Sea History - Inland waterways

Rivers and lakes pose different challenges for boaters than do the oceans. Inland waterways were essential to settlement and economic expansion. North American explorers and early traders followed the rivers. The St. Lawrence River allowed French-Canadian settlers and explorers access to the interior of Canada. DeSoto and, later, La Salle recognized the importance of the Mississippi River after exploring the area near its mouth in Louisiana. To find the upper Mississippi, Marquette and Joliet traversed Wisconsin by canoe, thus linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico by waterway. Lewis and Clark, using keelboats, explored the entire Missouri River to its headwaters in Montana, opening US access to the Pacific Northwest after the Louisiana Purchase resulted in US seaports on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In British territory, Hudson Bay Company trading posts are shown in historical pictures located along Canadian rivers for water access by fur traders. In addition to images of historical trading posts, many forts were strategically located on waterways, for example, Fort Dearborn on Lake Michigan, the site of present-day Chicago.

Fast currents of rivers and streams require nimble steering but do not require downstream propulsion. Flatboats, barges, and rafts can be loaded with goods or passengers for transport downriver, but they require a tow to return upstream, as seen in historical pictures of river transportation. Canoes, on the other hand, may be paddled upstream or downstream, but they don't hold large or heavy loads, as historical images attest.

Robert Fulton's successful steam voyage of the Clermont on the Hudson River introduced the steamboat to inland transportation and was a milestone in maritime history. Soon riverboats were pictured on the Ohio River and other major waterways. Goods procured inland, such as timber and livestock, had better access to North American seaports via the rivers, and historical pictures show riverfront cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and Cincinnati gained new importance. In Canada the St. Lawrence River provided access to Atlantic shipping lanes, making Montreal a commercial success.

As an alternative to transporting goods from the Midwest down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, the Erie Canal was built to connect the interior to the Atlantic coast. The Erie Canal linked the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, allowing grain and other products of midwestern farms to be shpped from Chicago to New York City. Historical pictures of New York harbor show it came to dominate merchant shipping on the Eastern seaboard. Canals transported goods in many other states, because water transportation was easier than the dirt roads and trails available for land travel in the early 1800s.

Defense of inland waterways took the form of early military outposts, which are usually pictured near major rivers and along the Great Lakes. Historical images of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 show the only major inland naval battle in North American history.


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