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Humans have always lived near water. We use it to drink, cook, bathe in, water crops, and for travel. Long ago people realized that they could travel faster and more easily on the rivers and over the sea than on land. On barges and ships, people could carry much more than they could with wagons and animals. With sails, boats could use the power of the wind to move, instead of rowing.
The Ancient Egyptians used ships and barges on the Nile River to travel and to carry cargo from one end of their empire to the other. "Cargo" means the things being carried by the ship. When people travel or move cargo by water, they are using water transportation. The Egyptians may have used water transportation on the Nile River to move some of the enormous stones they used to build the Great Pyramids.
Another ancient people, The Phoenicians, were famous sailors. They were known for trading, or buying and selling things, among the countries of their ancient world. The Phoenicians are also known because they were the first people to use an alphabet, instead of pictures, to write.
The Vikings were a group of famous shipbuilders and sailors from Northern Europe. They were explorers, traders, and conquerors. They settled in many of the lands that they conquered. It is believed that they were the first Europeans to travel to North America.
At first, early sailors could only go where the rivers and ocean were naturally deep enough. But, water transportation became so important to people that they started to dig waterways of their own. A waterway is like a highway for boats. Rivers are natural waterways; a canal is a man-made waterway. The Egyptians, the Romans, and the ancient Chinese all built canals to connect the sea to their cities and to connect the cities to the countryside.
Water Transportation in American History
Many rivers were important to the early settlers, but one of the most important and most famous is the Mississippi River. On it, people, their animals, and freight could travel from the upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. The long river was shallow in many places, so the boats and rafts that traveled on the Mississippi had to be shallow draft. Mark Twain wrote about the great Mississippi River in the many adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Early Americans built many canals, mostly in the northeastern states. One of the most famous canals built was the Erie Canal. It was 363 miles long, and went from Albany, New York to Buffalo, New York. On the Erie Canal, people, food, and supplies could travel back and forth between the towns and Atlantic Ocean ports in the Northeast United States and the Great Plains. Horses walked beside the canal on a road, called the tow path, and pulled along flat-bottomed boats and barges, called packets.
Canal building continued in earnest in the Northeast United States through the late 19th century. For a long time, the Erie Canal was a very busy waterway. But it and most of the other old canals were not used as much after railroads were built across the country. While most of the old canals in this country are no longer used, many of them have been cleaned up and turned into parks by people interested in saving the canal history of the United States.
Modern Water Transportation in the United States
The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean
Although the old canals built long ago are no longer used, there are a few modern canals that are still very important to water transportation in the United States. One is called the Panama Canal. It cuts through a narrow piece of land between North and South America, called the Isthmus of Panama. It is a shortcut for ships going from one side of our country to the other. It is a coastal waterway.
Another modern canal is the Tenn-Tom Waterway in northeastern Mississippi. It connects the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River and is a shortcut for boats and barges that use those two rivers. The Tenn-Tom is an inland waterway.
Webdate: April 23, 2002