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As one stands in imagination at the early rail-heads of the West--on the Ohio River at the end of the Cumberland Road, or at Buffalo, the terminus of the Erie Canal--the vision which Washington caught breaks upon him and the dream of a nation made strong by trans-Allegheny routes of commerce. Link by link the great interior is being connected with the sea. Behind him all lines of transportation lead eastward to the cities of the coast. Before him lies the giant valley where the Father of Waters throws out his two splendid arms, the Ohio and the Missouri, one reaching to the Alleghenies and the other to the Rockies. Northward, at the end of the Erie Canal, lies the empire of the Great Lakes, inland seas that wash the shores of a Northland having a coastline longer than that of the Atlantic from Maine to Mexico.

Ships and conditions of navigation were much the same on the lakes as on the ocean. It was therefore possible to imagine the rise of a coasting trade between Illinois and Ohio as profitable as that between Massachusetts and New York. Yet the older colonies on the Atlantic had an outlet for trade, whereas the Great Lakes had none for craft of any size, since their northern shores lay beyond the international boundary. If there had been danger from Spain in the Southwest, what of the danger of Canada's control of the St. Lawrence River and of the trade of the Northwest through the Welland Canal which was to join Lake Ontario to Lake Erie? But in those days the possibility of Canadian rivalry was not treated with great seriousness, and many men failed to see that the West was soon to contain a very large population. The editor of a newspaper at Munroe, New York, commenting in 1827 on a proposed canal to connect Lake Erie with the Mississippi by way of the Ohio, believed that the rate of Western development was such that this waterway could be expected only "some hundred of years hence." Even so gifted a man as Henry Clay spoke of the proposed canal between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in 1825 as one relating to a region beyond the pale of civilization "if not in the moon." Yet in twenty-five years Michigan, which had numbered one thousand inhabitants in 1812, had gained two hundredfold, and Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had their hundreds of thousands who were clamoring for ways and means of sending their surplus products to market.

Early in the century representatives of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly were at the shores of Lake Ontario to prove that their steamboats could master the waves of the inland sea and serve commerce there as well as in tidewater rivers. True, the luckless Ontario, built in 1817 at Sackett's Harbor, proved unseaworthy when the waves lifted the shaft of her paddle wheels off their bearings and caused them to demolish the wooden covering built for their protection; but the Walk-in-the-Water, completed at Black Rock (Buffalo) in August, 1818, plied successfully as far as Mackinac Island until her destruction three years later. Her engines were then inherited by the Superior of stronger build, and with the launching of such boats as the Niagara, the Henry Clay, and the Pioneer, the fleet builders of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit proved themselves not unworthy fellow-countrymen of the old seafarers of Salem and Philadelphia.

But how were cargoes to reach these vessels from the vast regions beyond the Great Lakes? Those thousands of settlers who poured into the Northwest had cargoes ready to fill every manner of craft in so short a space of time that it seems as if they must have resorted to arts of necromancy. It was not magic, however, but perseverance that had triumphed. The story of the creating of the main lakeward-reaching canals is long and involved. A period of agitation and campaigning preceded every such undertaking; and when construction was once begun, financial woes usually brought disappointing delays. When a canal was completed after many vicissitudes and doubts, traffic overwhelmed every method provided to handle it: locks proved altogether too small; boats were inadequate; wharfs became congested; blockades which occurred at locks entailed long delay. In the end only lines and double lines of steel rails could solve the problem of rapid and adequate transportation, but the story of the railroad builders is told elsewhere. 

Ohio and Illinois caught the canal fever even before the Erie Canal was completed, and the Ohio Canal and the Illinois-Michigan Canal saw preliminary surveying done in 1822 and 1824 respectively. Ohio particularly had cause to seek a northern outlet to Eastern markets by way of Lake Erie. The valleys of the Muskingum, Scioto, and Miami rivers were producing wheat in large quantities as early as 1802, when Ohio was admitted to the Union. Flour which brought $3.50 a barrel in Cincinnati was worth $8 in New York. There were difficulties in the way of transportation. Sometimes ice prevented produce and merchandise from descending the Ohio to Cincinnati. At other times merchants of that city had as many as a hundred thousand barrels awaiting a rise in the river which would make it possible for boats to go over the falls at Louisville. As these conditions involved a delay which often seemed intolerable, the project to build canals to Lake Erie met with generous acclaim. A northward route, though it might be blocked by ice for a few months each winter, had an additional value in the eyes of numerous merchants whose wheat, sent in bulk to New Orleans, had soured either in the long delay at Louisville or in the semi-tropical heat of the Southern port.

The Ohio Legislature in 1822 authorized the survey of all possible routes for canals which would give Ohio an outlet for its produce on Lake Erie. The three wheat zones which have been mentioned were favored in the proposed construction of two canals which, together, should satisfy the need of increased transportation: the Ohio Canal to connect Portsmouth on the Ohio River with Cleveland on Lake Erie and to traverse the richest parts of the Scioto and Muskingum valleys, and to the west the Miami Canal to pierce the fruitful Miami and Maumee valleys and join Cincinnati with Toledo. De Witt Clinton, the presiding genius of the Erie Canal, was invited to Ohio to play godfather to these northward arteries which should ultimately swell the profits of the commission merchants of New York City, and amid the cheers of thousands he lifted the first spadefuls of earth in each undertaking.

The Ohio Canal, which was opened in 1833, had a marked effect upon the commerce of Lake Erie. Before that date the largest amount of wheat obtained from Cleveland by a Buffalo firm had been a thousand bushels; but in the first year of its operation the Ohio Canal brought to the village of Cleveland over a quarter of a million bushels of wheat, fifty thousand barrels of flour, and over a million pounds of butter and lard. In return, the markets of the world sent into Ohio by canal in this same year thirty thousand barrels of salt and above five million pounds of general merchandise.

Ever since the time when the Erie Canal was begun, Canadian statesmen had been alive to the strong bid New York was making for the trade of the Great Lakes. Their answer to the Erie Canal was the Welland Canal, built between 1824 and 1832 and connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario by a series of twenty-seven locks with a drop of three hundred feet in twenty-six miles. This undertaking prepared the way for the subsequent opening of the St. Lawrence canal system (183 miles) and of the Rideau system by way of the Ottawa River (246 miles). There was thus provided an ocean outlet to the north, although it was not until 1856 that an American vessel reached London by way of the St. Lawrence.

With the Hudson and the St. Lawrence in the East thus competing for the trade of the Great Lakes, it is not surprising that the call of the Mississippi for improved highways was presently heard. From the period of the War of 1812 onward the position of the Mississippi River in relation to Lake Michigan was often referred to as holding possibilities of great importance in the development of Western commerce. Already the old portage-path links between the Fox and Wisconsin and the Chicago and Illinois rivers had been worn deep by the fur traders of many generations, and with the dawning of the new era enthusiasts of Illinois were pointing out the strategic position of the latter route for a great trade between Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico. Thus the wave of enthusiasm for canal construction that had swept New York and Ohio now reached Indiana and Illinois. Indian ownership of land in the latter State for a moment seemed to block the promotion of the proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal, but a handsome grant of a quarter of a million acres by the Federal Government in 1827 came as a signal recognition of the growing importance of the Northwest; and an appropriation for the lighting and improving of the harbor of the little village of Chicago was hailed by ardent promoters as sure proof that the wedding of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi was but a matter of months.

All the difficulties encountered by the advocates of earlier works of this character, in the valleys of the Potomac, the Susquehanna, and the Mohawk, were the portion of these dogged promoters of Illinois. Here, as elsewhere, there were rival routes and methods of construction, opposition of jealous sections not immediately benefited, estimates which had to be reconsidered and augmented, and so on. The land grants pledged to pay the bonds were at first of small value, and their advance in price depended on the success of the canal itself, which could not be built unless the State underwrote the whole enterprise--if the lands were not worth the bonds. Thus the argument ran in a circle, and no one could foresee the splendid traffic and receipts from tolls that would result from the completed canal.

The commissioners in charge of the project performed one interesting service in these early days by putting Chicago on the map; but the two terminals, Ottawa on the Illinois and Chicago on Lake Michigan--both plotted in 1830--were very largely figures of speech at that time. The day of miracles was at hand, however, for the little town of one hundred people at the foot of Lake Michigan. The purchase of the lands of the Potawatomies, the Black Hawk War in 1832, which brought steamboats to Chicago for the first time, and the decision of Illinois in 1836 to pledge her good name in favor of the Illinois and Michigan Canal made Chicago a city of four thousand people by the panic year of 1837. So absorbed were these Chicago folk in the building of their canal and in wresting from their lake firm foothold for a city (reclaiming four hundred feet of lake bed in two years) that the panic affected their town less than it did many a rival. Although the canal enterprise came to an ominous pause in 1842, after the expenditure of five millions, the pledge of the State stood the enterprise in good stead. Local financiers, together with New York and Boston promoters, advanced about a quarter of a million, while French and English bankers, notably Baring Brothers, contributed about three-quarters of a million. With this assistance the work was carried to a successful ending. On April 10,1848, the first boat passed over the ninety-mile route from Chicago to Ottawa, and the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Basin were united by this Erie Canal of the West. Though its days of greatest value were soon over, no one can exaggerate the importance of this waterway in the growth and prosperity of Chicago between 1848 and 1860. By 1857 Chicago was sending north and south annually by boat over twenty million bushels of wheat and corn.

The awakening of the lands behind Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan brought forth innumerable demands for roads, canals, and railways to the ports of Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. There were actually hundreds of these enterprises undertaken. The development of the land behind Lake Superior was particularly spectacular and important, not only because of its general effect on the industrial world but also because out of it came the St. Mary's River Ship Canal. Nowhere in the zone of the Great Lakes has any region produced such unexpected changes in American industrial and commercial life as did the region of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota contributory to Lake Superior. If, as the story goes, Benjamin Franklin said, when he drew at Paris the international boundary line through Lake Superior, that this was his greatest service to America, he did not exaggerate. The line running north of Isle Royale and thence to the Lake of the Woods gave the United States the lion's share of that great inland seaboard and the inestimably rich deposits of copper and iron that have revolutionized American industry.

From earliest days rumors of deposits of bright copper in the land behind Lake Superior had been reported by Indians to fur traders who in turn had passed the story on to fur company agents and thus to the outside world. As a result of her "Toledo War"--as her boundary dispute was called--Michigan had reluctantly accepted the northern peninsula lying between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan in lieu of the strip of Ohio territory which she believed to be hers. If Michigan felt that she had lost by this compromise, her state geologist, Douglass Houghton, soon found a splendid jewel in the toad's head of defeat, for the report of his survey of 1840 confirmed the story of the existence of large copper deposits, and the first rush to El Dorado followed. Amid the usual chaos, conflict, and failure incident to such stampedes, order and system at last triumphed and the richest copper mines of the New World were uncovered. Then came the unexpected finding of the mammoth iron-ore beds by William A. Burt, inventor of the solar compass. The circumstance of this discovery is of such national importance that a contemporary description by a member of Burt's party which was surveying a line near Marquette, Michigan, is worth quoting:

"I shall never forget the excitement of the old gentleman when viewing the changes of the variation. He kept changing his position to take observations, all the time saying "How would they survey this country without my compass" and "What could be done here without my compass." At length the compassman called for us all to "come and see a variation which will beat them all." As we looked at the instrument, to our astonishment, the north end of the needle was traversing a few degrees to the south west. Mr. Burt called out "Boys, look around and see what you can find." We all left the line, some going to the east, some going to the west, and all of us returned with specimens of iron ore."

But it was not enough that this Aladdin's Land in the Northwest should revolutionize the copper and steel industry of the world, for as soon as the soil took to its bosom an enterprising race of agriculturists it bade fair to play as equally important a part in the grain industry. Copper and iron no less came out of the blue of this cold northern region than did the mighty crops of Minnesota wheat, corn, and oats. In the decade preceding the Civil War the export of wheat from Lake Superior rose from fourteen hundred bushels to three and a quarter millions of bushels, while in 1859 nearly seven million bushels of corn and oats were sent out to the world.

The commerce of Lake Superior could not await the building of a canal around the foaming rapids of the St. Mary's River, its one outlet to the lower lakes. In the decade following the discovery of copper and iron more than a dozen ships, one even of as much as five hundred tons, were hauled bodily across the portage between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The last link of navigation in the Great Lake system, however, was made possible in 1852 by a grant by Congress of 750,000 acres of Michigan land. Although only a mile in length, the work proved to be of unusual difficulty since the pathway for the canal had to be blasted throughout practically its whole length out of solid rock. It was completed in 1855, and the princely empire "in the moon" was in a position to make its terms with the coal fields of Pennsylvania and to usher in the iron age of transportation and construction.

It is only in the light of this awakening of the lands around the Great Lakes that one can see plainly the task which fell to the lot of the successors of the frail Walk-in-the-Water and sturdier Superior of the early twenties. For the first fifteen years the steamboat found its mission in carrying the thousands of emigrants pouring into the Northwest, a heterogeneous multitude which made the Lake Erie boats seem, to one traveler at least, filled with "men, women and children, beds, cradles, kettles, and frying pans." These craft were built after the pattern of the Walk-in-the-Water--side-wheelers with a steering wheel at the stern. No cabins or staterooms on deck were provided; and amid such freight as the thriving young towns provided were to be found the twenty or thirty cords of wood which the engines required as fuel.

The second period of steamboating began with the opening of the Ohio Canal and the Welland Canal about 1834 and extended another fifteen years to the middle of the century, when it underwent a transformation owing to the great development of Chicago, the completion of the Illinois and Michigan and St. Mary's canals, and the new railways. This second period was marked by the building of such steamers as the Michigan, the Great Western, and the Illinois. These were the first boats with an upper cabin and were looked upon with marked suspicion by those best acquainted with the severe storms upon the Great Lakes. The Michigan, of 475 tons, built by Oliver Newberry at Detroit in 1833, is said to have been the first ship of this type. These boats proved their seaworthiness and caused a revolution in the construction of lake craft. Later in this period freight transportation saw an equally radical advance with the building of the first propellers. The sloop-rigged Vandalia, built by Sylvester Doolittle at Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1842, was the first of the propeller type and was soon followed by the Hercules, the Samson, and the Detroit.

One very great handicap in lake commerce up to this time had been the lack of harbors. Detroit alone of the lake ports was distinctly favored in this respect. The harbors of Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago were improved slowly, but it was not until the great Chicago convention of 1846 that the nation's attention was focused on the needs of Western rivers and harbors, and there dawned a new era of lighthouses and buoys, breakwaters and piers, and dredged channels. Another handicap to the volume of business which the lake boats handled in the period just previous to the Civil War was the inadequacy of the feeders, the roads, riverways, and canals. The Erie Canal was declared too small almost before the cries of its virulent opponents had died away, and the enlargement of its locks was soon undertaken. The same thing proved true of the Ohio and Illinois canals. The failure of the Welland Canal was similarly a very serious handicap. Although its locks were enlarged in 1841, it was found by 1850 that despite the improvements it could not admit more than about one-third of the grain-carrying boats, while only one in four of the new propellers could enter its locks.

As late as the middle forties men did not in the least grasp the commercial situation which now confronted the Northwest nor could they foresee that the land behind the Great Lakes was about to deluge the country with an output of produce and manufactures of which the roads, canals, ships, wharfs, or warehouses in existence could handle not a tenth part. They did not yet understand that--this trade was to become national. It was well on in the forties before the Galena lead mines, for instance, were given up as the terminal of the Illinois Central Railroad and the main line was directed to Chicago. The middle of the century was reached before the Lake Shore was considered at Cleveland or Chicago as important commercially as the neighboring portage paths which by the Ordinance of 1787 had been created "common highways forever free." The idea of joining Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago with the interior--an idea as old as the Indian trails thither--still dominated men's minds even in the early part of the railroad epoch. Chicago desired to be connected with Cairo, the ice-free port on the Mississippi; and Cleveland was eager to be joined to Columbus and Cincinnati. The enthusiastic railway promoters of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois drew splendid plans for uniting all parts of those States by railway lines; but the strategic position of the cities on the continental alignment from New York to the Pacific by way of South Pass never came within their horizon. The ten million dollar Illinois scheme did not even contemplate a railway running eastward from Chicago. But the future of the commerce of the Great Lakes depended absolutely upon this development. There was no hope of any canals being able to handle the traffic of the mighty empire which was now awake and fully conscious of its power. The solution lay in joining the cities to each other and to the Atlantic world markets by iron rails running east and west.

This railroad expansion is what makes the last decade before the Civil War such a remarkable series of years in the West. In the half decade, 1850-55, the Baltimore and Ohio and Pennsylvania railways reached the Ohio River; the links of the present Lake Shore system between Buffalo and Chicago by way of Cleveland and Toledo were constructed; and the Pennsylvania line was put through from Pittsburgh to Chicago. The place of the lake country on the continental alignment and the imperial situation of Chicago, and later of Omaha, came to be realized. The new view transformed men's conceptions of every port on the Great Lakes in the chain from Buffalo to Chicago. At a dozen southern ports on Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan, commerce now touched the swiftest and most economical means of transcontinental traffic. This development culminated in the miracle we call Chicago. In 1847 not a line of rail entered the town; its population then numbered about twenty-five thousand and its property valuation approximated seven millions. Ten years later four thousand miles of railway connected with all four points of the compass a city of nearly one hundred thousand people, and property valuation had increased five hundred per cent. The growth of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit during this period was also phenomenal.

When the crisis of 1861 came, the service performed by the Walk-in-the-Water and her successors was seen in its true light. The Great Lakes as avenues of migration had played a providential part in filling a northern empire with a proud and loyal race; from farm and factory regiment on regiment marched forth to fight for unity; from fields without number produce to sustain a nation on trial poured forth in abundance; enormous quantities of iron were at hand for the casting of cannon and cannon balls; and, finally, pathways of water and steel were in readiness in the nick of time to carry these resources where they would count tremendously in the four long years of conflict.