Early History

Early History of Water-based Transportation

The historical development of water-based transportation is connected to the importance of domestic and international trade. Early exploration of North America identified large amounts of natural resources such as an abundance of many varieties of fish, trees for timber, and many types of animals that provided furs. Trade centers were established along the east coast of North America where goods could be gathered together and ocean vessels could transport them to consumers in Europe and other foreign areas. The success of commercial trading companies spurred the introduction of more colonial settlements that in turn resulted in additional increases in population, economic activity, and trade. Waterways in developing countries are critical avenues for local and regional commerce.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, small farms were prevalent among the American colonies. Eventually larger farms emerged and produced crops such as wheat, tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton that were commercially marketable in Europe. Ocean vessels transported the bulk, low-value goods from the colonies to Europe and returned with high-value, low-density goods such as inks, linens, and finished products that had a much higher return on the investment per vessel trip.

Agricultural production continued to grow and support the growing colonies’ economic development. The speed and low cost of transporting goods by water influenced the locations of population settlements near navigable water (rivers, lakes, canals, and oceans). Goods produced on inland farms were transported via inland waterways to the coastal ports. Goods shipped by smaller vessels from surrounding ports were transported to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and exported on larger oceangoing ships. These ships from the smaller ports then transported imported goods back to the surrounding ports.

During the 1700s, the British government passed many acts, such as the Navigation Acts and the Stamp Act of 1765, designed to collect taxes from the colonists. The acts affected trade, and were met with opposition from the colonist. In Philadelphia during the fall of 1774, the “Declarations and Resolves of the First Continental Congress” called for non-importation of British goods, and became a catalyst for the American Revolutionary War (1775–1784). The resulting independence for the United States allowed trade a free rein, and it flourished.

Westward Expansion.

The westward expansion of the United States exposed a wealth of natural resources and an increased production in agricultural goods. The inland transportation infrastructure of roads, railroads, canals, and rivers connected the early western settlers with the rest of the nation, and enabled goods to move from the west back to more populated areas in the east and onto other parts of the world. The River and Harbor (Appropriations) Act of 1876 established federal funding of waterways to promote national commerce but not to benefit any particular state nor to allow waterway tolls.