"The Canal Is in the Hands of the Conspirators": Fear of Traffickers and Transport Workers in the British North Atlantic and the Port of New York, 1840-1940

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Don Mitchell


Social sciences, British North Atlantic, Port of New York, Traffickers, Transport workers

Subject Categories



This dissertation looks at the retrenchment of entire modes of transportation. I look in particular at divestments from shipping canals and from harbor boats. I also discuss divestments from certain kinds of animal transportation, especially mules.

Many preceding scholars have generally attributed the decline of these transport techniques to economic factors. These scholars explain the decline of canals as a function of the rise of the faster railroads; the decline of downtown waterfronts as a function of the rise of supposedly more efficient containerization technologies; and the decline of transport animals as a function of the rise of numerous modes of motorized transport. I argue that even if such economic factors have certainly been important, they cannot adequately explain the demise of the transport modes which interest me, many of whose politically and economically valuable capabilities were never satisfactorily replaced by the transport methods that emerged in their place. In the cases I look at, I stress the likelihood that an important but overlooked factor militating against continued investment in the given retrenched transport technology--whether canal boat, harbor boat, or draft animal--was the technology's real or perceived association with, and use by, politically rebellious groups for the purposes of clandestine, subversive trafficking.

I go into particular depth examining two such cases. One case is the demise of ship-canal building within the British Empire between 1870 and 1920. Another is the history of elite refusals to invest in New York City's inner-city waterfront, from the 1920s onward. And in a final, somewhat more exploratory case, I look at animal transportation, in particular at the U.S. Military's decision to deactivate its mule corps during the 1950s.

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