This past weekend I had a writer friend fly into town to speak to our local writing group and she had heck getting here because of the FAA grounding of thousands of planes. It left travelers stranded and scurrying to get alternate flights. Her experience made me think of travel back through the years. None of it has been easy or fun – with the exception of the Star Trek method of beaming people from one location to another. Now that would be my idea of travel! If only it were possible. But as irritating as today’s travel is, it was far worse in the past. None was easy or fun, but that didn’t keep people from packing what they could carry and starting out. Seems we’ve always been a determined lot.
Travel in the west was especially uncomfortable, dirty, and sometimes required considerable strength and fortitude to get to destinations. Imagine conditions when bathing was hard to come by. But the pioneers and settlers had little choice if they needed to get somewhere.
Stagecoaches: Normally they traveled a trotting pace of 6-7 mph if the roads weren’t washed out or blocked by fallen trees or boulders. If the stage got stuck, the passengers were required to get out and help push. Some coaches had two bench seats and others had three. There was very little room inside. The passenger’s knees touched the other person sitting across from them. And I pity the man who had long legs! Also, some coaches had seats up on top with the luggage in the fresh air. Stage stops were about every 30-40 miles apart. There, the horses (or mules) were changed for fresh ones. It was dusty and hot. Passengers were sometimes, but not always, furnished linen dusters to wear over their clothing to keep off some of the dust or rain. Not ideal by any means.
Horses: Averaged 7 mph going at a trot if they weren’t loaded down too much. They could ideally carry a 140-190 pound man, his 30-40 pound saddle, a bedroll, canteen, and a rifle. That was a full load. Horse and rider could usually make 50 miles a day without too much exertion and that included stopping to let the horse rest several times. If the cowboy was going to be too long on the trail, he brought a pack mule to tote his food, cooking utensils, extra clothing and such. A horse wasn’t built to carry all that plus the rider. Too much weight caused sores on the horse’s back or bruised its kidneys. The caring cowboy took excellent care of his mount, for without the animal, he was walking. And a cowboy never walked anyplace where he could ride.
Wagon: A wagon could make ten to twelve miles a day if the animal pulling it was rested and in good health and the road in fairly good shape. Of course, that didn’t include mountainous regions. Ten to twelve miles a day translated to around 4 mph with plenty of rest stops. Most wagons were generally pulled by mules because they were heartier and they saved a man’s horse.
Trains: The normal speed for steam engine locomotives was about 25-30 mph in 1864. Early on, the best they could get was 15 mph. Trains had to stop approx. every 30 miles to take on water and coal so it took forever and a day to get anywhere. In summertime when the windows were down, the traveler got covered from head to foot with thick soot and smoke. Sometimes cinders flew in and caused burns. Again, long dusters kept their clothing in fairly good shape but they were hot. I guess it depended on how desperate you were to try to keep clean. Sometimes women wrapped their hair with a kind of close-fitting cap. In wintertime, passengers near the potbellied stove roasted while those at the other end of the car froze. Toilets, if they had them, were no more than a curtained off chamber pot. Imagine how embarrassing that would be! The only good thing was the train stations. Passengers could get off, use the facilities, and eat a meal. I’m sure they took full advantage of those depots!
The next time you’re grumbling about having to stand in a long check-in line at the airport, have your flight canceled, or riding in your air-conditioned car with its soft upholstery and get stuck in traffic, don’t complain. We have it so much better than our ancestors it’s not even funny. Just take a minute to appreciate what you have and remember that nothing will ever be perfect – except if we learn how Scottie beamed people from one place to another!
Are you the adventurous kind who would like to go back in time and take a journey? If so, which method of travel would you prefer? Or do you mind the endless airport screenings and cancellations? How about getting stuck in traffic, do you gripe and fume or just accept and make the most of it? I’m curious.