Transportation in the United States has changed dramatically over the course of the nation’s history. Each new development in moving people and goods has fueled the nation’s growth and shaped the way people live and work. This primary source set includes a sampling of Library of Congress primary sources that documenting different modes of transportation that have played a role in U.S. history.
Highlights from the history of transportation in the U.S.
August 22, 1787: John Fitch successfully launched a steamboat, in Delaware
River, in the presence of delegates from the Constitutional Convention. The development of the steamboat provided a mechanized means of water transportation, beyond previous methods such as wind or human power. While many of today’s ships use gas and diesel fuel, the steamboat remained popular in the United States well into the mid-19th century.
October 26, 1825: The Erie Canal officially opened, providing water transportation across the land mass between the Hudson River on the east and Lake Erie at the western end. Its creation helped to make New York City the chief port in the United States and opened the western part of the state of New York and other western territories to increased settlement and trade.
February 28, 1827: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. railway chartered for the commercial transportation of freight and passengers. Like the steamboat, the train provided a mechanized way moving people and freight, thus facilitating migration and trade on a larger scale.
June 16, 1861: Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe demonstrated an aerial balloon to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., presenting the possibility of employing such balloons for reconnaissance during the U.S. Civil War. Crewed balloon flights were demonstrated as early as the late 18th century, and innovators would continue to experiment with air travel via balloons and gliders well into the 20th century, although they were never widely used for commercial travel.
May 10, 1869: The Golden Spike was driven, symbolizing the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, which connected the nation from coast to coast and reduced a journey of four months or more to just one week. In the years following, the United States would undergo significant growth; between 1860 and 1890 alone, the number of miles of railroad track grew from 30,000 to 270,000.
August 2, 1873: Andrew Smith Hallidie successfully ran the first cable car in San Francisco. The late 19th century saw many rail transportation projects that revolutionized how people could travel locally. Cable cars moved by means of a cable that pulled cars from underneath. Meanwhile, trolley cars used steam or electric motors to propel the vehicle, and were associated with the growth of the suburbs around major cities.
September 1, 1887: The first segment of Boston’s subway system opened, becoming the first such transportation system in the United States. Seven years later, on October 27, 1904, New York’s subway opened, subsequently becoming the largest subway system in the United States.
1890s: A bicycle craze sweeps the United States, embraced by men and women alike. Key to this increase in bicycle usage was the development of what was then called the safety bicycle. Early bicycle models – known then as ordinary bicycles or penny-farthings – sported one large wheel in front and a much smaller one in the rear. Ordinary bicycles were known to be dangerous due to the frequency of riders flying over the handlebars. Subsequently, the safety bicycle was developed, so that each wheel was the same size and the rider was closer to the ground.
December 17, 1903: The Wright Brothers achieved the first piloted, sustained flight of a heavier than air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The airplane would go on to become one of the major transportation advances of the 20th century, with jets being responsible for a large part of world travel today.
October, 1908: Henry Ford began selling the Model T at an affordable price that made it possible for more people to own, ushering in the age of automobiles. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electric and gasoline powered cars actually competed against one another in the American marketplace. But by 1913, Ford was mass-producing Model T vehicles via assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan plant and quickly took over the market.
April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, thus beginning the era of human-piloted space flight. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first individuals to land on the moon. On April 12, 1981, Space shuttle Columbia's first flight into space took place.
Suggestions for Teachers
Ask students to compare two or more items from the set, noting both similarities and differences. Points of comparison might include:
how the mode of transportation worked (for example, a horse pulling a cart with wheels vs. dogs pulling a sled with rails)
what its purpose was (for example, traveling to work or school every day vs. shipping goods across the country)
what the geography was like where it was used (for example, traveling through snow or moving through water)
As students make their comparisons, urge them to speculate about why various transportation forms were different. For example, why did some people use sleds and dogs instead of horses and wagons? Or why might the train have been a better vehicle for westward expansion than the bicycle?
Challenge students to list some of the ways different transportation methods made people’s lives better. For example:
saving time (for example, helping them travel to school or work more quickly)
opening up new opportunities and experiences (for example, helping them move across the country to live in new places)
connecting distant parts of the country (for example, allowing people to send letters to friends and relatives who lived far away).
Ask students to reflect on some of the societal challenges that different transportation methods may have contributed to. Clues in the primary sources might include:
pollution, as seen in the steamboat photograph
congestion, as seen in the New York city street
unequal opportunities, as implied in the Baltimore trolley map
What would it be like to use one of the transportation methods shown in this primary source set? Ask students to write a paragraph, draft a skit, or create a drawing sharing their thoughts on what they would see, hear, and feel during the experience.
As an extension, students might think about what transportation forms they use today and consider how things would have been different for them in the past. For instance, what would it have been like going to school every day, or visiting friends? How has the evolution of transportation affected them personally?