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

Published: Mar 15, 2017

Principal Investigator(s):
Jeremy Atack, Vanderbilt University


Version V1

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.

Atack, Jeremy. Historical Transportation of Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railroads in the United States. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2017-03-15. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR36353.v1

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1780 -- 1920

2010 -- 2015

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

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

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

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.

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

Continental United States

Continental United States

Modes of transportation at benchmark dates

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.

geographic information system (GIS) data



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".

Not applicable


  • Data in this collection are available only to users at ICPSR member institutions.

  • The citation of this study may have changed due to the new version control system that has been implemented.
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