Land transportation first began with the carrying of goods by people. The ancient civilizations of Central America, Mexico, and Peru transported materials in that fashion over long roads and bridges. Primitive peoples used a sledge made from a forked tree with crosspieces of wood. The Native Americans of the Great Plains made a travois consisting of two poles each fastened at one end to the sides of a dog or a horse, the other end dragging on the ground; the back parts of the two poles were attached by a platform or net, upon which goods were loaded.
The first road vehicles were two-wheeled carts, with crude disks fashioned from stone serving as the wheels. Used by the Sumerians (c.3000 B.C.), such simple wagons were precursors of the chariot, which the Egyptians and Greeks, among others, developed from a lumbering cart into a work of beauty. Under the Chou dynasty (c.1000 B.C.), the Chinese constructed the world's first permanent road system. In Asia the camel caravan served to transport goods and people; elsewhere the ox and the ass were the beasts of burden. The Romans built 53,000 mi (85,000 km) of roads, primarily for military reasons, throughout their vast empire; the most famous of these was the Appian Way, begun in 325 B.C.
Four-wheeled carriages were developed toward the end of the 12th cent.; they transported only the privileged until the late 18th cent., when Paris licensed omnibuses, and stagecoaches began to operate in England. In the United States the demands of an ever-extending frontier led to the creation of the Conestoga wagon and the prairie schooner, so that goods and families could be transported across the eastern mountains, the Great Plains, and westward.
The great period of railroad building in the second half of the 19th cent. made earlier methods of transportation largely obsolete within the United States. Where just a self-sufficient settlement might have been established before, a metropolis would come into existence, with isolated farms tributary to it. After World War I, however, automobiles, buses, and trucks came to exceed the railroads in importance.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.