Historical Background on Traveling in the Early 19th Century

A brief summary of traveling and the impact of changing technology in the early nineteenth-century.

Travel in the early nineteenth century was so much slower and more difficult than it is today that it is not easy to remember that it was also a time of significant change and improvement. In New England in 1790, vehicles were few, roads were generally rutted and rudimentary, and traveling any distance was both slow and difficult. Children and poorer adults walked everywhere, and only a minority of farmers had horses and wagons. Many loads of freight were drawn not by horses but by much slower-moving oxen. With a good horse, it took from four to six days, depending on the weather, to travel from Boston to New York. And this was on the best roads, which ran between major cities along the coast. Inland, the roads were even worse, turning to impassable mud when it rained or to choking dust when the weather was dry.

But beginning around 1790, a series of changes was beginning that historians have called “The Transportation Revolution.” Americans—and New Englanders in particular—rebuilt and vastly extended their roads. More than 3,700 miles of turnpikes, or toll roads, were built in New England between 1790 and 1820. Continuing through the 1840s, many thousands of miles of improved county and town roads were constructed as well. The new roads were far better constructed and maintained, and allowed for much faster travel. In response, the number of vehicles on the roads increased rapidly, far faster than population. It was noted in 1830 that Americans were driving a “multitudinous generation of travelling vehicles” that had been “totally unknown” in the 1790s. Stagecoach lines had spread across the Northeastern states, using continual relays, or “stages,” of fresh horses spaced out every 40 miles or so. They made travel, if not enjoyable, at least faster, less expensive, and less perilous than it had ever been. The 1830s had reduced the travel time between Boston and New York to a day and a half. Good roads and stages extended across southern New England, the lower Hudson Valley in New York, and southeastern Pennsylvania.

The most radical changes in the speed, scale and experience of traveling came with the application of newly emerging transportation technologies—the railroad, the steamboat, and the building of canals—to American conditions. Beginning with Robert Fulton’s Clermont, which successfully made the journey up the Hudson from New York City to Albany in 1807, Americans developed steamboats to ply both the deeper eastern rivers and the shallower western ones. Although steamboats were sometimes dangerously prone to fires and boiler explosions, they traveled faster, met tighter schedules and could travel against the river current far more effectively than rafts and barges. Steamboats vastly expanded passenger travel on the rivers and carried much higher value cargo upstream.

Americans turned as well to the massive infrastructure project of canal building, as the British had done decades earlier. Canals promised far less expensive transportation of farm produce, manufactured goods and passengers, but it was often difficult for them to return profits to their investors. The Erie Canal, traversing the breadth of New York State to connect Albany and Buffalo in 1825, was the great success among American canals. It opened up an enormous agricultural hinterland for trade with New York City and New England. In New England, New York and Pennsylvania, Americans created a vast system of inland waterways that significantly reduced transportation costs, although none of them matched the success of the Erie.

After 1830, the railroad or, as most Americans at that time said, the “Rail Way,” emerged as the most dramatic of the new technologies of transportation. Its speed and power was unprecedented. With good weather, a good road and rested horses, a stagecoach might manage eight or nine miles an hour. The small locomotives of the 1830s, pulling a handful of cars over uneven track, could travel at fifteen to twenty miles an hour. This was twice as fast, over long distances, as anything Americans had previously experienced. By 1840, 3000 miles of railroad track had been laid down, most of it concentrated in the Northeast. This meant that travel between directly connected cities could be much faster than before; a trip between Boston and Worcester now took less than 2 hours, and travelers could reach New York City from Boston in less than a day, using both coastal steamship and railway.

But before 1840 only a relatively small minority of Americans had felt its impact, and railway travel was both noisy (from the grating and squealing of iron wheels on the tracks) and dirty (from showers of ash and cinders from wood-burning locomotives). In the next twenty years the railroad, growing ever faster, more powerful and more efficient, would become America’s dominant mode of transportation east of the Mississippi, sweeping away the stage lines and even making some of the canals obsolete.

The years between 1790 and 1840 saw a true revolution in transportation even before the coming of the railroad. By 1840, transportation costs had been greatly reduced and travel had become faster by a factor of 5 or more. These changes made possible America’s first “Industrial Revolution,” the widespread development of commercial agriculture in the Midwest, and a national system of markets and the distribution of goods. Many ordinary Americans could now become travelers for pleasure and even the pathways of westward migration had become much faster and safer.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.