Dupre on Hrastar, 'Breaking the Appalachian Barrier: Maryland as the Gateway to Ohio and the West, 1750-1850'

Author: 
John Hrastar
Reviewer: 
Dan Dupre

John Hrastar. Breaking the Appalachian Barrier: Maryland as the Gateway to Ohio and the West, 1750-1850. Jefferson: McFarland, 2017. 263 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7044-7.

Reviewed by Dan Dupre (University of North Carolina Charlotte) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53968

Drive west on I-68 through Cumberland, where Maryland narrows to just a few miles between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and you will begin climbing over the Allegheny ridges. They do not seem very imposing at seventy miles per hour, but the rugged terrain presented a serious obstacle to those traveling from the Eastern Seaboard to the Ohio Valley on foot or horseback. John Hrastar argues that western Maryland played a significant role in the efforts to breach that Appalachian barrier between 1750 and 1850. Indeed, I-68 closely parallels three of the nineteenth century’s most important transportation routes to the Ohio country: the Cumberland Road, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. While none of these enterprises fulfilled expectations, they were technological achievements that represented American ambition to extend the nation’s political and economic reach across the trans-Appalachian West.

Hrastar uses the first half of his book to sketch out the landscape and peoples of the Ohio country, to explore the growing interest in that region among easterners, and to detail the early efforts to establish routes across the mountains. Virginia land speculators played an important role. Eager to encourage western settlement, they formed the Ohio Company in 1749 and commissioned Christopher Gist, a Maryland landholder and fur trader, to scout out a path to the Monongahela River, which joined the Allegheny River at the Forks of the Ohio. That spot near present-day Pittsburgh was contested terrain, claimed by Native American nations, the French, and Pennsylvania traders. Control of that confluence was crucial to maintaining dominance over the entire Ohio Valley, so it was no surprise that the region was a site of violence during the Seven Years’ War. Military necessities triggered transportation improvements. General Edward Braddock followed much of Gist’s path across the mountains as he led his expedition to Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio. His junior officer, George Washington, grumbled about the slow pace of the advance party that, “instead of pushing on with vigor ... were halting to level every mole-hill, and to erect bridges over every brook, by which means we were four days in getting twelve miles” (pp. 100-101). As Hrastar notes, that painstaking labor was necessary to accommodate the heavy wagons of the ultimately successful expedition. Conflict continued, first with the coming of the American Revolution and then, in the 1790s, with warfare against the Native Americans in the Ohio country who were resisting the press of settlers encouraged by transportation routes.

Hrastar captures some of the naiveté of transportation boosters that fueled interest in the West. The head of navigation on the Potomac River, for example, was tantalizingly close, about forty miles, from navigable streams that flowed into the Monongahela River. After canoeing down the river in 1754, Washington imagined that, by clearing some obstacles and building short canals around various falls, the Potomac would be a useful route west. A second trip decades later, in 1784, confirmed those impressions and convinced him that the Potomac was “the ways by which the Produce” of the Ohio country and “the peltry and fur trade of the Lakes may be introduced into” Virginia and Maryland (p. 154). However, the costs and technological difficulties of clearing the river quashed those dreams.

The final chapters of the book focus more closely on Maryland’s major transportation endeavors that began in earnest in the 1820s, when the success of the Erie Canal kicked off a flurry of competitive ventures. The Cumberland Road connecting Baltimore to western Maryland opened in 1818 and over time continued beyond the Appalachians in the guise of the National Road with the support of the federal government. More contentious were the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Hrastar highlights their competition by noting that on July 4, 1828, when President John Quincy Adams was lifting the ceremonial first shovelful of dirt for the canal in Georgetown, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, was doing the same in Baltimore for the railroad. Both ventures confronted technological difficulties and labor shortages, but competition also impeded construction. The railroad took the canal to court to stop construction through a particularly narrow gap between the Potomac and Catoctin Mountain, because they needed the space to build their tracks. It took some years to get court approval, and it was not until 1850 that the canal reached Cumberland. No pelts from the Great Lakes made their way down the canal, but coal and agricultural goods from western Maryland did for decades. As for the railroad, it did not reach the Ohio River, at Wheeling, Virginia, until 1853.

Hrastar is not an academic historian and it shows. The absence of primary source material for this kind of book is less problematic than is the author’s reliance on dated secondary sources. Well over half of the cited books and articles are from 1950 or earlier. As a result, Hrastar does not engage with modern historiography on many of the topics touched on, from the political context of internal improvements to the role of the government in westward expansion. Nonetheless, Breaking the Appalachian Barrier offers a lot of useful information and interesting stories to those wishing to learn more about Maryland’s role in breaking through the Appalachian barrier.

Citation: Dan Dupre. Review of Hrastar, John, Breaking the Appalachian Barrier: Maryland as the Gateway to Ohio and the West, 1750-1850. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53968

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