Back when 50 miles was a long way

This post is by Phil.

Michael Graham Richard has posted some great maps from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States; the maps show how long it took to get to various places in the U.S. from New York City in 1800, 1830, 1857, and 1930. (I wonder if the atlas has one from around 1900 as well, that didn’t make it into the article? I’d like to see it, too, if it exists.) Worth a look.

This post is by Phil.

Time to get to anywhere in the conterminous states from New York City, in 1857

Time to get to anywhere in the conterminous states from New York City, in 1857

17 thoughts on “Back when 50 miles was a long way

  1. There’s a rather obvious division, into parts that were already reached by railroads, and parts that weren’t.

    It takes less than 3 days to ride the train to from New York to Saint Louis, but it takes almost 3 weeks to travel roughly the same distance from Saint Louis to Denver by horse and buggy.

    It also looks like there are two established routes (wagon trails?) west out of Saint Louis, one north via Cheyenne to San Francisco, and one south via El Paso to San Diego.

    • Actually, I’m not sure what’s represented by the southern route. Wikipedia describes the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line, which went into operation in 1857, and it says that it took 5 weeks for the mail to get just from San Antonio to San Diego.

  2. Great graph. The first thought that came to my mind is that on many days, the 1 day travel line is about the same 155 years later. Mainly because of delays (traffic jams, airport clearance/delay times, etc). Extrapolating based on the technology would be quite misleading.

    For lines greater than the 1-day journey, we’ve made huge leaps, of course.

  3. I doubt the accuracy of this. It’s hard to believe that it really took a week to travel less than 100 miles over the prairie in Minnesota and the Dakotas. That’s about 1 mile per hour. (I’m assuming that the trail has been scouted, so there’s no issue of having to backtrack when blocked by a river or whatever, and that there are no political delays, such as time to negotiate passage with Indian tribes, and that we’re not talking about travel with a huge amount of baggage.)

  4. Myself, I prefer anecdote (grin), which allows me to use personal experience. And, while I remember the 1950s, the 1850s are a bit beyond my frame of reference.

    The first “long” trip I remember my family taking was in about 1957, from Indianapolis to Marchall, Michigan, a distance of 207 miles. According to Google Maps, you can do that now in about 3 hours, 10 minutes. In 1957, it took nearly 7 hours…no interstate highways, all two-lane roads, and passing through, rather than around, Noblesville, Anderson, Marion, Huntington, Fort Wayne, Angola, and towns too small to remember (or find on a map).

    East side of Indianapolis (where we lived) to Terre Haute (where my grandmother lived; 83 miles) took between 2 & 3 hours, depending on traffic on US 40 through Indy.

    Good times in the car.

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  6. If you like this, check out some cool interactive railroad maps put together by Richard White and his colleagues at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab. These designs can be useful not just for travel time, but also for the study of travel cost.

    People interested in this topic should have a look at Gatrell (1983), which has a couple of nice chapters that discuss the value of isoline maps.

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