Early Travel Around the Country Proved Difficult

Travel around the country was much more difficult before the interstate highway system.
By Sam Moore
March 2013

A painting by John Charles Maggs (1819-1896) of a mail coach on the road. It shows an English coach, but the ones used in this country would have been very similar.
Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore
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In my many travels around the country, the journeys are made at an average speed of probably 50 miles per hour in climate-controlled comfort. We are so accustomed to fast, comfortable travel by air or on the interstate highway system crisscrossing America that it’s easy to forget how difficult even a short journey was back in “the good old days.”  

I collect old books and magazines. Recently I found a set of reminiscences written by an early Philadelphia “mechanician” about his experiences from 1815 to 1840 as a boy and young man. The stories, collected by Eugene S. Ferguson while he was curator of engineering in the Museum of History and Technology (part of the U.S. National Museum now known as the National Museum of American History), were published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1965.

‘Fearful undertaking’

George Escol Sellers was born in 1808 into a family of prominent inventors, mechanics and manufacturers who lived and worked in Philadelphia during the early years of our new country. In his memoirs, Sellers tells us that a trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in a fast mail coach “was a fearful undertaking of three days and two nights. Six passengers were cramped in a coach, with mail pouches filling all proper legroom. Rather more comfort was to be had in the slower nine-passenger coach” that took four days to make the journey.

He also recounts the story of a trip he took from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., probably in early 1832. A modern Rand McNally road atlas says the distance between the two cities is 140 miles; estimated travel time today is 2 hours and 33 minutes. 

To make the journey in good weather, a traveler got on a steamboat in Philadelphia and ran down the Delaware River to New Castle, Del. There he boarded horse-drawn cars running on light strap-iron rail for a trip overland to the Elk River in Maryland and another steamboat, which took him down the Elk and the Chesapeake and up the Patapsco River to Baltimore. From Baltimore it was an easy 3-1/2-hour run to Washington in a stagecoach. In winter, however, it was a different story.

Night crossing

“I was obliged to go from Philadelphia to Washington, and thought myself very fortunate to be of a party with Mr. Reeside, the proprietor of the line, and one of the largest mail contractors and stage line owners in the United States,” Sellers wrote. “He promised us a quick trip, with relays of his best teams, the hardest stage to be with six instead of four horses.

“We left Philadelphia an hour before daylight, in an open-front coach on sleigh runners. The day was very cold, and before we reached Elkton, Md., a driving, blinding snowstorm set in, steadily increasing in violence. It was long after dark when we got to the Susquehanna, opposite Havre de Grace. The river was frozen, and had to be crossed on the ice.”

The crossing was to be effected by small sleds; either pushed by men or pulled by one horse, since the coach and its four horses was deemed too heavy for the ice. “Some of the sled men refused to (cross); all considered it dangerous. The road tracks were covered by the falling snow; the night very dark, the snow blinding, and the only guide the sound of a constantly-tolling bell (in) Havre de Grace. Mr. Reeside encouraged us to venture, and advised walking alongside the sleds instead of riding on them.

“When about (halfway) the bell either stopped, or (it couldn’t be heard due to) the wind that had increased to almost a gale. Soon the sled pushers became confused and called a halt.”

Rough on boots

The men had only feeble candle lanterns for light and felt around in the snow looking for old tracks to guide them. No one had a compass, but Reeside offered to lead them. Apparently the men didn’t think much of his abilities and refused to move. Sellers continues:

“‘Then,’ said Reeside, ‘stamp about and keep your blood circulating, or you will all freeze.’ He then sat down on a sled, pulled off one of his heavy boots, thrust into it some crumpled newspaper and (with a lantern) set fire to the paper. As it blazed he shook it about in the boot, which, when well heated, he pulled on to his foot; then went through the same operation for the other foot. Several of the party followed his example. His next move was to demolish a sled to make a fire, but before it was kindled the wind lulled, and we again heard the tolling of the bell. ... the pushers had got considerably off the track (but) by slow and cautious work they landed us safely. There was not a temperance member of that party who refused a hot whiskey punch of Reeside’s brewing, to brace and warm up while a hot supper was preparing.

“From Havre de Grace to Baltimore in regular stagecoach, arriving there after daylight, and Washington by noon — over 30 hours of hardship in accomplishing what is now done within five hours on the railroad, regardless of the seasons, with ease and comfort to the traveler.” (Sellers wrote this account about 1885.)

The old mechanic couldn’t resist ending his story with a plug for his profession and the free enterprise system. “This (the railroad) is what the country owes to the labor and skill of its civil and mechanical engineers, backed by the capital of far-seeing men, who were to reap the profits from its accomplishing.”

George Sellers’ memoirs give us a fascinating look at the dangers and hardships of travel during the first half of the 19th century. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net. 

Read more about Mr. Reeside in James Reeside: Stage Coach Colonel.  


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