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Historical Transportation of Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railroads in the United States (ICPSR 36353)

Principal Investigator(s): Atack, Jeremy, Vanderbilt University


This collection contains GIS materials which cover the spread of different modes of transportation in the lower 48 states from America's founding through (approximately) 1911. There are three transportation modes included in this collection: canals, steamboat-navigated (as opposed to simply navigable) rivers, and railroads.

The GIS materials can be downloaded by accessing the "Other" link.

Access Notes

  • Data in this collection are available only to users at ICPSR member institutions. Please log in so we can determine if you are with a member institution and have access to these data files.


Study Description


Atack, Jeremy. Historical Transportation of Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railroads in the United States. ICPSR36353-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2016-12-22. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR36353.v1

Persistent URL: https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR36353.v1

Export Citation:

  • RIS (generic format for RefWorks, EndNote, etc.)
  • EndNote XML (EndNote X4.0.1 or higher)

Scope of Study

Subject Terms:    geographic information systems, historical periods, railroads, transportation

Geographic Coverage:    United States

Time Period:   

  • 1780--1920

Date of Collection:   

  • 2010--2015

Unit of Observation:    Modes of transportation at benchmark dates, Continental United States

Universe:    Continental United States

Data Type(s):    geographic information system (GIS) data

Data Collection Notes:

These data georeference correctly against all tested base maps including NHGIS boundary files and USGS Topo maps.

The original shapefiles used the 1983 North American geographic coordinate system with a contiguous USA Albers equal area conic projection.


Study Purpose:    To document and detail the spread of improved means of transportation within the United States between the nation's founding through 1911.

Study Design:    Digitized maps were geo-referenced using ArcGIS 10's spline algorithm against the National Historical Geographic Information System's 2009 TIGER-based historical state and county boundary files (see www.nhgis.org) and the U.S. National Atlas's database of cities and town. Railroads; No effort was made to identify or preserve double tracking. Sidings, yards, and turnouts, etc., were deleted whenever possible absent any knowledge as to when these features were constructed. Rivers and Canals; In general, rivers that were improved and called "navigations" are treated as rivers rather than canals EXCEPT for the Schuylkill and Bald Eagle and Spring Creek navigations where the man-made waterways exceeded the distance in natural channels.

Sample:    Selection of benchmark dates and sources for railroad data are explained in the Procedures Documentation.

Weight:    Not applicable

Data Source:

The locations of transportation infrastructure were determined from USGS topographic maps of various vintages and by satellite imagery. Please refer to the Procedures Documentation for more information regarding sources.


Original ICPSR Release:   2016-12-22

Version History:

  • 2017-03-15 Update to zipped files; files were renamed from "pkg" to "gda", to indicate the file hyperlink as "GIS" to users instead of "Other".

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