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America, Effect on Food was the Growth of Canals and Railways

In 1789, nine out of ten Americans were engaged in farming, and the remaining ten per cent didn"t represent much of a market.

But the proportion of farmers to non-farmers declined rapidly, and by 1826, this figure had been reduced to eighty three per cent; and by 1836 to seventy five per cent. By 1850, less than half were employed on farms.

Getting his crop to market was a problem for a farmer. The rise in the Kentucky whiskey industry partly arose because it was more profitable for a farmer to ship his corn East over the mountains in the form of whiskey than in sacks of grain.

If the growing market was good for remaining farmers, getting products tomarket presented a growing problem.

The first great solution was the Erie Canal, that went 363 miles from Buffalo, on Lake Erie, to Troy, on the Hudson River. Began in 1817, the canal was finished in 1825. Western farmers could then ship their corn etc. to the Eastern ports in barges, and manufactured goods were returned in the other direction. At this time, New York was beginning to grow into the nation"s biggest city.

Seeing the success of the Erie Canal, Ohio dug a canal from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and Indiana and Ohio together dug another one 452 miles up the Maumee River from Lake Erie and down the Wabash to reach the Ohio River near Evansville, Indiana.

However, railways were cheaper to build than canals, and faster, and they didn't freeze in winter. Large-scale construction didn"t really begin until 1829 and didn't reach as far west as Chicago until 1852. The iron rails reached the Mississippi in 1854, and Council Bluffs on the Missouri in 1866.

Before the stock cars came, Texas steers were driven 600 miles overland on the famed Chisholm Trail; they lost millions of pounds of meat as they hoofed it for the two months or more it would take to reach market. Some Texas cattle were still being herded all the way to New York as late as 1855.

More than 4 million Texas longhorns were trailed north to Abilene and the other railheads, or "cow towns" in 1880, and while railway tracks met with a golden spike (near Ogden, Utah - and probably made of polished iron) to span the American continent in 1869, it wasn"t until about 1885, when the Missouri, Kansas and Texas rails reached into the heart of Texas cow country, that the great cattle drives ended.

The first refrigerated railway cars were put into service in 1863, and by 1867, George Pullman's "hotel cars" were bringing luxury to American rail travel.

Dining car menus in 1870 offered seventy five cent meals of oysters on the half-shell, porterhouse steak, quail, antelope, plover, fresh trout and terrapin, with second helpings on the house. There was Champagne at every meal, including breakfast, and passengers ate in the splendour of Turkish carpets, French mirrors and rare inlaid wood.

The Denver and Rio Grande made a speciality of mountain trout, the Union Pacific was famous for its antelope steaks, the Northern Pacific for its grouse and salmon. It was the "Golden Age" of railroading.

The main effect of the railways, however, was to change the livestock industry.

Henry Wallace put it "The railroad shortened the hogs' noses, shortened the legs, done away with the bristles, and put a more lovely kink in the tail . . . And now, instead of cattle of indeterminant breed. Shorthorns were being introduced in our neighbourhood". Before the railroads, according to "Uncle Henry", in the time of the great droves, "there was no baby beef; for the steer could not travel over the mountains unless he had length of limb. Hogs were not bred exactly for speed, but for ability to walk to market" Since meat is animal muscle, the lack of that final exercise, had the effect of making American meat more tender.

Today, instead of the cattle coming to the Corn Belt, the corn is going to the cattle, as packers have built plants in the Plains States and the South West and short-circuited the old rail terminals and stockyards.

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