American dams in the 19th century

To appreciate how essential dams were in the nineteenth century, simply look at the 1840 U.S. Census: It found that almost every river had a dam, and many rivers had dozens.  In total, the twenty-six states that made up the United States at the time had around 65,000 dams.  With a population of only 17 million at that time, the United States had one dam for every 261 people.

That is from the new and often quite interesting Martin Doyle, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers.


Yet, I don't give a dam to how many dams America had.

I am not a Sailerite. I actually oppose racial supermacism of any kind. Brazil welcomes people from all races and nations. President Temer is from a Lebanese family. Former President Rousseff is from Bulgarian stock. Fromer President Juscelino was from Czech stock. Former dictators Medici and Geisel were, respectively, from a Italian and a German family. Brazil is a Black-majority country. There are more Blacks in Brazil than in any other country but Nigeria. Former Supreme Court President Barbosa is Black. There are more people from Japanese stock in Brazil than in any other country but Japan. A former Airforce Commander was from Japanese stock. While America sent Jewish kids back to Hitler's ovens, Brazil welcomed Jewish refugees.

Yes, it is not surprising how large of a public sector and public capital investment we had back when our economy was growing so fast. We have become so hostile to government that we want China to reduce the size of China's government capital investment.

Well, it's really the American government's job to save Chinese jobs.

You are likely wrong to extremely wrong in this case. Most dams were generally private property connected to mills up to that period.

Yup. And by the way, I think most Americans are still in favor of construction projects from the government (big digs aside). The problem we have with government spending is more specific to redistribution.

Also with unionized construction workers and favored affirmative action contractors that are effectively parasitic middle womyn, government construction projects are an extreme form of redistribution.

I believe you are correct. Actually, I'm surprised by the "almost every river" - and would wonder why a river didn't have a dam. I live in NW NJ in a river town and there are old mills, mill races, ponds, all over the place. You couldn't take your grain very far to a mill. It was too expensive. Next, they will tell us how surprised they were by the number of stills being operated.

Yes, it is not surprising how large of a public sector and public capital investment we had back when our economy was growing so fast. We have become so hostile to government

We spend a similar amount on public capital investment, though in truth more of it is through contractors (so you can count that as a smaller government if you like, but I find it misleading.) We do get a lot less output for our dollar, which is largely the result of work rules, excess use of inefficient labor techniques, bidding systems that reward low initial bids plus expensive change orders (a little old fashioned honest graft might be preferable, if it meant being able to take a company's history of performance into account), poor union-management relations, environmental reviews, and so forth. Some of those things you might even support, but they do decrease output.

We have more government, and inefficient government, which is why the question looks different when measured by inputs or outputs.

"Yes, it is not surprising how large of a public sector a"

Most of the damns from that period were small and either privately owned or owned by a township. Once again you've let your extreme partisanship become a knee jerk reaction.

most of the "damns" ?


"owned by a township."

Public sector

It would be interesting to see them broken down by purpose. 1840 is an interesting time. Dams might be for flood control and irrigation. Perhaps water supply - maybe. But also power. I would guess that in 1840 there were still a reasonable number of mills using water power which would require a dam. But steam would be slowly pushing them out of business.

The interesting question would be how long would a town leave the dam in place once the cotton mill no longer needed it.

Power and transport.

Displaced by steam power and rail roads powered by steam.

Still, lock and dam are still important for transport, with lots of additional dams involved to provide water storage to operate the locks and replace other losses.

I'm currently reading a book on the Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. Very interesting so far.

Sorry if my question shows ignorance, but as there was no hydroelectricity in 1840, what was the purpose of so many dams?, as So Much For Subtlety alluded to earlier.

Also the creation of canals for transportation.

Years ago my father and I canoed down the canals from Sebago Lake in Maine. A river became navigable with dams and locks.

That one is a bit harder - are locks dams? The C&O Canal has 74 locks over 184.5 miles - whether locks were considered dams is probably not easily answered.

However, the Potomac River was navigable without locks or dams up to the point where the C&O Canal started.

In this instance there was a dam, and the locks were a way to lift or drop the boat to the different levels.

Good question.

It is a good question, but there are a few examples of locks without dams. So I think the answer is that most locks do have a dam (or are a dam, depending on how you feel about the semantics). But a few do not, and presumably do not contribute to the count of dams in the country.

Portland, OR has a prominent example: Willamette Falls is not much to look at: it has a huge volume but is wide rather than tall so it merely looks like a river falling over an edge and continuing. But that's certainly enough to block navigation so a lock was built right beside the falls.

No one would claim that the Willamette River is dammed at that point, but it certainly does have a lock. (Which was closed in 2011 due to high maintenance costs and low demand. The nearby industrial buildings have been largely abandoned -- if you do a boat tour up the Willamette River the scene looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie with rusty buildings and no signs of activity of human life, although I think there's still a power generating station there. Although Portland is not as post-industrial as one might think, some of those old buildings are going to be torn down and replaced with a riverfront park including an area with restaurants and retail. With its view overlooking the falls it has a ton of economic potential.)

Dams without locks made rivers navigable between portage points.

... dams, bridges, roads, etc. can not be built without government politicians and bureaucrats. People in the private sector are too dumb and shortsighted to pursue such things... plus, they don't have the money to pool together..

Why can't they be? The Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont & Detroit always has been privately owned.

Plus they don't have money to pool together.
Neither does it seem do government entities.
"When Mike Harris was elected Premier in 1995 on his platform of the Common Sense Revolution, the Ontario government faced a $11 billion annual deficit and a $100 billion debt. Seeking to balance the books, a number of publicly owned services were privatized over the following years. Although initially spared, Highway 407 was sold quickly in the year leading up to the 1999 provincial elections. The highway was leased to a conglomerate of private companies for $3.1 billion."

But it, like most other bridges and dams required a state charter from very early in US history.

Hard to tell if this is meant to be sarcastic, but as a certain road that runs near GMU called Little River Turnpike shows, it is not correct.

Sure. That is why California has after spending how many millions of dollars has high speed trains for transit.

Most dams were likely for mills, and most dams were likely private. Fairfax County's Colvin Run Mill would be an example of such.

Recognizing that there are multiple pictures of various mills, and further recognizing the amount of time that has passed between 1840 and now, it is likely that basically every mill in the link had a dam listed in the 1840 census -

"Most dams were likely for mills ..." but also for transportation, as many rivers have too much gradient, resulting in a rapidly flowing river without sufficient depth for navigation by vessels larger than canoes. Unless a few dams are added to slow and regulate the flow (and perhaps some dredging and a lock or two).

Even today, water transport usually costs less per ton-mile than any other transportation method. Although it's also usually slow.

More complexity to the dam question. The locks I was thinking of - of the C&O Canal - come from precisely this period, and did not really involve damming major rivers.

I bet a mapping of these dams would highlight the water power North-South resource divide. The more I learn about it, the more the economies & labor/slavery issues seem deterministic.

Virginia would likely throw something of a wrench into that determinism. As might the fact that Virginia's (and Maryland's, to name another slave state) plantation economy was based on drug cultivation.

That was Charles Mann's view, although it had more to do with climate and disease than navigable waterways.

The Southeast had a lot of mountains (a little taller than the northeast), lots of rain, and fewer hard freezes to shut down water power and transit. But it didn't do as much to industrialize as the Northeast.

Steam power seems to get most of the attention but it might be interesting to see a comparison of the total energy output between steam power and hydraulic dam power over the course of the 19th century. There may be an urban-rural difference.

The term for public works at the time was "Internal Improvements", which referred to dams, canals, roads, etc. One of the big political issues of the time was whether the federal government had the power to fund internal improvements that did not cross state lines, such as a road that is entirely within one state. The Whigs said yes, the Democrats said no.

Using government money to fund internal improvements was considered the "pro-business" solution, as commerce benefitted greatly from being able to transport goods. Jacksonian Democrats used the argument that if the government spent $$$ on projects, it would mostly benefit the wealthy.

Since the Democrats won more elections than they lost, many internal improvements were funded by private corporations or state governments.

The state of Washington might have to pay a tremendous amount of money to fix a lot of old dams and culverts that destroyed the fish population, effectively violating their Indian treaties.

Washington (and I believe Oregon as well) have also removed some dams, because whatever benefits they used to provide have diminished relative to their costs especially in terms of lost wildlife habitats.

Some of the articles about these recent dam removals have made vague references to other dams, mainly small ones, often in the eastern US, and I'm guessing often privately owned. Again one can imagine that the cost-benefit analysis that created those dams is now different and I wouldn't be surprised to find that the East has been slowly and quietly losing dams, much as New England farmland was gradually allowed to revert to forest.

Re run that circa 1920 or 1950 or 2018 and include the western us, and the government role becomes massive

Yeah, a lot more rain in eastern US than western US

This sounds like a good analysis of important phenomena that are hiding in plain sight. Dams in this case, but it's reminiscent of Robert Fogel's observations about the key role played by canals in the US's industrial growth (more controversially he argued they could've done about as good a job as railroads did).

It's also reminiscent of one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, "Water and the Dream of the Engineers" which convincingly argues that a good chunk, probably the majority, of our improved health and increased lifespans in the 19th and 20th centuries was due not to advances in medicine, antibiotics, food supply, etc. but instead due to sewer systems: make sure to dispose of human wastewater in a place that is different from where you get your drinking water.

THE story of first half of the 20th century human health is the public health system. Seperating water and poop and treating both, along with the ramifications of germ theory

There have been a couple of majors studies of potential US hydroelectric capacity from (a) existing and (b) potential dams. Its not a huge amount compared to the magnitude of the US grid, but would be an interesting way to diversify power sources. Based on the almost total lack of new US hydro-power in the last few decades, the benefits don't seem to outweigh the cost, and the environmental opposition. In fact, some plants have been decommissioned. The two reports are referenced below.

Study: Hydropower potential at existing U.S. dams tops 12,000 MW

"The United States could add 12,600 MW of hydropower without building any new dams, according to a recently-released Energy Department study.

The study by the Energy Department and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory focused on 54,000 of the 80,000 existing U.S. dams and concluded that adding hydroelectric power-generating equipment to 100 of them would produce a gain of 8,000 MW.

U.S. hydropower capacity currently is about 100,000 MW."

U.S. has 65 GW of untapped hydroelectric power potential, DOE report says

The U.S. Department of Energy and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory have released a new renewable energy resource assessment that estimates as much as 65 GW of new hydroelectric power capacity could be developed across more than three million American rivers and streams.

The report, titled The New Stream-reach Development Assessment, capitalizes on recent advancements in geospatial datasets and represents the most detailed evaluation of U.S. hydropower potential at undeveloped streams and rivers to date, according to DOE.

Hydroelectric power currently makes up 7% of all of American electrical generation and continues to be its largest source of renewable energy ..."

Another factor, I seldom see discussed is using "non-viable" dam sites as power storage in tandem with renewable power. There are a lot of potential sites that the US Army corp of engineers rule out as a potential hydropower site, because the electricity generated would never pay for the construction.

It would make sense to divert some of the current renewable subsidies towards power storage.

The amount of pumped storage in the US is tiny, it would be one way to store intermittent renewable energy.

Increased robustness of power generation should be worth something to the polity. I could see some of the capital costs coming out of an expanded civil defense budget. Perhaps something for an economist to look into.

"The amount of pumped storage in the US is tiny, it would be one way to store intermittent renewable energy."

Well tiny is not very well defined, but to put it in perspective the US has about 20 GW of pumped storage capacity. I'm not sure what the total store amount is, which would be measured in GWh, but it's probably over 100 GWh. Which far exceeds any battery storage systems.

Also, my recommendation was not for pumped storage, which relies on active pumping, but on damming small rivers that would not generate sufficient electricity to justify the cost on their own. That being said, the chief issue with most of these projects is going to be the cost of permitting and withstanding the various NIMBY/environmental lawsuits.

US generating capacity is roughly 1000 GW. So the 20 GW pumped storage is about 2% of average grid output.

The largest US pumped storage facility (Bath, Va) claims 11 hours capacity. If we use 10 hours as typical, that means we have 2% of the grid for 10 hours.

That might be huge locally, but I’d say it’s pretty small in US grid context.

But it way better than batteries.

Looking around a bit, the high profile and "huge" battery bank Telsa did recently in Australia (100 day project) was 0.129 GWh, which would be 0.013 GW for 10 hours, using the 10 hour use-case above.

The people pushing solar and wind should be pushing pumped storage as well, but I suppose its lacks the magical flavor of batteries.

You don't literally need pumped storage to get the same benefits. If hydro power stations have big enough reservoirs, and extra generators, then they can buffer intermittent power sources like wind and solar power.

And then you can read what happened in the 20th century: Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

And most of those dams were less the 40 years old. America in 1800, as most of Europe, was not much different than life in the 9th century. A man from Ohio might float his goods to the Spanish fort in New Orleans, but would return through indian territory on horseback or if a ship was departing via Philadelphia and then via land across the Alleghenies.

I was struck once when I realized that Western Europe was a broad peninsula with slow deep rivers. The Eastern US was tamed to similar, especially after the St. Lawrence Seaway. Penetration, especially for trade, west of the Mississippi was limited except along rivers such as the Missouri until the steam locomotive. The deep contrast is with the geography of Africa where a narrow coastal region rises quickly to a central plateau and the rivers are fast falling nearly untamable for cargo.

That was true around here (Ann Arbor). There were also lawsuits over new dams impairing the usefulness of existing dams. There are a few left while others were reduced to piles of stones that form a few areas of actual whitewater for kayakers.

Were upstream landowners flooded by many of these dams? What about their property rights?

In general, they were bought out using eminent domain, at least in the US during the 20th century.

What's considered a dam? With "one dam for every 261 people", what % of the population participated in dam building? That number seems really high

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