An era of canal building in the United States began in the early 1800s, helped along to a considerable degree by a report written by Thomas Jefferson's secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin.
The young country was hobbled by a horrendous transportation system which made it difficult, or even impossible, for farmers and small manufacturers to move goods to market.
American roads at the time were rough and unreliable, often little more than obstacle courses hacked out of the wilderness. And reliable transportation by water was often out of the question due to rivers that were impassable at points of waterfalls and rapids.
In 1807 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling upon the treasury department to compile a report proposing ways that the federal government could address the transportation problems in the nation.
The report by Gallatin drew upon the experience of Europeans, and helped inspire Americans to begin building canals. Ultimately the railroads made canals less useful, if not entirely obsolete. But Americans canals were successful enough that when the Marquis de Lafayette returned to America in 1824, one of the sights Americans wanted to show him were new canals that made commerce possible.
Gallatin Was Assigned to Study Transportation
Albert Gallatin, a brilliant man serving in Thomas Jefferson's cabinet, was thus handed a task he apparently approached with great eagerness.
Gallatin, who was born in Switzerland in 1761, had held a variety of governmental posts. And before entering the political world, he had a varied career, at one point running a rural trading post and later teaching French at Harvard.
With his experience in commerce, not to mention his European background, Gallatin fully understood that for the United States to become a major nation, it needed to have efficient transportation arteries. Gallatin was familiar with the canal systems which had been built in Europe in the late 1600s and 1700s.
France had built canals which made it possible to transport wine, lumber, farm goods, lumber, and other essential products throughout the country. The British had followed France's lead, and by 1800 English entrepreneurs were busy constructing what would become a thriving network of canals.
Gallatin's Report Was Startling
His 1808 landmark Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors, and Rivers was astounding in its scope. In more than 100 pages, Gallatin detailed a vast array of what today would be called infrastructure projects.
Some of the projects Gallatin proposed were:
- A series of canals parallel to the Atlantic coast from New York City to South Carolina
- A major turnpike from Maine to Georgia
- A series of inland canals heading to Ohio
- A canal crossing New York state
- Improvements to make rivers, including the Potomac, Susquehanna, James, and Santee, passable to major river navigation
The entire projected expense for all the construction work proposed by Gallatin was $20 million, an astronomical sum at the time. Gallatin suggested spending $2 million a year for ten years, and also selling stock in the various turnpikes and canals to finance their eventual upkeep and improvements.
Gallatin's Report Was Far Ahead of Its Time
Gallatin's plan was a marvel, but very little of it was actually implemented.
In fact, Gallatin's plan was widely criticized as folly, as it would require a vast outlay of government funds. Thomas Jefferson, although an admirer of Gallatin's intellect, thought his treasury secretary's plan might be unconstitutional. In Jefferson's view, such vast spending by the federal government on public works would only be possible after amending the Constitution to allow for it.
While Gallatin's plan was seen as wildly impractical when it was submitted in 1808, it became the inspiration for many later projects.
For instance, the Erie Canal was eventually built across New York state and opened in 1825, but it was built with state, not federal funds. Gallatin's idea of a series of canals running along the Atlantic coast was never implemented, but the eventual creation of the intra-coastal waterway essentially made Gallatin's idea a reality.
The Father of The National Road
Albert Gallatin's vision of a great national turnpike running from Maine to Georgia may have seem utopian in 1808, but it was an early vision of the interstate highway system.
And Gallatin did get to implement one major road building project, the National Road which was started in 1811. Work began in western Maryland, at the town of Cumberland, with construction crews moving both eastward, toward Washington, DC, and westward, toward Indiana.
The National Road, which was also called the Cumberland Road, was finished, and became a major artery. Wagons of farm products could be brought east. And many settlers and emigrants headed west along its route.
The National Road lives on today. It is now the route of US 40 (which was eventually extended to reach the west coast).
Later Career and Legacy of Albert Gallatin
After serving as treasury secretary for Thomas Jefferson, Gallatin held ambassadorial posts under presidents Madison and Monroe. He was instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.
Following decades of government service, Gallatin moved to New York City where he became a banker and also served as president of the the New York Historical Society. He died in 1849, having lived long enough to see some of his visionary ideas become reality.
Albert Gallatin is regarded as one of the most influential treasury secretaries in American history. A statue of Gallatin stands today in Washington, D.C., before the U.S. Treasury building.