My main research interest is in the 19th century in the United States, particularly the economic and environmental changes of the early 19th century in the Upper Midwest. My interest in this topic centers on the formation of regional identity based on debates about economic and transportation infrastructure. My research also establishes the importance of the long-term effects of internal improvements on regional identity. The remnants of internal improvement projects, including light and lock houses, dams, roadbeds, and railbeds, continue to create regional identity based on collective heritage. Many communities have recently been aggressively pursuing a preservation technique called adaptive reuse to repurpose 19th century internal improvement environments and monetize them in order to attract tourism and provide recreational activities for visitors and residents. These developments have provided communities with points of civic pride based on economic heritage.
While broad themes of economic and environmental history as they relate to internal improvements will provide the framework for my future research, I will focus on one particular internal improvement project in Wisconsin. For centuries Native Americans and later fur traders took advantage of the proximity of the Fox River and the Wisconsin River at present day Portage, Wisconsin to transport goods and travel between the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed. During the development of the Wisconsin territory and during the early statehood period, politicians in the state capital and town boosters along the waterway urged the construction of a canal at Portage, linking the agriculturally rich areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa more directly with the East. Many Wisconsinites believed the canal would be an economic boon for the state and region. However, geographical, political, and technological troubles doomed the project to eventual failure.
I will study how even failed projects can still contribute to regional identity today. I believe the answer to this research question will help us better understand how natural and man-made alterations to the environment, completed or not, continue to be a focal point in communities in the United States, particularly in light of the sustainability movement and the changing economy of the Upper Midwest.