This article originally appeared on the Prairie Fans website. That site has been redesigned and the article is no longer available there, so I am posting it here. the tie-in into Michael Landon's Little House on the Prairie is intentional.
How to Get from Here to There in the 1800’s by Cheryl C. Malandrinos
When I think of transportation I imagine planes, trains, buses and cars. But travel options were limited for the pioneer. And while modern day plane crashes, train wrecks and automobile accidents do occur, the lack of technology left the pioneers more prone to regular injuries than his modern day counterparts. Let’s explore the three basic methods of transportation that were available during the 1800’s and the difficulties each one posed to pioneer families like the Ingalls.
Wagons and Stage Coaches
Ever wonder just how long it took Charles Ingalls to get from Walnut Grove to Mankato? According to Mapquest the towns are just over eighty-two miles apart. Under good road conditions a wagon could travel a whopping nine miles an hour, so the trip to Mankato would take more than nine hours out of his day. And while the television roads leading in and out of Walnut Grove may have been in perfect condition, it was closer to reality for the roads to be covered in mud or horse excrement. Heavy rains caused wagons to get stuck in quagmires, which cost drivers a great deal of time as they struggled to free their wheels.
The stage coach rides portrayed on television were also very different from the way things were in real life. On television we see the happy passengers chatting and enjoying their trip to wherever they had to go. But bad roads and drunk or impatient drivers caused frequent turnovers, and the passengers were often bounced out of their seats. For the unfortunate person who got stuck riding on top, this could mean a nose dive from the roof onto the ground.
Another challenge that drivers had to deal with was traffic jams. While most people think of these as modern day occurrences, the busy city roads were often crammed with wagons, carts, and carriages for nearly an hour. Policemen would come out with their whistles and direct traffic until the roads were cleared.
In a few episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Charles Ingalls or other members of Walnut Grove took the train to travel great distances, like the infamous trip to Chicago that signified the end of Mary’s engagement to John Jr.
Seeing a train rumbling down the tracks was exciting for nineteenth-century Americans, but people riding on trains in the 1800’s did not always experience the carefree rides that the Ingalls family did on TV. In addition to the fear of derailments and boiler explosions, passengers complained about the ashes and cinders spewed from the smokestacks, which often singed their clothes. People complained about the large number of livestock being run down and the possibility of accidents involving pedestrians at railroad crossings.
No one could deny the impact the railroad had on the American landscape and economic structure, but whether or not the impact was a good one is a discussion for another essay. Suffice to say, the Ingalls family was given the opportunity to travel farther, in a shorter amount of time after the first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869.
Ships, Boats and Canals
While none of the Ingalls family could utilize the waterways from Walnut Grove, MN, steamboat travel was very popular after 1810. But even though passengers loved the conveniences offered while onboard, steamboats were not the safest means of transportation. Between 1811 and 1850 some 166 boats burned, 206 blew up, and 576 struck obstacles and sunk.
Stuck wanting to avoid steamboat disasters and uncomfortable rides on stage coaches; people began flocking to canal travel, which flourished in the 1830’s. Canal boats were small and could not offer the amenities of steamboats, but passengers didn’t have a fear of drowning in the shallow canalways. Due to the fast growth of the railroad however, canal travel became antiquated quickly and construction of new canalways stopped in 1840.
When thinking about methods of transportation in the 1800’s, a modern person like me is thankful for technology. After all, I did change jobs once because driving an hour round trip was too much. Laura Ingalls Wilder had the opportunity to experience some of that technology in her lifetime. I often wonder what she would have thought of modern day transportation, and if the elderly Mrs. A. J. Wilder would have been willing to ride in a jet plane to go visit her relatives.