Lecture #8: The Flow of the River: Urban-Industrial Revolutions

Suggested Readings

Mannahatta Project Map: https://welikia.org/explore/mannahatta-map/
Louis Hunter, Water Power (1979); Steam Power (1985)
Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (1991)
David Soll, Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply (2013)
Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (1962)
Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (1999)
Ari Kelman, A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans (2003)
Craig Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from Nature (2004)


I. Bringing the World to the City's Door: Harbors, Rivers, Canals

Note the role of cities like Montreal, Fort Orange (Albany), and New Amsterdam (New York City) in the colonial fur trade, as well as in the colonization schemes of major European empires.

Cities can rightly be seen as foci of emerging market relationships and networks that were proliferating across the continent. They were especially important as break-in-bulk points where land and river transportation interfaced with coastal and trans-oceanic maritime traffic.

All major colonial cities on the eastern seaboard (Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans--and, of course, Montreal in the north) were oriented toward the ocean: Atlantic ports were their most important raison d'etre; Boston was dominant in early decades, then Philadelphia, with New York finally emerging in the early nineteenth century as the economic metropolis of the United States. (Montreal played a comparable role for Canada.)

There were many reasons for NYC's eventual primacy, but geography was very important: the city's location at the Atlantic end of the Hudson-Mohawk river corridor provided the easiest access across the Appalachians for opening up potential markets in the interior, especially the Great Lakes. (It's again important to recognize the risks of geographical determinism: how much of this should be attributed to geography, and how much to market advantages deriving from privileged access to capital markets, political power, artificial transport networks like the railroads, etc.?)

Transport innovations extended these rural-urban linkages: Robert Fulton's Clermont steamboat in 1807: made the round trip between New York and Albany in just five days (300 round trip, 62 hours under steam at 5mph). On the voyage of the Clermont, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_River_Steamboat

The construction of the Erie Canal between 1817-25 consolidated NYC's hegemony by using the corridor of the Mohawk River (only east west route across the Appalachians other than the St. Lawrence) to connect New York Harbor with Lake Erie at Buffalo--thereby opening up the Great Lakes above Niagara Falls and accelerating settlement and economic development of the Northwest Territory as far west as Illinois and Wisconsin. Wikipedia has a valuable overview of the Erie Canal and its history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erie_Canal)

II. The Power of Falling Water

Shift now from water as medium of transport to falling water the source of energy for the nation's first industrial revolution: a form of solar energy. (England had earlier pioneered the use of water in the textile mills of Manchester.)

Windmills had played a small role in colonial period, and would continue to be important, especially on the Great Plains from mid-19th century forward as a way to pump ground water for livestock.

Sawmills and gristmills were among the earliest businesses in frontier areas: market centers providing basic processing of wood and grain. This was an old medieval technology, but by eighteenth century was undergoing important innovations. Sawmills replaced pitsawing with human labor, just as gristmills replaced hand grinding and animal-powered milling.

Millwrights were among the most skillful mechanics and inventors in colonial communities (as they had been in Europe), pointing the way toward technological innovations in use of natural resources.

Compare, for instance, Oliver Evans' "Improved Mill," with inventions to use single drive train in grinding, sifting, lifting, sacking flour. Evans (1755-1819) grew up in the Philadelphia/Wilmington area, went to country school through age of 14, then apprenticed to a wagon maker, quickly demonstrated his mechanical genius. Published the The Young Mill-wright and Miller's Guide in 1795 (available for download at archive.org: https://archive.org/details/youngmillwrightm00evan). You can learn more about Evans from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Evans

By the early 19th century, investors were looking for more capital- and energy-intensive forms of production.

Francis Cabot Lowell's Boston Manufacturing Co. opened its first factory at Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1813: the "Waltham System" manufactured cotton cloth, organized and managed by single corporation, with factory powered by water.

Much more extensive: Patrick Tracy Jackson's associates at Lowell, Mass, (originally called East Chelmsford) used power from Pawtucket Falls of Merrimac River combined with the Middlesex Canal to deliver power to water-powered factories. Growing number of factories all drew water from the canal, with integral linkage of town, residences, factories, along the town's proliferating canal network.

At the very moment that town and country were thus being tied ever more closely together, the factory town emerged as a social and iconic space separate from country: note the paradox of early pastoral images of Lowell standing in contrast to the regimentation of factory architecture, highly regulated boarding house life, with time-clock discipline.

New England factories were predicated on a largely female labor force (already skilled in needlework) migrating from country to city (initially rural New England farm girls, eventually Irish immigrants, both making the journey from rural to urban employment). Winslow Homer's famous painting "(Old Mill) Morning Bell" can serve as a symbol of this newly mechanized form of employment: http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/52522

Note the technological and environmental problems associated with water power: it required that all machines be powered by a limited number of drive shafts, all connected by belts to the turbines beneath the factory, encouraging a multi-story vertical form of architecture to minimize friction. Spinning shafts and whirring belts produced highly unsafe working conditions, with many injuries.

Also: flood danger was omnipresent, as was also true of river towns in general.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, a striking example of a water-powered milltown, site of the famed federal armory (gun manufacturing site) that John Brown tried to raid in 1859 in an effort to promote slave rebellions in the South. The town's water-powered mills were severely damaged by flood in 1889, never recovered.

III. Steam and Fuel

In face of emerging competition from steam, water-powered factories were gradually abandoned (though hydropower would continue to be very important for electricity generation, as we'll see later in the course).

Steam engine evolution: from Thomas Newcomen's single cylinder in 1705 (used to pump water from Cornish tin mines in England) to James Watt's condenser in 1765, the tendency was for increasing efficiency, higher pressures, lighter devices, making steam an ever more flexible power source.

Early fuel for steam engines was often wood, especially for steamboats. Deforestation along major transportation corridors like the Mississippi was partly driven by this demand for fuel. Coal industry emerged where trees scarce, with the anthracite mines of eastern Pennsylvania becoming important for factories and cities in the mid-Atlantic region. Some of earliest railroads were designed to carry this coal to market.

Steam power meant that factories were no longer geographically limited to sites with significant heads of water. Coal and water could be moved to any factory site with adequate transportation (and railroads would liberate system from spatial limits still further).

A key long-term effect was that factories became freer to concentrate in urban centers, no longer so dependent on rivers for their locations as they had been earlier.

IV. Fire

Note the city's other relationships to water: drinking, bathing, manufacturing, fire-fighting.

Wooden cities of nineteenth-century North America were perennially and very seriously threatened by fire: NYC fire of 1776 burned down 1/4 town. 1835 fire there consumed 500-700 stores, $20-40 million damages.

Fear of fire increased pressure for more water supply systems capable of delivering high volumes of water for fire-fighting. Philadelphia's Fairmount Works was the first major centralized water system in 1822. New York City's Croton Aqueduct followed in 1842: a five-mile-long lake at Croton covered 400 acres, with a masonry aqueduct carrying water 33 miles downstream to the Harlem River, where it crossed the Harlem River on a bridge 1450 long, 100 feet above the river, before continuing on to the receiving (now in the middle of Central Park).

Major urban fires (NYC in 1835, Chicago in 1871, the San Francisco earthquake in 1906) all prompted greater concern about and political support for municipal water supplies. (The Hetch Hetchy conflict in Yosemite, which we'll study after the midterm exam, was linked to this).

Improved supply meant healthier water, but only to those who could afford to pay for it. Pumps persist, with deleterious effects for health.

V. Death Too Comes over the Water

Water-borne diseases were yet another link in the chain connecting growing cities back to the natural world.

Cholera reached Europe for the first time in 1831, arriving in Montreal June 7, 1832, and in New York City on June 26.

Symptoms: intestinal convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting, death from dehydration (modern medical discovery: simple treatment with salty water means most can survive!)

Theory of disease shaped treatment, as Charles Rosenberg's classic account in The Cholera Years shows: notions that bad air ("miasma") or bad morals caused disease didn't necessarily lead to appropriate prophylactic measures. Chief responses in the first half of the nineteenth century: quarantine, closing of immigration, flight from the city and other infected areas (often carrying the contagion with the fleeing migrants). Major cholera epidemics in US in 1832, 1849, 1866.

With emergence of Louis Pasteur's germ theory, more effective responses became possible, ending the chain of infection starting with the 1866 epidemic. Municipal boards of health began to appear, using sometimes authoritarian measures to try to prevent infected people from contaminating drinking water.

Note that defenses against disease began to emerge from several different directions during this period.

In 1798, Edward Jenner publishes news that lymph from cowpox postules would vaccinate for smallpox (an insight he and others first gained by realizing that milkmaids who had handled infected udders seemed to be immune to smallpox).

Vaccination manipulated the body's internal environment (its immune system) against disease; other diseases, like cholera, were most effectively combatted by manipulating external environments.

Compare the story of yellow fever, which was transported by a mosquito vector (Aedes aegypti). The disease was endemic in the tropics, repeatedly epidemic in more northern areas when it traveled north. It was introduced from Africa via Caribbean, thereafter triggering multiple epidemics in cities of the southern US, especially as non-immune populations immigrated. Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, all had recurring epidemics, but none more than New Orleans, which had 14 major epidemics between 1796-1878.

Standard defenses--quarantine, fires, etc.--proved ineffective because the mosquito vector was not understood.

In 1895, Ronald Ross found malaria protozoan in mosquito gut (anopheles). Cuban physician Carlos Finlay postulated that the same mosquito vector might be transmitting yellow fever as well. After the Spanish-American War, US troops occupying Cuba began dying from yellow fever. A US Army commission headed by Walter Reed confirmed mosquito vector, recommending that the disease could be controlled by eliminating mosquito habitats

When yellow fever appeared in New Orleans in 1905: the epidemic fought by sulphur fumigation, drainage of mosquito breeding habitats. It was effectively the last such epidemic in the US.

SUM: note linkages throughout this lecture to water and cities: transport; power via falls; power via steam; water supply for drinking, cleaning, manufacture; water as vector for disease, water as habitat of insect disease vectors.

Managing water in myriad ways became key to understanding the emerging landscapes of the nineteenth century.

Urban environments of nineteenth century tell a story of proliferating connections: between market centers, between city and country, between falling water and industrial markets, between coal fields and steam engines, between thirsty masses and rural water, between diseases and people, between markets of supply and demand.