were gathering at the height of the conflict, the Hudson River Day Line started regularly scheduled service on what became the most celebrated steam navigation route in the nation, where passengers, maps in hand, observed the sights along the river’s banks until the middle of the twentieth century.

The departure of the Southern States from Congress at the outbreak of the Civil War helped tip the balance at the national level towards the support of railroads over waterways in the development of a continental transportation system. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 is often used as the talisman of this shift in emphasis, followed by land grants to support mainly Western lines. Another key indicator was the sweeping way Congress authorized eight bridges across the Mississippi River in 1866, followed by similar encouragement for railroads to cross the Ohio River. In hindsight a map reader can look at transportation maps produced during the Post-Civil War Era as the triumph of the rails, but at the time the trend was not necessarily so clear cut. In 1880 the Erie Canal reached its maximum use and in the 1870s and 1880s, leading transportation engineers pointed to many promising large-scale waterways projects developing abroad. (Focus Map 11) The celebration of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was more than matched by ceremonies in the Old World hailing the opening of the Suez Canal in the very same year.

Although now seen as part of the “Lost Cause,” a long campaign (1865-1880) by the James River and Kanawha Canal Company to open up a Mid-American outlet to the sea by joining the Ohio and James Rivers produced some bold proposals backed by spectacular maps. When Matthew Fontaine Maury returned to the United States after escaping to Europe as a Confederate officer at the end of the Civil War, the world-renowned scientist accepted a position at the Virginia Military Institute. He also headed the Physical Survey of Virginia, an attempt to document the available resources of the hard-pressed state. Location stood in the top list of these advantages.

Hampton Roads, like San Francisco Bay on the opposite side of the continent, could hold all of the ocean-going ships then sailing the seas. The Transcontinental Railroad, then nearing completion, would soon link the two great harbors. Maury’s perspective, explained in a sustained argument and buttressed by a host of statistics, found graphic expression in two stunning maps. The pair might be considered the climax of American waterways cartography. One, focusing on North America, was a detail from the larger map, almost global in its vision.

Maury, although considered the father of the science of oceanography, here focused his attention on continental interiors. “The people of this country are building their great hive of human industry in the Mississippi valley,” he declared, “that is the heart of the nation, and is in fact becoming the real source and centre of wealth, power, and greatness.” (Physical Survey of Virginia, 1868, 54) His focus, of course, made inland waterways of utmost importance. But railroads carried equal import. Indeed, transportation corridors demanded both rails and canals in Maury’s analysis. “No great line of trade and travel can satisfy the requirements of the age or fully meet the demands of commerce, unless it combines transportation both by rail and water lines” (35).

Look at the Erie Canal, the Survey admonished, the New York Central Railroad runs side by side. “Neither would be complete without the other. Each is required to do the work that the other cannot perform. Each supplements the other.” (Ibid.) Thus, to complete the “Central Water Line,” the James River and Kanawha Canal needed to be enlarged and completed, but a double-track railroad should also trace their route. Then the promise of the Transcontinental Railroad could then be fulfilled.

To make his point, Maury drafted a large fold-out map extending from the Pacific Coast of North America, crossing the continent and the Atlantic Ocean to end in Central Europe. Titled “Steam Line between Norfolk and Flushing,” the map featured the two port cities Maury considered most strategically placed along the Great Water Line. The sprawling sheet showed the transportation networks on each continent, both water and rail, that served “the back country geographically tributary to each [city], and the internal improvements connected therewith.” The key for the map, dated 1868, considered the significant gaps in the grand route as unfinished projects, particularly railroads in the American West and South, as well as key canals between the Ohio River and Richmond and between the Tennessee River and Mobile Bay. A line arching across the country from Delaware Bay to Oregon marked points of equal distance between New York City and Norfolk according to the pictured transportation system, giving the great advantage to the latter by including Toledo, Chicago, and the entire Pacific Railroad in its hinterland. In Europe, a transcontinental system already existed in the Rhine-Main-Danube waterway and a web of railroads surrounding it.

Maury’s grand vision, which may have been politically and economically naïve at the time, started to fade from sight after his death on February 1, 1873. But the very next month, when the US Senate adjourned, its Select Committee on Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, chaired by Senator William Windom of Minnesota, decided to visit many of the key sites of Maury’s Great American Water Line. The report of this Windom Select Committee, dated April 24, 1874, could have reprinted Maury’s map to buttress its unanimous conclusion that “the most feasible and advantageous channels of commerce to be created or improved” were (1) the Mississippi River, (2) a continuous water-line from the Great River to New York City by way of the Great Lakes, (3) a route through the central tier of states from the Mississippi River via the Ohio River to the Tidewater Region of Virginia, and (4) a “Southern Route” utilizing the Tennessee River to reach the Gulf Coast. The simple map, dated 1872, accompanying Senator Windom’s Report (1874) does not refer to Maury’s work, which would have given it much more explanatory power. Instead, the bright hopes for the future expressed in the Physical Survey of Virginia came as a bullet condensed into one sentence in the federal report: “A vast area of the richest agricultural and mineral country in the world is directly tributary” to the Central Route “and only awaits reasonable facilities for transportation, to develop a commerce the magnitude of which it is difficult now to conceive.”

The Panic of 1873, which extended to a depression throughout the decade, suspended federal interest in transportation planning on a national level until the Progressive Era (Focus Map 15). In addition, a severe flood in 1877 damaged the entire length of the James River Canal. State funds patched up the waterway, but during the down time traffic shifted to rail, and in 1880 a railroad purchased the canal so that it could utilize the gentle slope of its towpath for a track-bed.

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Freight rates charged for the transportation of articles classed as first class in the classification as noted below via rail and via river from St....

New Approaches

Meanwhile, technological changes kept pushing engineers to consider new approaches to inland waterways. In the case of coal, a steady increase in demand accompanied the growth of America’s cities and the expanding use of steam engines to run machines, power locomotives, and propel steamboats. Along the East Coast a regional system of canals developed to connect coal mines in Pennsylvania with their markets along the Atlantic Coast. In the 1840s steamboats on the inland waterways started to shift their fuel to coal from the once abundant wood available along riverbanks. Railroads then connected these new markets in the American interior to coalfields in the Appalachian Mountains and the Midwestern Basin. After the Civil War, the increased use of coal barges on the Ohio River spurred the Corps of Engineers to consider expanding its role in river navigation from removing snags and sandbars to maintaining the straight-line channels needed by the barge tows.

Charles Ellet, a respected engineer with wide experience in building canals, conducted a government survey of the Ohio River in 1850 and suggested using huge reservoirs to modulate the flow of the water, thereby reducing the twin threats of flooding and low water. Ellet died in a Civil War battle, but another study in 1866 recommended turning the stream into a series of pools created by newly developed wicket dams. In effect, this would turn the entire river into a canal, a measure Congress would not approve until 1910. In 1885, however, the Davis Island Lock and Dam, five miles downstream from Pittsburgh, became the first installment on the canalization of the Ohio River, a project completed in 1929.

Two decades later, when the system of forty-six locks proved to be too cumbersome for modern towboats, a new plan called for reducing the number of lockage sites to nineteen. Thus, as the twentieth century dawned, the new thinking called for changes in the way one should read waterways maps. Thomas J. Vivian’s 1894 map for the Census Bureau, based on 1890 data, for example, indicated all the navigable rivers of the nation divided into four categories based on the depth of their channels. (Focus Map 14) As the age of towpath canals drew to its close, the navigable rivers of the continent were being canalized in the interest of flood control and the generation of electric power, as well as navigation.

Shortly thereafter, people seeking adventure and profit in the Yukon Gold Rush studied water routes and portages across Canada as possible “short-cuts” to the bonanza lodes (Focus Map 12). Meanwhile economists, historians, social scientists, folklorists, and others representing a host of diverse interests supported a variety of retrospective maps showing the old towpath canals that were gradually being abandoned. Each waterway had its defenders and a major issue of public policy asked whether the canals should be modernized and enlarged or discontinued as transportation facilities. In some instances, bold new canal construction projects were proposed, often to provide competition for existing rail routes in an effort to secure a fair price for shippers. Focus Map 13, showing the existing, abandoned, and proposed canals in the state of Ohio came out of such a public policy debate. At the same time, on the national level, the Progressive Movement called attention to the nation’s rivers and streams as great natural resources that needed to be preserved for future generations to use. The waterways agenda now extended beyond navigation to include not only flood control but also irrigation, conservation, recreation, and the generation of electric power.

The Preliminary Report of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inland Waterways Commission in 1908 developed a series of maps to compare freight rates for comparable shipments by rail and water from a central point to surrounding destinations. (Focus Map 15) A careful study of these “rate maps” documented the economic distortions in the nation’s transportation system. Soon afterwards, the First World War would demonstrate “on the ground” as well as on the map the traffic crisis created by the logistics of supporting an Overseas Expeditionary Force. The war effort led the nation to think much more seriously about the national interest and federal investments in transportation facilities.

One aspect of this reawakened awareness was the nature and function of port facilities, not only on the ocean’s shores but also at key inland locations. By 1930 a series of twenty-two volumes had appeared describing the nation’s ocean ports, largely addressed to the general public. Harbors on the Great Lakes came next and those in the Mississippi River Valley soon followed. These publications featured flow-chart maps indicating the sources, destinations, and volumes of each major segment of a port’s receipts and shipments. Detailed harbor plans, aerial views, and site photographs added to the picture. Then each study committee listed improvements that were needed. (Focus Map 16)

At the same time the US Lake Survey was publishing a series of nautical charts of the Great Lakes and inland waterways to aid navigation. (Focus Maps 17 and 18) Similar to the charts provided by the federal government for coastal areas and the Intracoastal Waterway (Focus Map 19), these detailed navigation guides pointed to the greatly expanded role of the federal government in the production of nautical charts and navigation aids. The Progressive Movement in the early part of the twentieth century posited that the improvement of the nation’s water transportation resources was a key means to achieve the nation’s destiny. “It is our duty,” the Republican Party’s Platform proclaimed at the Chicago Convention of 1908, “to carry out systematic improvement upon a large and comprehensive plan, just to all portions of the country, of the waterways, harbors, and Great Lakes, whose natural adaptability to the increasing traffic of the land is one of the greatest gifts of a benign Providence.”

These themes also animated a number of private associations formed to lobby for constructing particular waterways. The Atlantic Deeper Waterways Association, for example, held its first convention in Philadelphia only a few weeks after the Presidential Election of 1908 sent William Howard Taft to the White House, supported by the Republican Party platform quoted above. In the lobbying effort, business people joined recreational interests and civic boosters in pushing for what became the Intracoastal Waterway. This organization immediately began to publish a magazine and held annual conventions until the 1950s, when it closed shop and declared its “Mission Accomplished.” An earlier group, the Michigan and Mississippi Canal Commission, formed in 1885, took several decades to achieve its particular objective, the Hennepin Canal. These advocacy groups made ample use of maps, usually simple in character and often derived from existing sources.

The Hennepin group, for instance, issued a large map of the eastern United States to show, in a bold colorful overprint, how their proposed canal would link the nation’s two great inland waterways: one connecting the Great Lakes to New York City and the other leading from the Mississippi River to New Orleans. On closer inspection, however, the base map they used was stock readily available from Rand, McNally and Company. It was actually a detailed railroad map of the area which omitted all canals. Thus the color for the water route across upstate New York had to follow the New York Central Railroad rather than the Erie Canal itself.

In hindsight, this 1885 wall map seems to be an embarrassment to its sponsors. Nevertheless, the commission eventually reached its objective, apparently using the funds saved on original cartography for use by the lobbyists. Their project, the Hennepin Canal, had a towpath but was mostly used by steam-powered tugs moving barges. It proved to be too small and inefficient, never reaching its potential because locks on both the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers were enlarged to permit the passage of barges much larger than the Hennepin could accommodate. The canal, however, used new methods of construction and was the first to construct its locks entirely of concrete, setting an important precedent for the Panama Canal, which was approved as a lock canal by Congress as the Hennepin was nearing completion.

Thus the Illinois project has been called “a canal both ahead of and behind its time.” This adage is also true of the Hennepin’s use by the public. From the very beginning local people used the Illinois Canal for recreational boating, fishing, picnicking, and hiking. One local YMCA even used it for swimming lessons. In 1948 it saw no commercial traffic. Although closed shortly thereafter, another advocacy group organized a “Save the Canal Drive” and Congress agreed to deed it to the state of Illinois for use as a park in 1970. Since then the old canal, like many others across the Eastern part of the country, has found new life as a recreational and educational resource. With the dawn of ecological awareness, people began to ask questions about what was lost when dams were built, rivers canalized, and watersheds modified for commercial reasons. All expenditures on waterways needed to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis, and, under public pressure, Congress required the Army Corps of Engineers to consider ecological issues when making future plans.

In the beginning cartographers viewed canals and waterways exclusively as transportation facilities. By the late twentieth century they also needed to consider a variety of additional cultural, ecological, and aesthetic considerations when making their maps. In many ways, map readers also transformed the old maps they were reading by bringing new mindsets to the communication process. These were often advanced by public interest organizations that played an increasing role in American life. Take the maps of the Tennessee Valley Authority as an example.

The Tennessee River Improvement Association, another private group lobbying for governmental support for particular projects to improve navigation, had roots dating back to 1877, but became a more influential voice after its reorganization in 1896. It achieved some success in building several dams but found a much more receptive audience in the New Deal’s concerns for addressing the widespread poverty in the region during the Great Depression. The generation of electric power probably moved ahead of navigation concerns when Congress established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933. In subsequent years the TVA became a model for regional development and the achievement of multiple objectives through public works projects, especially waterways. Supporters of the TVA emphasized how improving the Tennessee River would fill in a gap in the nation’s waterway network, a point TVA authorities made in a striking map that was designed to indicate the broad reach of their waterway. Indeed, Focus Map 20 portrays no land. It pictures only waterways as routes and ports without banks or shores.

In contrast, Walter B. Langbein’s study of the Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of the Erie Canal (1976) included a cross section that featured the vegetation along the sides rather than the canal itself. In the same year, the report of the Great Lakes Basin Framework Study spelled out the “Factors of Water Supply to the Lakes” during the 1950s as a cross section in which the lakes as bodies of water almost disappear. As the focus of waterways cartography shifted toward ecological and recreational considerations, the maps included much more detailed portrayals of the riverine environment and facilities available along the waterway corridor. Some reports even suggested that traditional lock-and-pool canals should be replaced by free-flowing streams. Shoots, slides, and plunge pools would replace locks to accommodate recreational boating. These new portrayals did not replace the established traditions, but added new types of maps to the existing corpus.

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Origin of lake receipts at Buffalo, N.Y., during 1929


And so, as we approach the present day with all its conflicts, confusion, and cacophony and look back at the story of canals and waterways through the maps that fixed their places for us, we ask “What does this mean?” The slow pace of travel on their slack waters and languid pools tempts us to see bygone days as belonging to a different way of life. “Down by the old mill stream,” suggests a sense of loss or at least a way of life that faded away before modernity arrived. These thoughts came my way when I began this assignment. Looking at canal maps, I thought, would be relaxing, not too arduous, slow in nature like the waters themselves, arousing antiquarian interests, and bringing to mind a chapter in American life now lost. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In sum, water, then and now, is of the essence on canal maps; even more so when we consider the additional work the waters have been asked to do as waves of settlement have spread across the continent. We turned great rivers into canals themselves and sought ways to tame great lakes. If we read the twenty focus maps in this two-part essay with the deepest penetration we can muster, we will come back to a basic truth, so simple that it seems self-evident: Water stands at the heart of cartography, geography, history, and life itself.

Starting with this truism might be a stimulating way to begin reading any waterways map. Each example has a specific purpose to be sure, but when viewed as a tiny part of a large corpus of work, we begin to realize how even the most specialized map is also a broader cultural document, reflecting its place in time and space as it adds its bit to the common cultural heritage. Any map read in this way can serve as a widow to more than the specific geography lessons it was designed to teach. And that realization is the beginning of cartographic wisdom.

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Cleveland Harbor including lower Cuyahoga River

Further Reading

The previous discussion of canal and waterways maps is in some ways unique in that it employs their cartography to explore North American history, especially how inland waters carried passengers and freight back and forth across the continent as economic, political, social, and cultural functions. There are literally thousands of excellent books and articles that tell the story of virtually every canal, waterway, river, lake, inland port, and navigation system that has served the continent’s inhabitants. Maps have attended these studies in two ways: (1) as primary sources left behind after the planning, building, use, modification, and overall functioning of the particular facility and (2) as creations by later people who turned to cartography to narrate the tale or gauge the effectiveness of particular works, routes, or functions of these waterways.

From the very start scholars at various times have surveyed the major existing works and systems and described them in a systematic way. The entry on “Canals” in both the original British and subsequent American edition of the Cyclopaedia compiled by Abraham Rees serve this function on a global scale. George Armroyd’s A Connected View of the Whole Internal Navigation of the United States appeared in two editions, 1826 and 1830 (reprinted, 1971), needing over 600 pages to complete its coverage.

A major effort by the Division of Transportation of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the early twentieth century led to several dozen studies by individual scholars which formed the base for a summary History of Transportation in the United States before 1860 (1917) prepared under the direction of Balthasar Henry Meyer by Caroline E. MacGill and her staff. This landmark volume was reprinted in 1948. The Preliminary Report of the Inland Waterways Commission published by the Government Printing Office as a Senate Document in 1908 had a different function, but ranged widely in gathering background information of great use to later scholars. It was reprinted in 1972.

In contrast, to these lengthy tomes, most readers learned about Old Towpaths: The Story of the American Canal Era from the sprightly book by Alvin F. Harlow issued in 1926. It is a nostalgic account, ending in a lament for a world that lost out to “the neurotic whirl of our present-day business and social life.” Although it is comprehensive in its coverage, its usefulness is limited by the absence of notes and the lack of an index. Moreover, its tone has shaded the popular image of the canal era and suggested that waterways disappeared with the coming of the railroad. The cartographic record, of course, tells a different tale and one must convert to a divergent mindset to reap the full benefits of these maps.

Going further will be a do-it-yourself project for the researcher, but let me suggest eight reading assignments that might be useful in getting started. First, the researcher should use a survey of the Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860 by a modern scholar such as Ronald E. Shaw’s Canals for a Nation (1990), a brief account that touches many topics and themes. The second and third suggestions are to read two books in tandem: Forest G. Hill, Roads, Rails, & Waterways: The Army Engineers and Early Transportation (1957) and Arthur Maass, Muddy Waters: The Army Engineers and the Nation’s Rivers (1951). This would be best followed by a book or an article in the continuing debate between natural free-flow advocates and those confident in engineering solutions to riverine problems.

The fourth and fifth suggestions are to use some deeper history to illuminate the European context for America’s use of waterways as transportation arteries. The researcher would be well served to start with L. T.C. Rolt’s From Sea to Sea: The Canal du Midi (1973), then to read Chandra Mukerji’s, Impossible Engineering (2009), the same topic seen through several different lenses, and conclude with her article, “Printing, Cartography, and Conceptions of Place in Renaissance Europe,” in Media, Culture, and Society, 28:5 (September, 2006), 651-669.

The next two approaches involve much less arduous reading. The sixth, Towpaths to Tugboats: A History of American Canal Engineering (1985) is a pamphlet published by the American Canal and Transportation Center for a popular audience. It hails the achievements of the engineers as milestones on the road to progress. The other suggestion, the seventh, is a clearly written scientific study, Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of Erie Canal (1817-99). The illustrations alone in this ninety-two-page report, US Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper number 2018, are worth the price of admission.

The eighth, and final, recommendation starts with Robert C. Post’s Technology, Transport, and Travel in American History (2003), a short volume in the Historical Perspectives on Technology, Society, and Culture series issued by the American Historical Association and the Society for the History of Technology. Three of its nine chapters deal with Canals, the Inland Seacoast, and Riverways. Brief essays, followed by several pages of useful notes are really a preface to a long bibliography.

In the end, going researching further depends on where one’s subject is planted. It will be necessary to use local sources and state or regional finding aids to discover materials of use. But one should not neglect general or related documents. Remember: Developing a context for the research will provide keys to its meaning and significance. Several of Post’s suggestions will probably be useful springboards, but I have my own favorites to add to his list:

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Nautical chart of the Illinois Waterway and Illinois River at Peoria mile 156.1 to mile 161.9
Further Reading
  • Albion, Robert Greenhalgh, The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860, (1939).

  • Becht, J. Edwin, Commodity Origins, Traffic and Markets Accessible to Chicago via the Illinois Waterway, (1952).

  • Cudahy, Brian J., Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World, (2006).

  • Dixon, Frank Haigh, A Traffic History of the Mississippi River System, (1909).

  • Harris, Robert, Canals and their Architecture, (1969).

  • Howe, Charles W. , et al., Inland Waterway Transportation: Studies in Public and Private Management and Investment Decisions, (1969).

  • Larson, John L., Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States, (2001).

  • McCool, Daniel, River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, (2012).

  • McCullough, Robert, and Walter Leuba, The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, (1973).

  • Shallat, Todd, Structures in the Stream: Water, Science, and the Rise of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, (1994).

  • Sheriff, Carol, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, (1996).

  • Stine, Jeffrey K., Mixing the Waters: Environment, Politics, and the Building of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, (1993).

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New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway Little Egg Harbor to Longport
  • “A Stockholder.” In A brief View of the Important Relations of the Morris Canal with the Prosperity of the City of New York by a stockholder. 1835. New York: Van Norden.

  • Klondike: The Chicago Record’s book for gold seekers. 1897. Chicago: S.J. McCarrell & Co.

  • Colles, Christopher. 1808. Proposal of a Design for the Promotion of the Interests of the United States of America, extending its Advantages to all Ranks and Conditions of Men. New York: Samuel Wood.

  • Collot, Victor. 1826. A Journey in North America. Paris: Arthur Bertrand.

  • Darby, William. 1819. A Tour from the City of New York, to Detroit, in the Michigan Terriotory.

  • Darby, William. 1816. Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana. Philadelphia: John Melish.

  • Darby, William. 1818. The Emigrant’s Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories. New York: Kirk & Mercein.

  • Fulton, Robert. 1796. A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation. London: I. and J. Taylor

  • Great Lakes Basin Commission. 1975. Great Lakes Basin Framework Study, v. C9. Ann Arbor, MI: Great Lakes Basin Commission.

  • Hayes, Derek. 1999. Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Cavendish Books.

  • Huntington, C. C., and C. P. McClelland. 1905. History of the Ohio Canals. Columbus, OH: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.

  • Langbein, Walter B. 1976. Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of Erie Canal (1817-99). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

  • Maury, Matthew Fontaine. 1868. Physical survey of Virginia. Richmond: W.A.R. Nye.

  • Phillips, John. 1803. A General History of Inland Navigation. London: C. and R. Baldwin.

  • Ransom, Roger L. 1975. “Public Canal Investment and the Opening of the Old Northwest.” In Essays in Nineteenth Century Economic History, edited by David C. Klingaman and Richard K. Vedder, XX. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

  • Republican National Convention Chicago, Ill. 1908. Republican platform, 1908. New York: Allied Printing.

  • US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Inside Route Pilot: Intracoastal Waterway, New York to Key West. 1920, second edition, and 1936, eighth edition.

  • US Senate Select Committee on Transportation. 1874. Routes to the Seaboard.