Canals and Railroads in 19th Century Ohio
For my doctoral dissertation, I explored the transportation history of the region where I lived--southeastern Ohio and the Hocking Valley. From the launch of the state's canal-building program in the 1820s to the intense private speculation in railroads in the 1850s, politics, urban rivalries and competition between Eastern capitalists shaped the transportation map and economic development of the region. Although the Ohio River continued to be an important route for agricultural produce and mineral resources, by the Civil War private railroads were taking the bulk of commercial freight and passengers from the canals.
The battle for access to transportation was characterized by intense urban rivalries, wild predictions of economic booms, and rampant corruption by railroad entrepreneurs and politicians. Location on a riverboat, canal or railroad line was as important to a community's self-image as it was to its economic well-being. Lack of state regulation led to over-dense planning and construction; entrepreneurs persuaded local governments and individuals to invest thousands of dollars but then skipped town, leaving only a railroad prospectus and unpaid bills; many of the railroad lines built went bankrupt, or were bought by Eastern lines at fire sale prices. Yet popular belief in the transformative power of the technology remained strong. In newspaper columns and Sunday sermons, the railroad became an almost mythological force, a metaphor for progress.
The research took me to local archives in Athens, Marietta and Columbus, and to collections on the Eastern trunk lines in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Local newspapers--always the most outspoken community boosters in 19th century America--proved a valuable source. I've done several public presentations for the Ohio Historical Society and other groups and organizations on canals and railroads, as well as conference papers and a journal article on Haydenville, Ohio's last company town.
Dividing Lines: Canals, Railroads and Urban Rivalry in Ohio's Hocking Valley, 1825–1875. Dayton: Wright State University Press, 1994.
"Popular Images of the Railroad in Ohio in the 1850s," Society for the History of Technology, Cleveland, September 1990.
"Main Street on the Towpath: The Impact of the Canal on Settlement in Southeast Ohio," Popular Culture Association, Louisville, April 1985.
"The Company Town That Outlived the Company: Haydenville, Ohio," Journal of Cultural Geography 5:2 (Spring/Summer 1985)
“The Company Town: Another Look at the Cultural Myth," Popular Culture Association, Toronto, April 1984.