Transportation Research Guide

A Brief History

Initially, the fur trade spurred the need to move easily across the state in the early 19th century. Trappers and merchants sought the ability to easily and expediently ship pelts back to well-established trade routes on the Missouri and Mississippi. This led to a number of land expeditions and explorations by such notable as Merriweather Lewis, William Clark, and Daniel Boone, among others. Modes of transportation have evolved since those first trailblazers traversed the state. The earliest forms including by foot or horseback, followed by wagons and carriages.

The Missouri and Mississippi were vital to trade and transportation. River travel has proven at times to be the quickest most direct route for the transfer of goods and people across the state. Evolving from canoe to barges and flat bottom boats to the first steamboat arriving in St. Louis the summer of 1817, to modern day barges and tugboats, the mode of transportation on Missouri’s rivers has seen a variety of sizes and means of propulsion. Rivers were the early arteries of commerce and trade, access to military posts and garrisons, and the connection for Missourians with other parts of the United States. Many emigrants going west travelled to and across Missouri by boat, to meet wagon trains on the states western border. Steamboat travel reined from the 1830s to the 1850s, until the Civil War when the railroads became the major power. Much of the importance of river travel was lost with the expansion of the railroads, which proved quicker, more reliable, and able to access greater parts of the state.

Many people widely used Missouri’s early roads, traveled on horseback or by wagon; many of these routes are still in use today. These include the Boone’s Lick Trail or Boonslick road that originally ran from St. Charles to the salt lick in Howard County discovered by the sons of Daniel Boone. This route became part of the greater trail system leading west. As the United States more ‘civilized’ western point, Missouri quickly became the staging ground for most westward expeditions. Lewis and Clark set out on their first expedition from St. Louis in 1804. Thousands of emigrants, traders, and trappers left from Old Franklin and then Independence, Missouri to follow the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Another road, the Wire Road (also known as the Springfield Road, Telegraph Road, Great Osage Trail, Butterfield Overland Trail, and Route 14) connected St. Louis with southwest Missouri via Springfield. First, the railroad and then Route 66 followed this same route; today I-44 follows and intersects this route. As cities grew so did the different roads connecting them.

The arrival of the automobile brought with it a need for more and better-maintained roads, gas stations, garages, and parking locations. The good roads movement initiated the drive for highway reform. In 1921, the Missouri legislature passed the Centennial Road Law the provided for a statewide-interconnected highway system. Originally, the placement and construction of roads was in the hands of the individual counties. As the number of automobiles in Missouri continued to increase counties failed to keep pace with the poor road conditions and lack of roads to more rural areas. In 1911, the number of registered cars in Missouri numbered 16,000. That number jumped to over 150,000 in 1917.

Articles from Missouri Historical Review and Missouri Times


Many of the State Historical Society’s holdings are included in the SHSMO online catalog. The State Historical Society holds numerous books on the history of transportation in Missouri, the Midwest, and the United States generally. Use the term "transportation" or specify a mode of transportation such as "trains". For a more specific search, simply add the subject term “Missouri” to your search.

Digital Collections

Historic Missourian Biographies

  • Moses Austin - Austin was an American merchant and lead miner. He built communities on the frontiers of Virginia and Missouri, and laid plans for the colonization of Texas. He improved transportation, trade links, and mining methods in these areas, and brought national attention to their mineral wealth.
  • Louis S. Curtiss - Curtiss was a prominent Kansas City architect known for his innovative buildings. In 1905 Curtiss established a fruitful relationship with the Santa Fe Railroad, designing a number of train depots and buildings for the company. This led to him designing hotels and restaurants for the Fred Harvey Company, which specialized in providing dining and lodging services to rail travelers across the United States.
  • James Buchanan Eads - Eads spent his life solving difficult engineering problems that made life on and around the Mississippi River safer and more convenient. His most important engineering achievement was designing and building the first bridge to cross the Mississippi River at St. Louis. His bridge provided a crucial connection between Missouri and eastern cities.
  • Joseph LaBarge - Joseph LaBarge was a famous steamboat captain on the Missouri River. During his fifty-year career, he never lost a boat. LaBarge's career on the river mirrored the rise and decline of the steamboat industry as interstate river commerce grew until it was eclipsed by the emerging railroad industry.
  • James Sidney Rollins - As a businessman, Rollins was involved in agriculture, real estate, and improving railroad and river transportation. He helped establish the North Missouri Railroad Company and was involved in numerous other railroad ventures.
  • Harriett Woods - Woods was the first female lieutenant governor of Missouri, a Democratic politician, and an advocate for women's rights. In 1973, she was appointed to the State Highway Commission and the State Transportation Committee.


The State Historical Society of Missouri's manuscript collections contain materials concerning roads, railroads, waterways, airways, and other modes of travel; papers of individuals in the transportation industry; records of freighting and other types of transportation companies; professional and trade organization records; public transportation; and tourism. 

View All Transportation Manuscript Collections

Oral Histories

  • Maxwell Williams - Williams' numerous experiences in southeast Missouri have included leading civic groups concerned with transportation and educational improvements.

Photographs and Other Images