Researching travel in the 1800s

Toll house and toll road from the 1800s.

Toll house and toll road from the 1800s.

As I research and write the Jackson Speed Memoirs, one of the things that really fascinates me is the transportation of the era.

Anyone familiar with the books will know that typically the books unravel along a physical journey, and Speed rarely finishes a book in the same place he started it. So I end up spending a lot of time figuring out how a 19th Century scoundrel would get from here to there.

Transportation in the 19th Century was a crazy slow mixture of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination.

For instance, in the earliest days of train travel, it was not uncommon to have a bolt in the floor of the train car come loose from the vibrations and shoot into the air. Train passengers were sometimes injured by these flying bolts. And those early trains did not have cushioned seats, so passengers bumped and jerked over rails while sitting on flat wood benches or chairs. I imagine train depots probably presented a comical sight of stiff-backed travelers trying to stretch out the kinks.

The very first trains, going back to the early 1800s, consisted of nothing more than stagecoaches hooked to an engine.

Water, of course, was hugely important to travel. The rivers truly were our first highways.

I once came across some information about a river that I frequently travel in my canoe. The Oconee River, which runs from north of Athens, Ga., to South Georgia where it helps form the Altamaha River and goes out to the Atlantic, is a narrow river full of shoals and sandbars, and once or twice a month I can be found in my canoe paddling the Oconee around Athens.

In the early 1800s, the Oconee had significant boat traffic from the sea up to Dublin, Georgia. Above Dublin, the Oconee passes through Milledgeville (which was the antebellum state capital).

For more than a decade, every spring, tens of thousands of dollars and countless man hours were wasted trying to clear the Oconee of obstacles from Dublin to Milledgeville so that boat traffic could move up to the state capital. Typically in a season they would only be able to float a small handful of ships up river. The river north of Dublin was just too shallow for boats. They would dredge the sand and clear deadfall and even blast rocks, but the work would only clear the river long enough to allow a few boats to get to Milledgeville.

In Indiana there was an even bigger boondoggle in the making.

In the mid-1830s the Indiana general assembly passed a bill allocating $3.5 million to the construction of the Indiana Central Canal. Intended to run 296 miles from the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River, only 9 miles were ever completed (near Indianapolis) and another two dozen miles were dug. The project nearly bankrupted the state.

In the 1900s, the completed portion of the canal at Indianapolis was used to provide drinking water for the city, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

In researching the Jackson Speed novels, I dig pretty deep into the history of transportation, and I am constantly amazed by what I learn. Mostly, I am amazed at the ingenuity of the human race.

In Jackson Speed and the Fugitive Slaves, Speed flees slave hunters aboard a flat boat.

Big rivers – the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and others – were littered with these flat boats. They were large barges built almost like house boats, and farmers would pack these boats with livestock and produce and float them down the rivers (Abraham Lincoln once floated a flat boat down the Mississippi).

Typically when they arrived where they were going, these farmers would sell their boats and walk home. Sometimes the boats would be dismantled and the lumber used to construct homes or barns. Sometimes people would live on the boats on the river. Sometimes they would hitch the boats to steamships and carry them back upstream.

Especially in the novels set prior to the Civil War, my ability to get Speed from one place to another is very limited. I have several period maps I use that show the rail lines in the 1840s and 1850s, and the railroads of the day were a bizarre mishmash of ties and rails. Particularly as a line was being constructed, it was possible to arrive halfway along your journey only to discover that to complete your trip you would have to find some other mode of travel because the tracks had not yet been laid all the way to your destination. Speed encountered this particular dilemma when he arrived in Chattanooga in Fugitive Slaves.

But of course there was always some other way. A canal, a steamship, a stagecoach, or a horse would get you where you needed to go.

Another aspect of travel at the time that interests me is that most of the roads of the early- to mid-1800s were toll roads that were privately owned. While toll bridges proved to be successful private ventures – because evading the toll was quite a challenge when crossing a river – toll roads were less successful as private ventures. Toll jumpers, known as “shunpikers,” were common, and the roads were often chartered by the government with lots of regulations. People who lived within a mile of the tollhouse were not to be charged; people on normal family business were not to be charged; people going to and from church were not to be charged.

Between the no-charges and the shunpikers, private toll roads struggled to make money.

By the early 1900s, local and state governments were taking over roadways and the private toll roads were soon to be a thing of the past.

The history of travel in the United States is fascinating to me, and it’s easy for me to get lost in the research as I try to move Jackson Speed from one place to another without benefit of interstates, cars driving 75 mph or airplanes.

In some of the novels, such as Jackson Speed and the Fugitive Slaves, the physical journey the characters make is as important as to the story as anything, but in other novels, the travel is merely a necessary part of the story. In Fugitive Slaves, I spent hours and hours researching roadways, river and train travel of 1853.

In the novel I’m currently writing, Jackson Speed in the Rush, Speed makes one of the biggest journeys in the history of our nation – the Overland trip to California. I spent a massive amount of time researching the trip, but the novel is not about that journey and it only takes up a chapter of the book.

I think my fascination with early travel stems from a family story I heard many years ago. There is a letter that survived from when my Peecher ancestors moved from Virginia to the Midwest in the early 1800s (before the war). In the letter, one of the women making the journey wrote of traveling over the Appalachian Mountains, and she noted that one evening as they camped they were able to see across the valley to the spot where they had camped the previous night. It was a long, slow process to travel any distance.

And while I certainly don’t lament the advances and improved efficiency of travel from those days in the 1800s when Jackson Speed was traipsing about, I do find a certain nostalgia in the slower, simpler modes of travel of 150 years ago.

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