The Role of Transportation In Westward Expansion

The simplest answer to our question, is that without transportation, there is no way that the United States could stretch from the east


coast to the west coast. However, before the country could expand, President Thomas Jefferson had to find out what was west of the Missouri River, and Americans needed to develop faster ways to get there.

Jefferson Looks West

When Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States in 1801, the Mississippi River was the country's western boundary and America primarily existed along the Atlantic coast. With no reliable modes of transportation other than horses, the idea of the country expanding toward the Pacific Ocean was difficult for many Americans to comprehend.

So, why did Jefferson encourage westward expansion? After he engineered the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the size of the country and ensuring that the port of New Orleans would remain in American hands, Jefferson wanted to find a waterway that led all the way from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, which would open up even more ports and international trade. After Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their two-year journey of western exploration, the country began to realize the true potential for expansion. However, Americans needed to devise methods of transportation to make westward expansion possible.

Erie Canal

The Erie Canal in 1903, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first American development in transportation that affected westward transportation came in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton encouraged the legislature of the state in 1817 to authorize the 7 million dollars needed to construct the waterway that covered 400 miles from the eastern shore of Lake Erie in Buffalo to the upper Hudson River in Albany.

The 40-foot wide canal not only made New York the country's busiest port, but it encouraged westward expansion by opening a passageway to the Northwest Territories, an area now known as the states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

No longer did rocky, rutted dirt roads of the summer or treacherous, muddy trails of the winter stand as deterrents to settlers and businessmen trying to reach the fertile ground of the northwest. The cost to move freight along the Erie Canal was ten dollars per ton, compared to 100 dollars per ton along the road. However, the canal did so much business the cost for its construction was completely recouped within nine years of its opening.


An organized system for land transportation also affected westward expansion. The discovery of gold in Northern California in 1849 brought a flood of people to the west in search of riches. This intensified the need for a system to ship goods, supplies, people and the mail to the west. Sending mail either by boat around South America or by land over Panama was dangerous and time consuming to the degree that California threatened to secede from the Union if a faster mail system was not developed.

In 1857, Congress authorized the Postmaster General to explore the development of a stagecoach line to carry mail, passengers and supplies from the Mississippi River to San Francisco in 25 days or less. John Butterfield, one of the founders of American Express, was awarded the contract and created the country's first post road, the Butterfield Overland Express, two years before the creation of the Pony Express. Americans now had another form of transportation to help push the country toward westward expansion.

Transcontinental Railroad

While the Erie Canal and the stagecoach lines were important elements in westward expansion, the Transcontinental Railroad had the greatest impact. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads officially connected in Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. Telegraph wires were attached to the final spike and when it was driven into the ground, the blow from the sledgehammer instantly signaled the news that United States had joined its coasts.

A coast-to-coast trip from San Francisco to New York now took seven days instead of weeks. No longer did travelers have to go by boat or over treacherous bumpy, roads. Not only did material goods and mail make the trip by train, but people could, too, and bring with them ideas and thoughts from all parts of the country.

Just Imagine

When discovering how transportation affected westward expansion, it is important to stop and think about what the country would be like if there were no reliable way to move people, goods or ideas. Jefferson understood the importance of opening more trade routes for the country. The development of waterways, roads and rail lines, which opened new frontiers of the west, allowed the United States to truly become a united nation.


  1. American Studies at the University of Virginia: Digging Clinton's Ditch;
  2. Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Butterfield Overland Express;
  3. PBS: American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad;
  4. PBS: Living History: Lewis and Clark;