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Modern versus Civil War travel costs

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Transatlantic cruises, costly back in Charles Dickens' day, are still a pricey luxury. And today's rail travel, when adjusted for inflation, is a bargain by antebellum standards.

April 10, 2011|By Jane Engle | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Confederate soldiers fire a canon during at a Civil War reenactment at Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona.
Confederate soldiers fire a canon during at a Civil War reenactment at Picacho… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Talk about a travel deal. How does $3 a night sound, meals included? Or less than $1 for a train trip between cities? Or a transatlantic cruise for less than 9 British pounds?

If that's your idea of a bargain, hop in a time machine to circa 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. And bring along your 2011-vintage paycheck. Yes, prices were low for antebellum tourists, but so were wages; a middle class U.S. family might live on $1,000 to $3,000 a year.

Travel in those days also entailed dangers and discomforts.

Today's bon voyage party traces its origins to "lugubrious pier-side gatherings when friends and relatives gathered on board to pay respects that might well prove their last," John Maxtone-Graham writes in "The Only Way to Cross," his classic 1972 history of transatlantic voyaging.

In 1860, Cunard Line's emigrant fare, 8 pounds, 8 shillings from Liverpool, England, to New York, put you in the "intolerably crowded, noisy, smelly and badly ventilated" steerage class, Maxtone-Graham said in an interview last week.First- and second-class cabins were pricey; in 1842, author Charles Dickens paid 40 pounds, 19 shillings (about $230) for his first-class crossing on Cunard's Britannia.

On land, the train was popular. Faster and more comfortable than stagecoaches, which were still in use, it could be ridden in 1860 for $1.30 one way from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., said Dan Toomey, guest curator for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, which on Friday will open a major Civil War exhibit.

Today a one-way coach ticket from Baltimore to Washington, which I recently priced on Amtrak's website for a random July date, cost $11.

Hotels, too, in 1860 could be had for a song, by today's standards.

Around that time, the Old White, precursor to the tony Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., was charging $3 a person a day for room and full board in the summer high season, said Robert Conte, the Greenbrier's historian.

Today rooms at the Greenbrier, recently priced online for a July weekend, start at $575 plus tax for a room for two, including breakfast and dinner, or $369 plus tax for the room alone.

The Old White's antebellum rate was pretty standard, said Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico and author of "Hotel: An American History" (2007).

"In the years just before the Civil War, an American traveler could have expected to pay from $2 to $3 for a good hotel in a substantial city like Boston … and about $1.50 to $2 for a night's hotel stay in a much smaller settlement," he said.

Was travel really a bargain 150 years ago? Not necessarily.

Although exact comparisons are tricky, hotels may have cost about the same per person then as today, in real terms. Using a standard inflation calculator, $2 in 1860 would equal $54 today, or a little more than half the average daily room rate at U.S. hotels in late March. But keep in mind that there was generally only one person to a room; rooms today are generally quoted for two people. In 1860, unlike today, that $2 rate typically included meals.

As for transatlantic crossings, Cunard's fares for a July trip from Southampton, England, to New York range from $1,236 to $5,588 a person, or about 767 to 3,367 British pounds, when I recently checked online. Given steerage conditions, there's hardly a fair comparison to be made with 1860. But in today's pounds, Dickens' first-class fare was about the same as the QM2's top fare.

Rail travel may even be cheaper today, in real terms, than 150 years ago. With $1.30 in 1860 equaling about $35 today, Amtrak's $11 Baltimore-Washington fare looks like a bargain.

One travel reality hasn't changed: the toll of war.

On Aug. 10, 1861, a few months after the Civil War began, an ad in the Richmond Whig stated that "due to the embarrassed state of the country" rates for White Sulphur Springs lodging were being reduced to $2.50 a day. Not long afterward, the Old White was pressed into service as a Confederate army hospital.

jane.engle@latimes.com

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