Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Stagecoach: Fast, Efficient, Dangerous, and Miserable Form of Travel


The Deadwood Coach. Photo taken in 1889 by John C. Grabill. 

Stagecoach travel was a dangerous business in the American West. Roads were rocky, rutted, and sometimes impassible. Bandits, a constant threat, viewed stagecoach passengers like cats watching birds in a cage. 

It was also an uncomfortable form of travel. On long trips, passengers generally slept sitting up, or not at all, as it was considered bad etiquette to rest ones head on another passenger. Rest stations, or swing stations, were used to change out horses and rarely offered food. 

Nevertheless, the stagecoach was a popular form of travel in the American West, particularly during a time when the only other option was a wagon or the back of a horse! 

Stagecoach Design: The Concord Stagecoach

The Concord Stagecoach was used most often by stagecoach companies. It was built like a basket on leather straps that swung from side to side. Concords had seats in front, in back, and in the middle, seating nine when full and leaving little leg room with seating for up to 12 passengers on top. 


The creators of the Concord were J. S. Abbot and Lewis Downing, meticulous craftsmen who personally inspected every coach that left the factory. The Abbot Downing Company had a huge factory in Concord, New Hampshire on six acres. They offered designs for forty coaches and wagons. The company was supervised by one of the Abbot or Downing family members from 1827 to 1899.


Concord Stagecoach. Photo taken in 1869.

According to The Story of the Great American West, Concord coaches came in various heavily varnished, bright colors and various sizes, as well. They were 8 1/2 feet long (now imagine the space inside of the coach), weighed 2500 pounds, which could be deadly if they tipped over on a road, and cost around $1300 depending on the amount of detail.

The Jehu, or Stagecoach Driver

Jehu is a Biblical name given to stagecoach drivers. Jehu was a king of Israel in the ninth century who, according to II Kings, ordered the death of Jezebel according to Elijah's prophecy. On the Old West Stagecoach, the jehu was the man, he was in charge. He was the one who shouted, "All aboard! Away!" as the passengers scrambled to find their seats and they did scramble, because it was often vitally important for the jehu to keep his schedule and he was not willing to wait for slackers fumbling around inside the coach. Stagecoach's were not just for passengers. They often carried important legal documents, large bank deposits, or company payrolls.

The Jehu held three pairs of reins in his left hand, which kept his right hand free to hold the whip. According to The Story of the Great American West, The jehu also spoke to the horses, not just shouting commands, but also encouragement, and sometimes soothing words when the stagecoach was in a precarious situation, such as traveling a mountain road.

The jehu's hold on the reins was careful, sensitive, like a pianist touching the keys of a piano because he knew the horses responded to the slightest movement of those reins and depended on him for guidance at every moment. The jehu often wore thin gloves so he could more carefully guide the reins. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to frostbite--it was not an easy job!

Stagecoach Companies: Ben Holladay and the Overland Express

According to David Niven's The Expressmen, one of the most famous stagecoach owners and operators was Ben Holladay. Holladay's personal stagecoach had the appearance of a royal carriage with its gold scrollwork and prancing, dapple-gray horses, but Holladay could afford the extravagance. He owned the Overland Mail Express Company, which he bought from the Pony Express in 1862. He had a contract with the United States Post Office that paid $365,000 a year. 


The Overland transported humans, packages and mail over a 3000 mile area. Its stagecoach drivers wore velvet-trimmed uniforms and Irish wool overcoats, and Holladay paid them well. Holladay employed more than 15,000 people in the Overland Company with 110 Concord Stagecoaches. Holladay sold his stagecoach company to Wells Fargo in 1866 to invest in the railroads.

The Dangers of Stagecoach Travel

According to Wells Fargo History, during the gold rush years in the Rocky Mountains the Wells Fargo line had such a difficult time protecting its passengers and cargo that it created a standard form letter for reporting robberies. Wells Fargo nailed safes to the floorboards of the coaches, hired armed guards to protect shipments and taught silver shippers how to melt their precious metals into bars too large to be carried by men on the run, and still their stagecoaches were robbed. 


Wells Fargo finally created its own detective agency, but the salaries of these officers were so high they matched the amount previously lost in robberies. Nevertheless, the company felt some satisfaction in knowing justice was served when famous robbers such as John Sontag and Black Bart were apprehended or killed.

The End of the Reign of the Stagecoach

Ben Holladay made a wise financial decision when he sold the Overland Mail Express Company as railroads soon became the primary method of transporting both humans and cargo, but trains were still confined to their tracks. It was the introduction of the automobile that finally brought an end to the use of stagecoaches in the early 1900s.

Sources:

  • Nevin, David. The Old West: The Expressmen. Time Life Books, 1974. 
  • "Overland via Stagecoach." Wells Fargo History. Retrieved February 10, 2009. 
  • "The Concord Coach." Abbot-Downing Concord Coach. Retrieved February 10, 2009. 
  • The Story of the American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. Canada, 1977.




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