June 1991

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Going Places

Ever Faster


Robert G. Koch

A recent Western New York tourist map cites mileage and fly-drive times to distant cities—for example, to San Francisco in 7 1/2 hours. That started me checking travel speeds a century and a half ago.

Walking was often a necessity, sometimes an option. World competition walkers average about 8 and a quarter miles an hour, but a robust Englishman on a holiday mission in Scoharie and Delaware counties in the winter of 1825 could average only about 22 1/2 miles a day.

And what if one was lost? Maps were often inaccurate or out of date. Another traveler lost in eastern New York decided to follow a stream, "as Cooper the…novelist says the Indians do…[I found one] which ran in the direction I wished; but it was exceedingly serpentine, and coming to a morass…before I was aware, in I plumped up to the middle. With difficulty I got myself extricated, washed my clothes in the stream, and resumed my search leaving the faithless guidance of the river. The sun was now far past the meridian, the dark sides of the mountain had a dismal and ominous appearance, and I became full of anxiety."

As historian Roger Haydon writes in Upstate Travels, "Even the main highways were frequently little more than packed dirt…So annoying could the dust become that travelers were often delighted by the prospect of rain. Too much rain, however, posed even greater problems than too little. The worst time of year for traveling over land was [during]…the spring thaw." Now, add even light loads of household goods or products, the shepherding of young children, the debilitations of aging. Walking, even in the more favorable seasons, could not have been very fast.

Some experienced Indian runners covered a lot of ground relatively rapidly. One with an important message ran 90 miles from dawn to sunset during the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty negotiations. Today, world-class marathoners run about 12 miles an hour but for only a couple of hours. So running was not much of an option.

Horses have long been used to carry men and other burdens. Quarter horses have been timed at 47.5 mph for short distances. But an 1889 compendium cites these sobering figures on horses. "A horse will carry 250 lbs. 25 miles per day of 8 hours. An average draught-horse will draw 1,600 lbs. 23 miles per day on a level road, weight of wagon included. The pony express found that 10-15 miles was the more efficient distance for a horse, and half a dozen changes for the rider. In Western New York, mud and rutted roads certainly lowered these idealized rates. For wagon loads, wintertime sleds were sometimes more satisfactory.

In our area jolting stage-coaches were pulled by four horses and carried nine passengers, "six of whom [were] seated face to face, and three upon a moveable seat in the centre, with their faces forward, and backs supported by a broad strap. The sides had leather curtains as flimsy protection against inclement weather.

Road and trail conditions were factors in the popularity of canal travel and transport. While barge speeds were those of a team of horses or mules, at least quagmires and fallen trees were rare. Since canals crossed generally flat stretches of country, many travelers on deck found the scenery dull, but still preferable to the stuffy cabins, unless it rained. But night travel on canals was safer than in road coaches or on tricky rivers; however, in winter the canals closed down.

Horses might also power large rafts. In the 1830s an immense New York state raft, large enough to accommodate half a dozen loaded wagons, is described as powered by two horses walking on treadmills, the movement of which was "communicated by means of cranks to…paddles, placed under the bottom of the raft…"

The newly invented steamboat speeded water travel markedly, but its earliest versions were often unattractive and dangerous. One traveler wrote, "Their smoking chimneys, their ungraceful and worse than dromedary projections, give the idea of a floating foundry." By 1836 however they were chugging from Albany to New York in 10 hours, and a decade later two steamboats, revved up for a Hudson River race, achieved 25 miles per hour, which would be about a six hour trip. (Earlier, sailboats on the Hudson "…at the mercy of wind, tide, and weather" required three days.)

The railroad, which had also been invented, was picking up speed. In the beginning, railway meant a pair of wood and metal rails for horse-drawn carriages. At this stage they did not pack revolutionizing speed. Soon, however, they were logging speeds of a mile a minute and even faster, and anticipated the modern speeds of 120 mph and more.

The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, cut travel time to San Francisco from 3 months by sail around Cape Horn, or, after 1855, one month by sail and Panama railroad, to a mere 7 days, and later 4 days.

Still, when fully steam powered, railroad freight service had some disadvantages, as a century-old report made clear. "[A] single tow-boat can transport at one trip from the Ohio to New Orleans 29,000 tons of coal, loaded in barges. Estimating in this way[,] the boat and its tow, worked by a few men carries as much freight to its destination as 3000 cars and 100 locomotives, manned by 600 men, could transport." For reasons like these, river barge traffic persists, even today.

But already canal and riverboat traffic had nearly disappeared and American railroads were carrying about half a billion passengers each year. That too would change.

So, in the 7 1/2 hour fly-drive time to San Francisco, our Western New York walker would have gone about 10 miles, on horseback perhaps 25 miles, less in a stagecoach, possibly 10 miles on a canal packet, and later upwards of 150 miles by steamboat, and 400 by train.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
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