How the States Got Their Shapes

Season 1 Episode 2

The Great Plains, Trains & Automobiles

Aired Tuesday 10:00 PM May 10, 2011 on The History Channel



  • Trivia

    • In addition to the unnamed local folks who are a part of every show, this episode's interviewees were Illinois fisherman Travis Wallbaum; Seth Stein of Northwestern University; Michael Paras and Jack Strejc of Chicago's Belt Railway Company; Bureau of Reclamation worker Richard Stewart; Boston cab driver Larry Meister; former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci and the honorable Neal Gamm, former "Governor" of the Republic of Forgottonia.

  • Quotes

    • Brian: In the early 1800's, when our country was just starting out, rivers were the first highways and drew many of our state's borders.

    • Brian: The sound of the boat cutting thru the water drives these fish absolutely mad. Crazy. (screams) Turns them into these little berserk sea creatures that jump out of the water ... and ... fly at you. They're actively, I believe, trying to kill us. This is not fishing, this is more like projectiles coming out of nowhere and just firing at you.

    • Brian: 1817. The territory of Illinois applies for statehood. At this point, its northern border falls south of Lake Michigan. But Illinois settlers' have big plans. They make a play to shift the border north, where the Chicago river connects to Lake Michigan. They know that if they can build a canal to link Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, their state will become an economic powerhouse at the crossroads of a new, expanded America.
      Mark: The river transportation from the center of Illinois north could all get diverted to the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, through the Great Lakes, to the Erie Canal, the Hudson river, the Atlantic...

    • Brian: Illinois gets its way with Congress, but for a darker reason as well. Even in 1817, Northern states already fear the coming battle over slavery. As you can see, Illinois extends deep into Southern territory and its rivers flow south to the Mississippi. A canal connecting the Mississippi to the Great Lakes would keep Illinois securely fastened to the North.
      Mark: The boundaries of Illinois were very, very much attuned to this conflict over slavery and whether the country would eventually divide.

    • H. W.: Chicago is a transition between the old water city and the new railroad city, because it's where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plains - and it's both a seaport, a like port, and a rail head.

    • Brian: Back then, there were as many time zones as there were cities. It was chaos for an increasingly powerful industry. So, in 1883, the mighty railroads changed time. They drew up the four time zones so trains could stay on schedule - and carved our country into brand new shapes.

    • Brian: Railroads changed more than time. As they spread west, they shaped our states in many ways.
      Mark: Railroads greatly impacted on state lines because rivers were no longer as necessary, as useful, as boundaries. In fact, if you look at the map from east to west you will see the use of straight lines increasing , and a major reason for that is railroads.

    • Brian: By the 20th century, railroads had changed time, enlarged our country, shaped several states and connected our coasts. But within a few years, a new revolution in transportation would roll across America. We've talked about how trains brought the states together, well, so did cars. Now, 200 years ago, to travel 50 miles it would take someone, well, three days on foot, about a day on horseback. Nowadays, many Americans travel 50 miles every day just to get to work.

    • Brian: Now, to get from the Mississippi to the Pacific took Lewis and Clark 13 months. For me to make the same journey, using the interstate, would take about 35 hours. Today, everything in the U.S. seems closer together - all because of transportation. Every generation or two an invention has changed how we reckon with distance. In the early-1800's, it could take a year or more to travel across the country. By 1830, canals and railroads brought much of the east coast to within a couple of days journey of New York City. Three decades later, you could travel to Chicago in two days but you still needed at least three weeks and a stagecoach to get to the West Coast. By 1930, trains sped coast to coast in three days - though remote parts of the West still took four. Air travel turned days into hours, making virtually every populated part of the country accessible within a day's travel.

    • Brian: Nearly 50,000 miles of interstate highway sprawl across our country, by far, the largest network in the world. One highway, I90, stretches 3,000 miles, linking Boston to Seattle. Not surprisingly, this system was devised by a military man. - President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Eisenhower had dreamed of an interstate network since 1919, when he drove across the country in an Army convoy. The rough and tumble ride took two months. America's highways were a mess. During World War Two, General Eisenhower was impressed by Nazi Germany's autobahn network. When he became President, he vowed to give America a world-class highway system.

    • Brian: We're a country on the move - from waterways to railways to highways. How we get around has changed our map and shaped our history - and the story of transportation is hidden in the shapes of our states.

  • Notes

  • Allusions

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