A Fun Journey across the United States Past and Present
A Great Armchair Adventure of Then and Now
By: J. Marlando
The earliest journeys in the early United State were taken on stage coaches when it took three days to go between New York and Philadelphia. (With a new coach design which was, incidentally called the “Flying Machine”) the time was reduced to only two days. By the time of the Gold Rush, cross country trips were common. Most started in Saint Louis traveling all the way to San Francisco and if all went well, in 22 days. No one traveled in the lap of comfort, however.
The passengers were squeezed in next to each other, 3 persons on each side of the coach given around 15 inches each to try and find a comfortable position. In addition, they were often obliged to hold baggage on their laps or stretch their feet over mail bags which assured discomfort.
The roads were rough…often very rough and motion sickness was not uncommon. There was always the danger of being attacked by Indians but the constant threat were robbers—highwaymen and other bandits were plentiful along the route and at least some were extremely dangerous. Drivers were well armed but most avoided an exchange of gunfire especially for the safety of the passengers. Road agents knew this and so it was not uncommon for professionals to wait to hear about a coach carrying gold (or even wealthy passengers) to simply go out and take what they wanted.
Companies like Wells Fargo would hire “detectives” to escort the stage coaches carrying rich payloads but all coaches were virtually at risk. And speaking of Wells Fargo, that company did all they could to monitor passenger behavior for the comfort of all.
Their rules included:
- Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle.
- If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
- Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
There were other rules but these are my favorites and best demonstrate the simplistic thinking of those times. The Butterfield line suggested that passengers take a pistol or knife. Real dangers persisted however. In New Mexico, for example, the war chief Cochise, in his attempt to keep all non-Indians out of his territory, killed both the crews and passengers of six coaches in 1861.
There was also the weather to contend with: There were hot, dry spells and terrible storms, good weather was greatly appreciated which at least helped a little to ease the discomfort of the ride. But even the ride was altered from time to time as the passengers would be forced to walk alongside the coach to give the horses a rest from pulling the heavy load or to help push the stagecoach through sand or up hills.
The wagon train was the other way that folks crossed the United States way back when:
Most favored wagons that could carry a load of six tons. Mostly those wagons were pulled by six horses. Travel was slow—a train traveling from St. Louis to El Paso Texas covered around 1,200 miles in approximately 80 days. Nearly three months—so trips had to be planned by the weather.
The cost of wagon train travel was prohibitive for most people especially in the very early days because to outfit a family costs at least $700 and $700 was a “heap” of money in the 1800s.
It is estimated that most travelers carried around $1.00 per person but it was not unusual for Indians to charge a fee for each wagon crossing their lands so this, if you will, cut deeply into the those travelers’ expense money. The average passage fee charged by the Indians was 25 cents per wagon!
There were areas of hostile Indians to worry about too. Robbing wagon trains always had big payloads for Indians in clothing, food, livestock, weapons and other rewards such as killing off the intruders pushing across their lands. This is one of the reasons why most wagon trains were at least ten wagons long; there was safety in numbers although, most typically, there were a greater number of females than males. Nevertheless, when the time arrived, the pioneering women proved to be fierce warriors time and time again.
What first created greater speed and more comfort to crossing America was the advent of “the great iron horse,” the train!
Up to and during the Civil War the average speed of trains was 15 to 20 miles an hour depending on grade and how heavy a load was being pulled. By the 1980s, 50 miles per hour was common and by the turn of the century trains were firing across the country at 70 miles an hour with the old Santa Fe hitting 100 miles per hour, at least on straight track, between Los Angeles and Chicago.
By the 1870s dining cars were popularized but most basically made available for the first class customers since, just about any meal selection costs 75 cents. At the time, that was around daily wage for most people. Poor folk traveling in 3rd class either brought their own food or ate during the 20 minute water stops at some greasy spoon. Regardless of the inconveniences, train travel was a modern marvel compared to stagecoach and wagon train. Nevertheless, in the earlier days of cross country rail travel, there were train robbers and a few Indian attacks but, by and large, those day were gone if for no other reason the than fast rate of speed the trains traveled across the landscape.
What was historically unfolding soon after the turn of the century of course was a need for better and more plentiful roads. Before 1908 horse drawn buggies and wagons served to transport people and goods to town but this was the year that the old Tin Lizzie (the Model T Ford) popularized the automobile.
Automobiles had not been at all popular before this and those that had been built before the turn of the century literally broke down as much as they ran and beside novelty there was no apparent use for them. Nevertheless, a Dr. Haratio Jackson set out to drive across the entire country in 1903 in a Winton Touring Car.
In 1903 there were no gas stations so fuel had to be purchased in general stores—the old touring car only held 12 gallons. The roads were treacherous especially if it rained as they were all dirt and some hardly more than wagon trails. Beside rocky, rough roads there were steep up hills the car couldn’t climb and so it had to be towed by rope and human hand to the summits. Jackson incidentally took a mechanic with him by the name of Sewall Crocker just in case of breakdowns and there were many breakdowns along the way.
In any case, the cross country trip was accomplished in only 63 days. It had ended up costing $8,000 so only car companies and a few egocentric rich people were anxious to give the automobile much hope for future travel or, for that matter, even attempt a car country adventure. Nevertheless, men like Henry Ford saw the automobile as the wave of the future, however, and Henry Ford created an assembly line to prove it. In September of 1908 the first production line model T left his plant. On May 26th, 1927 the 15 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line. By 1927 the old horse and buggies had been made obsolete by the once ridiculed “horseless buggy.” What follows are a few examples of a few of the popular 1927 automobiles:
CHEVROLET TRUCK CADILAC
While thinking about crossing the United States, however, we have to retreat at least back to 1903 when the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, at long last succeeded in their developing and flying a heavier-than-air flying machine. Only two years later, the Wright Flyer III model is seen being flown by Orville over Huffman Prairie in October of 1905. The
flight covered an exceptional 20 and ¾ miles in only 33 minutes and 17 seconds.
It would not be long until someone had to try a transcontinental flight across the U.S. Two of America’s richest men inspired the trip. William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 incentive for any pilot to make the trip within 30 days. And, J. Ogden Armor had offered the pilot five dollars for each mile flown if in return he would advertise that company’s new soft drink, the Vin Fiz. The pilot who chose to take the challenge was Calbraith Perry Rodgers. He painted Vin Fiz on the rudder and under the wing and, if you will, was off into the wild, blue yonder. The pilot Rodgers incidentally, had only 90 minutes of fight training before taking on the challenge.
Fortunate for the daring young man in the sky Armour had also outfitted a three-car support train that carried the pilot’s mother, wife, friends, two mechanics and lots of equipment…just in case. There were supplies, parts of repairs and even an extra motor. There were no navigational equipment on board and no airports so this was absolutely a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants challenge. Calbraith Perry Rodgers would follow the train tracks across the country and remember landmarks.
As it turned out he missed Hearst’s deadline by 19 days so didn’t collect his $50,000 but, after all, his flight between Sheepshead Bay, New York and Pasadena, California had included around 70 landings, including 16 crashes with a few that put him in the hospital. Also the plane had to be rebuilt at least twice. Determined to reach the Pacific Ocean, however, he flew from Pasadena to Long beach—to officially end his journey that had covered 4,000 miles and in the end had taken 84 days.
The history of traveling across the United States is intriguing when we recall that it began on horseback and in horse drawn wagons with an approximate speed of 7 to 10 miles an hour depending on a great many factors such as weather; rivers, hilly climbs, mountains and other obstacles that slow an entire wagon train to, as said, a snail’s pace. All this plus the occasional hostile Indian attack but, for that matter, just the daily challenges that occurred along the way; illness, death, broken wagon wheels would have all contributed to slowing down the trip.
Those old sluggish wagons crossing the plains and mountains, however, began the trek into our times…life in the fast lane!
Today’s cars do not resemble the cars of the past—not only do we seek efficiency but also comfort. Cars in fact have been a necessity for a great many decades now—we drive to work, we drive to recreation, we drive almost everywhere including the supermarket and shopping mall; we are automobile dependent and the prices of gas and oil have gone sky high. Here’s an example of what gas has cost today from the 15 cents per gallon it cost in 1927.
Indeed, Ford’s 1927 Motel T., didn’t even need gasoline as it could run on kerosene or ethanol. Ethanol, incidentally, is alcohol and it was prohibition that made it cost prohibitive as a fuel!
(Prohibition is over folks).
In any case, the old, dirt road is basically gone accept in rural areas and a great many of those are paved as well. Indeed, of the nearly 2 million miles of paved road in the U.S. 95% are surfaced with asphalt. Our U.S. asphalt was actually engineered by a Belgian at Columbia University by the name of Edward Smedt. He engineered a well graded asphalt in 1872 with the first road uses actually occurring on 5th Avenue in New York City in 1872 and on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington D.C., in 1877. This was approximately 20 years before the advent of the automobile.
The old roads have changed and have gone from most virtually this:
Because of speed limits (the cars today are all capable of exceeding the national speed limits) it still takes 4 or 5 days to drive across America. If you take some time for sightseeing, a couple of restaurant stops and a night or two in a motel, 7 to 10 days. However, two people “pushing it” could actually make the trip in less than 24 hours if they exchange driving and sleep time, eat in the car and only take short bathroom stops.
Train travel remained the most relaxed and popular way for Americans to travel by the 1940s. Indeed, traveling by train either coach or Pullman was a delight and even the poorest of travelers was treated kingly by the porters, conductors and waiters The food remained expensive but it was served with beautiful silver utensils, lovely plates and exquisite service. The entire trip was made relaxing and pleasurable as possible.
While more and more people began flying especially during the 1950s, trains remained a great experience until 1971 and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation began doing business as Amtrak (American Track) and the very personality of train travel became aloof, impersonal and often lackadaisical just as every other government agency and institution responds to the public. Those born during the late 1960s and after the 70s will not know the difference of course but the great traditions of the passenger train are gone…sad but true for us old timers who remember.
Regarding train travel we are amazed when we think that back in the mid-1800s the trains at best were managing 20 miles per hour on straight track. That improved dramatically by the end of the century. By 1900 some of our trains were rolling along at 100 miles per hour at least in some areas of the West.
What is amazing is that much of the world has jumped ahead of us when it comes to high-speed rail. There are trains in Japan, China, Taiwan, Germany and even Italy” that travel at over 250 miles per hour and the world speed record was clocked at 361 miles per hour. (As a quick aside, it is my personal opinion that we would be far ahead of the rest of the world if the passenger train was still owned and operated by competitive civilian companies and not the democratized- socialistic system we now have).
Our phenomenon is in flight, however. Flight has amazingly become safer, faster and for the modern lifestyle, more convenient than any of mode of travel. Indeed, it has only been a little more than 100 years ago that a cross country flight took 84 days counting mechanical problems and actual crashes—Calbraith Rodgers, mentioned earlier, only spend 82 airborne hours flying across country in 1911.
Nonstop flights today take approximately 6 hours from New York to California—a flight making stops adds to this by at least an hour or more however.
Today’s incredible 747 has a cruising speed of around 400 miles per hour—I remember my first experience flying in one—I felt as if I was in a luxury hotel, not an airplane!
What’s the fastest airplane, you might be wondering. The Space shuttle of course—it levels at around 16000 miles per hour and this is no doubt slow compared to the space vehicles that will surely come along in the future. Indeed, it is doubtless that within a couple of decades we’ll be crossing the United States in around one hour; about the time it takes to get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas these days.
Traveling across the United States is one of the most intriguing experiences on the planet. There is simply too much beauty and too many special places to mention but the traveler can arrive at ancient pueblos to incredible architecture of today’s big cities . A person on the road can visit enchanting lands such as Yosemite National Park or the majesty of the Rockies the Tetons or the incredible Blue Ridge Mountains. Indeed, the traveler can reach the top of Pike’s Peak or journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyom or travel through the rocky wonderlands of Bryce Canyon
There are the great rivers of the land such as the Mighty Mississippi to experience too…and great seaports such as this one in Boston or on the Pacific side, in San Francisco.From our Redwoods to our vindyards we are a land of beauty and wonderment.
I believe, howveer, that if we Americans have a tragic flaw it is that we seldom appreciate what we have and give great value to what we don’t have. After all, our world is an art treasure of experiences from the Black Forest of Germany to the Swiss Alps, from the pyramids of Egypt to the Congo jungles and from Australia’s Alice Springs to the Himalayas of Peru but traveling the U.S. we have our old ghost towns to our beautiful vineyards and so, in conclusion just as the pioneers who crossed the land at 7 miles an hour, I think the journey is most simply, worth the trip!