At a time of year in which most of us are recovering from cramped flights, jet lag, and layovers, it’s easy to forget just how good humans have become at traveling distances that would have seemed virtually insurmountable a couple of hundred years ago. In fact, compared to our forebears, we travel so quickly and efficiently that we may as well be a race of transdimensional teleporters.
Case in point? Consider this interactive map from the University of Richmond. It puts into stark perspective just how long it would take you to travel from New York City to other points in the country between 1800 and 1930, a period defined by rapidly evolving transportation systems that spans from the horse-and-buggy to locomotive to automobile to airplane.
If money were no object, in a single 24-hour period, you could easily fly around the world and then some this year. That would have seemed magical to the average person from 1800, who traveling south from New York City by stagecoach would have only reached Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yet as stagecoach lines became increasingly well designed, a mere 30 years later a traveler could almost reach Baltimore in the same amount of time, and by 1857, a locomotive would take you all the way to Akron, Ohio. By 1930, the railroad would take you nearly to Des Moines in the span of a day, and to Salt Lake City by air.
The interactive map was created as part of efforts by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, which recently digitized editions of The Atlas Of The Historical Geography Of The United States, a compendium of vintage maps. There are a couple of things I find fascinating about it.
For one, although technological advances were obviously important to the speed of travel, the maps make clear that the design and perfection of existing routes was just as important, if not more so, in improving travel times in the 19th century. For example, stagecoach speeds between 1800 and 1830 practically doubled not because anyone invented a faster horse or a better buggy, but because the stagecoach companies were able to successfully clear highways and other routes that their coaches could then travel safely and quickly.
As a larger point, though, this interactive map makes clear just how recently it was that people could take travel for granted. If you were born in 1830, you might as well have been stapled to the Earth: you would likely die in the exact same place you were born. Just a hundred years later, anyone could jump on a plane and look at both the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean in a single weekend. Technology and design allowed us to unglue ourselves from the skin of the planet, and in doing so, helped make the planet seem smaller.
You can see the complete interactive map at the University of Richmond’s website here.