Historically, societies have always located near water, due partly to the
fact that water enables more efficient travel compared to going over land.
Waterways are critically important to the transportation of people and
goods throughout the world. The complex network of connections between
coastal ports, inland ports, rail, air, and truck routes forms a
foundation of material economic wealth worldwide.
Within the United States, waterways have been developed and integrated
into a world-class transportation system that has been instrumental in the
country’s economic development. Today, there are more than 17,700
kilometers of commercially important navigation channels in the lower 48
Early History of Water-based Transportation
The historical development of water-based transportation is connected to
the importance of domestic and international trade. Early exploration of
North America identified large amounts of natural resources such as
fisheries, timber, and furs. Trade centers were established along the
east coast of North America where goods could be gathered together and
ocean vessels could transport them to consumers in Europe and other
foreign areas. The success of commercial trading companies spurred the
Waterways in developing countries are critical avenues for local
and regional commerce. Fruit and vegetable vendors flock to floating
markets on rivers and canals, such as this one in Bangkok, Thailand.
more colonial settlements that in turn resulted in additional increases
in population, economic activity, and trade.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, small subsistence farms
were prevalent among the American colonies. Eventually larger farms
emerged and produced crops such as wheat, tobacco, rice, indigo, and
cotton that were commercially marketable in Europe. Ocean vessels
transported the bulk, low-value goods from the colonies to Europe and
returned with high-value, low-density goods such as inks, linens, and
finished products that had a much higher return on the investment per
Agricultural production continued to grow and support the growing
colonies’ economic development. The speed and low cost of
transporting goods by water influenced the locations of population
settlements near navigable water (rivers, lakes, canals, and oceans).
Goods produced on inland farms were transported via inland waterways to
the coastal ports. Goods shipped by smaller vessels from surrounding
ports were transported to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and
exported on larger oceangoing ships. These ships from the smaller ports
then transported imported goods back to the surrounding ports.
During the 1700s, the British government passed many acts, such as the
Navigation Acts and the Stamp Act of 1765, designed to collect taxes
from the colonists. The acts affected trade, and were met with
opposition from the colonist. In Philadelphia during the fall of 1774,
the “Declarations and Resolves of the First Continental
Congress” called for non-importation of British goods, and became
a catalyst for the American Revolutionary War (1775–1784). The
resulting independence for the United States allowed trade a free rein,
and it flourished.
The westward expansion of the United States exposed a wealth of natural
resources and an increased production in agricultural goods. The inland