A stagecoach is a type of covered wagon for passengers and goods. It is strongly sprung and drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers. The business of running stagecoaches or the act of journeying in them was known as staging.
The stagecoach was supported on the thoroughbraces, which were leather straps supporting the body of the carriage and serving as shock absorbing springs (the stagecoach itself was sometimes called a "thoroughbrace"). The front or after compartment of a Continental stagecoach was called a coupé or coupe. An inside passenger or seat was an inside, while an outside passenger or seat was an outside. On the outside were two back seats facing one another, which the British called baskets. In addition to the stage driver who guided the vehicle, a shotgun messenger, armed with a coach gun, often rode as a guard.
The term "stage" originally referred to the distance between stations on a route, the coach traveling the entire route in "stages," but through metonymy it came to apply to the coach. A fresh set of horses would be staged at the next station, so the coach could continue after a quick stop to rehitch the new horse team. Under this staging system, the resting, watering and feeding of the spent horses would not delay the coach. A stagecoach could be any four-wheeled vehicle pulled by horses or mules, the primary requirement being that it was used as a public conveyance, running on an established route and schedule. Vehicles included buckboards and dead axle wagons, surplus Army ambulances, celerity (or mud) coaches, and the deluxe Concord. Selection of the vehicle was made by the owner of the stage line, and he would choose the most efficient vehicle based upon the load to be carried, the road conditions, and the weather; and used a two, four or six-horse team based upon those factors and the type of car.
The stagecoach was also called a stage or stage carriage. Types included:
- mail coach or post coach: used for carrying mail.
- mud coach: lighter and smaller than the Concord coach, flat sides, simpler joinery.
- road coach: revived in the United Kingdom during the last half of the 19th century.
A stage wagon was sometimes used as a stagecoach, especially in thinly settled areas.
The stagecoach traveled at an average speed of about five miles per hour, with the total daily mileage covered being around 60 or 70 miles.
Stagecoaches in Great Britain
Familiar images of the stagecoach in Great Britain are that of a Royal Mail coach passing through a turnpike gate, a Dickensian passenger coach covered in snow pulling up at a coaching inn, and a highwayman demanding a coach to "stand and deliver". The yard of ale drinking glass is associated by legend with stagecoach drivers, though was mainly used for drinking feats and special toasts.
The first crude depiction of a coach, not necessarily a stagecoach, was in an English manuscript from the 13th century. The stagecoach was first developed in Great Britain during the 16th century and continued in use up to the early 1910s. Coaching inns opened up throughout Europe to accommodate stagecoach passengers. Shakespeare's first plays were staged at coaching inns such as The George Inn, Southwark. The Royal Mail stagecoach, a mail coach introduced in 1784, hastened the improvement of the road system in the British Isles through the turnpike trust system.
In 1784, a mail stage did the 120-mile journey from London to Bristol in 17 hours.
Stagecoaches in Continental Europe
The diligence, a solidly built coach with four or more horses, was the French analogue for public conveyance, especially in France, with minor varieties in Germany such as the Stellwagen and Eilwagen. The diligence from Le Havre to Paris was described by a fastidious English visitor of 1803 with a thoroughness that distinguished it from its English contemporary, the stage coach.
A more uncouth clumsy machine can scarcely be imagined. In the front is a cabriolet fixed to the body of the coach, for the accommodation of three passengers, who are protected from the rain above, by the projecting roof of the coach, and in front by two heavy curtains of leather, well oiled, and smelling somewhat offensively, fastened to the roof. The inside, which is capacious, and lofty, and will hold six people in great comfort is lined with leather padded, and surrounded with little pockets, in which travellers deposit their bread, snuff, night caps, and pocket handkerchiefs, which generally enjoy each others company, in the same delicate depository. From the roof depends a large net work which is generally crouded with hats, swords, and band boxes, the whole is convenient, and when all parties are seated and arranged, the accommodations are by no means unpleasant.
Upon the roof, on the outside, is the imperial, which is generally filled with six or seven persons more, and a heap of luggage, which latter also occupies the basket, and generally presents a pile, half as high again as the coach, which is secured by ropes and chains, tightened by a large iron windlass, which also constitutes another appendage of this moving mass. The body of the carriage rests upon large thongs of leather, fastened to heavy blocks of wood, instead of springs, and the whole is drawn by seven horses.
The English visitor noted the small, sturdy Norman horses "running away with our cumbrous machine, at the rate of six or seven miles an hour." At this speed stagecoaches could compete with canal boats, but they were rendered obsolete in Europe wherever the rail network expanded in the 19th century. Where the rail network did not reach, the diligence was not fully superseded until the arrival of the autobus.
Stagecoaches in the United States
Beginning in the 18th century crude wagons began to be used to carry passengers between cities and towns, first within New England in 1744, then between New York and Philadelphia in 1756. Travel time was reduced on this later run from three days to two in 1766 with an improved coach called the Flying Machine. The first mail coaches appeared in the later 18th century carrying passengers and the mails, replacing the earlier post riders on the main roads. Coachmen carried letters, packages and money, often transacting business or delivering messages for their customers. By 1829 Boston was the hub of 77 stagecoach lines; by 1832 there were 106.
Stagecoaches ceased operating between Boston and New York after steamships began running between New York and Providence. However, the Boston to Providence highway was still one of the busiest in the nation with the stagecoach companies carrying passengers six hours from Boston to meet the steamboats. Once the railroads began being built between cities in the 1830s, the stagecoach companies began running from the rails to other cities and towns.
The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827. Abbot Downing Company employed leather strap braces under their stagecoaches which gave a swinging motion instead of the jolting up and down of a spring suspension. The company manufactured over forty different types of carriages and wagons at the wagon factory in Concord, New Hampshire. Concord stagecoaches were built so solidly it became known they didn't break down but just wore out. The Concord stagecoach sold throughout South America, Australia, and Africa. Over 700 Concord stagecoaches were built by the original Abbot Downing Company before it disbanded in 1847. The company was still building coaches, wagons, and carriages according to their business card of 1898. In his 1861 book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord stage's ride as like "a cradle on wheels".
The ballad "The California Stage Company" only slightly exaggerates the travel conditions of the stagecoach passengers on the bad roads of the California Gold Rush. In coaches with three bench seats, the passengers rode three abreast squeezed into a space of 15 inches apiece. Back and middle rows both faced forward, and a forward row faced rearward. Those in the forward and middle rows had to ride with their knees dovetailed. On the center seat, passengers had only a leather strap to support their backs on a long journey. Passengers rode with baggage on their laps and sometimes mail pouches beneath their feet. Some travelers suffered from motion sickness due to the motion of the coaches, aggravated when the coach traveled over a section of rough road, adding the torment of bouncing on the hard seat, against the roof, or against the side of the coach.
Stagecoaches employed for use in the Butterfield Overland Mail traveled across the country continuously for twenty-two days, often traveling at night whenever possible, from Saint Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, often involving harsh weather and hostile Indians, as well as outlaws. Overland stagecoaches would make only brief stops at way stations to change teams. Passengers often had poor food and no rest. If a passenger got off the stage to rest, he might be stuck in that place for a week or more or even longer if the next stage had no available seats. Passengers were sometimes compelled to walk to relieve the fatigued teams, when the coach had to be lightened to make it over a stretch of sand, or to help push coaches uphill or extricate them when bogged down in mud or sand. Passengers crowded into coaches caused conditions that prompted Wells Fargo to post these rules in each coach for passenger behavior:
- Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
- If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
- Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
- Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
- Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
- Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
- In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
- Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
- Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.
Passengers for the long haul overland in coaches were given recommendations of equipment to be taken. For the earliest line that traveled through New Mexico Territory, the Jackass Mail, a San Diego newspaper suggested "[o]ne Sharps rifle and 100 rounds, a Colt [revolver] and two pounds of lead, a knife, a pair of thick wool pants, a half dozen pairs of thick socks, six undershirts, three overshirts, a wide-awake hat, a cheap sack coat, an overcoat, one pair of blankets in summer and two in winter, gauntlets, needles, pins, a sponge, hair brush, comb, soap, two pairs of thick drawers, and three or four towels." The later Butterfield line suggested passengers take a pistol or a knife.
A real danger for stagecoach travelers on local or long haul lines was the risk of robbery by highwaymen, road agents, or bandits, right up into the early 20th Century. Cash payrolls and bank transfers were regularly carried by these scheduled stage lines. California saw the first stagecoach robbery in April 1852, when a Nevada City stage was robbed outside Illinoistown by a gang led by Reelfoot Williams. Tom Bell led the earliest well-organized stagecoach robbery gang, using informants to alert them when a stagecoach had a shipment of gold or rich passengers aboard. His gang began and ended in 1856 but was followed by others, like Rattlesnake Dick, who used Bell's methods. One of the more successful individual road agents was Charles Bolles a.k.a. "Black Bart", known to have robbed California stages from 1875 to 1883. As gold mining spread across the West, so did the stagecoach robbers.
Stagecoach passengers also faced the danger of Indian attack on coaches or at way stations. There were some Indian attacks on coaches and on the stations of the central overland route and Pony Express stations. The worst attack was in New Mexico Territory in 1861. Until the February Bascom Affair, relations of the Giddings Line (successor of the San Antonio and San Diego Line) with the Apache in New Mexico Territory were good. The Apache provided most of the hay for their stations between Mesilla, New Mexico and Tucson, Arizona. Afterward, Cochise began his war to drive all non-native Americans out of Apache lands. This resulted in the deaths of the crews and passengers of six coaches (which were then burned) and destruction of all but one of the way stations and their station keepers. An attempt to find and pacify Cochise by James Giddings, brother of the general manager, resulted in the death of Giddings and a dozen more men. This loss and the beginning of the American Civil War ended overland stagecoach service on the southern overland route.
At a time when sectional tensions were tearing the United States apart, stagecoaches provided regular transportation and communication between St. Louis, Missouri, in the Midwest along the Mississippi River, and San Francisco, California, in the West. Although the Pony Express is often credited with being the first fast mail line across the North American continent to the Pacific coast, it was preceded by the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line, known as the "Jackass Mail" (for the last 180 miles between Fort Yuma and San Diego accomplished on mule back instead of stagecoach), which ran on a bi-monthly basis, 1500 miles between San Antonio, Texas and San Diego, California, from July 9, 1857 to December 1858; and by the Butterfield Overland Mail of George Chorpenning that predated the Pony Express by nearly three years.
Butterfield Overland Stage began rolling on September 15, 1858, when the twice-weekly mail service began. A Butterfield Overland Concord stagecoach would start from San Francisco and another overland stage from Tipton, Missouri, over the better roads. As the going got rougher, the passengers and mail were transferred to "celerity wagons" designed for the roughest conditions. Each run encompassed 2,812 miles and had to be completed in 25 days or fewer in order to qualify for the $600,000 government grant for mail service.
In March 1860, John Butterfield was forced out because of debt. The beginning of the American Civil War forced the Stage Company to stop using the Oxbow Route and to use the Central Overland Route instead. The eastern end of the central route, St. Louis to Denver, Colorado, was taken over by Ben Holladay. Ben Holladay is characterized as a devoted, diligent, enterprising man who became known as the Stagecoach King. At the western end, Denver to San Francisco, the stage company was taken over by Wells Fargo due to large debts that Butterfield owed. Wells Fargo commandeered the monopoly over long-distance overland stage coach and mail service with a massive web of relay stations, forts, livestock, men, and stage coaches by 1866. Transcontinental stagecoaching came to an end with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Final American use: Short haul
The last American chapter in the use of the stagecoaches took place between 1890 and the late 1920s, when the road to Young, Arizona was paved and the stagecoach was replaced with a Ford motorcar. In the end, it was the motor bus, not the train, that caused the final disuse of these horse-drawn vehicles, and many "automobile stage companies" were established in the early 20th century. After the main railroad lines were established, it was frequently not practical to go to a place of higher elevation by rail lines if the distance was short.
A town 10 to 25 miles off the mail rail trunk, if it were 1000 or more feet higher, would be very difficult and expensive to serve by rail due to the grade incline. This final portion of the trip, during that 25-year period, was usually served by local stage lines, with a ride of less than a half day being typical. Once the mainline rail grid was in service, the railroad actually stimulated stage line operations well into the 20th century. These were eventually replaced by motorbuses, and so many local private bus lines were early called motor-stage lines. By 1918 stage coaches were only operating in a few mountain resorts or western National Parks as part of the "old west" romance for tourists.
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- Stagecoach History: Stage Lines to California
- Wild West Tales: Stories by R. Michael Wilson; Stagecoach
- Robert Glass Cleland, A history of California: the American period, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1922 Chapter XXIV, The Overland Mail and the Pony Express, pp. 359-368