On the Water

Inland Waterways, 1820–1940

The country’s vast system of rivers and lakes has helped people settle the land and create communities.

In the 1800s, explorers, traders, merchants, and farmers followed America’s waterways toward new lands and lives. An inland shipping industry grew up to work these waterways, and it carried grain, lumber, ore, cotton, and other products to distant markets, as it does to this day. Where the landscape lacked useful water routes, people created them in the form of canals. From New Orleans to Minneapolis, great cities and small towns relied on the nation’s inland waterways to thrive.