Get Up, Mule!
The great canal period in American history is a short, but important one. Nearly all of the major cities in North America east of the mighty Mississippi River were established along navigable waterways. The rivers and lakes were the major mode of transportation for the original inhabitats and also for the explorers and settlers who displaced them.
Many of these cities were built at the head of navigation, where further passage upstream was blocked by treacherous rapids and falls. Two of these cities that I am very familliar with are Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. Both were built where ships could sail up the Chesapeake Bay, and up either the James River to Richmond or the Potomac to Washington. Both of these cities built canals around the rapids so that canal boats would bring local goods to the ports and return upstream with wonders from foriegn lands.
Unfortunate, for the people who made their living on the canals, the development of railroads was just underway. Within a few years the new-fangled and more efficient railways replaced most canals as the major means of moving goods long distances.
As a lifelong paddler of canoes and kayaks, I have explored many of the waterways that most people only glimpse as they cross bridges on the highway. Call me a romantic, but as I paddle these canals I can imagine the tow rope pulling taut as the muleskinner guides his team along the tow path and another barge leaves the locks loaded with hogsheads of tobacco and whiskey.