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US Travel West Before Railroads

Updated on February 23, 2013

Westward Before The Railroads

It's possible to travel from Boston to Washington D.C. aboard a speedy train in approximately four hours. Travel wasn't always so convenient or fast. A look back in history at the westward routes shows that the Appalachian Mountains were a formidable barrier for settlers seeking to travel out west. Soon, the need to remove travel barriers was clear and mountain passes began to be charted, along with roads and canals. Steamboat travel was also among the travel options available. Westward travelers could take advantage of a toll road in Philadelphia that led Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From Lancaster, they traveled along a wagon road through the Appalachian Mountains to Pittsburgh, an arduous leg of their trip. From Pittsburgh, they could transfer their goods to a flatboat and float down along the Ohio River. Another option was to take the Cumberland Road in Cumberland, Maryland across the Appalachians to Wheeling, situated on the Ohio River.

Farther south, settlers traveled along state roads built through the Appalachian Mountain passes to reach the southwest. The Cumberland Gap is among the most famous of these mountain passes. It ran from North Carolina into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Travel via the Canals

The Erie Canal was completed in 1825 built under the direction of New York's then Governor DeWitt Clinton. This became an important route for settlers travel west from New York state. Many travelers floated along the Hudson River to Albany, then to Buffalo situated on Lake Erie. This was an water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the west that allowed Western farmers to ship their produce eastward reducing the cost of shipping considerably.

The Advent of the Early Railroads

Railfans everywhere know that the US Railroad Era began with short lines to supplement canal and river transportation. Now, there were three major travel possibilities. In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio became the first US railroad to operate on 14 miles of track. It didn't take long for railroads to become a major travel innovation. Just ten years after the B&O made its first appearance, more than 3,000 miles of railroads crossed the United States east of the Mississippi River. In 1869, another railroad, the Union Pacific, was completed. The Union Pacific has the distinction of being the first US railroad to cross the continent. Three years later, three more transcontinental railroads were built. These became the chief means of westward travelers for settlers and homesteaders and greatly affected the growth of the populations of the Frontier and Great Plains regions.

The Railroad Travel Boom Years

The railroads would remain a significantly important factor for travelers and for the delivery of goods across the US. During the Great Depression and until the late 1930's, the number of travelers leaving the Dust Bowl for the west and southwest increased. The ability to start a new life in a relatively new region of the country signaled hope for families devastated by the ravages of the Great Depression. The 1930's was the era of the Super Chiefs and the unusually detailed "El Capitan," a luxurious coach only the wealthiest of the time could afford. The "El Capitan" seemed somehow out of touch with the mass bread lines and men out of work across the country. The Railroad travel boom would continue to flourish until the mid 1950's when the availability of personal automobiles would reduce reliance on railroads for travel. Today, railroads are largely the domain of freight lines that carry goods to various parts of the country. Many of the short lines today can be privately purchased.

Railroad Travel Today

The railroad still plays a significant role for business travelers in the eastern states. Several of the privately owned rail lines have become novelties for lovers of the rails. They survive by virtue of ingenious events during the holidays and short, fanciful rail trips. Perhaps one day, US railroads may see a big resurgence in travelers who love the clickety clack of the wheels as they nestle into a sleeping car or enjoy a sumptuous meal in a dining car. Somehow, the romance of trains for travel survives.


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    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting and thanks for sharing.


    • Ewent profile image

      Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker 5 years ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      Thank you. I'm a fanatical railfan since I was a toddler. Eleanore

    • brownella profile image

      brownella 5 years ago from New England

      Interesting historical hub. Thanks!