Are We There Yet? Traveling by Train in the Past*

The Twentieth Century Limited

In my current WIP, my heroine, Ella, travels from her hometown of Nagykaniza to Budapest. How do I figure out how long it takes her? She’s lucky because in 1905, when she is traveling, Nagykanizsa is a stop on the trainline to Budapest.

Trains sped up travel time immensely. Consider these maps from the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States:


Map A shows how long it took in 1800 to travel from New York City to other locations. Each line marks the time needed to reach points on the line. So, for example, in 1800, it took about a day to travel from New York City to Philadelphia, about four days to travel to Boston, and just short of six weeks to get to Chicago. Travel was by stagecoach, horseback, foot, or boat. The stagecoaches were limited to an area south of Boston, north of Richmond, Virginia, and east of the Allegeny Mountains.


Map B shows travel times from New York City in 1830. Trains were not common yet, but there had been some improvements in travel. Steamboats were used, roads were improved, and canals were built, including the Erie Canal. One could reach Philadelphia in four hours, Boston in about a day and a half, and Chicago in less than 3 weeks.


The railroad exuberance started around 1830 in the United States. The “Railroad Barons,” entrepreneurs such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and James Hill, built or acquired large railway systems. Looking at Map C, we can see how taking the train shortened travel times. By 1857, just a little more than a quarter century after the railroad fever hit, one could travel from New York to Boston in less than a day and Chicago was only 2 days away. But it took three and a half weeks to get to San Francisco. In 1857, railroads only extended as far as the Mississippi River. From there, one had to rely on animal power or boat.


By 1930, as is shown in Map D, railroads ran the width and breadth of the country. Chicago was only one day away and you could travel all the way to San Francisco in 4 days.

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These maps give an idea of the travel times between locations, but if you want a precise time you can consult a timetable. The booklet pictured above, which can be found on line, gives schedules for most of the railroads in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba in 1912. If your character is traveling at some other year or continent, chances are a time table will be available on line or for purchase at a reasonable price.


Of course the timetables only tell part of the story. For example, consider the railroads available in 1840, as show in the map below from the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. 


 If your character is traveling from Richmond to Fredericksburg, the timetable will be pretty accurate. If you character starts from Short Pump, a two hour walk from Fredericksburg, your character will take that much longer to get to his destination. And if your character really wants to travel from Short Pump to Baltimore, you will need to add in the time to get from Fredericksburg to Washington, taking into account when a “connecting” train might be available.  Also, remember that in some cities there were (and still are) more than one railroad station. One needs to leave extra time to get from one station to another, if necessary.

These are the essentials of train travel times, leaving out of course train hijacking by robbers, snowstorms, and other drama you might add to your story.

For more information you can consult a model railroader. These hobbyists love to talk trains and often can help you with any questions you have.

Also, you might want to look at the Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. It has more information about travel, such as post roads, canals, air routes, and mail routes. It also includes information about political history, industrial history, population studies and much more. And if you want even more information, it includes references.

* This post is taken from a short talk I gave at a gathering of the Great Lakes Chapter of the Historical Novel Society.

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