Today in Transportation History – 1808: The First Federal Transportation Report

Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, submitted to the U.S. Senate a far-reaching report on the young nation’s critical transportation needs. Over a year earlier, the Senate passed a resolution calling upon the U.S. Treasury Department to prepare and submit “a plan for the application of such means are within the power of Congress, to the purposes of opening roads, and making canals,” and more generally recommendations on how the federal government could improve what was then an inadequate and fragmented national transportation system.

Gallatin, who had been born in Switzerland in 1761 and made his way to the United States in 1780 during the American Revolution, took on the challenge of writing the report with a great deal of enthusiasm and expertise. In outlining his proposals for canals, Gallatin drew heavily on the extensive and advanced waterway networks that had already been established throughout his native Europe.

Gallatin ultimately developed a wide-ranging document of more than 100 pages. “I have the honor to transmit a report respecting roads and canals, prepared in obedience to the resolution of the Senate, of the 2d of March 1807,” he noted in the letter accompanying his report.  “Time has not permitted to present the report in a more satisfactory form: but the mass of facts, which has been collected, will, it is hoped, be of some public utility.”

In his “Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors, and Rivers,” Gallatin promoted an ambitious and unprecedented $20 million program of internal improvements to be financed by the federal government. His specific proposals included an inland waterway from Massachusetts to North Carolina; a major turnpike between Maine and Georgia; more roads crossing the Allegheny Mountains; and a comprehensive series of canals linking the Atlantic seacoast, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence River.

Gallatin’s report was not universally embraced at the time and few if any of his ideas for internal improvements were actually authorized and undertaken. Many public officials, for example, balked at Gallatin’s proposed cost for funding the projects spelled out in his report. Over time, though, what Gallatin modestly characterized as a “mass of facts” has only grown in stature as a landmark report. In highlighting the importance and possibilities of a robust and broad-based national transportation system, Gallatin arguably developed a template for everything from the transcontinental railroads to the Interstate Highway System that have since helped – in his words – “to shorten distances . . . and unite, by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote corners of the United States.”

For more information on Albert Gallatin and his “Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors and Rivers,” please check out https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/artgallerytext.cfm and https://www.nps.gov/articles/albert-gallatin-and-canals.htm.

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