It is probably a practice frowned upon by the arbiters of blogger ethics but I’m going to start posting long comments I write elsewhere over here, for archiving purposes. On steamboats vs. railroads:*
1. Schwantes’ book on steam travel in the Northwest is beautifully illustrated. (As is his railroad book on the same region, which may have been the first to come out, though chronologically the sequel.) Just thought I’d recommend it, though I haven’t read the text.
2. As dware points out, railroads have not actually been in vogue in western history for a while. They might become so in the future if they aren’t already becoming so. (Disclosure: I came very close to writing a railroad dissertation.) I have the impression that some of the better regarded railroad-related books to come out more recently weren’t western railroad books.
3. I suspect steamboats lose out for a couple of reasons.
There’s the perception that their era didn’t last very long – the fact that you can start talking about railroads in the 1830s overshadows the fact that the east-(mid)west routes were not completed until later (the 1850s? I don’t remember the precise dates). And it takes a while for (railroad) Chicago to supplant (Mississippi River) St. Louis.
There’s the perception that their impact was still quite localized even considering its reach. You can have competition on the Mississippi but it’s pretty much all on the Mississippi. Competition between railroads involved competing routes in different sections of the country and competing communities along those routes. In terms of ports, you’ve got New Orleans as an endpoint on the one hand, and Boston vs. New York vs. Philadelphia vs. Baltimore on the other. It would be interesting to know if steamboats lack attention in histories of other regions. I assume they preceded railroads in a number of European colonies.
There’s the fact that they weren’t a new power source – steamboats and the steam engine were around already for ocean travel. And somewhat related to this is the fact that being able to get around the world sort of overshadows being able to get into the interior of a continent. But it can be argued that the steamship deserves more attention too. It certainly seems to get less attention than wind-based maritime exploration.
There’s the fact that water travel was already, and had long been, quicker than land travel. Traveling faster over a river is one thing; traveling faster overland – not being required to stick to (and build, in the case of canals) a watercourse – by an entirely new technology is quite another. A better boat is still a boat; a railroad is not a horse-drawn carriage.
4. Robert Fulton apparently thought that the submarine would, by being such an effective tool of war, force countries to make peace with one another rather than fight. He had some problems making this idea work in practice.
*Maybe one day I’ll link to a blog that is not that one.