Part IV The United States In 1790:Transportation


Chapter II Pages: 21-23

The common mode of travel before the Revolution was by boat or horse. The river valleys are usually the portions of a country first settled, and in the newer portions of America travel was often by river routes. Many persons did not own carriages or wagons; in consequence, a considerable proportion of the population had no requirement for wagon roads. This was particularly the case in the South, where the plantations were situated along the banks of navigable streams and products were marketed by boat.

With the growth of the colonies, and an increasing requirement for intercommunication, the extension of stagecoach systems was very rapid, and became especially marked after the Revolution. As might be expected, such extension was coincident with the opening of many new roads and the improvement of existing highways. In 1790, however, there remained many sections of the country in which there were no roads. On the maps of the states published during the last decade of the eighteenth century, no highways are shown in the eastern part of Maine, and but few in northern New England, northern and western New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, and throughout the mountainous regions of the South. Many highways were such in name only often little more than bridle paths or blazed trails running through otherwise unbroken wildernesses. Even the more pretentious roads were poor, and often impassable. Bridges were all but unknown in the thinly settled portions; and in the fall and spring, when the rivers were covered with unsafe ice or were full of floating ice, travel was extremely dangerous.

Between important towns, especially in New England, better conditions prevailed. From Boston, roads branched off in many directions. A broad highway extended westward through Marlboro, Worcester, Spencer, and Springfield; another passed through Lynn, Salem, Portsmouth, and Portland, to the headwaters of the Kennebec; other roads led to Providence, Lowell, and Concord. Roads followed both banks of the Merrimac and Connecticut rivers; and an important road ran from Concord and Ashburnham, Mass., through Rutland. Vt., and along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. Over these highways the products of the surrounding country for long distances were brought to Boston for export.

The maps of Rhode Island and Connecticut at this period present a network of highways. From Providence a road skirted the western coast of Narragansett bay and followed the Sound to New York. In the Connecticut valley, also, there were many important roads.

In New York the Albany post road ran from New York city along the eastern bank of the Hudson river to Albany, and thence northward to Plattsburg and into Vermont. Through Albany passed the western highway from Massachusetts to the Mohawk valley, over which, in 1790, numbers of emigrants journeyed daily. In the wilds of western New York this road dwindled to a trail, and as such continued to Fort Niagara.

Across the state of New Jersey there were many roads, but the principal highway extended from New York through Newark, Elizabethtown, and Brunswick to Trenton. Another road skirted the eastern and southern shores of New Jersey. From Trenton a road passed through Burlington, Philadelphia, Chester, Wilmington, Elkton, Havre de Grace, Baltimore, Alexandria, and then southward.

Philadelphia was a common center of highways for a wide radius. This city was a great market for the sale of farm produce; in the autumn and winter the highways were filled with heavily loaded wagons from the surrounding farms, bound for Philadelphia. The main road from Philadelphia westward passed through Lancaster, Harrisburg, Carlisle, Shippensburg, Bedford, and Pittsburg. Several other roads crossed or nearly crossed the state, converging at the mountain passes and centering upon Pittsburg.

The maps of the Southern states show many roads, but the most important were along the seacoast. Leaving Alexandria, an important road ran through Fredericksburg and Jamestown, Va., Hertford, Newbern, and Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., thus completing a chain of highways from the Kennebec river to Georgia.

Several roads crossed the mountain barriers of Virginia and North Carolina to the West, those that were not lost on the banks of rivers being centered upon Lexington, Danville, Clarksville, Knoxville, and Nashville. One of the most famous of these was the "Wilderness road," which passed through the Cumberland Gap. It was the only direct overland route into Kentucky, and was marked out by Daniel Boone. Not until 1795 was this road widened into a wagon track.

Bridges over even the larger rivers were not common, and the smaller streams were usually forded; but by 1790 many bridges had been built near the large cities and on the principal roads. The greatest engineering feat in the Republic was the bridge over the Charles river, connecting Boston and Charlestown. This bridge was built in 1786, and was then the longest bridge in the world. The Charles river was about as wide at that point as the Thames river at the famous London Bridge.

Stage coaching days had not arrived at their zenith by 1790, but the stagecoach was fast coming to be the common mode of inland travel. The system was developed to the greatest extent in New England, where the population was comparatively dense. As early as 1765 there were two stage routes between Providence and Hartford. In 1769 a coach was announced between Hartford and Norwich, "a day's journey only," and two coaches a week between Providence and Boston, which journey also was accomplished in a day. In 1793 there were daily stages between Boston and Providence, the fare being but a dollar. In 1790 stages ran between Newburyport and Boston three times a week in summer and twice a week in winter; between Boston and New York, by the way of Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford, three times a week in summer and twice a week in winter; between New York and Philadelphia, five times a week; between Philadelphia and Baltimore, and between Baltimore and Alexandria, three times a week; and between many other cities at less frequent intervals.

Mr. Levi Pease started the first line of stages between Boston and New York shortly after the conclusion of peace in 1783. (1,Page: 22) He also obtained the first government contract within the United States for carrying the mails by stage, and the first mail in this new service passed through Worcester on January 17, 1786. (2, Page:22)

The distance between Boston and New York was covered under ordinary conditions in four days, and the time of the "diligence" between New York and Philadelphia was two days. Intelligence of Washington's election to the Presidency of the United States, in New York, on April 7, 1789, was conveyed to him at Mt. Vernon by Charles Thomason, the clerk of Congress, on April 14. Washington died on December 14, 1799, and news of an event of such great interest was probably forwarded with all possible dispatch; yet this news did not reach Boston until December 24.

The most traveled road in the country was doubtless the highway across New Jersey connecting New York and Philadelphia. For most of the distance this road was kept in excellent repair. For part of the distance, from New York to Newark, it represented considerable engineering enterprise, being built wholly of wood in the midst of water and "on a soil that trembled when stepped upon." The stagecoach used was a kind of open wagon, hung with curtains of leather and woolen, which could be raised or lowered at pleasure. It had four benches and would seat twelve persons. Light baggage was put under the benches, and the trunks were attached behind.

The highway from Philadelphia to Baltimore was less traveled, and because of the character of the soil, was often in an almost impassable condition. (3, Page: 22)

Samuel Breck, speaking of travel between New York and Boston in 1787 says:

In those days there were two ways of getting to Boston: One way by a clumsy stage that travels about 40 miles a day, with the same horses the whole day; so that rising at 3 or 4 o'clock and prolonging the day's ride into the night, one made out to reach Boston in six days; the other route was by packet-sloop up the Sound to Providence and thence by land to Boston. This was full of uncertainty, sometimes being traveled in three and sometimes in nine days. I myself have been that length of time (nine days) going from New York to Boston.

At that time there was scarcely a town along the coast of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey that was not connected by sailing sloops with New York. The fare from Providence to New York by packet was $6. From ports in New England, sloops made frequent trips to Boston; and from the southern ports, to the nearest principal cities. All through the advertisements in the newspapers of that period were notices of the regular or occasional sailings of sloops to different seacoast towns. These sloops had accommodations for passengers, and were generally comfortable, but with head winds the time of arrival was very uncertain. Meals were charged for at high rates sometimes in excess of the fare; and it was often claimed that the skipper delayed the voyage when there were many passengers, in order to profit at their expense.

Footnotes on Chapter II Pages: 21-23 Transportation

(1) Stages from Portsmouth in New Hampshire, to Savannah in Georgia:

There is now a line of stages established from New Hampshire to Georgia, which go and return regularly, and carry the several mails, by order and permission of Congress.

The stages from Boston to Hartford in Connecticut set out, during the winter season, from the house of Levi Pease, at the sign of the New York Stage, opposite the Mall, in Boston, every Monday and Thursday morning, precisely at 5 o'clock, go as far as Worcester on the evenings of those days, and on the days following proceed to Palmer, and on the third day reach Hartford; the first stage reaches the city of New York on Saturday evening following.

The stages from New York for Boston set out on the same days, and reach Hartford at the same time as the Boston stages.

The stages from Boston exchange passengers with the stages from Hartford at Spencer, and the Hartford stages exchange with those from New York at Hartford. Passengers are again exchanged at Stratford ferry, and not again until their arrival in New York.

By the present regulation of the stages it is certainly the most convenient and expeditious way of traveling that can possibly be had in America, and in order to make it the cheapest, the proprietors of the stages have lowered their prices from four pence to three pence a mile, with liberty to passengers to carry fourteen pounds baggage.

In the summer season the stages are to run with the mail three times in a week instead of twice, as in the winter, by which means those who take passage at Boston, in the stage which sets off on Monday morning, may arrive at New York on the Thursday evening following, and all the mails during that season are to be but four days going from Boston to New York, and so from New York to Boston.

Those who intend taking passage in the stages must leave their names and baggage the evening preceding the morning that the stage sets off, at the several places where the stages put up, and pay one-half of their passage to the place where the first exchange of passengers is made, if bound so far, and if not, one-half of their passage so far as they are bound.

N.B.__Way passengers will be accommodated when the stages are not full, at the same rate, viz, 3 pence only per mile. Said Pease keeps good lodging, etc., for gentlemen travelers, and stabling for horses.

Boston, January 2, 1786.__Massachusetts Spy, or the Worcester Gazette, January 5, 1786.

(2) Alice Morse Earle: Stage Coach and Tavern Days, pages 295 to 297.

(3) A Frenchman who made a journey from Philadelphia to Baltimore in November, 1788, thus describes a portion of his trip: "From thence (Havre de Grace) to Baltimore are reckoned 60 miles. The road in general is frightful, it is over a clay soil, full of deep ruts, always in the midst of forests; frequently obstructed by trees overset by the wind, which obliged us to seek a new passage among the woods. I can not conceive why the stage does not often overset. Both the drivers and their horses discover great skill and dexterity, being accustomed to these roads."__Brissot de Warville: Travels in the United States of America (1788).


Website: The History
Article Name: Part IV The United States In 1790 : Transportation
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  "A Century of Population Growth-From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900."
Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census.
Publisher: Washington Government Printing Office-1909
Time & Date Stamp: