In this column, she examines the continued increases in speed achieved by men and their machines. She starts off by referencing a modern day wagon train that was converging onto Valley Forge to commemorate the American Bicentennial that was underway at the time the article was published.
Look at yesteryear: How fast is slow?
By POLLY MORRIS Feature Writer
Five wagon trains are now creeping across the Nation, following modern highways. Yet they are making only 20 miles per day, and sometimes less. Is this wagon train moving fast or slow?
The trek to Valley Forge points out how little one really realizes about the travelers of long ago. What was their speed limit? An Imaginary time table reveals interesting facts about how fast our ancestors moved along the road to history.
A sailing vessel of the 1700's had a widely varied schedule that depended on the wind and the weather. A frigate could cross the Atlantic from France to Louisiana in about two months, if everything went well. But if it was becalmed or driven off course by a storm, the journey could last over five months.
The early explorers who hoofed it inland were lucky if they averaged 3 miles an hour. If they had heavy back-packs and crowed marshland or had to hack their way through the underbrush, they would be lucky to make 5 miles a day. In small boats their speed would vary with the wind and the current. Going upstream would be much slower than coming down almost effortlessly with the current.
The covered wagons that came to St. Tammany from Georgia and the Carolinas had a good 45 days of hard travel over roads that were little more than trails. There were few bridges or ferries, and since there were no motels along the way, travel was slowed by having to make camp, cook, and repack their belongings.
The first "quick" travel was the stagecoach. One owner advertised a coach called the "Flying Machine" because it covered the 95 mile trip between New York and Philadelphia in only 2 days. Private carriages were almost useless in rural areas, as the roads were too rough and too narrow. Only the rich could afford one in colonial times, and even wealthy George Washington rode his horse to the first inauguration. Shortly after be took the oath of the presidency did he buy a cream and gilt carriage from the Governor of Pennsylvania. When it appeared on the streets of New York and Philadelphia drawn by a fine bay horses, it created quite a sensation.
The craze for speed was slow in coming, except for a few farsighted men. Yet one Parisian was making a strange contraption when George III was giving land grants in St. Tammany, and Louis XV was consorting with his courtesans. The inventive speed demon who made a 3 wheeled machine with a copper boiler was not honored for his little steam engine that wheezed around the streets of Paris and frightened both people and horses. Though he attained the incredible speed of two and a half miles per hour without people or horse power, his invention ran wild and out of control, damaging property. Unable to pay for his destruction, he was promptly put in prison.
It was not until 1807 that a steamboat began regular trade on the Hudson River. This was
the Fulton's Folly that was called a fearsome water fowl, otherwise known as the Clermont. It made about 4 miles an hour, but the "New Orleans" that came down the river from Pittsburg overshadowed the original by Fulton. She was able to battle the current at 5 miles an hour, or to come downstream at a breakneck speed of 10 miles per hour.
Oddly enough, the steamship was a slow boat to China in comparison with the beautiful clipper ships that sailed about the same time. They passed everything on the ocean, and the famous "Lightening" skimmed across the deep at 11 miles an hour.
The Overland Stage was rapid transit for pre-Civil War passengers. The big boom in California attracted many fortune hunters, but a sea voyage took 4 or 5 weeks, even when by land crossing at Panama. The Overland Stage made it from St. Joe Missouri, to California in only 17 days of bone-shaking discomfort, with passengers clinging on the outside top rails or being jostled and crowded on the dusty interior. In their misery, they thought about the others who had comfortable sea passage, and probably resented the Pony Express riders who sped across the same distance in a mere eight days.
The railroads that doomed the stage lines were at first only rail roads of wood over which horses pulled wagons or carriages. One enterprising company used a horse on a treadmill to power the wheels. But in 1830. a man named Peter Cooper built a steam engine for the roads of wooden rails. His locomotive called "Tom Thumb" could pull a flat car at the astonishing speed of 11 miles per hour.
After the Civil War, iron tracks were laid from coast to coast and Iron Horses replaced the living variety, and outdated the stage coach and the Pony Express. With all the desire for speed, it is
unbelievable that as late as 1896 there was a speed limit in England, prohibiting any power vehicle using the public roads to travel in excess of 4 miles per hour.
Equally as incredible is the fact that many people still fear to ride in an aircraft. The balloon was around in the late 1700's, and the big event at Kitty Hawk took place 6 years before Henry Ford put a Tin Lizzie in every garage. Moreover the first airplane rose to only 800 feet, and it was not until 1909 that Glenn Curtis broke the speed record by flying at a little more than a mile a minute, no great shakes at that time. But somehow man still wants to keep his feet firmly on the ground, and private planes have not become as popular as they should be.
As the wagon train inches its way to Valley Forge, bicycles and motorists will pass it on the road, and airplane passengers will see only a series of specks on the highway. Even those that are riding with the train will not experience the tedious travel that tormented the pioneers. They will not have to push the wagons through the mud, or ford swollen streams, or fight the Indians. They will not have to leave prized possessions along the way to lighten their loads, or be ordered out of the train because of cholera. They will not hear the cries of new born babies, or the calling of a coyote to its mate.
But most of all they will not have to look back to crude crosses where the soft body of a loved one lies under a mound of heavy stones.
February, 1976 St. Tammany News Banner
Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.