By 1900 railroads combined with steamboats, the telegraph, lighthouses and silos revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling Michigan and national markets together, aiding in the creation of the modern consumer society and the production of new technologies. The successful development and implementation of networked technologies coupled with ingenuity, from men like Sligh, McMillan and Berkey, along with the collaboration of state industries and furniture exhibitions allowed Michigan to thrive in the manufacturing and service sectors at the turn of the century.
Railroads cut travel time dramatically and reduced freight costs with two important economic results for both the United States and Michigan. First, railroads made the continental interiors more easily accessible for settlement and development. This linked the countryside more closely to the cities, production areas to markets and raw materials, and continental interiors to coastlines and waterways. Second, farmers switched from raising subsistence crops to cash crops better suited for their local soils, thus increasing crop yields and income for consumer goods dramatically. This stimulated sales, provided more jobs, increased production, and lowered prices. With farming and manufacturing flourishing, companies developed new products, inventions, and technological advances like the steamboat.
Before steamboats, the bulk of products were floated downstream on rafts and flatboats powered primarily by the wind and water currents. However, these vessels were too clumsy to navigate upriver. Although wind was free and worked efficiently on oceans and big lakes, it was no match for the downstream currents of many rivers. Steamboats provided an inexpensive means to move goods, thus making possible commercial venture at a lower investment. The advantages of the steamboat over the traditional flatboat were its speed and upstream navigational ability. Steamboats, railroads, the telegraph, lighthouses and silos provided access to new markets which gave Michigan’s furniture industry the opportunity to grow and prosper even after its natural surplus of wood was depleted.
The task of opening industrial markets, especially that of the furniture industry, was made easier by the long awaited arrival of the railroad in Grand Rapids via the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee road in 1858. Another event, directly affecting the furniture trade during this postwar period was the completion of three additional railway lines. These were the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, into Grand Rapids in March, 1869, from Kalamazoo; the Michigan Central, from Jackson, also in 1869; and the Grand Rapids and Indiana, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, in September, 1870. The first steam vessel in Michigan began regular trips in 1837; and soon, a regular fleet of steamboats were making the run. During the winter, however, some rivers still could not be used, and an alternative route was needed. One such river was...