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The maps above show the travel times in days and weeks from New York City to various locations across the United States in the years 1800, 1830, 1857 and 1930, from the 2012 article “How fast could you travel across the U.S. in the 1800s?“, here’s a slice:
The best way that I’ve found to understand how fast one could travel across the country back in those simpler, but slower, times is these maps from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. All the maps use New York City as a starting point on the East Coast, and show how long it would take to move westward across the country. As you can see in the first map above on the left (Map A), it took a whole day in 1800 to barely get outside of the city; two weeks to reach Georgia or Ohio; and in five weeks, you could just about get to Illinois and Louisiana.
By 1830, train travel in the U.S. was almost twice as fast, but still quite slow by modern standards. Rather than taking two weeks, going to Georgia or Ohio from New York City took one week, and in two you could get to the state borders of Louisiana, Arkansas and Illinois (see Map B). Getting to Minnesota would have taken about five weeks!
By 1857, which is still within one lifetime from someone born around 1800, travel by rail (the fastest way to get around at the time — remember that the Wright brothers were not even born yet and air travel was far off in the future) had gotten significantly faster. You could now do in a day or two what used to take a couple weeks. With a week’s travel you could get to the eastern border of Texas, and in about four weeks you could get to California (see Map C). Only the Northwest took longer than a month to reach from New York City.
If the 1857 map wasn’t a big enough step forward for you, take a look at the map from 1930 (see Map D). It only took two days then to get across half the United states by train, and three to four days to get to the other coast from New York City. It’s hard to overstate how big a difference this makes in how people perceive the world. There’s a big difference, both for families and businesses, between spending two months traveling back and forth across the country vs. less than a week!
MP: Think about these maps and travel times in the 1800s the next time you get irritated when your cross-country flight is delayed by 30 minutes or when your in-flight wireless Internet connection is slow.
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