American Industry Tour

This article is an itinerary.

The American Industry Tour showcases the industrial heritage of the north-eastern United States. As many other historical trails in North America, the tour follows migration routes from east to west, with a chronology from colonial times to present day. Starting in Boston in the 17th and 18th centuries, we visit the 19th century factory clusters around Albany and New York City, and carry on through industrial regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, which had their heyday during the 20th century. The journey ends in Chicago.

The rather small area along this trail contains much of America's industrial heritage, with a majority of the country's industry-related National Historic Landmarks, National Historic Sites and National Historical Parks. Many of the rest are in Minnesota.


Saugus Iron Works.

From 1776 to 1945, the United States transformed from an agrarian country of 2½ million inhabitants to the world's leading superpower, and the home of 140 million people. Most feats of innovation and engineering happened in the north-east. However, the Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom, which held eastern North America as a colony (see Early United States history). In the Market Revolution during the early 19th century, the textile business was an early adopter of industrial processes.

From the mid-19th century, steam-powered factories became more common, and railroads started replacing canals and roads as main transport routes. During the American Civil War, the industries of the Northeast were mobilized to produce arms, supplies and ships, contributing to the Union victory. The colonization of the Old West truly began during the War, as the Southern secession from Congress allowed investment in rail lines and other colonization policies. See Industrialization of the United States for a guide to the political, social and cultural history of the whole country from the 1860s to the 1940s.

The late 19th century was called the Gilded Age, with a rising capitalist class, and increased corruption, especially in large industrial cities. The turn of the century saw the rise of organized labor, not least in Chicago. The early 20th century was known as the Progressive Era, with labor reforms, antitrust laws, and women's suffrage.

World War I again increased demand for military supplies. The automobile had its breakthrough during the Roaring Twenties, and Detroit became known as the Motor City. The 1929 Wall Street Crash caused the Great Depression, which hit the north-east hard, though the New Deal during the 1930s provided some relief. As World War II in Europe began in 1939, the USA supplied the Allies with arms. The 1941 Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the Pacific War, and brought large-scale industrial mobilization. After the war ended in 1945, industry shifted to consumer products. Since the 1960s, Northeastern industries have been downsizing, moving south, west, and abroad, causing unemployment and urban decay, causing the region to be renamed the Rust Belt. Though the 2000s financial crisis hit industrial towns hard, some of them are revitalizing today. See also Post-war United States.

Get around

You can't work in a steel mill and think small. Giant converters hundreds of feet high. Every night, the sky looked enormous. It was a torrent of flames of fire. The place that Pittsburgh used to be had such scale. Jack Gilbert

The journey is around 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) in total. By car, the trip takes around a week. However, as railroads were an integral part of industrialization, and most of the sights are in major cities, many legs of the tour can be done by rail.


Day 1: Boston area

Our chronology starts in the 17th century in Boston, Massachusetts, where some industries could be found already during the Colonial era.

Before the Age of Steam, industry took use of rivers for propulsion and transport. The humid climate of New England allowed many waterwheel-powered workshops. The textile mills used locally produced flax and wool, as well as cotton from the South. New England also has abundant wood, and enough iron ore was available for the first metalworking industries.

Connecting itineraries:

Day 2: Upper Massachusetts

Day 3: Upstate New York

The Mid-Atlantic had thriving industrial cities even before the Civil War. Their productivity helped bring the Union to victory. Many immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe settled here. Since the 1960s manufacturing crisis, many industrial buildings have been redeveloped for other purposes, such as hospitality, entertainment and residential areas.

Connecting itinerary: The Erie Canal was New York State's main transport route before the railroads, connecting upstate industrial cities such as Syracuse (New York) and Buffalo to the Atlantic.

Greater Albany

Watervliet Arsenal Museum.

Day 4: Metropolitan New York

Meatpacking District, Manhattan

New York City has long been the largest metropolitan region of the United States; before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. As we view NYC as a center for finance, entertainment and administration, one might miss that manufacturing was the city's most important business sector during the early 20th century. With astronomical land prices, most industries have been torn down to make room for housing and office buildings, but some neighbourhoods are more or less preserved.

Day 5: Pennsylvania

Day 6: Ohio

The rich natural resources, such as grain, iron, coal, wood and hydroelectric power, together with the Great Lakes and the Mississippi river system, allowed the Midwestern cities to boom during the Industrial Revolution. Since World War II, manufacturing has declined, and the region is today known as the "Rust Belt", with high unemployment and urban decay.

Day 7: Michigan

Connecting itinerary: The Motorcities Tour is a showcase of the automotive industry in and around Detroit.

Day 8: Chicago


Go next

In Chicago, our chronology reaches the 1950s, as the city was at its peak. Since the 1960s, the industries of the Northeast started downsizing, due to automation and outsourcing. Crime-driven emigration to the suburbs made the city centers decline.

America's center of gravity for population and industry moved on to the southwest, with especially California as the new land of opportunity, together with the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and Texas. Minneapolis/St. Paul, St Louis, Kansas City and Denver are some other important industrial cities in middle America. Before the advent of the Interstate Highway System there were just a few highways and railroads across the Rocky Mountains, and only the elite could afford air travel. Some of the classical routes are still available today:

See also

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