The Transportation Revolution

Before the 1800's, when people left their families to venture overseas, there was a profound sadness at the parting. It was clear that saying goodbye probably meant forever. It was a feeling not unlike death; experiencing the loss of a child or a parent. It was often said that "Seeing a boy off at the railway station was the same as attending the boy's funeral". Grief, mixed with the joy of adventure, made departures bittersweet. This all changed in the 1800s. The industrial revolution transformed public transportation.

"The sailing ship ensured that emigration was virtually permanent exile for most. The steamship (however) made return not only more possible but very common. One (probably) conservative estimate suggests that by the later nineteenth century around one-third of those who left, sooner or later returned." (Devine, 1992).

In the 1850's, it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic. With each passing year, the voyage got shorter and safer. By 1914, you could cross the Atlantic in just a week. John Anderson (1834 to 1911), for example, came to America as a child. Then he returned to Scotland. As a teenager, he got back on a boat and came back to America, ending up in Addison Township in Oakland County as one of the Scottish pioneers in that region.

"By the 1840s, settlements were well established along the shores of every Great Lake except Superior . . . Not only were numbers of steamers (paddle wheel boats) in service, but propeller-driven vessels had made their successful debut on the lakes . . . Steamers had been able to thrive because of the immigrant trade, immigrants had been able to reach their new lands more easily and quickly because of the steamers. (Barry, 1996)

The Midwestern United States was so "developed" by 1840, that tourists were arriving.

"The Great Lakes region drew tourists both from the eastern Seaboard and from overseas. Among them was Charles Dickens, who came with this wife by land to Sandusky, Ohio, in April 1842 . . . At Sandusky the couple boarded ship for Buffalo. Dickens wrote to a friend that "She was a fine steamship, four hundred tons burden, named the Constitution, (she) had very few passengers on board, and had bountiful and handsome accommodation." (Barry, 1996)

The transformation was similar for land transport. The American frontier only moved forward seventeen miles a year in the early days of migration. There were few roads and no railroads. The settlers had to walk to get anywhere. They rarely got fifteen miles along in a day (given the wilderness, rivers to ford, hills to climb, and so on). Road technology and the evolution of the railroad opened the wilderness to migration. Here are the words of Reverend George Field, an intrepid missionary who trudged from Canada to Milwaukee, Chicago to Detroit, down to St. Louis and back to Detroit; all over the Midwest, not once, but over and over again- all through the 1840s to 1870s.

". . . travelling was toilsome, difficult, and perilous. The roads were like a plowed field, soaked with water,- only full of holes and ridges; or, as on prairie sod, sometimes flooded and saturated, or like a shallow lake. Twice I had to get other horses to haul my buggy from bottomless mud holes; once nearly drowned in fording the deep and rapid Vermillion, swollen by heavy rains; once to pass through a wide lagoon of water four feet deep, and cross a bridge underneath it, sometimes drenched through with rain, and no help for it; at other times almost frozen with a bitter north-west wind, blowing like a hurricane over a prairie where, for miles, neither house, fence, or tree could be seen; crossing rivers when only half frozen, between great holes in the ice; and riding after dark on the open prairie, and guessing at the road in the depth of winter; sometimes losing my way on these waste wildernesses, or passing the night in rude houses, only next to being in the open air. Yet this by no means conveys an idea of the travelling in this new country for eight months,- from October to June; neither can I tell the dread I felt in commencing a fresh journey." (Field, 1879)

The first practical trains appeared in England in the 1820's. The technology had been evolving since the 1700's, but useful public rail transport did not emerge until the 1820's. James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, invented the steam engine in the late 1700's, and it was his innovations that made the technology eventually viable for regular public use.

"In 1830, there were only 39.8 miles . . . of documented railroad track laid in the United States . . . After this, railroad lines grew rapidly. Ten years later, in 1840, the railways had grown to 2,755.18 miles . . . Two decades after that (1860), the number had reached 28,919.79 miles . . . and 20 years after that (1880), the number had tripled once more to 87,801.42 miles . . ." (Wikipedia)

In 1869, Union Pacific Railroad completed the first trans-continental railroad; you could now travel from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast by rail. All the while Union Pacific was building this great pathway through the plains, over hills, and through mountain valleys and tunnels, a rail network was quickly connecting major cities back east. By 1880, this transportation hub had effectively ended the pioneering days, making travel reliable and inexpensive.

Most Americans know about the Erie Canal, but this famous waterway was just part of a spider web of canals that crisscrossed over the landscape of the United States. "By 1840, a vast canal network linked the Eastern Seaboard to previously unreachable inland waterways". (, 2007) Added to the almost 3,000 miles of new railroad tracks in the east, this transportation system established well worn pathways right up the edge of the frontier. By 1840, Michigan was well within this transportation hub, as the frontier had spread westward.

Road technology also improved dramatically throughout the 1800's. The Indians had worn trails into the landscape of America long before the settlers arrived. These trails became, in many cases, our modern roads. Pioneers widened the trails so that wagons could be used. Eventually, planks of wood were placed so that mud and ruts didn't slow travel. These early roads had to be built, which was time consuming and expensive, so toll roads and private roads evolved.

Political maneuvering after the War of 1812 resulted in deliberately planned, organized and populated communities along the borders between Canada and the United States. The English wanted a line of towns along the Canadian border to be filled with citizens loyal to the British Commonwealth. The United States government was just as eager to establish border communities (buffer zones) that contained loyal American populations. Michigan was strategic; the federal government was determined to populate and develop the new State. Transportation had to be improved if Michigan was to grow strong.

"The federal government encouraged settlement of the Michigan Territory in the years immediately following the War of 1812 by aiding the construction of major territorial roads. Thus, roads from Detroit to Monroe and Toledo, Port Huron, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Chicago, through the southern tier of counties were constructed by the federal government in the 1820s and 1830s. Although some of these thoroughfares were hardly more than rutted, narrow, stump-filled paths through dense forests, they provided some assistance to the thousands of travelers who flocked to Michigan to settle, especially after the completion of the Erie Canal (in 1825). . ." (Pohl and Brown, 1997)

It is very clear that between 1830 and 1870, the period when the Scottish Settlement formed in southeastern Michigan, there was an almost exponential explosion (improvement) in public transportation, With each passing decade, the time required to get from one location to another substantially shrank; transportation also got safer and more comfortable.

Scotch Settlement pioneer Mark Braidwood left a travel diary and a set of letters that provide an intimate look at the reality of early travel. Here is an excerpt from a letter home to his wife Mary (Blane) who was about to embark from Scotland on the long journey to America (with their children) and to the Scottish Settlement in Lapeer County, Michigan.

"We all landed safe on the 9th of September (1842), and now I will give you a short detail of our landing and proceeding up country. "New York (city) is a terrible place. I was glad to get out of it. The Yankee runners will impose upon strangers. I found William Slone, and he showed every manner of kindness to us. He has a splendid house. His sister and brother are quite well. When you come to New York, the sooner out of it the better. Then you take out passage to Albany first. Do not engage further. Then you will get a boat to take you up the canal (Erie Canal) to Buffalo, and there you will get a steamboat to cross the lake to Detroit. I will meet you there. When you land in Detroit, cry out for a Mr. Davies of the Eagle Tavern. He will be there with a machine to take you and your luggage to his house. Then you are just 46 miles from me. We will come down with a carriage and wagon for your baggage. When you take out your passage to Glasgow, get a receipt for your money, as you will have to show it in New York when you land." (Braidwood family document)

Almont pioneer Mary Ingalls Bristol wrote a short memoir in 1910 in which she tells of her family's journey in 1836 from Genesee County, New York to "Almont" (called "Bristol" at the time). Mary takes us across Lake Erie into Detroit and then north:

"There were but two steamboats on Lake Erie at that time. We took one of them the next morning with all our goods. Father secured cabin passage for mother and babe, while the rest of us took what was called steerage passage. . . in just two days time, we landed in Detroit. There were no paved roads at that time, consequently there was considerable mud. That was a year of great rains. Some called it a flood, and we found to our sorrow the worst roads that had ever been heard of.

It was the year of the greatest immigration to Michigan. The year 1836 will never be forgotten by those who traveled north of Detroit. People were kind and helped each other, for all that had loaded wagons had to be helped. Three miles out of the city was the extent of our travels that first day." (Bowman, 1985)

In the early 1800s, the Great Lakes were not highways of commerce. They were the next huge water barrier, after the Atlantic Ocean. The Lakes were mostly impassable, forcing the westward migration along a route south of the Michigan Territory.

"Most travel was by small boat or canoe moving from point to point or hugging the shore for safety in storm or to spend the night on shore. It was only with the development of steam navigation that travel by the Great Lakes came into its own. . ." (Comin and Fredsell, 1850)
In September, 1818, Presbyterian minister John Monteith wrote in his diary that he was standing on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit waiting for the first landing of the steamboat "Walk-in-the Water". As she hove in sight, belching smoke and fire from her tall stack, she created much speculation. What drove her through the water? A Frenchman standing by said she drew fire from the nether regions. "No" said an Indian. "She is hitched to a great sturgeon which draws her through the water in spite of wind and wave." (Comin and Fredsell, 1850)

The stage was set. Transportation technology was rising to the challenge. America wanted the pioneers to come. Scotland wanted the pioneers to emigrate. Life was good in Michigan, not so good in Ayrshire or Glasgow. It must have been a time of great excitement and expectation, a time when adventure was in the air.