First.-The Western Trade.
From early engagement in the Public Works of the State of New York, my attention for more than thirty years has been directed to this trade. The idea gives the impression of magnitude. Its progress has outstripped anticipation, and I enter upon its discussion with great diffidence.
Between the Lakes and the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers above their confluence, and west of the latter from its confluence with the Missouri River, is embraced a vast extent of country that for natural fertility is not surpassed by any territory of equal extent on the globe. At the commencement of the present century this large territory was substantially an uncultivated wild,-- and for the first quarter of this century its settlement was mostly confined to the border of natural navigation.
Previous to the year 1825 the trade of the Lakes was trifling. The Erie Canal was opened this year, and the tide of emigration began to move with great force to the Lakes. Hitherto the commerce of the West had mostly taken the Mississippi River. For fifteen years the influx of emigration was such as to consume the greater part of the surplus productions that would otherwise have sought the Lakes as its outlet to an Atlantic market.
Emigration has continued and still proceeds with an increased ratio, but the fixed population has so increased that it is steadily and rapidly gaining in its surplus production over all domestic demands. The eastern bound tonnage of the Erie Canal, derived from the Lakes, in the year 1836 was 54,219 tons, and in the year 1853 it was 1,213,690 tons, or 22 fold in 17 years, and the territory for the most part is not only in the infancy of settlement, but a large portion of its trade has taken the route of the Mississippi. Nearly all the natural navigation of rivers within its borders is connected with the Mississippi, and until artificial channels of navigation and railroads were opened, trade with the Lake route was restricted to such distances as could bear transportation to its ports over common roads, and these on the rich soil of the West were very inferior of their kind.
The advantages of the Lake route soon drew the attention of the enterprising settlers at the West to the necessity of better means of transport from the interior. Ohio constructed two canals; Pennsylvania one, and Indiana one, all connecting the Ohio River with Lake Erie. The Indiana Canal has but recently been completed. Illinois has constructed a canal from Chicago, at the head of Lake Michigan, to the head of navigation on the Illinois River. These canals are more or less subject to a deficient supply of water, an evil that will no doubt be corrected, and with other improvements will make them more valuable means of transport than they have hitherto been, and greatly strengthen the trade of the Lakes.
The railroad improvement has come in, and will prove a vast auxiliary to the Lake trade. It is eminently adapted to produce great influence on the commerce of the West. Their great facilities for light traffic, especially in passengers, and the favorable formation of the country for their construction, permits them to be made and supported where a canal would be impracticable for want of water, or where, if made, the heavy trade to which it is adapted would not be sufficient for its support. Four years since, the only railroads connecting the waters of the Lakes with those of the Mississippi were two in Ohio, connecting Cincinnatti with Sandusky and Cleveland on Lake Erie. The Galena Railroad was commenced at Chicago, and had extended about 40 miles. There are now three railroads that connect Chicago on Lake Michigan with the Missouri: one at Galena, one at Rock Island, and one at Alton, near the mouth of the Missouri. Other railroads are made and in progress that will more or less affect the course of Western trade. Their progress within the last four years has been unparalleled, and though now checked by the stringency of monetary affairs, they will be carried forward with little delay, to meet the legitimate wants of a growing commerce. By an inspection of the Railway Map, it will be seen the roads generally point to the Lake Ports, and their promoters look to the Lake trade as their main reliance for traffic.
The effect of canals and railroads is to open greater facilities for intercommunication, extend the settlement of the country from the banks of navigable streams, and cause it to spread over the whole surface, causing thereby a general increase of trade. This will greatly amplify the volume from that portion which has heretofore sent its trade to the Lakes, while it will extend its area to sections heretofore tributary to other routes. The Rock Island Railroad was the first to connect the Lakes with the Mississippi. It was opened in February, 1854, and has had a large freight trade from that river. In the fall of 1853 I made a journey from the Mississippi at Rock Island West, 180 miles, to Ft. des Moines. I found but few people on the route, but they were looking to the opening of railroads to Chicago as their course of trade. And it may be remarked that the Western people generally, for obvious reasons, prefer the Lake route.
It will be conceded that the City of New York is the principal centre of American commerce, and the products of the West that take the Mississippi route have, to a large extent, to be carried to New York for a market. And as the Lake route has the advantage of more favorable climate, it must be preferred even with some increase in the expense of transport.
The Pork trade has heretofore been mostly confined to the river cities. The railroads will transfer the most of this to the Lake Ports, and instead of Cincinnati and St. Louis being the great packing establishments, we must look for them at Milwaukie, Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland, as the great centres of packing for Pork and Beef.
In his able Report on the enlarged Erie Canal, for 1853, W. J. McAlpine, Esq., then Chief Engineer of New York, shows that the trade of the Mississippi, above the mouth of the Ohio, will be directed to the Lakes, and thus secured to the Erie Canal. It will doubtless fluctuate more or less from any line of demarcation that may be made, by circumstances common to commercial operations, and the nature of the avenues through which it moves. At times the Mississippi will be open, and the Lakes closed by ice. Again the supply and wants of one section of country will at times produce more or less a change in the course of trade. But taking into view cost of transport, climate and market, there can be no doubt the great mass of trade will follow the Lake route as indicated by Mr. McAlpine. The tendency is that way, and the progress of improvement in the mean [sic] of transport all more in that direction.
The area of the territory tributary to the commerce of the Lakes, and lying east of the Missouri River, may be estimated at over 300,000 square miles, and that west of the Missouri at 250,000 square miles. The latter is yet a wild Prairie, and from its inland position will only be able to send the more valuable productions of Agriculture to an Atlantic market. But it has a fertile soil, and will be brought into cultivation, and must eventually contribute largely to swell the volume of the Western Lake commerce.
Of the 300,000 square miles east of the Missouri, not more than one-eighth is now occupied by settlement. With this sparse population, and its surplus production, to a large extent drawn to supply its large ingress of new settlers, it furnished, in 1853, an eastern bound tonnage for the Erie Canal, as before observed, of 1,213,090 tons, and a western bound tonnage, via Erie Canal, during the same time, of 261,752 tons. In the progress of eastern bound trade, the tonnage on an average more than doubled in each successive term of four years; for three terms, from 1836, and from 1848 to 1853, a term of five years, the tonnage was doubled. At what rate it will proceed to increase hereafter it is difficult to conjecture. The tide of emigration is now moving with increased volume; improvements that will produce a rapid augmentation of this trade have just come into use, and others are in progress. The Erie Canal of New York will soon be enlarged, and by cheapening navigation from the Lakes to the City of New York, will increase the Lake trade, not merely by extending the area of its drainage, but by embracing a wider range of bulky or heavy articles, that will not now bear transportation. From the history of the past, and the prospects for the future, it is regarded safe to estimate that the tonnage will be doubled in the next six years, and quadrupled in the next fifteen years. It will be seen that no special notice has been taken of the trade from the north side of the Lakes, nor of the trade that will come from the mineral sources in the Basin of Lake Superior. If this progress is realized, at the end of fifteen years the Eastern bound tonnage will be five millions of tons, and the Western bound over one million of tons, and the trade will not be more than half realized. If this trade, as it may be expected to exist in fifteen years, was all to pass the Erie Canal, (the local trade of the Canal remaining as in 1853,) the arrivals at tide water would be over three times larger than it was in 1853, or seven and a-half millions of tons; and the total movement on this Canal would be nine millions of tons per annum. And although enlarged as now contemplated, that channel would be found wanting in capacity, for the convenient accommodation of so vast a trade.
Fifteen years is not a long time to look forward to meet the growing wants of this trade, and especially when the evidences of its probable growth are so strongly indicated by its history and the facts of its expanding power. Hitherto the most sanguine have not anticipated its progress.
In considering the subject thus far, no allusion has been made to the Lake tonnage that has been carried by Railroads from the Lakes to and from tide water: though a portion has been borne by Railroad, it can have no influence on that portion of the tonnage carried by the Erie Canal, which is the basis of the reasoning adopted, unless it could be shown that the Railroad tonnage will, in future, increase in its ratio on the Canal. Hitherto the Canal has been of comparatively small dimensions, and crowded in its business, which will be materially improved in cost, and expedition of transport when enlarged as contemplated. No such improvement can be expected on the Railroads, as it appears now generally conceded that their freight charges have been too low to afford a remunerating profit, and therefore, while the Canal charges will be reduced, the Railroad charges will be stationary or increased, and the basis of our reasoning is not likely to be disturbed. It would not be reasonable to assume that no improvement could be expected in Railroad transport. Experience will doubtless make some progress in reducing the cost, and indeed very considerable improvement (as above intimated) is necessary to enable them to maintain themselves on the rates of freight charges that have been hitherto established. But it is not believed there is reasonable ground to anticipate such improvement in the cost of freight charges on Railroads, as will be equal to the improvement in Canal charges, when the Erie Canal shall be enlarged to the plan now in progress of construction. I have thus far taken the Erie Canal in comparison with other means of transport for this trade, for the reason, as will hereafter appear, that this is the only channel that will be able to maintain material competition with the projected improvement.
The Railroads, however, have transported a considerable amount of freight from the Lakes to the Atlantic Cities, and many persons suppose they will in a great measure supersede Canals, and be the favorite mode of transportation. It is evident this conclusion has been reached without consideration, especially when applied to channels of great trade. There are doubtless many situations of considerable importance, where a Railroad would be a more profitable improvement than a Canal, as a means of intercourse. The Railroad is of a great value for the transport of heavy freight, but is especially valuable for the transport of passengers, and for light, valuable or perishable freight; and when the proportion of heavy freight is comparatively small, the Canal could not be supported, though the Railroad may be quite prosperous. And so it happens that Railroads near and parallel to Canals carry a considerable amount of freight. As for instance, the New York and Erie and the New York Central Railroads may be regarded as specimens of this kind of competition. The New York Central is as favorable a road in lines and grades as will often be found for so great a length, is near the Canal for its whole distance, and about one-fifth shorter. There are articles of freight that can be transported on a Railroad, namely, such as are of a perishable nature, as fresh provisions, vegetables, fruit, &c., and live stock, for which a Canal is either poorly or not at all adapted. Articles that are light and valuable, and can afford to pay an extra charge for the expedition of Railroad transport, will give the Road the preference to the cheaper but slower movement on the Canal. When the prices of bulky and staple Agricultural products rule high, and especially if the market be in an uncertain or feverish state, more or less may be expected to take the Railroad, as during the past season it is believed the Railroads from Lake Erie have carried more Flour than in any season before. Again the Canals in this latitude are closed near five months by ice, during which time all freight that can afford to move at Railroad prices will go forward, and with the present high prices for the staples of Agriculture there will be a much larger transport by Railroads than usual. It must therefore be conceded that Railroads will find a class of freight they can secure, and may do a substantial business notwithstanding the competition of Canals; and both means of transport may be quite successful, where there is a large traffic, in which each shall take its appropriate part.
In regard to the trade under consideration, it may be remarked that the great mass is composed of bulky and heavy articles, of such general value, as materially feels the weight of transport charges, especially if the distance moved be great, and cannot under the general condition of the market afford to pay much additional, to save a few days of time in transit. In this we are not left to conjecture, as it appears from the Report of Mr. McAlpine, before referred to, that the proportion of tonnage on the Erie Canal and on the New York Central Railroad, for four years, from 1848 to 1852, was as 32 on the Canal to 1 on the Railroad, and when applied to the more heavy articles the comparison was trebly more favorable for the Canal. This ratio has no doubt been for 1853 and 1854 more favorable for the Railroad, but not such as to disturb the main principle involved, namely, that the cheapness of transport will in general secure to the Canal the great mass of heavy freights; and especially if the Canal be large, and of its kind adapted to the most economical transport. It is doubted if there is a case, where Canal and Railroad transportation devoted to a general traffic, that affords a more favorable opportunity for comparing their relative merits, than that above taken, and as they are designed to provide for the particular trade under consideration, are most applicable to this investigation. It has been shown what the effect has been, with the Canal comparatively small and inconveniently crowded with business, and it may be inferred that the Railroad will have small chance of obtaining the heavy class of freights, when the Canal shall be enlarged as now proposed, by which the transport will be cheapened, and the capacity greatly enlarged. The saving in time by Railroads over water conveyance is most important when appertaining to short routes, when, for long distances, as from Chigaco [sic] to New York, the delay incident to transferring freight from one Railroad to another, on the average, would occupy so much time that little if any thing would be gained over a propeller, that could run to and from those ports without breaking bulk.
The Railroads that cross the Alleghany range having respectively their Atlantic termini at New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, can have but small influence on the, heavy traffic that tends to the Lakes; and those on the shores of the Lakes, running parallel with Lake navigation, will be quite unable to compete with the Lake for the heavy class of freights, except so much as may be sent forward when Lake navigation is closed by ice. The amount of this will depend on the condition of the market, and can never make a serious impression on the quantity of Lake trade.
The Northern New York Railroad, extending from Ogdensburgh on the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain, has transported a larger proportion of heavy freight from the Lakes than the roads before mentioned. This has arisen from the local circumstances of this road. It carries the agricultural products of the Western States to supply the district about Lake Champlain, and to a large extent the Northern portion of New England, that has no navigation (except very circuitous) to compete with it. This condition (as will be hereafter shown) will be materially changed when the proposed St. Lawrence and Champlain Canal shall be but in operation.
Railroads have a salutary influence on great channels of trade, from their superior capacity in transporting passengers, and for light and valuable goods, and such as, from their perishable or peculiar nature, require quick transport, and for so much of all kinds as the condition of market may demand, when navigation is arrested by ice, and in this way confers a benefit on the interest of parallel navigation, whether natural or artificial. And in view of the character of the navigation now considered, they may be regarded as beneficial rather than injurious to its interests.
Return to Home Port
This volume was digitized from the collections of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston