Outrun Change

We need to learn quickly to keep up with the massive change around us so we don't get run over. We need to outrun change.

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


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


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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