Rapid Transit in 1844

On April 21, 2013 · 5 Comments

I’ve slowly been overhauling the non-12MC part of my website — the portion for which the howderfamily.com domain was obtained long before Twelve Mile Circle became the tail wagging the dog — to upgrade to Google Maps API v3. It’s been a slow and tedious process. Recently I revisited a genealogy page I wrote about ten years ago and created a map where one hadn’t existed previously.

It reminded me that I’ve had it pretty easy when we visit the in-laws in Wisconsin, with an elapsed airtime of about an hour between airports. My ancestors undertook a journey of similar distance when they moved from Maine to Wisconsin in 1844. They seemed pretty satisfied that it took "just one month."

The family patriarch described the entire journey in a letter that he sent back to his brother in Maine. I received a copy of the letter in 2002 and wrote about it in a genealogical society journal. The resulting article is reproduced elsewhere on my site. It includes a lot of family history content so feel free to skip it. Instead I’ll focus on what will more likely interest the 12MC audience, the geography and logistics of a North American journey in the 1840’s.

View Sylvester Journey – 1844 in a larger map

I took a much closer look at the letter this time around so I could design a reasonable replica of the route. The letter contained several place names, a few actual dates, and a verifiable historic event, all of which allowed me to reconstruct a full sequence of steps including days of the week. I could determine with near certainty that the journey began on Saturday, October 5, 1844 in Phillips, Maine and concluded a month later on Tuesday, November 5 in Jamestown, Wisconsin.

Markers on the map include supporting text from the letter. Colored lines represent changes in transportation modes.

Phase I – Cart and Foot: October 5-7

The journey began by hauling family and freight down to a port. The group stopped to visit with some relatives along the way so it took three days to get to the nearest river town with ocean access. The port was just outside of Augusta, the capital city of Maine on the Kennebec River.

Phase II – Ship: October 7-8

They sailed down the Kennebec River into the Gulf of Maine, hugged the coastline and entered Massachusetts Bay. They disembarked at Boston, Massachusetts.

Phase III – Railroad: October 8-10

Boston and Albany Railroad
The Boston and Albany Railroad
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons released to the Public Domain

The Boston and Albany Railroad received its charter in 1831 and laid track westward in phases. One could travel the entire route between the two cities by rail beginning in 1841. The family took early advantage of this transportation leap to shorten its movement across Massachusetts.

The letter never mentioned a railroad although no other feasible method could have covered the same distance in a similar amount of time. It referenced a three hour segment between Boston and Worcester for example, a distance of 46 miles. A stagecoach would have averaged 5 miles per hour. A typical speed for a train in the early 1840’s would have been about 10 to 20 miles per hour.

A rail line existed, the speed of motion matched historical averages for trains of that period, and towns mentioned in the letter (where the family stopped) mirrored the Boston and Albany Railroad route.

Phase IV – Canal Boat: October 11-18

Replica Erie Canal Boat Enters the Black Rock Lock
SOURCE: Flickr by USACE Buffalo via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
Erie Canal Boat Replica

Nothing moved faster overland than a railroad but routes were still a novelty in the early 1840’s. Rail hadn’t become a ubiquitous form of transportation like it would a couple of decades later so the family had to find another option. Waterways were still the superhighways of the era, and New York had a great one: the 363 mile (584 km) Erie Canal which opened in 1825.

It took the group a full week to cross New York. That duration was consistent with Erie Canal averages, where boats traveled at about 4 miles per hour (6.5 kph), with rest stops and additional time to traverse dozens of locks that often became choke points.

In one of life’s odd coincidences, my mother’s side of the family (in a canal boat) and my father’s side of the family (farmers living near Lockport) came within amazingly close proximity of each other on or around the evening of Thursday, October 17, 1844 — literally a "ship that passed in the night." The families wouldn’t get another chance for more than a hundred years and in a completely different location.

The canal boat docked in Buffalo, New York on the shores of Lake Erie.

Phase V – Great Lakes Steamship: October 21-26

The Great Lakes Steamship Great Western – 1838

Once again it was logical that the family would take advantage of a waterway. The first commercial steamboat services began in the first decades of the 19th Century and were quite common by the 1840’s. The Great Lakes were filled with them.

Here the family narrowly averted a calamity. They had the misfortune to arrive in Buffalo on the afternoon of Friday, October 18. Four steamships were ready to set sail that evening but they were already crowded with passengers. The family wasn’t in a hurry so they decided to wait until the next morning. A huge storm with hurricane-force winds hit that night and lasted into the following day, a storm so severe that it is still recorded in history as the Lower Great Lakes Storm of 1844.

As described in the History of the Great Lakes, Chapter 36:

For several days before the occurrence of the flood a strong north-east wind had been driving the water up the lake, but on the evening of the 18th a sudden shift of the wind took place, and it blew from the opposite direction with a tremendous force, never before or since known to the inhabitants of Buffalo. It brought with it immense volumes of water, which overflowed the lower districts of the city and vicinity, demolishing scores of buildings, and spreading ruin along the harbor front, playing havoc with shipping, and causing an awful destruction of human life.

The family escaped unscathed and was able to resume its journey the following Monday on the steamship Great Western. It took less than a week to arrive in Chicago.

Phase VI – Cart and Foot: October 30-November 5

The family decided to rent a hotel room and rest in Chicago for four days. Then they purchased "a wagon and a span of horses" and continued onward for the final leg of the journey. It took 6 days to cover approximately 180 miles (290 km) to their new home, so about 30 miles (48 km) per day which was described as "the most fatiguing and expensive of our journey."

The family arrived in Jamestown, Wisconsin, their final destination, pretty much exactly a month after they left Phillips, Maine.

I’ll keep that in mind the next time I fly up to Wisconsin and complain about an airport weather delay.

On April 21, 2013 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Rapid Transit in 1844”

  1. Peter says:

    Not long after 1844 the journey would have become much faster, as the railroad network grew.

  2. weekendroady says:

    Fantastic story! I just drove 1,100 miles of interstate yesterday (including Wisconsin) and I’ve been getting crazy looks from people all day when I tell them about it. I imagine one day of that Chicago to Jamestown journey was more exhausting than whatever long haul adventure I put myself through. I imagine going from Maine to Wisconsin back in that day was almost otherworldly. One could probably better appreciate new surroundings that came with a mammoth effort of relocating 1,200+ miles away. On the flipside, you knew you were (probably) never going back.

  3. Dave says:

    Interestingly, the same overland distance south to Augusta, traveled west-north-west, might put one in southern Quebec near a potential all-water route to Chicago. Of course this entails a far less-traveled route, crossing possibly-roadless mountains and into another country, all of which are likely deal-breakers, but I just thought it was geographically interesting. I wonder how much, if any, commerce from Northern New England in those days got to the sea via the St. Lawrence?

  4. Cary says:

    I didn’t know where Jamestown, WI, was, so I obviously looked it up in Google Maps. Not much there, but I found it interesting that one of the thoroughfares was not named Jamestown Rd, but Jimtown Rd.


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