Visualizing the transportation effects of urban mercantilism: Eastern New York, 1822--1860

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Mark Monmonier


Transportation, Urban mercantilism, Erie Canal, Animated cartography, Railroads, Historical GIS

Subject Categories

Geography | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Much of the historiography of the antebellum United States focuses on the large seaports and their efforts through canals and railroads to reach westward, especially after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. There are problems with this viewpoint, as it ignores the timing and local extent of most railroads, neglects the industrious smaller cities that implemented many of the transportation changes, and downplays Boston's important role as a railroad pioneer. Most importantly, it misinterprets the rise of New York City as the dominant port city of the country, assigning too much credit to the Erie Canal.

This dissertation adopted instead a multi-scale look at urban mercantilism , in which rival smaller cities, such as Albany and Troy, pursued transportation improvements as strategies in a locational game to connect neighboring towns and distant seaports. Eastern New York was arguably the most important gameboard for this urban competition as the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers witnessed nationally important transportation changes in steamboats, canals, and railroad technology.

To explain such a rapidly-changing transportation network, grand theory often falters, as choices and outcomes were not predetermined. This dissertation adopted instead a time-dependent cartographic approach, through which each city's decisions could be situated with respect to topography, trade routes, and rival networks. Such a method was only possible through the use of a Historical GIS which supported source-map georeferencing, feature extraction, time encoding, and relief rendering. Situating events correctly in space and time answered numerous research questions, such as New York City's legislative opposition towards the Erie Canal, the state's begrudging acceptance of railroads, New York City's Erie Canal-induced railroad "complacency," and the underdevelopment of the New York-Montreal trading route, in defiance of period observers.

But puzzles remained, such as the timing of the Hudson River railroads and the massive investment in Vermont railroads in the late 1840s. These could only be explained through the inclusion of international events, most importantly Britain's Repeal of the Corn Laws. The changing trade relationships, among Britain, the United States, and Canada, had strong effects on the American city and transportation systems.


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