Travel cost by stagecoach in 1870s – part two

So what was the cost for cross-country travel by stagecoach in the 1870s?

I previously mentioned some of the fun exhibits in the Seeley Stable and Wells Fargo museums in Old Town, San Diego.

Putting together several of the information displays gives this information:

The Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach run from St. Louis Missouri to San Francisco, California covered 2800 miles.

The fare was $200. 

Travel time was 24 days. That means the overall average travel speed was 3½ or 4½ miles per hour including changing out the horses and rest stops.

Let’s convert that into weeks of salary

As I mentioned earlier, average weekly salary for a blacksmith, which is skilled trade, was $18.24 in 1870. For carpenter, the average wages were $24.60 a week and a machinist earned $15.60 a week.

So at the $200 fare, plus 24 days travel time, or 3.4 weeks, that means the total cost for the overland trip from St. Louis to San Francisco was as follows:

  • Blacksmith – 14.4 weeks wages
  • Carpenter 11.6 weeks wages
  • Machinist – 16.2 weeks wages

Average those out and it’s 14.1 weeks wages for a skilled laborer, or 3 1/2  months per person for a one-way trip.

Transit cost today?

Average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory employees can be found at the Bureau of Labor Statistics here. In May 2012, average weekly earnings for all private sectors is $633.89. For construction it is $935.22. Since my above analysis uses skilled trades, I’ll go with the construction amount.

I did an exquisitely simple search on Expedia for an airfare from St. Louis to San Francisco two weeks from now for a one-week stay. I’ll toss out the lowest fare because there’s only two of those tickets left. The most common low-fare is $398. Total travel time is 6 hours 58 min. Add in two hours to check in and clear security and one hour to clear the airport at arrival and that is 10 hours transit time. Let’s call that one day.

So, what’s it cost to travel from St. Louis to San Francisco now for an average construction worker? Airfare of $398 is 0.43 weeks wages, or 2 days 1 hour of earnings. Let’s cut that in half since it is a round trip and round it off. So it is 1 day wages for the airfare. Add another day for transit time makes it 2 days, rounded.

So here is the comparison:

  • 1870 – average 14.1 weeks for average skilled tradesman
  • 2012 – 2 days for average construction worker, or 0.4 weeks

That is a 97% reduction in the cost of travel in 142 years. Way cool.

7 thoughts on “Travel cost by stagecoach in 1870s – part two”

  1. And when you figure in that most people worked 60 hours a week in the 1800’s, then that makes the amount of labor needed to pay for that trip 50% higher than for workers working today’s 40 hour weeks.
    So 14.1 weeks x 60 hours/week = 846 hours to pay for the 1870 trip.
    2 days x 8 hours = 16 hours for today’s trip.

    Then add in the hours that the 1870 worker would lose in wages because he is sitting on a stagecoach for 24 days (instead of 1 day for today’s worker), and cannot work, and the real cost of the 1870 trip was astronomical!

    1. Hi Scott:

      Agreed! That is the radical improvement in our lives from technological advances.

      Oh, that 24 day transit times wasn’t 8 or even 16 hours a day. It was 24 hours a day, with stops only to change out horses. The passengers could get a lousy meal at the station while the horses were unhitched and hitched. No air-conditioning. Really horrible suspension. None of the passengers getting a bath or fresh clothes for 3 weeks. Sitting knee to knee with the passenger on the other side of the coach.

      Thanks for commenting!


      1. …not to mention, the occasional Indian or bandit attack!

        I wonder what the travel time and travel cost was for the same trip when done by train. Imagine how much of an improvement train travel was when it became available….sometime in the 1870’s, I think.

      2. Hi Scott:

        Ironic safety of driving a stagecoach around the clock is that in the dark you might not *see* bandits jumping from behind rocks or riding to catch the coach.

        Would be fun to pull in a calculation for the early trains. Also early air travel. If I trip across that info. I’ll write about it.


    1. Hi Brian:
      Great question. I do not recall any comments on the pay for staff working for the stage lines.

      I do have a discussion on Typical wages in 1960 through 1890 posted back in 2012.

      In the 1860, laborers earned around $0.10 an hour while skilled trades like blacksmith and carpenter earned in the range of $0.18 an hour.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and ask questions.

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