Picture, if you will, a medium sized medieval town that is propped up by pretty much a single industry: the majority of working people in the town work on a river boat, transporting goods, materials, crops and travelers down the river to the Capital city that lies close to the river estuary.

One day Rich Businessman gets tired of paying the overheads to have the materials for his business shipped to him. He decides to put to get together a consortium to build a private road (or canal, depending on which is better value for money), so that there is a more direct route (the river is quite circuitous) from where their materials are produced to the city where they need to be. Anyone else can use the road... for a small fee.

Now that there is a quicker, safer and cheaper route to the Capital for anyone and everyone who needs to get there, trade via the river disappears almost overnight. The town suddenly has no sustainable income, however there is now much work to be had on the New Road/Canal.

What would happen to the town in the short-term and the long-term? Would it be abandoned? Would they adapt?

Edit: I should specify - this town is not a hub for the New Road/Canal. It is accessible from the town, but the majority of people using the new transport method do not come through the now obsolete town. They would travel there directly from wherever they have mined/ farmed their materials.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean like Rust Belt? $\endgroup$
    – Euphoric
    Mar 18, 2016 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Euphoric Pretty much, but cranked up to 11. I'm thinking if it happened much faster (as opposed to a gradual decline), much more severely (around 90%-95% drop in service demand) and on a much smaller scale. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ You mean like any French town -__-? Well... we adapt and attract tourists. And claim that high fashion made in China is French. $\endgroup$
    – Madlozoz
    Mar 18, 2016 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ see all the mining and wood processing for paper towns around, they have been abandoned so fast that in some places there still is a car in the garage. Plenty of them in Canada. If you have the resources they can be bought up for very cheap, fixing the damages time inflicted costs money but there is at least one place that aimed to be a sort of utopia style town. Im not sure if that project actually took off or if investors backed out. In Italy there are place that once were rich, progress changed the industry and moved the money out of there, now they are nothing. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ There's no such thing as a town where "almost every working person in the town works on a river boat". Those boatmen need barbers, doctors, dentists, shopkeepers, teachers, tailors, cobblers, publicans, grooms, launderers, clergymen, builders, plumbers, carpenters, etc., etc. None of those services can be imported, and so all of those people are also working in the town. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 18, 2016 at 15:10

7 Answers 7


This has happened all over the United States, and thus there are ample examples and stories of both... be it the logging, fur trading, milling, or mining industry, more than a couple cities have been forced to adapt or go belly-up. Also, a variation of this is the setting of the Pixar movie "Cars", which is amusing. There are towns drowned by damming, still others that gave up the ghost when the river moved. Here's a similar situation, where a series of towns surrounding a canal system were rendered obsolete by railroads, and of course there are many stories of "company towns" in the coal or auto manufacturing industries.

You would choose whichever makes a more compelling story. Do you want the peoples to be fighting for their survival, either by becoming self-sufficient, or inventing a new industry to replace the old (we lost the river but have this marble in the hills that we hadn't bothered with)? Is it more interesting to have these people understand that this chapter of their life is over and have them explore what's next? They could move to the city, join the new route to follow the job, get hired on with the Baron, shift to trapping or logging, or go deeper into the fields to make it on their own away from the city.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you're almost missing the point by focusing on the US. Because that guarantees that 0% of your examples are medieval $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 6, 2019 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok, tbh, neither decent roads nor canals are available to the medieval era either so the answer is just as valid as the question. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jun 6, 2019 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix basic canals were available (by canal = slow-flowing river which can be traversed by boats) and "decent roads" is relative. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 6, 2019 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok, a canal is artificial, a slow flowing navigable river is natural, there's a long way between the two. Puddling which can be used to line artificial waterways, wasn't used until the 1700s. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jun 6, 2019 at 13:39

Half the boatsmen become mercenary guards for traders on the new road. This is necessary because the other half have become highwaymen, robbing the traders that are not protected by their townsmen.

Trade over the new road will become more expensive, until some trade over the river is restored.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea of a highwayman trying to rob a trade caravan and the caravan guard being like "Hey Joe, long time no see. How's the family?" $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ "Bob? From Jacksonville?" $\endgroup$
    – Vogie
    Mar 18, 2016 at 12:47

The feudal overlord of the town sends goons (aka knights) to Rich Businessman to remind him that the God-given order of things should not be tinkered with by upstart commoners. It might work is Rich Businessman is actually The Duke, but even then The Duke would be hesitant to infringe on the hereditary rights of The Baron. Bad precedent.

Seriously, I get the feeling that your economic concept is much too modern. Read up on thirlage or staple right.

  • $\begingroup$ You've got it backwards. The overlord of the town will welcome the project with open arms...er, hands. He will grab the canal and start charging tolls. $\endgroup$ Jun 7, 2019 at 12:36

The town would shrink and become poorer, but - as opposed to what the flagged "answer" suggests would NOT DIE!

Because that guy only cites US (aka NOT MEDIEVAL) examples. Also examples of towns that relied on a single industry. Such towns did not exist in the middle ages, because you needed every industry to some degree in EVERY town.

You couldn't just import all your food and clothing. You couldn't just outsource all your woodworking and all your smithing, that's not how the medieval towns worked.

If the main industry fell away, the town would shrink and grow poorer, but it would still exist off of the other industries there (mainly farming/logging).

The one exception here is if that main industry was farming/livestock and for some reason all the fields/pastures became dead. In THAT case the town would die almost immediately.

Short-term: Many people would move closer to work for the new road/canal, leaving the town half-deserted

Long-term: In the long run the town would become smaller, the deserted houses collapse/salvaged so that the town would be similar to any other town in the region again (as opposed to its previous river-caused "oversize")


I want to challenge the frame of this question.

You mention a road, but there is no way a road (during the medieval era) could compete with a river for transporting goods, it doesn't matter if the journey was 3 times as long, the river is still much cheaper--there is a reason why most major trade hubs were built along rivers.

Even in modern days, water transportation is significantly cheaper per tonne than land based transportation, the only reason why land transportation is used is because rails are cheaper to lay down then canals are to build, and rivers don't go everywhere.

I can't find enough information about medieval goods transportation systems to go into detail with time appropriate factors in the modern era it takes 850 trucks or 225 trains to replace a single modern day barge, and the difference in price between land transportation vs water transportation now is significantly lower than it was historically thanks to the internal combustion engine.

To put it into perspective goods were transported from Constantinople to Drubvonik by water more often than by land despite the trip by water covering thrice the distance.

And any case where the road would offer such a drastic speed up in good transportation that it became economically feasible, it would already exist. Because it would have been built during your worlds classical era. Because, people are not stupid.

Your other option, building a canal, was done historically, but only by emperors or kings. Because businessmen (no matter how rich) were not capable of putting together enough men to create major canal systems.

However unless the distance by river is large enough that a road would be economically feasible, building the canal would not be a wise investment option because it would take decades--or longer--for it to provide a return on the investment for the king/emperor. There are 100s of ways to spend that money that would give a better return on his investment. Building a canal to connect an unconnected city/mines/lumberyards/farmland to the river comes to mind as being a much better investment.

The only way this situation is likely to occur is after some new form of bulk transportation became available that could match the cost per tonne of water transportation (such as the locomotive). And these types of innovations didn't happen until the industrial revolution.


In a mediaeval setting a road could not replace a canal. Horses cannot pull nearly such a heavy cargo in a cart as they can in a boat. So road for fast travel by people and canal for moving cargo more slowly. No competition.

A railroad, on the other hand ... This happened. Industrial revolution not mediaeval. The railway companies bought up the canals for the land alongside. They built the railway largely parallel. Once built it could move bulk freight much faster. They then let the canals decay so as to force all freight into the jaws of their monopoly.

Hard times may have come to some canal communities but they probably had a railway station and freight yard as compensation. I'd guess new jobs replaced old and the railway also created the commuter.

The 20th century history of Liverpool is more dramatic. It was a proud and prosperous port facing the Atlantic and otherwise off at the far NW edge of England. After WW2, air travel killed the ocean liner, trade shifted in favour of Europe and container ports replaced old fashioned shipping. Liverpool all but died. At one point you could buy a whole house there for a penny (and pay taxes to live where nobody else wanted to).

Liverpool has recovered somewhat since then but it is still much in the shadow of its former glories. I've read that in today's USA Detroit has fallen even harder and so far no recovery in sight.


A situation like this comes to mind: enter image description here

Some of the trade (all items of other people than that fat rich trader) would continue to be transported through the river, if the road is unsafe and you require personal guards with every wagon to get it safely across. Some of trade will also continue to use river route if the rich fat trader has imposed some tax for vehicles using his road (particularly if he is a govt official).

If all the trade is cut off from the river, many of the boat-transporters would turn fishermen. Several others would sell off their boats and build carts to rent/use for road transport.

Also, many households in the town would turn to cottage industry and farming, selling animal hide, meat and eggs in the capital (using river route of course). Many others would begin to work as shoemakers, basket makers etc (such professions don't require extensive learning periods).

In short: This is a classic scenario of evolution and extinction. All species (people) which adapt with the changing environment will continue to proliferate while those which fail to change with the changing circumstances, would go extinct (economically).


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