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Revenue Stream, by Larry Borowsky
by Larry Borowsky

From the beginning, America sought its destiny on the rivers. For America's destiny was freedom, and freedom implied movement, and the rivers offered both. The Louisiana Purchase gave the nation the mouth of the continent's greatest waterway (the Mississippi) and the entire length of its second-greatest (the Missouri). From the junction of those two mighty streams, Lewis and Clark went West in the spring of 1804 with instructions to bring back a nation. Two winters later Old Glory flew over the mouth of the Columbia, and America's greatness was assured.

Saint Louis, Missouri and the Mississippi River

So goes the myth, anyway.

But there were other rivers, other destinies. In 1807, while Lewis and Clark were still cataloguing all the river miles they'd walked, poled, and paddled, Robert Fulton's steamboat made its miraculous run up the Hudson, shortening the trip from New York to Albany by two and a half days.  In 1810 the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company opened its mammoth Merrimack River cotton mill. Two years later the St. Louis Fur Company built Fort Lisa just above the mouth of the Platte, collecting beaver pelts for shipment down the Missouri. And in 1817 New York state began construction of the Erie Canal, which linked the Hudson to the Great Lakes—and New York City to the Mississippi Valley.

Grand Canyon, Arizona and the Colorado River

These were the rivers that mattered: the sales channels, the revenue streams, the cash flows. America's currency rode the currents; its destiny followed.

The Canal opened in 1825, enabling overseas freight to sail far inland without ever leaving the water: from New York Harbor up the Hudson, across the 363-mile conduit to Lake Erie, and then to Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago (tack on a short wagon trip to the Illinois River and you could reach the Mississippi). Working in reverse, a farmer in Wisconsin (or Indiana, or Iowa) could get his harvest into an export ship's hold at a fraction of the time and cost required to push it up the Ohio and over the Appalachian crest. Back and forth, back and forth, the Erie Canal ferried a nation's worth of business—and it all went through New York City.

Chicago, Illinois and the Chicago River

Within a decade of the first Canal voyage, New York had knocked off Boston, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston in the race for U.S. commercial supremacy.  By this time Amoskeag's cotton mill (in what had become Manchester, New Hampshire) was the world's largest textile plant, churning out 30 miles of cloth per day—or one-fourth the length of the river that powered the looms. The achievement repeated itself in Lowell, Massachusetts, where by 1830 there were 100,000 spindles spinning on the force of the trifling Charles River. On such sliver-thin streams did American manufacturing begin its rise to world dominance; on them did an agrarian nation begin to evolve into an urban one.

New York City.

Out West, Fort Lisa's fur monopoly was short-lived. Competing trading posts quickly rose alongside every river—Fort Laramie on the Platte, Fort Bonneville on the Green, Fort Hall on the Snake, Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Fort Atkinson, Fort Pierre, Fort Union. These distribution hubs were fed by supply lines reaching far upstream, up every tributary and creek to the tiniest rivulets in the Rocky Mountains. The trappers branched out into this wilderness and picked off their beaver like money from a tree. Now this was freedom. Of course, there were only so many beaver to pick off, but when the rivers ran out of them nobody much seemed to mind. By now America had the hang of it.

In 1904 the nation marked the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase with a World's Fair in St. Louis, the great fluvial junction whence Lewis and Clark had departed. The captains' monumental project stood fulfilled: America now stretched ocean to ocean. But what of movement and freedom?

Yosemite National Park, California and the Tuolumne River

Alas, pushed out to the eddies; for the rivers had other loads to carry now—minerals to flush from Montana ores, crops to water in Oregon and Kansas, power grids to light in Tennessee and California. The waters kept rolling, but fewer and fewer Americans sought their destiny afloat; most retired to the banks and waited for destiny to come to them. And now that we have seen toxin-choked rivers catch fire, seen others dry up before they can reach the gulf, we may finally ask the question: Is this what we have been waiting for?

Movement.  Freedom.  Will they find us when the dam bursts?


Larry Borowsky wrote a bi-monthly column for 5280 magazine and is the principal writer for the Colorado Historical Society's Roadside Interpretation Project. He has written about Denver neighborhoods and Colorado history for The Denver Post, Aspen Magazine, 5280, Frontier Magazine, Women.com, Trip.com, and other media outlets. He also works with the Colorado Center for Healthy Communities on its publications.

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