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great-falls-nationalAs canals became popular in Europe in the 18th Century, it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans also recognized the benefits of an artificial waterway.

The United States had plenty of rivers, but not all of them ran close to cities or ports and certainly all of them weren’t navigable. However, all that water would flow through artificial channels.

Why Americans Wanted Canals

As America moved west, Americans in greater numbers sought ways to follow. In 1800, only a million people lived west of the Allegheny Mountains. Thirty years later that number had grown to 3.5 million. This westward expansion fueled the need for internal roads.

The National Road reached Wheeling, Va. in 1818 and sped up the movement of goods from the west to Baltimore and Washington.

A beneficial as the road was, transporting goods on it was 30 times more expensive than canal transportation. At the time, it was said that 4 horses could pull a 1-ton payload by wagon on an ordinary road 12 miles in a day. On a turnpike, the same team could pull the wagon 18 miles. But on a canal, the team could pull 100 tons 24 miles in a day.

seal_patowmackEarly Canal Ideas

Early on, Americans saw canals as a way to open up routes into the country’s interior and bring out its rich bounty of natural resources. Canals were untaken from the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware River, from the Tioga to the Allegheny, from the Susquehanna to the Delaware, from Lake Ontario to the Delaware, and from Lake Erie to the Allegheny.

Washington’s Dream

George Washington began work on his version of a canal in 1785. His idea was to build canal locks at strategic places along the Potomac River in order to make it navigable. With a short portage between the headwaters of the Potomac and the Ohio, trade from the Mississippi could come east rather than south to reach a seaport city.

The trip became faster, but boaters still faced the dangers of the river. However, merchants were willing to take the risk. In one year, 1300 boats made the journey from Cumberland to Georgetown using Washington’s Patowmack Company skirting canals.161525pv

Success of the Canals

New York began construction of the Erie Canal in 1817. It was completed in 1825 and covered 363 miles from Buffalo, N.Y. to Albany, N.Y. It linked the Hudson River with Lake Erie.

With the opening of the canal, merchants in the then-west no longer had to ship their goods down the Mississippi to a port or overland on the more-expensive National Road.

Almost overnight, the cost to transport goods from places like Montreal, Canada to New York City fell from $100 per ton to about $12 and a 3-week journey took little more than a week.

End of the Canal Era

Canals made early American road obsolete. In turn, railroads made canals obsolete.

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Since George Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776 and bombers didn’t make their appearance until the 20 Century, you might be a little confused by my headline to this post. Never fear. An explanation will follow, but a little background first.

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an iconic painting of a crucial event in American history. When Washington and his Continental Army crossed the river on Christmas Day in 1776 and captured the Hessian troops in New Jersey, it marked a turning point in the war. Up until that point the fledging United States had lost all of its battles against Great Britain. The success of the sneak attack set the U.S. on the road to winning the war of Independence.

Emanuel Leutze immortalized the event in his 1850 painting. The painting, which can be seen in its full 12-foot by 20-foot glory in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not the original Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is a second full-size copy of the original that Leutze painted in 1851 and sent to the United States.

The original 1850 painting has a story as interesting as the event it depicts. A fire broke out in Leutze’s studio after the painting was completed and it suffered smoke damage that obscured Washington and James Monroe in a white haze, according to David Hackett Fischer in his book, Washington’s Crossing.

An insurance company took possession of the painting and put it on public display. It eventually was acquired by the Bremen Art Museum as part of their collection. And it was there that it was destroyed on September 5, 1942, when the British bombed the city during World War II “in what some have seen as a final at of retribution for the American Revolution,” Fischer wrote.

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Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge is the first book I’ve read by Thomas Fleming. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I learned a lot from reading it and found it was more than simply a story about survival during the winter of 1776-1777. Behind that story is the story of the political machinations of men.

You had a faction of Congress that believed that a weak federal government was the best course for the states and worked toward this goal behind the scenes. George Washington was seen as a symbol of a strong federal government and because of this Congress worked to weaken his position. Washington found himself fighting a secret war to maintain his position and his army while he fought the public war against the British.

I also have to say I was surprised at how quickly Philadelphia seemed to give itself over to the British. It may have been the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed, but when the British came, they seem to have been welcomed with open arms by the residents.

Though not as strong a storyteller as some of my other favorite history writers, I wasn’t disappointed by the book. In fact, I’ve bought another one to read because I liked Washington’s Secret War.

The only complaint I had about the book was the timeline was disjointed at times. This was caused by the fact that Fleming was telling multiple storylines. He kept the storylines relatively separate so that when he finished telling one story and began another, there was some overlap in the timeline that I had to readjust to.

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