Since the beginning of human history, people have always depended heavily on rivers and streams. People first settled in river valleys which provided the most fertile soil for farming close to transportation.
The development of the steamboat in the early 19th century allowed people to travel as easily up stream as down, with or without wind. The skeptical Connecticut public began to see the benefits of steam over sail when the first steamboat steamed from New York to New Haven in March of 1815 in eleven hours. But steamboat travel was plagued with terrible accidents before the 1840s. There are accounts of steamboat boilers blowing up while en route, killing passengers and damaging cargoes. People mistrusted steam until after 1840 when engines were radically improved and safety measures developed. Only then did steamboat travel become a popular means of transportation.
Like steamboat travel, rivers themselves had certain natural drawbacks. Rivers were not always navigable to appropriate and profitable destinations. It was for these reasons that a few visionary individuals in America, such as Albert Gallatin, speculated about the possibilities of shaping water transportation to the economic and geographic needs of the country.