Early Travel Around the Country Proved Difficult

Travel around the country was much more difficult before the interstate highway system.

| March 2013

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.

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