America's Maritime Frontiers

by Dr. John Jensen

About This Lecture

Dr. John Jensen's lecture "America's Maritime Frontiers" was recorded in July of 2012 at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport.  The recording and web presentation of the lecture were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

1. Introduction

But for today, we're going to start out here. I like this particular image: It's the Schooner Home, nice name for that, it is sitting on the bottom of Lake Michigan; nice and well-preserved, originally built in the 1840s. But when I look at that, it's a very Walt Disneyesque ship-wreck. Those of you that dive or do ship diving or snorkel out in the ocean are aware that most ship-wrecks don't look like that; but in the Great Lakes, of course, they do, many of them; because of the cold fresh water.

But if you shift your gaze a little bit and think internally, I look at this and it says something else to me. It says the Atlantic, it says the Atlantic world. This is a package of Atlantic technologies, mostly North Atlantic; that is sitting thousands of miles from the nearest fresh  (salt)water.  We have a very Atlantic  looking anchor; if you look at just the design of the ship. And that really raises some important questions about what the influences of maritime people and maritime practices have been; broadly across the United States. The pervasiveness of these ideas, in this case embodied in the material culture. These ideas, I think, run in some contrast (although things are getting much more nuanced than they were twenty years ago when it was “you're studying what?”) But if we compare it to things in the American imagination, this is of course, American progress.

One of the iconic (my wife hates the word iconic, so I won't use that), a very important representative picture describing the spirit of America in that early post- Civil War period. How we are thinking about ourselves in a public way. And of course, we see in the distance (and I need to get a picture of this) the buffalo, you know, being pushed off into the distance and the indigenous folks into the distance. And of course ideally, out of existence; not just out of the frame. There's wagon trains and stage coaches and tall women in nightgowns, railroad trains. Only in the distance do you see any water at all. It's a terrestrial story, as so much of our recorded western perspective on history has been. It's been terrestrial stories. But that's that vision of American progress. But in the back, we see a few little things. So, I'm going to try to turn that on it's head a little bit, and I'm also going to talk a little bit about the idea of frontiers; at least in the maritime context. I'm fully well aware of the various debates on whether you use the word frontier or not, (the F-word as Patty Limerick would call it). But in an archaeological sense; in a very human sense, perhaps we could use different words for this but I haven't been able to find them; when we think about that picture, in many ways, which is certainly was painted as an optimistic, pretty picture. You know, there's darkness in it, but I mean it's a pretty optimistic thing. It raises some questions about frontiers.

I'm going to suggest that when we think about frontiers, certainly in the archaeological context, it's got a variety of things. It's a place where the perceptions of possibility exceed the availability of knowledge. Sort of big words for that optimism that's out there “it's over that horizon, look at what's there!” but not with any real context for evaluating that. Where limits of any form really, have yet to be defined. You know, geographical limits, limits of acquisition of wealth, limits in behavior in many respects. So it's yet to be defined. It's a place, and this is particularly significant in a maritime context, where (and I don't always agree that this is a true thing) but its often said that maritime cultures are inherently conservative. I don't always find that to be the case. If they are, they've come to frontiers as places where old rules and tradition are being called into question by circumstance, by geography, by material; by all kinds of things and sometimes dismissed, or at least altered. They're places where formal authorities are weak or in flux, and again, in the maritime context that's important because you've got nobody to enforce the rules. Where if you have rules such as  after 1838 with steamboats and things, you don't have the people there to actually adhere to the letter of the law. And its a place that is very conducive to new or adaptive technologies or forms of human organization. So, lots of elements, lots of different kinds of frontiers; but I think that captures it in a particular way that we certainly see in the archaeological record and in the historic record as well, certainly for the Great Lakes and the Midwest. It's a place and a process that promises chances for great rewards and can result in terrible harm, usually both things at once. So when I'm thinking of a maritime frontier, that's a later version of how I think about it. Archaeologically and otherwise, and we'll see elements in what I talk about. There's geographic, cultural, economical, technological, scientific. Lots of different layers of these frontiers that we can find where these processes certainly play out.

So, although I'm not going to talk too much about ship-wrecks today; we'll start to see the evidence of it. Because its this intersection of reward and risk on the frontier that leave these archaeological and in many respects, cultural signatures on the landscape.

2. Atlantic Maritime World

Now, getting to more traditional history and rooting things in a maritime context. There are some serious people who understand the Atlantic world in more and less ways than I do in this room. But the Atlantic maritime world is a great place to start. It's certainly become the focus, or been once of the key focuses for a long time for a more inclusive and complex maritime history. And there are certain aspects about it that stand out in a geographical sense, and others have talked about it but this sort of captures it a little bit the natural aspects of it; the wind, and the gires and currents, the gulf stream. All of this, you know, creates weather, it creates all kinds of things. They also set communication patterns and trade patterns, certainly for the North Atlantic. Especially in the age of sail, and even to some extent beyond when you trace where places go. But there's a natural circularity to that that carries people around and the circularity is one of the things that does define how it functioned in a physical sense of the word.

Now, what I'll suggest is that the inland waters of America, and that's the Great Lakes, the river systems, these integrated connections, were a distinct part of the Atlantic maritime world. And I should intercede here because some of this stuff seems so obvious that I sometimes forget why I started thinking about it in these terms. One of the elements, again, that I saw at Mystic in 1996 and I saw on the flip side working in historic preservation and public history in the Great Lakes region was this sense of seeing these areas and their histories in complete separation. In the twentieth century, the second half of the twentieth century, if you look at Great Lakes maritime history; the emphasis is on why we are not the ocean. It's very kind of parochial, we emphasize on the distinctiveness of this place at the same time that the general historic canon is kind of insisting on its peculiarity or its insignificance. So by looking at it this way, it bridges these things together in a more holistic thing. And that's why its important to think about this way. So it's got in many respects as we will see, at least in the beginning, the same natural circular geography. It is of course, economically and its culturally linked to the Atlantic coastal communities and Europe. And it is, of course, also the part and parcel of that same process of European expansion. And if we think a little more deeply, we'll see how true that really is. So it's a maritime frontier in the sense that I described in more nuanced ways, but also in that more broad movement of Euro-American populations pushing west. Its initial settlement patterns were maritime based, and again the indigenous people had strong relationships with the waterways, but I'm focusing on the secondary part mostly here.

Water facilitated rapid growth and it encouraged a chaotic social environment. So those same things that we think about with sailor town, and I'll get into this a little bit, an Atlantic port, we find in this region as well. The western trade, for its formative decades; and there is a difference between sort of the formative period where, perhaps, the numbers aren't huge but the influence, the lasting influence is powerful is largely maritime based.

Frontier cities were shaped by the water (and we'll touch on that,) in many ways.  This map, although not stunning in its color, is actually one of my favorites. What it shows is the central part of the continental United States, but the only land you're going to see here is a political boundary for Canada, and you can see the Gulf of Mexico, but the representations that you are seeing are major rivers and major tributaries and the Great Lakes in that central part of North America. So it really makes that pop out. That's the landscape that's there. And it's pretty unique. There are not many places in the world that have that level of integration and things just waiting to be tapped into. But its a different way of thinking... Seven thousand miles: these were 1820's estimates, I'm often more interested in what people thought about things that what the numbers were but seven thousand miles of navigable water and fifty-thousand miles of floatable water, they reported in 1820. What's the difference, do you think? What might be important about that?

 

(Audience member answers: Well, I think in Ohio and the upper- water-shed, you're going to have people dragging heavy items up shallow creeks. It's going to help them carry a lot of goods even when nothing more than a (brogue?) can be pulled up) Yea actually, and that is the key thing. That in a region that had strong industrial, or at least proto-industrial roots in core areas, it was of course agrarian. And so that floatable water, even though you couldn't float it all the time, but during the periods of higher water, it multiplies this porosity that you're seeing here and makes it possible for settlement in ways that otherwise you wouldn't have been able to. You couldn't float a steamboat up and down it, but you could get your flat boat on it, you could get connected to that marketplace. (Audience member: It would be interesting to know what the impact of canals and locks is on the number of 50,000) Some yea. Again, this was the number. I don't know that anyone actually surveyed this amount. I mean this was what was generally being reported in the period. I think that its probably a term that's being used or a figure that's being quoted for vast amounts, so much that it doesn't matter, multiplying that. But the canals certainly would have had some effect on that.

 

If we look at some of the earlier images; a French map from 1670s, and it's a little dark back there, although geographically inaccurate in many respects, it gets the general framework: here's the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, and its got the Great Lakes in the center. I look at that and what I read into that is that in the imagination of these people, the descriptions are there before they ever fully explore them, in earlier maps before they even see them. These bodies of water and what they represent are much larger in the mind, though in a sense its a pretty accurate portrayal in the sense of significance, although not the geographical area. We can see that in all kinds of different ones, like This one as well, 1640s, I think. And you've got the Great Lakes here: there isn't much to report on this map. But looking out here on the North Atlantic, they do have one thing filled in, and this gets to what Jeff was talking about last week and I'll touch on more at the end of the week; we were, we, as in the west, was making a lot of great inroads into developing a lot of knowledge about the aspects of the Atlantic, particularly through the fisheries. If you're asking why we talk so much about fisheries, it's because it's really important.

3. European Expansion

So if we think more broadly about this process and the idea of European expansion, of course we can go right back to Columbus who's of course trying to get the the East, as is everybody else for a long period of time. You know, Cartier heads east, er west, gets as far as Montreal. 1615 Champlain, really one of the most fascinating characters in North American history, makes it to Lake Huron. But again, they get the support for this exercise in part for the idea of getting to the Indies, and getting to the far west. The same with LaSalle in the 1670s and 1680s, even Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark expedition: it is looking for that water connection across. That original idea drives waves and waves of state sponsored and quasi state sponsored activity in the region. In terms of circularity we can give it to LaSalle for having sort of completing the circle, having made it across and down to New Orleans and down the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the things that is significant about that if we roll back our mind to 1820 or so, before the region is really fully taken off; on the eve of the Erie Canal, you could be in southern Ohio, you could be in any number of these hoped for or new communities and you could get to marketplaces and you could get to big cities in a relative short space of time. Europeans, coming over to make the Grand Tours of the American Frontier could make that trip from France or London and go across, down the Erie Canal by 1825, work their way across the lakes and down into the Gulf of Mexico and go home, and do it all by boat. With an exception for about two-hundred miles, in the 1820s. So that connection is there and they're thinking in those terms.

There was a proposed settlement called Higea. I believe it was in southern Ohio but I could be off on this one, it's been a while since I've read this text but they're talking about that it's only six weeks from London. Very close, in that mindset. But it wasn't all easy at all. There were a lot of things that retarded the American, and Anglo-American and French push to the west. One of course is this international contest and rivalry. The maritime empires that grew up were invested in this region as were the people that lived there, they were quite well-organized. So for two-hundred years you had a tremendous amount of strife across these regions. In lower Michigan, upper Ohio, some of those places were these dark and bloody areas. You almost couldn't live there at the height of these things. They were virtually depopulated in some areas because of the violence.

And of course the geography itself, although porous and full of water had some really significant impediments as well. So, contested frontier; I think everybody here knows this pretty well. At least five cultures or nations, however you want to draw the lines on that were there for a two-hundred year period. But some things to think about in that violent period. There were (this links us into the Atlantic stories that we're talking about) lots of international imperial warfare in the Great Lakes and sort of broader Midwestern region. French and Indian War, there's the settlement question, of course, between the English and the French over Canada. We get the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and all of these, again, have major activities in the region that we're talking about, including those that are related to warfare. But it's the War of 1812 that I want to focus on a little bit, and not because its the anniversary of the war that people don't really care about. It's because its phenomenally important, the outcomes of it, for this region. Very important for Canada too, who were very pleased with the outcome of staying Canada.

4. Influence of the War of 1812

The War of 1812, which ends in 1815; pretty much ends the efforts of the British to block American expansion to the west. They had done that in a number of different ways from the end of  the Revolutionary War onward  through treaties with indigenous groups and a whole variety of ways. It pretty much comes to an end here. Yet a relative demilitarization of the region, and I say relative because we talk about it as the longest unguarded border and that kind of thing, but if you go to those Canadian towns on the Great Lakes, you'll see plenty of material that was built in the nineteenth century to keep the Americans out. But it's a relative demilitarization and set things up in many ways for how we live today. It is the final breaking of the political power of the Indian groups in the region. This is the last one, and this is a subtle thing but its a difficult one in some respects to quantify, but the evidence, the more that I look at it is completely overwhelming. The Great Lakes region, and I include in this the pretty good lake, Lake Champlain, this was a highly contested area to be settled it was the entrance way invasion into or from Canada and so it became the focus of naval warfare on a scale that had never been seen in a frontier region. At the beginning of the war the U.S. Had one vessel with guns on it, very small, and I think the Canadian Provincial Marine had something like five or six small vessels, so it was a complete backwater. By the end of the war you'd had major fleet actions. You had an arms race where things got bigger and bigger and bigger, hundred gun ships on the line in the shipyard waiting to be dropped in the water. Again, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest saltwater port. And they did this in eighteen months, started building these ships in less than a year. And so if you think about what that entailed, it entailed mass movement of a very specialized group of people and those were really the maritime people of the northeastern United States. Everywhere from New York to New England.

(Audience member: Who was building the hundred gun ships that were on the Great Lakes?) I think that might have been under Eckford.  (Audience member: Was he British?) No, he was American. It was an arms race, they didn't end up going in the water but the Americans had one. But the way that they did this, and both sides did the same thing: they contracted with the shipbuilders of the Atlantic ports, and I know more about the American side but its true on the British side as well. And so you had people like Henry Eckford. It was the whole long litany of the people who were at that time redefining the nature of the American wooden ship. The same people that are setting the standards for that period between 1800 and 1850 where American really rises to maritime prominence because of the entrepreneurship of their people but also the quality of their wooden ships. It's the same people who are doing that who are superintending the ships that are going out into the Great Lakes region. And what that does is bring hundreds if not thousands of people with very strong maritime sensibilities into this region. They see these lakes and they see this possibility, and it sticks and many of them choose to stay or often you see them set up relationships where they're moving back and forth from inland waters to ocean waters. There's connectivity here that you find throughout much of the nineteenth century. But it starts here. There's no question about that. There's a lot of settlement around southern Ohio that I'll get into, so that's key in cultural and technological transmission.

Of course Greeley never said “Go west, woman, child and cow.” But it gets back to my sort of perception of the western experience being considered terrestrial and it wasn't. If we look at westward migration, early on, (and these figures come from Leland Baldwin's classic work on the keel boat age in the western rivers;) but between 1810 and 1820 about 1.14 million people moved into the trans-Appalachian west. Much of this would have been after 1815. Most of them traveled on or at least along the water, following those paths. So those maritime migration routes were very definitely there. Classic western boat types, and this woodcut shows three of them; in the back you've got what they call a barge which is essentially one of these on steroids, which is a bateau. If you look at the bateau which is nicely illustrated here, it just speaks Atlantic, it speaks ocean in some really key ways. Bateau, which is French for boat, really good sheer line, plank on frame construction. It's a maritime product, and you counter that with this, which is a flatboat and a very elaborate flatboat at that, which is flat in almost all of its surfaces. Flatboats of course being used principally by farmers; taking their goods from those floatable waters down to the big waterways and down to the marketplaces. Originally, New Orleans, lots of houses in New Orleans were built from the lumber that were scrapped out of flatboats. These were meant for one way trips; they did not come back. And they were used in the thousands and thousands. Abraham Lincoln did a flatboat ride, as did many young men. It was one of the agrarian rites of passage for lots of folks. And I'll talk about that a little bit more this afternoon in the context of health because it drove things.

If we look at this picture of the keel boat, heading up the river, we can see four guys on each side pushing that boat up the Mississippi river. Think about that. Yea. (Audience member: I often come across references to (?), kind of a big canoe?)   They're small, it's the size of a small canoe but my sense is that its more of a western boat. (Audience member: Don't (?) have more of a flat bottom?) They do, because you are trying to deal with the geographical hand that's dealt you, so you want a vessel that isn't very deep but that you can load a lot in it and it's pretty stable. If you look at this thing going up the river, it says a lot. I mean, could you imagine that, having that job? It was fun heading down to New Orleans but pushing that thing up. And of course, you guys know about Mike Think, king of the keel boat, half horse-half alligator? See we don't teach American folklore much anymore in elementary schools and students don't know these things. But Mike Think was kind of the Paul Bunyan of the river man, the way you had Mr. Storm along at see and Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Well, he's the one for the keel boat. The only difference is that he was a real guy. He was a real guy who was documented drinking about a gallon of whiskey every day. Really set the standards for his people. Came to a bad end, he missed on a shooting accident.  But the point being that was the archetype, and at one point in 1820 or so there about 20,000 people working along these river ways on these boats. This was the commercial navigation for the inland waterways. It came at a cost, because of course for security they tended, like you do often at sea, they would navigate or sail in a group. So picture twenty of these boats, maybe more. Fifteen, twenty, thirty, showing up on the riverbank of your little town or your farm.  And that young men, whose sense of personal pride includes drinking as much whiskey as humanly possible “wife looks pretty good, she's got most her teeth.” And I'm joking here a little bit but they were regarded as a morally deviant dangerous force.  Sailors on the Atlantic were considered pollution. These guys were considered pollution and perhaps in a more aggressive way on the river system. And it is one of the aspects, when we get in to steam here in a little bit, of why it was so happily regarded. I don't think it was the primary reason but one of the unintended outcomes of the coming of steam navigation is these guys were increasingly relegated to nowhere. Steam sort of morally purifies as a progressive force this region, a steam cleaning.

But if we think about who were traveling west, in the earlier period. This is the jolly raftsman, George Caleb Bingham, 1848 this stuff was still going on at this point and we look at the mixture of people that he has populated his raft with, its pretty interesting. You've got the business man or gambler or whatever you want to call him, but probably businessman. We have commercial traffic in this period, people are trying to make their way. You've got music in the background, got the jugs that are probably not water back here, agrarian looking fellows you have, a guy that clearly looks like he's from the Canadian maritimes or Nova Scotia. Here in the back you've got two African Americans clearly slaves looking at their clothes and the way he's postured in there. All these things on this little raft. And in that same way that we found these connections, and heterogeneity on Atlantic vessels. So it's a very similar set-up. The processes are with variations essentially the same. You have cosmopolitanism, you have different races. You have all of this embedded in one place.

5. Transportation Revolution: Canals

So, transportation revolution, which changes all of this redefines the geography. I'll talk about that a little bit, talk about canals and steamboats.  

Problems with the geography: We know all the good things. There's no unbroken water connections to the Atlantic coast, to the North Atlantic coast. None at all. Nice big mountain ranges. The western river system flows to the south, with the exception of the Fox River, which runs to the north in Wisconsin and maybe one other. There are very few good connections between those water ways that you saw on the map. Good navigable connections. Picture a world today with our highway system, great highways here and there but you can't get from one to the other. From 95 you can't get to Route 93, it's all great if you're on Route 93. But that's kind of the situation that they had. What they worked on was doing something about it. This map which comes from an inset to a nautical chart shows the changes in sea level going from the St. Lawrence Basin on up to the different levels, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, although it doesn't look that much different up there, fifteen feet makes a big difference when you're trying to navigate things and of course the distance here with Niagara Falls and all that is huge. Being able to cope with that kind of sea level change going across mountain ranges is a pretty challenging prospect. 

What's amazing is that they did it. The ideas behind the canal were particularly but to a later extent steamboats were rooted in many respects in economics, were not exclusively rooted in that. If you look at the correspondence for example between Robert Fulton who was interested in canals before or at least conterminously with the steamboats spent some time in England and France; the correspondence between him and Washington which is pretty famous lays out the dimensions of the problem facing the American experiment. If we are moving west, look at the problems that we're having with the different backgrounds of what used to be the colonies. If we're moving over the river and being that far distant, what forces are going to pull us together when there is so much that's pulling us apart? In Fulton's view, and Washington certainly shared it, it was creating transportation corridors, creating networks in the shape of canals that would pull people together. Fulton predicts, and I always forget to look up the exact figure,  by 1870, a system of canals across North America where every house was within a mile or two miles of some form of canal system. What he's envisioning is something that's not crazy. When you go around England, it's what they've got. It was this integrated system, and he pictures a country of a hundreds of  millions of people across the country. His population estimate is dead right, it's correct. His argument again is that transportation is the way to knit all of this together. He couldn't for-see all the elements of transportation but conceptually was right. Jefferson as well was interested in these questions of unity, so its money for sure. Old George never missed a chance when it came to money but you could embed it in a much larger social purpose.  

The icon of course, is the Erie Canal. Can anybody here sing the Erie Canal song? Any volunteers? Even in Alaska, Northern Lights Elementary School, in first grade or second grade, we were singing the Erie Canal song. Now we had no idea what New York was, much less a canal. We knew what the Northern Lights were, but still it's drilled into your head. (Sings part of the song) Fortunately I'm not one of the singing faculty. One of my colleagues at the Sea Education Association is a very powerful historian named Mary Malloy who now doesn't do it as much but used to tour internationally with her husband as one of the headliners in world sea music. Believe me, you do not want to follow her as a lecturer. Because then they expect you to do it and all I can do well is swear.

So the Erie Canal: 1817-1825. Of course canals have been around for ages ever since the first guy didn't get to the river and needed to grow some beans but its the first great U.S. Canal and it puts canal building on a very different scale. It link the Great Lakes to the ocean and as we'll see it's not a direct thing. You can't take a boat down the Erie Canal from a Great Lakes boat and go the the Atlantic, but it does create that linkage. It's got all kinds of collateral benefits that are well written up in the history of American technology as the first real school of American civil engineering. The French had all that lovely stuff but we did not, so this exercise has tremendous influence on the training and  thinking of the first generation of American civil engineers. Because of it's success it inspires what people have called the canal building craze. Although there are newer things written on the artificial river, but for canals it's pretty tough to get something more effective than Shaw on the Erie Canal “Canals for a Nation” and Harry N. Shieber's book on the Ohio Canal system is brilliant stuff, really lays this stuff out.

But if we think about what they did, it was pretty audacious. They start on July 4 of 1817 and they have to cut across New York, but once again, think about the cuts of elevation that they're having to deal with; and no experience to do it. This is the canals at Lockport, a later nineteenth century picture; but even then you can see the canals and the little locks working their way up. In a way there's a quaintness to those canals, there's a quaintness when you see the canals in Ireland or England, they're so small you don't realize how powerful they are, and how powerful water really is. Canals illustrate that.

Some of the innovations, new forms of underwater cement that they experimented with, they created new kinds of land clearing equipment. The dumping wheel-barrow, talk about the marriage of the Irish back with the wheel and a bucket, seriously was systematic, the dumping wheel-barrow. New mud, and as I said it's important in civil engineering history in this country.

Laboring was miserable. Great scholarship on social history of canal laborers; there's disease and all kinds of issues associated with it. Eight to twelve bucks a month to run a shovel, shifted to migrant, immigrant labor as it went along, a lot of Irish. Again disorder, this sort of disordered aspect of the maritime experience is even here. It starts to call in to question when you unpack these things of where the disorder comes from. Is it the water, or the age structure, or is it the gender? Of course the answer is yes all of these things and then some.

The initial canal was tiny. It was four feet deep, forty feet wide, ninety by fifteen foot locks. Three-hundred and sixty-three miles long, cost seven million bucks and more than a million dollars were collected on finished sections of it in the interior of New York before it even opened up. So they knew they had a winning proposition before they opened. But think about it, this room, between here and there, I think is about forty feet.  That's it, and then it's sloping down so it's very small. Lock size is very important, and I try to get my students to see this. My students go out for six weeks at sea and on land and stuff like that, and one of the things I try to teach them and they do at Williams Mystic as well is how to read this landscape that they're seeing and understanding canals as part of it. Locks are the critical thing. The lock of course, on these canals is where the interface, is where the water changes. It goes up or down. The locks determine the maximum size of a vessel that can pass through it. There are all of these questions on how to design locks and all of these questions there canals and their sizes and changes that have tremendous significance across the region, just like it does with the Panama Canal with panamacs and all that. So if you're trying to understand lots of stuff from some key choke points, its tough to go wrong on locks.  

In 1825 they complete the canal, and this is a pretty poor image of a color painting that I've yet to have been able to get my hands on. But it shows the celebration of the completion of the Erie Canal in New York Harbor in 1825. University of Rochester used to have a tremendous website where a lot of the documents and primary documents were, and it seems to me have disappeared. But people understood with this Erie Canal what a fantastic thing they had created. It was a time for New York to show off but for American unity. They plan a  multi-week plan to celebrate this. They have this gilded, ultra fancy canal boat built up in Buffalo and they take a keg of Lake Erie water and they put it on the barge. At the same time as they've been planning this, they have water coming in in casks from the River Thames, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indian Ocean. All of the big name waterways of the world for the marriage of the waters. They came down and they meet in New York with the latest and greatest steamboats and they pour it into the water with great ceremony and clearly whether it was an Atlantic marriage with the multi-parties or whether it was the orgy of the waters, it was extraordinarily well-orchestrated in a time when America was into pageantry and ritual celebration, this was the big thing, it was the biggest party that had been thrown. They announced the opening of it by lining the three-hundred and sixty-three miles of canals with cannons so that the cannon goes off, and the next cannon, and the sound carries it down and then carries it back. One of the cannons blew up and killed a bunch of people, but it didn't matter because the sound passed on. Some controversy whether this is the real barrel or not, looks like it, and it doesn't matter but what is real are some of these things. The cultural significance of this was huge. This was a medallion, a series of medallions that were struck, one side of it is gold, and here's one of them at the Smithsonian. It says “Erie Canal commenced 4th of July 1817 completed 26th October 1825” there's the eagle, excelsior for New York and in the background you've got ships and boats, and over here it's more canal and inland. More telling , I think, is the flip side of the coin, in terms of heads or tails. What we have here are two gentlemen in an embrace with forks, no; it's of course, Neptune and Pan. Neptune is the god of the sea and Pan is symbolizing the fertility and the promise of the land, being unified, being brought together by this canal. This linkage of land and sea integrating create a new future. 

This captures the spirit of the age, and it's a spirit that you find, and we'll see it again in a little bit, really is a substructure of so many things that are going on, certainly before 1860 in this region. The maritime thinkers are thinking this way, the businessmen are thinking this way. They understand that integrating land and water and larger markets is the key to regional success and in many ways a stronger country. The impact was pretty significant.  It's most immediate impact probably was not on the Great Lakes region, although it was significant; it was on how people perceived New York, the port of New York. Now in the Rise of the Port of New York, or New York Port, by Albion which I think is one of the best maritime history books ever written by anybody, you get a sense that there's much more to the story than the Erie Canal. There's the cotton trade and all that built on it. But if you asked people who were living in New York in 1840 how New York became New York, what was the moment; its the Erie Canal. It changes that destiny. And we can see that there's some pretty good evidence for it. These figures actually come out of a statistical view of the United States.

What we've got here is showing the value in dollars of exports from ports, and what we're looking at here is New York and Massachusetts. So its collective; its not exactly New York City and Boston, but its pretty close. Its the hinterlands. In 1821, before the canal is completed, New York exports just a little more than Boston. Its virtually equal, and again it frays around the edge. By 1826, the year after its doubled, New York is doubling that. That may be a little bit of an artifact of the data, but look five years later, 1831, New York exports 25 million and Massachusetts/Boston/ New England is down to 7.7 million. This is the affects of largely the Erie Canal. It changes things in tremendous ways. If we look at tonnage, even jumping to 1837, this is going east, this is the stuff pouring out of the west; and remember it didn't start out that way 54 thousand tons in 1837. Fourteen years later its 1.4 million tons. I don't want to get hung up on statistics, but these two bracket periods are pretty interesting. This is right at the beginning of what becomes a very serious depression but its built on a time of great prosperity. There's tremendous optimism for things that go south. There's all kinds of plans for internal improvements. There's much going on. So the people that are the boosters for these towns, that are looking forward into that frontier with the rosiest glasses possible, not seeing the bad things to come are underestimating what happens. Because once that panic and depression settles out in the 1840s we get a period of a booming economy like the country had never seen. What surprises me is that the most optimistic people underestimated the economic and the full impact. The rate of change that we see certainly in the second half of the 1840s into the 1850s is phenomenal.

Lots of canals are built; not all of them in the Midwest. By 1860, we have certainly some in the south and some in the east, but the really serious ones involve the west. You've got the Erie Canal, Pennsylvania doesn't want to get cut out, you've got the C&O.  The Ohio Canal System gets built, and you can see there's the Ohio River, here are the canals, here's Lake Erie. This is really important. It was important in transforming Ohio into the economic and population juggernaut, but it also explains an awful lot of what's going on today in this country. Ohio has more really substantial mid-sized cities than anywhere. Maybe California exceeds it but I don't think so.

So some of the things to look at here, and I'll wrap up with this and we'll go have some coffee and rejoin in a bit is that there were key things that were going on with these canals. Everybody was building them but there were certain canals and strategies behind things that redefines things in critical ways. The Erie Canal is really important, the Ohio Canal is important. If we start thinking about the Great Lakes system, you have a series of shorter canals that are built; that are deep water canals for big boats, not little boats. The Welling Canal, that makes it possible to travel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; basically negotiating the Niagara Falls situation. So those are linked up. With some dredging and things like that, you could go up to Lake Erie from Lake Huron, you're fine into Lake Michigan, but Lake Superior was too high, so by the 1850s you get the St. Mary's Canal. So those are all linked in. Late 1840s you get the canal that links Chicago with the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. So what you have here again is this linking. What happens with the Great Lakes is that early on, people are thinking about it in oceanic terms. They want to link these things together, and with the Welling Canal and then the Renew Canal, in the 1830s, you could take a modest sized sailing vessel, and people did, from Lake Erie, Lake Huron all the way out to the ocean. And if you think about the St. Lawrence Seaway, and I'll talk about that at a later date, that's the latest version of this idea of creating a sea that connected with the ocean, kind of unprecedented. Essentially its the integration question here. Long distance shallow water canals like the Erie Canal and Ohio, you've got the short distance deep water canals, and it created an integrated system, and that's the key; that integrating capacity of internal waterways that redefine how the place works. We're still living off of it today, both positively and negatively. It's a huge change in the environment and its technology. Its really technology driven. Canals of course, we still have some, and they're very important. In fact, the Mississippi River, part of the problem is that it is one giant canal; but the canal era passes in many places with the coming of railroads and things like that and making good work for some of my colleagues who like to do historic archeology. So I'm going to call a break here.

6. Transportation Revolution: Technology

I'm going to pick up the story here again with this idea of the transportation revolution and how technology really changes the relationships, the geographical relationships and the fate of this region. Although when we think about transportation revolutions, in the U.S. we have to include turnpikes and later, railroads and things that went down on the ocean. The most obvious and  earliest manifestations of this did take place in this region because it transforms it so thoroughly. Canals were critical, that was an old technology. Steamboats were a new technology, and this is a woodcut of Fulton's first steamboat that plied on the North River going from New York on up to Albany. Even before the Erie Canal that was one of the great ways to get into the west. Pretty simple, in a some ways looks a lot like a boat. You've got a bow, sails and all that kind of thing. Now, steamboats come pretty early, they come in before the War of 1812. We get the first western steamboat in 1811. It's called the New Orleans and it's assembled in Pittsburgh out of parts that were built out east. It makes the trip from Pittsburgh down to New Orleans at a time when the river was, again, the word improved is so classic, but it was unimproved at that point. It was a titanic journey, they were on the river in the middle of the great New Madrid earthquake where they reset the course of the river in some places, the Mississippi ran backwards. The biggest earthquake in recent history east of the Rockies, but they made it down and were successful for a little while. But then nothing really happens because of the War of 1812. We weren't investing in steamboats down in that area. There were some things going on out in Long Island Sound, things that we'd worked on, and it's all the same folks. By 1817, you've got seventeen steamboats on the river. They mostly seem to have appeared about that year. Steamboats are a pretty odd technology. This is one from 1826, so its a little later and more elaborate; you can still see some of the Atlantic paraphernalia, scroll head and the slightly raised stern. So in the earliest incarnations they either had that strong Fulton presence, which is influenced by Atlantic designs, and that carries on through. 1817, seventeen steamboats. 1823, seventy-five western steamboats. That doesn't really present the whole picture because the steamboats on average had a really short lifespan, particularly early on in those unimproved rivers. And what I mean by that is those rivers were full of  sunken, broken logs, there's all kinds of ways that they could come to a bad end. Frequently the engines were recycled and put into another vessel. 1830, 187. 1840, 536.  1850, 740. Again, leaving many, many more in the way of broken and destroyed, but also getting more sophisticated, in some places larger but generally more specialized. Growing very distinct from the kinds of vessels that you'll see in the Atlantic. So its the beginning in a maritime sense of this split between salt and fresh water that defines at least the river areas today. Lots of interaction to start with.

1838, an engineer, Alexander Stevenson, a young graduate in engineering, Scottish fellow comes over for his finishing trip across the western lands of North America. Now Stevenson is related to Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. The Stevensons are noted in some respects for something even more important than Treasure Island. The family were the great lighthouse builders of the United Kingdom. When you see pictures of old lighthouses that shouldn't be there, it's generally because the Stevensons built it. They were very sophisticated maritime people. He wrote a little book based on his travels called Looking at America in 1838.  Its looking at America from a marine/engineer's eye and its fascinating reading across the board. He notes that the river vessels appall him, frankly. The slipshod way they were run, the danger; he was fascinated by them as well, the quest for speed. But there was nothing maritime about that stuff as far as he could see. When he looked up on the Great Lakes, which we'll get to in a minute, he saw a whole different story, where he saw the most oceanic, sophisticated and marine vessels in the United States; even more than Long Island Sound.

If we look at indexes of arrival, ports. One way to understand them is their populations but really the key is whats going on there. Pittsburgh it starts pretty slow, at the top of the river forty-one arrivals in 1843, one hundred by the end of the decade. 1844, two-thousand. Cincinnati is really telling; its in the center of the western river system. By the end of the decade its almost a thousand, then its two-thousand, and then 1848, four-thousand. And at the same time that you've got four-thousand steamboats, you have many thousand flat boats coming in there, its a very busy sort of place. This index of steamboat arrivals really gives you a sense of what's going on across this region. Steamboats are having a tremendous effect.

If we look at what's going on in the specific cities, it's pretty interesting. Cities are not the perfect index for understanding broader regional development because it is so distributed between agricultural activity. The cities were being developed at the same time and its important to understand that connection between land and urbanization and the water. Cincinnati in 1810 was a sizable place by western standards; it was 2,500 people. It was Homer after the growth spurt. By 1850, its 115,000 people. These numbers are small of course by twenty-first century standards but huge in the time. In forty years that's a lot. To put it into context, with four-thousand steamboats coming in and the population, its putting Cincinnati up in the category of Boston, for the population at that time, and with Boston somewhat shrinking in maritime commerce. That would be an overstatement, but that's close. Its trajectory is much more dynamic at this point.  Its doing it in forty years; how long did it take Boston to become Boston? When you ask people to comment on this pace of change and what's going on, they talk about steam in these metaphysical terms. “It was the magic wand that created everything.” Certainly for Cincinnati, that was the embedded idea along these river towns. The Erie Canal is  difficult to underestimate for the identity and the shaping of New York and its memory, but this is the way it is for steamboats in this region, and it was very rapid.

If we look at enrollments, and this gets to the question of how many are there, 1837, that year that I was using before: 90,000 tons. That's a lot of boats, but they were smaller. 1851, its 317,000 tons. So that's three and a half times growth in tonnage; and five of those years you had depression. Once again, its difficult to underestimate the dynamism of what's going on during this period. 1860, its almost 370,000, but by then things are changing of course with the railroad. You get a lot of railroad work in the north in the late 1840s into the 1850s, starting to take certain kinds of traffic. At the same time all those canals that we talked about, the deeper ones are creating a lot of possibility on the Great Lakes. By 1860, the tonnage on the lakes is substantially exceeding the tonnage on the western rivers, which is a huge shift from that earlier period. The rivers were easier to develop and took off much more quickly; in many respects they had an older history which was consistent with Native American activities and trade routes.

Putting it together a bit, this chart, which is a pretty simple one in a way, looks at the costs of transportation in the U.S. From roughly the Constitutional period (1785) to the end of the Civil War. Its costs per ton mile, those who are not into transportation economics, that's a very standard term; its the cost of moving one ton of goods one mile by a particular mode of transportation. It allows you to normalize things.

You've got two things here. You've got the down stream river rates, its a cent and a half per ton mile, nature's doing all the work and it drops down to about a half a cent or so. Upstream river rates were ten cents a ton mile. Ten times the cost to go one way versus the other. By 1830, the cost of going upstream and downstream equalizes.  That is steam, that is technology.

If we look at the region that I'm talking about; this maritime frontier, these rivers and lakes along that whole corridor. All these places in the 1820s-1830s viewed themselves as “the west.” They saw themselves much more in common cause as a region; it was not a north and south in that area. North and South comes, in part because of some of these reorganizations that happened. We're seeing this tremendous drop in the costs of transportation. If we take what we're seeing here and just kind of expand our mind out to think about maritime activity; the push to reduce the costs of transportation has driven modern maritime activity in phenomenal ways, pretty much since this early part of the nineteenth century.

What we do see along with these canals and steamboats are fundamental rerouting of social connections and business connections. You're not selling to people down the river, you're not having face to face exchange with them. The distance between north and south begins to be quite pronounced. Over time that distance really becomes profound. There's no question that the ties of common trade and common intercourse envisioned by Fulton and Washington and others were severed by these canals and these activities rather than unified. It linked up part of the region and not the other.  

I want to kind of shift things a little to think about the Great Lakes. What we're looking at here is an index of the amount of tonnage of vessel clearances in American vessels from American ports. How much we're sending abroad; how much activity there is. It's important, and it gets back to my initial difference with Ben Labry and some other folks on the impetus of things maritime. In 1871, six years after the Civil War, well after what is supposed to be the peak of American maritime greatness you've got a total of about 35 million tons of ships leaving American ports. Just about seven million tons is actually involved in any kind of foreign trade; long distance or any that takes them out of the country. So if we think about what the bookshelves are filled with, with stories of China clippers and whaling voyages; all of which are very important, its displacing the fact that most of the activity, most of the things that people did at sea were domestic activity. It was not foreign adventure. The vast majority of it is domestic and we'll jump back into that in a minute. We're going to see that a huge percentage of this is in the region that we're talking about. I just want to flip some images, because they can be useful in teaching some of these ideas of American maritime people. We see the effects of these activities in the cities, and I mentioned how cities were very much shaped by their maritime connections. This is Evansville, Indiana. You can kind of see the shaping factors of the roads and things along the river front. In Richard Wade's classic book  The Urban Frontier he talks about this a lot. It's 1790 to 1830 looking at the river cities and describing how they would lay out cities in very particular ways; just like we do ports. You have these concentrations and things in the days before container ships. River cities, what you wanted to do was maximize you access to the river front, which of course is where all of the money exchanges. So the river cities tended to be long. This is a later picture of St. Louis, they've built up the levy areas and the streets are coming to it. If you went to these places in 1815-1820 these cities were of course very commercially oriented. The city fathers didn't want to waste a lot of money. Where you would find improved roads with hard surfaces would be along the river and those that were running from hinterland in. The laws that they passed focused on things that would give ports some kind of competitive advantage or at least create structures for the cities to be able to get enough money linked to the commercial activity to meet the fiscal needs of the town. The first one was more important, the early laws involve things like systems to make sure that the scales were honest, laws dealing with grades of grain or things going across the dock. Protecting the reputation of your town as a place to do business was really important because it was a highly competitive environment. The St. Louises and Cincinnatis were not always foregone conclusions, you had your Smithland, Kentucky and other places that had pretenses to doing well also.

The location of Chicago makes really good sense, because as they were laying it out and thinking about it long before they envisioned the dynamic aspect that the railroads would bring in. It was that connection between the lake and the Mississippi River which exists today through the Illinois Waterway. It was that particular ingredient that put Chicago there, it was that maritime input. The timing was fantastic. Chicago, of course for a time, did become one of the busiest ports in the world by arrivals. The great wood port, among other things. Cleveland is another example and Milwaukee which will talk more about.

The point being if we walked across middle America in the 1850s or 1860s, we'd be walking on water or taking a boat. That shapes how people live and how they thought in a whole lot of ways. This is a counterpoint to that first slide. This slide is 1871, and it reflects the 77,500 domestic voyages that we have records for from the customs houses. Fifty thousand of them are on the Great Lakes. Those 77,000 represent 85% of all American maritime activities. It gives you a sense of the energy in this region. It's not necessarily the perfect index, because as has been pointed out it can be the same boat going several times. But if you think about the flip side of that, when you've got a place like Milwaukee and its 1870 and you've got seven thousand vessels coming and going and all of the people and all the activity, it just gives you and idea of that fundamental maritimeness of these places. The economies were built around those lake fronts. The market connections are fundamentally linked. The capital, the people that have the money, initially make their money on the lakes. They become the ground floor of industry, just as in the north. In New England the maritime industry becomes the foundation for a lot of the textiles around here. That's true in the Great Lakes as well.

Now this is one of my favorite images, and I need to go back and get the whole picture because I captured it a long time ago. This is a woodcut of a submission to a contest to create a Wisconsin territorial seal. Wisconsin becomes a territory distinct from Michigan in 1837, that time of great optimism. Of course if you're going to have an identity and all that you need to have a symbol and they went to great lengths to do that. So they had a contest (this I believe came in second, but it was near the top) and what we have here is in the background a side-wheel steamboat. It looks quaint to us but in an 1837 sense, if you're looking at this; this isn't quite like looking at the Starship Enterprise but its at least a concept card. It's modernity. Look at that smoke billowing out and this cutting edge plow which at one time I knew the kind it was. This came in second but it does convey that same interconnection between land and lakes which was driving business policy in a variety of ways. They try in a variety of ways to get their state seal and they settle on one toward the late 1840s, there were some different elements. This is the Wisconsin flag with the Wisconsin seal today, and you've got a miner on the one side but on the right side you have a mariner. He's not a hay seed mariner, he's not a mariner that looks distinct to that region. This is the 1840s, this is the peak of the Atlantic packet trade. He is a blue-jacketed mariner dressed absolutely appropriately. There's a caulking mallet, there's an anchor. These are very deliberate maritime cultural icons that are being called upon to define this place. It is a purposeful set of acts. The amazing thing is that 140 years later when I come to Wisconsin in historic preservation, these ideas of ocean connection have fundamentally disappeared. You saw pockets of it in certain places in the lower peninsula with certain maritime populations but in general that regional identity is there. 

7. Great Lakes: Maritime Technology

So I just want to talk a little bit about Great Lakes maritime technology. Steam takes off early on the Great Lakes. The beginning of the 19th century before the War of 1812 there was certainly some level of commercial activity on the Great Lakes. It was very limited. The commercial boats were quite small, the big ones were about 60-70 feet long. Right after the War of 1812, about 1817 or so, you get a real injection of maritime activity and one of the expressions of that is the pretty rapid adoption of steam.

Its these guys that were building the war ships that end up coming out and building the steamboats. There's this really strong connection between the top yards in New York and Boston and these products. Early on we get passenger steamers going across the Great Lakes. 1818 is pretty early, there are number that are built in the 1820s. The population isn't that big yet but with the Erie Canal there's more demand for it. In the 1830s it gets much more so. You could charge a lot of money to go on these vessels because of the lack of roads, and it really pushed toward the kind of vessel that ultimately was quite elaborate palace steamers. 

The steam vessels, especially these early ones lacked a lot of power. They had to strap mules to this thing to get it out of the harbor and get it to the right spot. It was really the ability to get some place relatively quickly and relatively reliably.

This is 1837, Detroit.  It's a later elaboration but you've got three masts with sails on them.

They really were extraordinary vessels and the pace is what is pretty amazing. They keep getting vastly bigger. A big vessel in 1837 was 175 or 180 feet. Twelve years later, the Mayflower is 300 feet long. If you just think about the incremental design elements, there's a lot of creativity and things that are not written down on how they made these from really small vessels to very large luxurious crafts. Most of them were side-wheel powered. The biggest ones are fast because the longer a vessel is theoretically the faster it can go under the hull speed. So you get an increase in speed on a three-hundred foot boat; luxurious but they were really expensive to operate. Some of these vessels were 7-8 thousand cords of wood in a season. I've calculated the mass of  wood cut for a given year and its absolutely mind blowing, and it is  tied into the west was the place. The power of steam was made for the west, it is ours. Now look at the fuel. Where else could you have something that could burn that much stuff consistently and  be profitable. They had the access to this wood.

You get some more coal by the 1850s by the 1860s its more common. The U.S. Shifts coal as a domestic fuel in big ways after about 1850. From 1817-1850 coal consumption in the U.S. Goes up 77 fold.

This is one of the vessels that we worked on archaeologically. The Niagra was pretty standard for this period; built in 1846 by Bidwell and Banta  in Buffalo, New York. Banta is an apprentice of Henry Eckford. If you look at it you can put together a family tree of these folks. It's pretty interesting on her what you can see (she burned in 1856 with a big loss of life). If you look at the way this vessel is constructed in 1846 and you compare it to other steamboats that are built just a few years later, you'll see real big changes in the designs. Not just in the size, this was the second largest steamboat in the United States when it was built. Where you see differences are in things like the ceiling planking and the keels, the amount of wood that they are using to create these crafts. The fundamental staunchness of them, the size of the planks, the amount of fastenings. In the way part of it had to do with the perceptions of the environment that these early builders had. When they come to the lakes and they're seeing it in November, what they're seeing are pretty damn scary places. You've got ice, you have [lee shores?] everywhere ready to bite you. The size of the waves themselves although generally not that high because of the fundamental sizes of the lakes have particularly nasty characteristics because they're very straight up and down. They tend to come up quickly and so instead of getting pushed down it's like getting punched in the face. There's a lot of things that would put them on their guard at least initially. Then you get all this expansion in the late 1840s and 1850s at the same time that there's all kinds of really creative thinking going on in American wooden ship-building. New and more sophisticated design ethics are coming out; including those that are saying “make them as light as possible.”  If you're engineering it properly you don't need all those heavy timbers and they're right in that sense. So you get an evolution of how these things are built which is great on one hand, but when some of these vessels suffered an accident, when that engineered elegance that they've created starts to come apart it comes apart in really big ways. 

Another way that the Great Lakes moved very quickly on, remember it's a maritime frontier where change can happen fast, one of the earliest places that you get commercial screw propellers. This is John Erickson, who was involved with the Vandalia in 1841 because the propeller does all sorts of stuff with lower fuel consumption and they're safer in some ways because you don't need as big of an engine. They moved into a whole niche.

What's really kind of interesting to me is that you go from, in 1841, the Vandalia, which is really a converted schooner with some houses on it and a propeller to by the late 1840s you've got an entire new class of vessel. The Great Lakes' propeller/ passenger ship and some things to look at on it are it's not pretty by an oceanic context, it's got the bow straight up and down. We call that a plum stem, the plum stern, the sides are very flat and box-like. It's not particularly deep. It's a design that's driven by the condition on the lakes. There's a lot of room on the inside for cargo and passengers but you can go places where the water isn't deep. You can get through those shallow spots around Detroit or in and out of harbors. You can get through the Welling Canal to Lake Ontario. The maximum size for that is about 150 feet. So that governs in so many ways what these ships look like. We'll see this on schooners as well. Increasingly it's the natural factors and the man made factors influence vessel design in big ways.

In the 19th century in so many ways, steam was critical but in the working day world sailing vessels were huge and in the late 1860s early 1870s there were I think at one point 2000 commercial sailing vessels afloat on the Great Lakes. They shared, after an evolutionary point, some really common characteristics. They had shoal drafts, they were shallow, center boards in my much lamented Australia over in the shed. Center boards, shoal draft, principally used although not exclusively for bulk freight, grain, or coal lumber. The influence for steam probably comes mostly out of New York and the New York yards, a little bit of Boston. It's pretty clear that New England and Connecticut played the key roles in schooner and sailing vessel design. I followed one family, the Jones family, out of Connecticut. One family headed by first Augustus Jones, starting following the War of 1812, starts building vessels that are recognized as superior in their model, in their sparring. Then he had five sons that between them ended up with shipyards in every major city on the Great Lakes and trained many other wooden vessel builders. It accounts for hundreds of vessels out of this one family. 

Another one that's interesting to me: some years ago I started doing research on a non-descript schooner ship wreck south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The name of the vessel was the Lumberman and the only thing that was noteworthy about it was that it had two center boards, which is relatively unusual. At that time it was very unusual in terms of the archaeological record. But I couldn't find out much about it, and this was in my historic preservation duties and I kind of moved on. What one of the problems with it had been was that in the little references to the ship in the historical record, the name of the builder had been misspelled. When I went back and took another kick at the Lumberman when people were actually diving on it and doing the archeology, I was able to figure out that the Lumberman was key to a really big story. The builder was a guy named Alan Litchfield. He only built five vessels that we know of on the Great Lakes. All before the Civil War in a very short period of time. So I started looking into Alan Litchfield. He's building them in Ferrysburg, Michigan on the east coast of Lake Michigan. As a man in his early twenties, he's listed as managing/owning the most modern logging mill, lumber mill, in that part of Michigan which was a key part of the lumbering frontier.  The census in 1860 gives him a net worth of $50,000. He's rolling in money. I'm wondering how and why somebody at that age ended up with that kind of capital, and why is he there? Why is he building ships? So I pushed into it a little bit more deeply and I found out that Alan Litchfield and this whole enterprise really reflects these maritime activities in Boston. In terms of clipper ships which are in many ways the icon of America's wooden age, the most famous shipbuilder in America in the 1850s was a character named Donald McKay. He was a very well-known guy. He was known for the innovations that he brought into the organization of his shipyard, the revolutionary nature of some of his ships. Well it turns out that little Alan Litchfield out here in Michigan, his sister was Donald McKay's second wife. She'd been his administrative assistant. His father was one of Lichfield's key master carpenters. This guy clearly came of age, did his apprenticeship and clearly the evidence has shown has capital connections in east Boston with this whole age of clipper ships. He comes east, gets into the business and he ends up building this Lumberman in 1861 for a family that were pioneers on the Michigan frontier, the Ferry family that the town was named for. For twenty years, you can follow the connections between Litchfield, the Ferry family, and the growth of the Midwest as a political and economic enterprise. The Lumberman stays in the family for twenty years, but one of them ends up being President of the Senate, one of the leading Republicans. When Litchfield, who has this illustrious career in the Civil War, two horses shot out from under him, really famous guy who suffers terribly from post-traumatic stress is down on his luck in 1871 when Thomas Ferry becomes Speaker of the House, suddenly this guy is Console General to British East India. So he ends up becoming the number one commercial/ diplomatic guy to America in that part of the Indian Ocean. The web of things that you find through the lens of this shipwreck and relationships is really extraordinary. You see these linkages between capital. Eastern capital and Midwest. You see the linkages in technology, the linkages in personnel, and also again growth of the regions power and its basis in maritime enterprises, particularly the linkage between maritime enterprises and natural resources. It's a whole pocket of things that really come together in an extraordinary way. Thomas W. Ferry comes to an end we wish many politicians would, he was caught out in a silver mine scam and was found out to be a coward because he was cheating with somebody's wife and he was cowering under a desk, so he ran away to Europe. 

Centerboard schooners were really the power house of the Great Lakes as they were in New England, but it's more common in the Great Lakes. Centerboards drop down through the keel creating more bite in the water allowing the vessels to sail on track when they've been sliding, which is something you need to do with a shallow draft vessel. Also it can improve the stability.

One of the things that defines the region is this jump from the rule of sail and wooden ships and how it changed how industrialization affects all of this.  On one hand, for the first sixty or eighty years, most of the nineteenth century, the Great Lakes is this center of tremendous maritime and economic creativity. The centerboard and the way they used it was pretty distinct on the Great Lakes. By the 1880s, you've got the Great Lakes emerging as this extraordinary industrial waterway, as part of a increasingly industrial region. In this image from 1883, you've got steamboats and some schooner barges as far as the eye can see in this river and all of this smoke. When you look at that you think, “that's got to be Chicago, it's got to be Cleveland.”  It's Manitouwoc, Wisconsin. It's a very modest sized city. That's what you saw in the modest sized lake cities. It was dominant on the economic  landscape. By the latter part of the 19th century, what the industrial Great Lakes become is the world's most efficient industrial waterway. I mean that in terms of the amount of bulk material that's being moved, the context of the ships, the systematic nature of it. It was integrated into the backbone of America's growing industrial economy. Pittsburgh is being fed steel and things from the Great Lakes. All of these things that create the power structure for the U.S. And the agricultural activities as well are all centered in this area and are all heavily connected with the Great Lakes. Certainly by World War I it is the center of U.S. Military and economic power, one could argue that much of it is world dominant in that mid-20th century period. It was also home, by tonnage, to some of the busiest ports in the world for a period of time. It's not that way anymore, it's still an important place but it's a fraction of what it was in terms of the whole global scale.

If we look at America in the 19th and 20th centuries, at first it had large numbers, but then it was just the absolute fundamental significance to the country's economy. There were some technological things that happened that were pretty interesting. You went from sailing vessels which were good for certain things to vessels that could deliver things on time and at less cost. Beginning in the 1860s you get the development of a whole new kind of industrial bulk carrier. Bulk carrier again being those bulk low cost goods which you don't have to protect too much. 

This is the R.J. Hackett, and its generally credited as the first Great Lakes boat carrier. The archetype of a kind of vessel that was built for nearly a century. Distinguishing features on it were having a pilot house way up on the bow, an engine room in the back, and in the middle you had a large open hull and on the deck you had standardized hatches. It's a very functional vessel designed to carry low cost goods cheaply and rapidly. It also had a big enough engine so that it could tow another hull of the exact same size. If you look at that pilot house, it allows you in constrained waterways to be able to see where you're going on your way through harbors and those channels and no obstructions through the center. It's different from any vessel afloat. That fundamental design that so well adapted to the Great Lakes waterways is maintained as the vessels get longer; the Hackett is 210 ft long. We get the largest of the wooden boat carriers which are 320 ft long. As you move to steel and wood they maintain these same fundamental characteristics. House forward, aft open hatchway. They elaborate even more, we move into 1910, 1920. They key to these things is that they're thinking about ships. The people in the Great Lakes in the latter part of the 19th century started to think about vessels not just in terms of the vessels themselves or what they did at sea and how much they carried. They thought about them as part of a fundamental system of moving goods. Part of those systems were the development of specialized loading and unloading docks. This is an iron-ore dock, probably in northern Michigan or Wisconsin. These are chutes, and they line up perfectly with these standardized hatch sizes. So after a point all of the vessels that are built have the exact same hatch dimensions.  You could pull in with your 10,000 ton bulk carrier, which later became 20,000 tons, and 30,000 tons; the chutes would open up and pour that coal or iron ore or grain right into your vessel. Very little labor involved in that. It was more difficult getting it out but the same attempts were there to systematize it. This is a Hewlett unload-er, kind of icons in the Great Lakes, the guy in the bucket going down into the hold, those were ultimately replaced with self-unloaders. The point being is when they thought about this stuff it was highly specialized and it was part of these loading and unloading systems. The metrics they kept on these by the 1890s were extraordinarily precise; how much material a particular ship could carry, how deep it would be given its load size, calculating costs. This was the industrial age and the rise of corporate American bookkeeping. All of this gets poured into these systems of vessels. These are the self-unloaders, it's the same fundamental thing, they just added a big belt on the end. The Great Lakes bulk carrier, the basic design is made in the 1860s, its elaborated in the 70s and 80s; there are certainly fundamental changes over time, but the idea, the model of it, stays the same from about 1867 to about 1960. The last generation that were in service were the thousand footers. Those were different. A whole century, essentially of one type of vessel. Its extraordinary stability; we go from this frontier period where everything is new all options were on the table, to a set of designs that are so fixed that you can't and don't need to think about them in any other way. 

On the Great Lakes it's finally disappearing. About four years ago I was sailing on a replica wooden sailing vessel that was a tall ship for Wisconsin. We were sailing on Lake Huron in this replica sailing vessel and we crossed paths with a bulk carrier carrying cement, that had been carrying cement or related products for 100 years. It was not uncommon in the late 1980s to see vessels that were built I 1895. The second generation of steel vessels. That is for two reasons. The principal reason was that the design they came up with was so absolutely perfect for the environment and fit with this industrial system that it didn't make sense to change it. You had it down to a very, very cheap system. The second part is the Great Lakes have nice fresh water that doesn't rust in the same way; but it's unlike anything I've ever known.

How do you go from a region that one could argue perhaps the most creative shipbuilders, creative part of maritime activity in the mid-part of the 19th century was the Great Lakes region with all these mix of people coming in and new possibilities and then becomes in a sense the most conservative, most frozen system?

Today the Great Lakes continue to be what they have been since the 1830s. An inland sea connected up to the broader Atlantic Ocean and the world.  We saw lots of traffic in the 1850s and again in the 1880s. In the late 1950s we get the St. Lawrence Seaway and the issues sort of continue. The St. Lawrence Seaway has never created the international commerce that people might have thought fifty years ago, but it is important. If you think about the ideas behind it and why this region has thrived as much as it has in the past, and I think we'll rise to survive again, despite the rust belt. It's because of that creation of the inland sea that was deliberate and its connection to the broader Atlantic system.