Early Travel Around the Country Proved Difficult

1 / 4
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.
2 / 4
George Escol Sellers: born Nov. 26, 1808; died Jan. 1, 1899.
3 / 4
During the 1830s, one slow way between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia was a mixture of rail, canal and river; the other was by stage coach along the National Road, nothing like today’s Pennsylvania Turnpike.
4 / 4
An 1839 advertisement for a railroad locomotive built by Coleman Sellers and his sons, George Escol and Charles. The firm’s only two engines were both sold to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, which ran for 82 miles between Philadelphia and Columbia on the Susquehanna River.

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

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

“‘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

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

Need Help? Call 1-866-624-9388
Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment