Monday, October 17, 2011

Early Stagecoaches on the Genesee Road

                       By Richard F. Palmer

   They came from New England in waves to settle this new land in Upstate New York called the "Western" or "Genesee"  Country. The Great Genesee Road running from Whitestown (Utica) to Geneva and beyond was thronged with rich and poor alike, all seeking a more prosperous life than what they had thus far experienced. In 1797 the country was in the midst of being exploited by land speculators. It was undergoing a phenomenal transformation from a wilderness into an inland empire. Many of these settlers had been successful farmers in New England, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and even the Virginia colonies. (1)
  Geneva, Canandaigua and Bath and the surrounding countryside were rapidly being settled. The U.S. Government had established a weekly mail route between Whitestown and Canandaigua and residents of these frontier communities had been receiving mail since 1791. The letters were protected from the weather in  a large morocco-covered mail pouch carried by such post riders as Luther Cole of Canandaigua. (2) At the time, the Genesee Road was little more than an old Indian trail through the thick forests for 100 miles or more. Finally the New York State Legislature appropriated funds through lotteries to improve this road. (3)
 The enthusiasm of the inhabitants for this new road was unparalleled. They volunteered their services to aid the State Commissioner of Roads by volunteering 4,000 days of work "which they performed with fidelity and cheerfulness." Throughout the late spring, and summer of of 1797 they toiled and labored with picks and shovels. In the seemingly miraculous time of 90 days, they transformed the old Indian trail into a 64-foot wide graveled highway nearly 100 miles long. (4)
  The great improvement of this road not only opened the country up for even more settlement but afforded an excellent opportunity not only for freight teamsters and drovers but for stagecoach proprietors as well, to extend their public transportation  facilities westward. Accordingly, innkeepers John House of Utica and Thomas Powell of Geneva jointly announced the establishment of a line of stages into the "western country." Powell, an Englishman, was proprietor of the well-known Geneva Hotel, opened in 1796. (5)
   Stagecoach service between Utica and Geneva was inaugurated on September 30, 1797; the trip consuming three days. It arrived in Geneva in the afternoon of the third day with four passengers aboard. What this early stagecoach looked like is lost to history. However, many of the so-called stagecoaches of this early day were little more than covered wagons.  With the improvement of the Genesee Road came a wave a prosperity and settlement. In the space of four months after its completion, no less than 50 families had settled along its borders. Settlers continued to come in even greater numbers than before. (6)
   Stagecoaches soon provided weekly service between Canandaigua and Albany. Over the following three decades the stagecoach would become an important and very lucrative business, employing an army of drivers, blacksmiths, tavern-keepers, stable boys and many more indirectly.  This so-called monopoly was known as the "Old Line Mail." It would bring to prominence such noted men as John Butterfield, originally of Utica, and his famed Butterfield Overland Mail of a later period - so closely associated with the development of the American West.  (7)
   It was largely through the efforts of Jason Parker of Utica that this grand "Old Line Mail" monopoly came into being. Since 1794 he, in association with others, had operated a stage line between Utica and Albany.  In 1802 he fell heir to the Utica to Canandaigua line.  One of the clever ways to keep competition to an almost non-existent state was to have the New York State Legislature pass laws that gave certain individuals such as Parker an "exclusive right" to operate in a certain region. Today this would be called a franchise. First, they would present a petition which would be laid before the Legislature.  Such a petition from Parker, dated February 3, 1804, states in part:
  That your petitioners conceive it necessary and are desirous that a line of stages to run from the Village of Utica in the County of Oneida to the town of Canandaigua in the County of Ontario shall be established. And hat in the present imperfect state of the turnpike road leading from Utica to Canandaigua no individual can, without manifest loss or injury to himself so long as rival stages are permitted, continue a line of stages on the road aforesaid for more than three months in each year. And that the said aforesaid must of necessity continue in a very imperfect state for several years to come.
   To remedy the evil and keep up regular correspondence between the places aforesaid, as well as for the benefit of Merchants and others trading in the Western district and for the citizens at large your petitioners humble pray that a law may be passed under such regulations and restrictions as the legislature shall think meet and proper, granting to said Jason Parker and Levi Stephens the exclusive right of running state from Utica to Canandaigua for the term of ten years.
 Stephens (also spelled "Stevens" in various places) and Parker were granted their "exclusive right" by a law passed on March 31, 1804. The law is fully cited under the headline on this blog, "State Grants Exclusive Right."
   The interesting story of the origin of Stevens' first two stagecoaches is told in an article that appeared in the Geneva Daily Times on July 17, 1952:
                               Old Family Notes Tell of  Trek 
                               From Virginia to Local Area

    In the spring of 1804, Stevens put his new stage line into operation. The following advertisement appeared in the Western Repository in Canandaigua on May 15, 1804:
                                            MAIL STAGE
   The Public are respectfully informed, that the subscriber will run a Mail Stage from Canandaigua during the present season, once in each week - He has been in great pains and expense to fit his Stages for the accommodation of Passengers.
    Those persons who may wish to adopt this method of travelling to Utica, Albany, &c. may procure seats by applying at Taylor's Hotel, in Canandaigua, or at Powell's Hotel, in Geneva.
    The Stage is only four days in running between the first mentioned places. The terms for each Passenger are five cents per mile.
                                                                                                                                                                LEVI STEVENS
Geneva, May 14.
  The Western Repository of July 24, 1804 carried the news that the same stage now can twice a week, leaving Canandaigua every Sunday and Wednesday afternoon for the duration of the season. During the winter thee appears to have been very little travel. At times roads were impassable. At some point, however, stagecoaches were mounted on sleighs or runners during the winter.
  Although large sums of money were initially spent on creating the Genesee Road, no provisions were apparently made keep it in repair. But this was common all over this part of the country where financial resources  to maintain roads were practically non-existent. To solve this problem turnpike companies were formed. The theory was that a portion of the tolls collected would cover the cost of maintenance as well as give stockholders a return on their investment for providing funds for capital expenditures.  By 1807 the New York State Legislature had enacted laws creating 88 turnpike road and bridge companies. These represented an investment of $5.5 million to establish 3,000 miles of roads and 20 large bridges. There were 900 miles of turnpike roads in operation by that date. The portion of the Genesee Road between Utica and Canandaigua came under the jurisdiction of the Seneca Road Company, or "Seneca Turnpike," which was incorporated on April 1, 1800.  There were also several branches of this system developed. 
   In some instances the owners regarded the turnpikes as simply a means to an end and not a very lucrative investment as maintenance costs were heavy and usually, with few exceptions, precluded much of a return. The returns of the Seneca Road Company rarely exceeded four percent. But the turnpike stockholders, primarily businessmen, benefited indirectly by the growth of commerce they brought. Certainly the old time stagecoach proprietors benefitted by having new and better routes to distant points - and they made money in spite of the 25 cent toll imposed by the turnpike companies for every 10 miles of road. (8)

1. PP 663-664,  O'Callahan, E.B., Documentary History of the State of New York, 1850. 
2. P. 55. McIntosh, W.H. History of Ontario County, New York, 1876.
3. McKeon (-) "Turnpikes"  Manuscript at Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, N.Y.
4. O'Callahan, op.cit. P. 664.
5. Advertisements in Whitestown Gazette, September 19 and December 12, 1797.
6. O'Callahan, op.cit. P. 664.
7. Ibid.
8.  DeWitt, Benjamin. A Sketch of the Turnpike Roads in the State of New York, in Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of the Useful Arts, Vol. 2, Albany, 1807.  


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