The History of Transcontinental Travel: The Unknown Horizon

10 min read

By Ryan Price

John Gast was a painter based in Brooklyn when he was commissioned to paint this picture for George Crofutt, a publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. The images Gast put to canvas represent a historical timeline of transportation technologies up until 1872 when the painting was completed. The Indian travois, the covered wagons, Pony Express, overland stage and the three railroad lines are not only progressively pushing one another forward (from East to West) but also driving the indigenous inhabitants — buffalo, bear and Native Americans — almost literally off of the painting. In the wake of this expansion are the tall ships in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Columbia (a personification of the United States) guides the way, holding a schoolbook in one hand while stringing telegraph wire with the other. The imagery is a vivid and dynamic telling of not only the history of westward expansion but the future of it as well.

Before the Lincoln Highway or Route 66 became household names, going west was a tangible mark of progression, one of those inalienable rights outlined within the concept of Manifest Destiny. The desire to lessen the time to travel between the East and West coasts of the continent has its roots deep in American history, long before editor Horace Greeley famously demanded: “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

And when the people ran out of West to go to, they found faster and quicker ways to get there from the East. So far, the quickest way from New York to Los Angeles will likely be via air travel for some time still (and probably surpassed by sub-orbit means in the future) but Ed Bolian’s recent exploits in his specially modified Mercedes (read about it here), although highly illegal, closed the gap slightly in the coast-to-coast race. However, ever since mankind bumped into the North American continent on the way to India, we have struggled to find ways around it, over it or through it.

Early Westward Travel
Early trade routes avoided the North American continent altogether. Companies sent ships through the Strait of Magellan off of South America’s tip, or unloaded their cargo, traversed the malaria-infused Panama isthmus and reloaded the cargo onto waiting ships in the Pacific. The interior of North America was no place for casual travel, proven several times over with the catastrophic campaigns of Spanish explorers of the 1500s (Coronado, Cortez, De Soto, et al).

The American Revolution assured the newly minted country unfettered access to the interior regions as probing settlers had been occupying Indian territory for a couple of decades. Westward expansion defined mid-19th century America. The desire for more land drove nearly every aspect of United States politics, from domestic to foreign policy. The American people were likewise seduced by the adventure that seemed synonymous with the West. Thomas Jefferson’s deal with France in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, despite those who actually owned it, led the way to further expansion. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark headed The Corps of Discovery and were sent on an expedition to explore the newly acquired territory for a practical route to the Pacific for, in Jefferson’s words, “the purposes of commerce.” This was the first overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back, and it took them one year and six months to cross the country.

In 1810, John Jacob Astor outfitted an expedition under Wilson Price Hunt to find a safe passage to the Pacific to further Astor’s fur trading businesses. The Astor Expedition took a different route than had Lewis and Clark and information from their journey formed the basis for the famous Oregon Trail, to be used 30 years later. The journey from St. Louis to Astoria, Oregon, took a year and four months.

In 1826, Jedediah Smith became the first white man to traverse the continent, starting also from St. Louis and visiting much of California and the West. Other men, such as John Colter, Kit Carson, and John C. Fremont further traveled across the continent, paving the way for pioneers and settlers.

Pioneer, O Pioneer!
Beginning in 1818, Britain and the United States agreed to jointly occupy Oregon Country. The area however, was dominated by the British, who established preeminent fur-trading posts, such as Fort Vancouver. “Oregon fever” quickly spread through the United States and thousands of Americans started their way to the lush Willamette Valley.

Emigrants followed what was known as the Oregon Trail, 2,000 miles long, starting in Independence, Missouri. Between 1846 and 1869, as many as 400,000 people used this trail. The California Trail, Bozeman Trail, and Mormon Trail all had their roots from the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail. Interstate 80 roughly passes through many of the towns that were started as a result of the Oregon Trail.

The idea to travel via covered wagon to California or Oregon wasn’t so much an adventure but more of a necessity, as the land between the United States and the West Coast was home to Native Americans. It was thought to be not much good for farming, but it still needed to be traversed. Behind them, pioneers left the economic downturn of 1837 and a huge malaria outbreak. The trip to California took more than two months in oxen-pulled prairie schooners across the Great Plains.

During the 1850s, the desire to establish mail routes between the east and the west coasts was discussed in Congress and decided in 1857 that the US Postal system would be allowed to advertise for bids for an overland mail service from the Mississippi River to San Francisco. John W. Butterfield and his associates (including William Fargo) won over eight other bidders with their $600,000 a year bid. The route was divided into nine divisions totaling 2,795 miles, scheduled to take nearly 600 hours to complete via stagecoach — a solid month of traveling with minimal stops only to change horses and eat. The first stage left San Francisco on September 15, 1857, carrying mail and six passengers, and over the first three years, the Overland Mail made two trips a week. The fare from Memphis, Tennessee to San Francisco was $200.00 (roughly $5,200 in today’s money). The Butterfield Overland Stage Company employed more than 800 people, had 139 relay stations, 1800 head of stock and 250 Concord Stagecoaches in service.

Only the most intrepid travelers could handle it. Mark Twain’s book Roughing It recalls his perilous travels aboard a stagecoach in 1861 — as well as a witness to the Pony Express: “Fort Yuma is probably the hottest place on earth. The thermometer stays at one hundred and twenty in the shade there all the time – except when it varies and goes higher. It is a US military post, and its occupants get so used to the terrific heat that they suffer without it. There is a tradition that a very, very wicked soldier died there, once, and of course, went straight to the hottest corner of perdition – and the next day he telegraphed back for his blankets.

After gold had been discovered in California in 1849, thousands of prospectors, investors and businessmen made their way to the new state California (in 1850). By 1860, the population had grown to 380,000, and the demand for a quicker way to get mail and other communications to and from this westernmost state became even greater as the American Civil War approached. Using mounted riders instead of stagecoaches, William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell proposed to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, with letters delivered in 10 days. The rates were steep, at $10.00 an ounce over the 1,900-mile route. California’s newspapers received word of Lincoln’s election only seven days and 17 hours after the East Coast papers, an unrivaled feat at the time, and one of the most famous riders was none other than William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha to Sacramento, and by then, the railroads were making their mark on the landscape.

The Iron Horse
The railroad replaced the far slower, more hazardous and expensive stagecoach lines from Missouri to California.

Under the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which provided for the construction of railroads from the Missouri River to the Pacific, the Union Pacific Company was incorporated on July 1, 1862. The massive amount of capital investment (over $100,000,000 in 1860 dollars) needed to build the railroad was received from selling government guaranteed bonds (granted per mile of completed track) and railroad company bonds and stock to interested private investors. Six years after the groundbreaking, the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. On May 10, 1869, the last spike was driven and the Missouri-to-California trip that used to take an arduous month via stagecoach could now be done in just one week by train.

But train travel wasn’t easy nor cheap. Until 1886, traveling by train from Chicago to Los Angeles cost a passenger $118 for a first-class ticket and $85 for second class fare. However, when the Aitcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad finally reached Los Angeles in 1886, it competed with the Southern Pacific Railroad, driving fares down to nearly $1. People clamored to come to California by the thousands. The Southern Pacific itself deposited 120,000 people at the Los Angeles station in the first year, running three or four trains a day from Chicago.

Inside the cars, especially the creaking wooden cars of the lower classes, passengers endured a long week of communal and highly uncomfortable living. The smell was atrocious and motion sickness rampant. Time tables weren’t reliable and stopping for meals along the way was sometimes impossible and cost prohibitive, so most lower-class passengers brought their own food, adding to the mix of international smells. An issue of Harpers Weekly, describes the smells of train travel in 1887: “Most of the passengers are little accustomed to ventilation or to cleanly habits; there are men and woman who regard dirt as part of natural protection against cold. Pipes are lighted, meals are spread in which sausage, cheese, garlic and sauerkraut are prominent elements

For the next 25 years, this was the most practical and quickest way to travel from coast to coast, but the invention of the car and the airplane would soon change all that.

Up next, part 2: The History of Transcontinental Travel: Wheels and Wings

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[alert-info]Ryan Price

About the Author

Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.


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