Building America’s first infrastructure

Prior to the War of Independence, a British royal proclamation forbade white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. In part, this was to reward those tribes that had sided with the British during the French and Indian War. When the Treaty of Paris ending the War of Independence ceded this western territory to the United States, this decree ended. (This decree was one reason Washington came to oppose British rule.)

In opening these new territories, the initial focus turned to the northern territory bounded by the Ohio River, the new northern boundary with British Canada, and the Mississippi River, then under the control of Spain. This totaled about 260,000 sq. mi. The United States Government, as the owner of this land, set out a formal process for initiating settlement, private land ownership, and statehood. This was accomplished with a series of land ordinances ending with the famed Northwest Ordinance of 1787. In an agrarian society, land was the means of survival and generating wealth. To be able to purchase good farmland—something not readily possible in the established eastern states or Europe—created an irresistible magnet for immigration and resettlement. The first group of America settlers arrived in today’s Ohio in 1788. (There were still several thousand British traders in the territory as well as tens of thousands of Native Americans.)

While the land became available for purchase, access to the Northwest Territory was arduous. Only the brave risked the journey. Kentucky to the south was accessible by an improved Wilderness Road, first cut in 1775 by Daniel Boone. This trail crossed the mountains at the Cumberland Gap (not to be confused with the Cumberland Narrows near Cumberland, Maryland), on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near North Carolina. Just getting to the beginning of the Wilderness Road in western North Carolina was difficult as most new immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, or New York. A more northern road was needed.

The first challenge with building all new infrastructure is how to pay for it’s construction. As the 19th century opened, there was a growing national consensus of the need for a northern national road to achieve what Washington had sought in 1784, a way to connect the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. This would link Baltimore, then the most prominent port, with the Ohio River. Immigrants could easily travel west and agricultural products could travel east.

Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, after being a U.S. Senator and Congressman, proposed a workable funding strategy in 1802. Proceeds from the sale of federal lands in the new states and territories would be used to finance the construction. This was built into the law that accepted Ohio as the first state from this territory. The reasoning is that the infrastructure to open the frontier to settlement would create new wealth by giving the land substantial added value. Agricultural land that was not accessible to markets was only suitable for subsistence living. Giving the settlers access to markets changed the economics from subsistence farming to wealth creation. This wealth would be tapped to build the infrastructure that would enable the wealth to be generated. The Federal Government could then generate new tax income by levying excise taxes on the agricultural products brought to market.

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National Road. (Source: Library of Congress)

With the adoption of the funding strategy, funds for building the new national road began to accumulate as federal lands were sold. With these funds, the route for the road was selected and surveyed. The route began in Cumberland, Maryland and initially ran west through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and today’s West Virginia to Wheeling. In 1811 construction began. The design of the road was regulated to be a stone-paved surface, tapered to shed water, and wide enough for two-way travel. At Wheeling, the road would link up with flatboat barges and the new steamboats then coming into operation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The road reached Wheeling in 1818 after construction was halted during the War of 1812—during which the British tried to seize control of the Northwest Territories as their increased economic value became clear.

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Replica of the 1807 Clermont, the first American river steamboat. (Source: Library of Congress; no known restrictions)

(The development of a practical steamboat in the early 1800s fundamentally changed the economics of river travel in America and, consequently, the value of the agricultural land in the Northwest Territory ceded by England to the United States in 1783. These mechanically-powered boats made up-river travel as convenient as down-river travel. River travel came to use “fully-reusable” steamboats instead of largely one-way disposable flatboats. Passengers and cargo began to move freely in both directions. America suddenly had tremendous wealth generation potential just waiting to be developed through building good infrastructure. (The comparison of this historical example to the potential revolutionary changes to be brought by the Spacefaring America Initiative in opening the Earth-Moon frontier using fully-reusable infrastructure should be readily apparent to all aerospace professionals.)

Through a combination of road and inland water travel, in 1818 the United States had the start of its first national transportation system that stretched from Baltimore to New Orleans. The extension of the National Road across central Ohio, Indiana, and most of Illinois continued until 1837—covering 620 hand-built miles. In 1849 a major suspension bridge was built across the Ohio River at Wheeling to link up with the National Road in Ohio. This bridge is still in operation.

The National Road was just the start of major federal and state infrastructure projects that have continued ever since. The series of photographs below show some prominent examples. As the 19th century was the century of the opening of America’s western territories using new land and water infrastructure, the same will happen in the 21st century with the opening of the Earth-Moon frontier using a new American spacefaring infrastructure.

Examples of American infrastructure in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Source: Library of Congress; no known restrictions)
Examples of American infrastructure in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Source: Library of Congress; no known restrictions)