Going ‘Overland’: Part 2

Some Rough Travel Time Comparisons

Something that seems to be left out of most accounts of travelling overland across the continent in the mid-1800s is a realization of how long it took, especially for those going west from the Mississippi River valley, and what the introduction of the railroad and then the automobile meant to the traveller. For the wagon going to Oregon, or the convert walking or pulling his handcart across the plains to get to the Mormon settlements at the Great Salt Lake, it took days and weeks of effort to make a journey we might do in hours by plane or a couple of days by car.

To get an idea of the rigors of this overland journey, perhaps the most comprehensive account of the overland trip out to California as well as the oversea voyage home via Panama, is that found in William Swain’s letters home to the Niagara region of New York. Swain’s letters and some sent to him by his wife and family form the basis for J. S. Holliday’s book, The World Rushed In.i Swain left his wife and baby daughter for California in the spring of 1849 and returned in the spring of 1851. On the way out, he traveled by steamer on the Great Lakes, then by boat and rail to the Missouri River and then by wagon to California, taking almost 7 months to make the journey. Coming home by sea, he spent a week crossing the jungles of the Panama Isthmus before boarding ship for New York. Risking the deadly fevers of Panama was, to him, preferable to going back across the desert and plains,

Below are some rather rough estimates of how fast one might make it on different routes across the country. The important numbers are the miles per hour, or mph. My aim is to give you a concrete perspective on how revolutionary were the railroad and the automobile/paved highway in terms of settling the whole southern half of the North American continent and to the ‘nationalizing’ of business practice. It is sometimes hard to grasp,150 years after the fact, how far-seeing and important it was that the Union be preserved. It is sometimes said that the United States went into the Civil War and America emerged from it. Four years after its end, the railroad tied the coasts together in a band of iron.

Walking, US 20, Boston to Newport OR, 3507 mi, 10 mi/day,

350 days, 8400 hrs. 0.4 mph*

Wagon, US 20, Boston to Newport OR, 3507 mi., 20 mi/day,

175 days, 4200 hrs. 0.8 mph*

Horse or mule riding US 20, 3507 mi., 40 mi.per day,

88 days, 2104 hrs., 1.7 mph*

Express Stagecoach/wagon, 1858, 112 mi/day nonstop,

St. Louis/SF, 2812 mi, 25 days, 600 hrs. 4.7 mph

1816stagecoach/ boat, Philadelphia to Quebec City,

654 mi, 103 hrs. 6.4 mph

1860, same trip by railroad, 31 hrs. 21.1 mph

Amtrak from SF to Boston, 3100 mi., 92hr, 33.7 mph

Auto US 20 from Boston MA to Newport OR, 3507 mi.

61 hrs. driving time, 57.5 mph*

(at 14 hrs./day on the road, or 102 hrs. 34.4 mph)

Air, nonstop, Boston MA to Portland OR, 2535.6 mi.,

6 hr. 40 min, 380.3 mph

*Keep in mind that these modes and times include a lot of stops for sleeping, possibly hunting, cooking, etc. Also, using the same horse or mule all the time would necessitate a slower pace.

The Pacific railroad cut the trip to California by a factor of 5-10 times, when it was completed in 1869. It even made the Oregon Trail obsolete, since travelers and pioneers could go by rail to San Francisco and then catch a ship for the rest of the journey north to Astoria, or other ports. It is no coincidence that Portland OR is named after its Atlantic ‘older brother’ in Maine. Also, given the influx of Yankee Congregationalist missionaries in Hawaii around the 1820s, it meant their secular relatives could develop mass markets for tropical agriculture, which eventually led to the incorporation of those islands into the United States.

i J. S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. See also, Paula Mitchell Marks, Precious Dust: The True Saga of the Western Gold Rushes New York: Harper Collins, 1995, chs. 2-4.