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Some Rough Travel Comparisons

Something that seems to be left out of most accounts of travelling overland across the continent is how long it took, especially for those going west from the Mississippi River valley, and what the introduction of the railroad and then the automobile meant to the traveller. For the wagon going to Oregon, or the Mormon convert walking or pulling his handcart across the plains to get to the Church’s settlements at the Great Salt Lake, it took days and weeks of effort to make a journey we might do in hours by plane or a couple of days by car.

Below are some rather rough estimates of how fast one might make it on different routes across the country. The important numbers are the miles per hour, or mph. My aim is to give you a concrete perspective on how revolutionary were the railroad and the automobile/paved highway in terms of settling the whole southern half of the North American continent and to the ‘nationalizing’ of business practice. It is sometimes hard to grasp, 150 years after the fact, how far-seeing and important it was that the Union be preserved. It is sometimes said that the United States went into the Civil War and America emerged from it. Four years after its end, the railroad tied the coasts together in a band of iron.  

Walking, Boston to Newport OR,* 3507 mi, 10 mi/day,

350 days, 8400 hrs.                                                               0.4 mph**                       

Wagon, Boston to Newport OR, 3507 mi., 20 mi/day,

175 days, 4200 hrs.                                                               0.8 mph**

Horse or mule riding, Boston to Newport OR, 3507 mi., 40 mi/day,

 88 days, 2104 hrs.,                                                               1.7 mph**

Express Stagecoach/Wagon, 1858, 112 mi/day nonstop,

St. Louis/San Fran., 2812 mi, 25 days, 600 hrs.                    4.7 mph

1816 Stagecoach/Boat, Philadelphia to Quebec City,

654 mi, 103 hrs.                                                                     6.4 mph

1860, Same trip by Railroad, 31 hrs.                                     21.1 mph

Amtrak from SF to Boston, 3100 mi., 92hr,                         33.7 mph

Auto US 20 from Boston MA to Newport OR, 3507 mi.

61 hrs. driving time nonstop,                                                57.5 mph**

 (at 14 hrs./day on the road, or 102 hrs. 34.4 mph)                                                            

Air, nonstop, Boston MA to Portland OR, 2535.6 mi.,

6 hr. 40 min,                                                                        380.3 mph

* I have used the length of US 20, since roads or tracks existed from the 1840s on along the present highway.

**Keep in mind that these particular modes and times include a lot of stops for sleeping, possibly hunting, cooking, etc. Also, using the same horse or mule all the time would necessitate a slower pace.