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.