Transportation costs dropped 95% in the 1800s

There are a lot of data points on travel cost and travel time during the first half of the 1800s mentioned by Allen Guelzo in his fantastic book, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

Here is the most amazing part:

Overall drop in cost to transport freight with canals, steamboats, and railroads (location 641):

  • 95%

I want to accumulate some of these tidbits since I’m amazed at the radical change created by technology.

Transportation time and cost

Consider:

Travel by stagecoach:

  • 1810 – 4 weeks travel time – stagecoach from Nashville to Washington city (now D.C.) (Location 612 of 7046)
  • 1810 – $10 to $11 – stagecoach from Boston to New York (L612)

Cost to move one hundred pounds of freight from Louisville to New Orleans (L629):

  • 1810 – $5.00 by flatboat
  • 1830 – $2.00 by steamboat
  • 1850 – $0.25 by steamboat
  • 95% drop

Steamboats on Mississippi, Ohio, and tributaries (L630):

  • 1820 – 31
  • c.1830 – 361 (date Lincolns arrived Sangamon is circa 1830, Location 560)

Impact of Erie Canal, 363 miles built over seven years at cost of $7M (L635). Cost and time before and after construction:

  • Cost per ton:
  • $100 before – 27.5 cents per ton per mile
  • $    6 after – 1.6 cent/ton/mile
  • 94% drop
  • Transit time:
  • 45 days before
  •   5 days after
  • 89% drop

Steam powered rail (L636):

  • 1828 – first commercial railroad, in Baltimore
  • 1859 – rail reaches to Appalachian mountains at cost of 3 cents/ton/mile

Miles of railroad track in state of Illinois (L2288):

  • 1840 – 26 miles
  • 1860 – close to 3,000 miles

Salaries

Here are a couple of data points for salaries:

  • 1835 – Lincoln had debts of over $1,100 when the shop he co-owned failed, which amount is 4-5 times “annual earnings of  an ordinary laborer” (L926)
  • 1850s – his salary from quite successful legal practice averages $3,000 a year, which is around 8 or 10 times “average working-class income” (L2407)

From that we can calculate average wages as reported in the book:

  • 1835 – $220 to $275 a year – “ordinary laborer”
  • 1850s – $300 to $375 a year – “Average working-class income”

Cost of Boston-NYC stagecoach in 1810 compared to train today

Pushing the 1835 salary backwards to the $10-$11 cost for a stage ride from Boston to New York in 1810 would translate into travel cost in the following ranges:

  • 2.4 weeks to 2.6 weeks salary at $220 annual pay
  • 1.9 weeks to 2.1 weeks salary at $275 annual pay

At $30,000 today, that would be equal to something between $1,091 and $1,500 to get from Boston to New York. At $50,000 annual income today, that would be a range of $1,800 to $2,500.

Today a trip on Amtrak will cost $52 from Boston to New York. That is a drop of between 95% and 98%.

At some point in the future, I would like to aggregate all the specific data points I’ve accumulated on the blog.

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