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The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway By Archer Butler Hulbert Characters: 15346

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The Man Who Caught the Vision

Inland America, at the birth of the Republic, was as great a mystery to the average dweller on the Atlantic seaboard as the elephant was to the blind men of Hindustan. The reports of those who had penetrated this wilderness-of those who had seen the barren ranges of the Alleghanies, the fertile uplands of the Unakas, the luxuriant blue-grass regions, the rich bottom lands of the Ohio and Mississippi, the wide shores of the inland seas, or the stretches of prairie increasing in width beyond the Wabash-seemed strangely contradictory, and no one had been able to patch these reports together and grasp the real proportions of the giant inland empire that had become a part of the United States. It was a pathless desert; it was a maze of trails, trodden out by deer, buffalo, and Indian. Its great riverways were broad avenues for voyagers and explorers; they were treacherous gorges filled with the plunder of a million floods. It was a rich soil, a land of plenty; the natives were seldom more than a day removed from starvation. Within its broad confines could dwell a great people; but it was as inaccessible as the interior of China. It had a great commercial future; yet its gigantic distances and natural obstructions defied all known means of transportation.

Such were the varied and contradictory stories told by the men who had entered the portals of inland America. It is not surprising, therefore, that theories and prophecies about the interior were vague and conflicting nor that most of the schemes of statesmen and financiers for the development of the West were all parts and no whole. They all agreed as to the vast richness of that inland realm and took for granted an immense commerce therein that was certain to yield enormous profits. In faraway Paris, the ingenious diplomat, Silas Deane, writing to the Secret Committee of Congress in 1776, pictured the Old Northwest-bounded by the Ohio, the Alleghanies, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi-as paying the whole expense of the Revolutionary War. 1 Thomas Paine in 1780 drew specifications for a State of from twenty to thirty millions of acres lying west of Virginia and south of the Ohio River, the sale of which land would pay the cost of three years of the war. 2 On the other hand, Pelatiah Webster, patriotic economist that he was, decried in 1781 all schemes to "pawn" this vast westward region; he likened such plans to "killing the goose that laid an egg every day, in order to tear out at once all that was in her belly." He advocated the township system of compact and regular settlement; and he argued that any State making a cession of land would reap great benefit "from the produce and trade" of the newly created settlements.

1 Deane's plan was to grant a tract two hundred miles square at the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi to a company on the condition that a thousand families should be settled on it within seven years. He added that, as this company would be in a great degree commercial, the establishing of commerce at the junction of those large rivers would immediately give a value to all the lands situated on or near them.

2 Paine thought that while the new State could send its exports southward down the Mississippi, its imports must necessarily come from the East through Chesapeake Bay because the current of the Mississippi was too strong to be overcome by any means of navigation then known.

There were mooted many other schemes. General Rufus Putnam, for example, advocated the Pickering or "Army" plan of occupying the West; he wanted a fortified line to the Great Lakes, in case of war with England, and fortifications on the Ohio and the Mississippi, in case Spain should interrupt the national commerce on these waterways. And Thomas Jefferson theorized in his study over the toy states of Metropotamia and Polypotamia-brought his

… trees and houses out

And planted cities all about.

But it remained for George Washington, the Virginia planter, to catch, in something of its actual grandeur, the vision of a Republic stretching towards the setting sun, bound and unified by paths of inland commerce. It was Washington who traversed the long ranges of the Alleghanies, slept in the snows of Deer Park with no covering but his greatcoat, inquired eagerly of trapper and trader and herder concerning the courses of the Cheat, the Monongahela, and the Little Kanawha, and who drew from these personal explorations a clear and accurate picture of the future trade routes by which the country could be economically, socially, and nationally united.

Washington's experience had peculiarly fitted him to catch this vision. Fortune had turned him westward as he left his mother's knee. First as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax in the Shenandoah Valley and later, under Braddock and Forbes, in the armies fighting for the Ohio against the French he had come to know the interior as it was known by no other man of his standing. His own landed property lay largely along the upper Potomac and in and beyond the Alleghanies. Washington's interest in this property was very real. Those who attempt to explain his early concern with the West as purely altruistic must misread his numerous letters and diaries. Nothing in his unofficial character shows more plainly than his business enterprise and acumen. On one occasion he wrote to his agent, Crawford, concerning a proposed land speculation: "I recommend that you keep this whole matter a secret or trust it only to those in whom you can confide. If the scheme I am now proposing to you were known, it might give alarm to others, and by putting them on a plan of the same nature, before we could lay a proper foundation for success ourselves, set the different interests clashing and in the end overturn the whole." Nor can it be denied that Washington's attitude to the commercial development of the West was characterized in his early days by a narrow colonial partisanship. He was a stout Virginian; and all stout Virginians of that day refused to admit the pretensions of other colonies to the land beyond the mountains.

But from no man could the shackles of self-interest and provincial rivalry drop more quickly than they dropped from Washington when he found his country free after the close of the Revolutionary War. He then began to consider how that country might grow and prosper. And he began to preach the new doctrine of expansion and unity. This new doctrine first appears in a letter which he wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux in 1783, after a tour from his camp at Newburg into central New York, where he had explored the headwaters of the Mohawk and the Susquehanna: "I could not help taking a more extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States [the letter runs] and could not but be struck by the immense extent and importance of it, and of the goodness of that Providence which has dealt its favors to us with so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them. I shall not rest contented till I have explored the Western country, and traversed those lines, or great part of them, which have given bounds to a new empire."

"The vast inland navigation of these United States!" It is an interesting fact that Washington should have had his first glimpse of this vision from the strategic valley of the Mohawk, which was soon to rival his beloved Potomac as an improved commercial route from the seaboard to the West, and which was finally to achieve an unrivaled superiority in the days of the Erie Canal and the Twentieth Century Limited.

We may understand something of what the lu

re of the West meant to Washington when we learn that in order to carry out his proposed journey after the Revolution, he was compelled to refuse urgent invitations to visit Europe and be the guest of France. "I found it indispensably necessary," he writes, "to visit my Landed property West of the Apalacheon Mountains.… One object of my journey being to obtain information of the nearest and best communication between Eastern & Western waters; & to facilitate as much as in me lay the Inland Navigation of the Potomack."

On September 1, 1784, Washington set out from Mount Vernon on his journey to the West. Even the least romantic mind must feel a thrill in picturing this solitary horseman, the victor of Yorktown, threading the trails of the Potomac, passing on by Cumberland and Fort Necessity and Braddock's grave to the Monongahela. The man, now at the height of his fame, is retracing the trails of his boyhood-covering ground over which he had passed as a young officer in the last English and French war-but he is seeing the land in so much larger perspective that, although his diary is voluminous, the reader of those pages would not know that Washington had been this way before. Concerning Great Meadows, where he first saw the "bright face of danger" and which he once described gleefully as "a charming place for an encounter," he now significantly remarks: "The upland, East of the meadow, is good for grain." Changed are the ardent dreams that filled the young man's heart when he wrote to his mother from this region that singing bullets "have truly a charming sound." Today, as he looks upon the flow of Youghiogheny, he sees it reaching out its finger tips to Potomac's tributaries. He perceives a similar movement all along the chain of the Alleghanies: on the west are the Great Lakes and the Ohio, and reaching out towards them from the east, waiting to be joined by portage road and canal, are the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James. He foresees these streams bearing to the Atlantic ports the golden produce of the interior and carrying back to the interior the manufactured goods of the seaboard. He foresees the Republic becoming homogeneous, rich, and happy. "Open all the communication which nature has afforded," he wrote Henry Lee, "between the Atlantic States and the Western territory, and encourage the use of them to the utmost … and sure I am there is no other tie by which they will long form a link in the chain of Federal Union."

Crude as were the material methods by which Washington hoped to accomplish this end, in spirit he saw the very America that we know today; and he marked out accurately the actual pathways of inland commerce that have played their part in the making of America. Taking the city of Detroit as the key position, commercially, he traced the main lines of internal trade. He foresaw New York improving her natural line of communication by way of the Mohawk and the Niagara frontier on Lake Erie-the present line of the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railway. For Pennsylvania, he pointed out the importance of linking the Schuylkill and the Susquehanna and of opening the two avenues westward to Pittsburgh and to Lake Erie. In general, he thus forecast the Pennsylvania Canal and the Pennsylvania and the Erie railways. For Maryland and Virginia he indicated the Potomac route as the nearest for all the trade of the Ohio Valley, with the route by way of the James and the Great Kanawha as an alternative for the settlements on the lower Ohio. His vision here was realized in a later day by the Potomac and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Cumberland Road, the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, and by the James-Kanawha Turnpike and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

Washington's general conclusions are stated in a summary at the end of his Journal, which was reproduced in his classic letter to Harrison, written in 1784. His first point is that every State which had water routes reaching westward could enhance the value of its lands, increase its commerce, and quiet the democratic turbulence of its shut-in pioneer communities by the improvement of its river transportation. Taking Pennsylvania as a specific example, he declared that "there are one hundred thousand souls West of the Laurel Hill, who are groaning under the inconveniences of a long land transportation.… If this cannot be made easy for them to Philadelphia … they will seek a mart elsewhere.… An opposition on the part of [that] government … would ultimately bring on a separation between its Eastern and Western settlements; towards which there is not wanting a disposition at this moment in that part of it beyond the mountains."

Washington's second proposal was the achievement of a new and lasting conquest of the West by binding it to the seaboard with chains of commerce. He thus states his point: "No well informed mind need be told that the flanks and rear of the United territory are possessed by other powers, and formidable ones too-nor how necessary it is to apply the cement of interest to bind all parts of it together, by one indissoluble bond-particularly the middle States with the Country immediately back of them-for what ties let me ask, should we have upon those people; and how entirely unconnected should we be with them if the Spaniards on their right or Great Britain on their left, instead of throwing stumbling blocks in their way as they do now, should invite their trade and seek alliances with them?"

Some of the pictures in Washington's vision reveal, in the light of subsequent events, an almost uncanny prescience. He very plainly prophesied the international rivalry for the trade of the Great Lakes zone, embodied today in the Welland and the Erie canals. He declared the possibility of navigating with ocean-going vessels the tortuous two-thousand-mile channel of the Ohio and the Mississippi River; and within sixteen years ships left the Ohio, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed into the Mediterranean. His description of a possible insurrection of a western community might well have been written later; it might almost indeed have made a page of his diary after he became President of the United States and during the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania. He approved and encouraged Rumsey's mechanical invention for propelling boats against the stream, showing that he had a glimpse of what was to follow after Fitch, Rumsey, and Fulton should have overcome the mighty currents of the Hudson and the Ohio with the steamboat's paddle wheel. His proposal that Congress should undertake a survey of western rivers for the purpose of giving people at large a knowledge of their possible importance as avenues of commerce was a forecast of the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as of the policy of the Government today for the improvement of the great inland rivers and harbors.

"The destinies of our country run east and west. Intercourse between the mighty interior west and the sea coast is the great principle of our commercial prosperity." These are the words of Edward Everett in advocating the Boston and Albany Railroad. In effect Washington had uttered those same words half a century earlier when he gave momentum to an era filled with energetic but unsuccessful efforts to join with the waters of the West the rivers reaching inland from the Atlantic. The fact that American engineering science had not in his day reached a point where it could cope with this problem successfully should in no wise lessen our admiration for the man who had thus caught the vision of a nation united and unified by improved methods of transportation.

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