because this blog needs content

It is probably a practice frowned upon by the arbiters of blogger ethics but I’m going to start posting long comments I write elsewhere over here, for archiving purposes. On steamboats vs. railroads:*

1. Schwantes’ book on steam travel in the Northwest is beautifully illustrated. (As is his railroad book on the same region, which may have been the first to come out, though chronologically the sequel.) Just thought I’d recommend it, though I haven’t read the text.

2. As dware points out, railroads have not actually been in vogue in western history for a while. They might become so in the future if they aren’t already becoming so. (Disclosure: I came very close to writing a railroad dissertation.) I have the impression that some of the better regarded railroad-related books to come out more recently weren’t western railroad books.

3. I suspect steamboats lose out for a couple of reasons.

There’s the perception that their era didn’t last very long – the fact that you can start talking about railroads in the 1830s overshadows the fact that the east-(mid)west routes were not completed until later (the 1850s? I don’t remember the precise dates). And it takes a while for (railroad) Chicago to supplant (Mississippi River) St. Louis.

There’s the perception that their impact was still quite localized even considering its reach. You can have competition on the Mississippi but it’s pretty much all on the Mississippi. Competition between railroads involved competing routes in different sections of the country and competing communities along those routes. In terms of ports, you’ve got New Orleans as an endpoint on the one hand, and Boston vs. New York vs. Philadelphia vs. Baltimore on the other. It would be interesting to know if steamboats lack attention in histories of other regions. I assume they preceded railroads in a number of European colonies.

There’s the fact that they weren’t a new power source – steamboats and the steam engine were around already for ocean travel. And somewhat related to this is the fact that being able to get around the world sort of overshadows being able to get into the interior of a continent. But it can be argued that the steamship deserves more attention too. It certainly seems to get less attention than wind-based maritime exploration.

There’s the fact that water travel was already, and had long been, quicker than land travel. Traveling faster over a river is one thing; traveling faster overland – not being required to stick to (and build, in the case of canals) a watercourse – by an entirely new technology is quite another. A better boat is still a boat; a railroad is not a horse-drawn carriage.

4. Robert Fulton apparently thought that the submarine would, by being such an effective tool of war, force countries to make peace with one another rather than fight. He had some problems making this idea work in practice.

*Maybe one day I’ll link to a blog that is not that one.


  1. That’s right! All mine! Now if I could just claim comments written before I settled on this name. Such are the perils of pseudonymity.

  2. The Congo was one of the places – probably the main one – I was thinking of when I was thinking of rivers and colonies. (I have Hochschild on my long to read list.) China too, but I don’t know how far upriver the Europeans went regularly. The ports obviously get the most attention.

  3. The thing about the Congo (and again, this is all from Hochschild, but his account is apparently based very closely on the work of the Belgian historian who wrote the definitive work on the colonial Congo) is that it’s a huge river, perfect for steamboat traffic, except for the fact that there’s a spot of very rough terrain and big waterfalls a short ways upstream from the mouth. Early European expeditions couldn’t get any further than that point, and by the time they got there most of their members had died anyway, so for centuries the European (mainly Portuguese) presence was limited to the mouth of the river, especially the main port, Boma, and no one in Europe had any idea what was in the interior of central Africa.

    This lasted until the 1870s, when Stanley made his way down the river from the other side. Through a bunch of shrewd maneuvers Leopold was able to lay claim to the Congo basin and he sent Stanley there to supervise construction of a path around the rapids over which steamboats could be hauled in pieces to be assembled on the other side and sent upriver to trading posts to collect ivory. A few years later construction began on a railroad to replace the path, but it took a long time to complete.

    The whole administration of the Congo was based on collecting ivory (and later rubber) from the natives by force and shipping it downstream by steamboat to Leopoldville, then by railroad to Boma and steamship to Antwerp.

    Hochschild goes into a lot more detail about all this, of course, particularly about the appalling means by which the colonial authorities collected their ivory and rubber. This is what Heart of Darkness is about too, of course.

  4. I remember the river being important to Heart of Darkness but I’m sad to say that, though a Conrad fan, I don’t remember that book very well. I do remember reading in college an essay, or excerpts from an essay, by contemporary author commenting on Conrad and the Congo River that was pretty interesting.

    is that it’s a huge river, perfect for steamboat traffic, except for the fact that there’s a spot of very rough terrain and big waterfalls a short ways upstream from the mouth

    I think the Columbia caused similar problems – obviously without the waterfalls – for navigation because of the currents, though I’m not sure how far upriver boats could go if they made it through.

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