Sunday, October 9, 2011

Evolution of the Stagecoach

Predecessor of the early 19th century stagecoach was the so-called "stage waggon" in common use during the latter part of the 18th century. 

                                           By Richard F. Palmer
   The first so-called stage-coaches in Upstate New York were primarily a contrivance of some local carriage or wagon-maker.  As soon as wagon roads were broken through the forests, the primitive "stage-waggon," as it was called, made its appearance.
One such vehicle was owned by Samuel Stanton of Mount Pleasant, Pa. His stage, operating between Newburgh and Owego, was a three-horse lumber wagon, with hickory poles bent over to form a toy, covered with canvas. By this vehicle the mails from the east were carried once a week,  reaching Owego every Saturday afternoon. (1)
    Mentioned earlier were the two stagecoaches obtained by -Levi Stevens of Geneva, which were built on a plantation in Virginia.  Elijah Miller of Auburn, when a young man, migrated from Rensselaer County, New York, He said, reminiscing in 1835,  came to Utica in a stage, which was said to have been made by Judge William Cooper, who was the original settler of  Cooperstown, and was then a member of Congress — made while he worked as a wheelwright in New Jersey. I think the stage could not have run oftener than once a week up and back from Schenectady to Utica."
   Miller also mentioned the bridge over the Mohawk River at Utica had been washed away a short time before, "and we came across in a scow." (2)  It is believed that this was probably one of Jason Parker's stages. Miller made his trip westward in June, 1795. Parker had established his line in 1794. (3)
   The "stage-waggon" or "coachee" was the predecessor of the more common stagecoach of later years. These vehicles, in use throughout the country, were all of the same general design. Exactly when these crude coaches appeared is uncertain.
  As early as 1767 a "stage-chaise" was operating between Salem and Boston, Massachusetts while "stage-coaches" and "stage-waggons" were on other shorter routes out of Boston. In 1772 a "stage-chariot" was on the road "between Boston and Marblehead, Mass.(4) 
  The stagecoach business after the Revolutionary War expanded over into New York State where the familiar "stage-waggon" woodcuts adorn advertisements as early as 1795. (5)   Generally, the descriptions given of this vehicle"by various travelers are identical. The body was rather long in proportion to its breadth and
contained four seats, each holding three passengers who all sat with their facing the horses. From the height of the seats it was open all around.  The roof was supported by slender shafts rising up at the corners and sides. In wet weather a leather apron was let down at the sides and back, and fastened to buttons. The curtain
in the front separated the driver from the passengers. (6)
   The wagon had no door and the passengers got in through the front, stepping over the seats as they went to the end of the wagon. The driver sat on the front seat with a passenger on either side. The heavier luggage and trunks were fastened behind upon a frame, while smaller articles and the nail bag were stuffed under
the seats, to the great annoyance of the passengers, who were frequently forced to sit with their knees up to their chins. One traveler remarks that the passengers' feet were insinuated between two trunks, "where they are most lovingly compressed whenever the vehicle makes a lurch into a rut." (7)
    The body of the wagon was suspended on two leather straps as were the early stagecoaches, passing lengthways under it and secured upon strongly propped horizontal bars in front and behind.  There
were no backs on the benches to comfort passengers during a rough and fatiguing journey over a newly and poorly constructed road.  The first three in had the advantage of resting their  shaken frames on the back of the wagon.(8)
   Women were usually given these seats and it is said it was amusing to watch them craw over the seats; and if they happened to be late, they had to straddle over the men who sat in the front. (9)  This vehicle was in use on the road west of Albany as late as l8l8. (10). One visitor noted two classes of "stage-waggons" in use: 
"The light waggons are on the same construction, and are calculated to accommodate from four to twelve people. The only difference between a small waggon and a coachee is, that the latter is better finished, has varnished panels, and doors at the side.  The former has no doors, bat the passengers scramble in the best way they can, over the seat of the driver. The waggons are used universally for stage carriages. (11).
  Stories were frequently told of the driver requesting passengers to lean out of the carriage, first to one side then the other, to prevent the stage from overturning in deep ruts. Contradicting the frequency of stories of accidents, another visitor to America noted in 1807, said; "Though the roads are in general very bad, yet the clumsy waggon is proportionably strong to encounter the shocks; and accidents but rarely happen." (12)
 Gradually this "stage waggon"  was replaced by a new type of coach which had but three seats and a door at the side. The driver's seat was outside and entirely separate from the interior. The front seat faced backward. On the New York to Albany route there was a locked box under this seat for the through mail. Only the postmasters at each end had keys to open mail sacks. This type of coach was encouraged by the Post
Office Department and had been designed especially for the department by Lev! Pease, proprietor of a stage line between New York and Boston.
   The newer coaches in use on the Hudson Valley route were  said to have been built either in Wiimington, Delaware, or Newark, New Jersey. But It was only natural that Albany and Troy became centers of stagecoach manufacture where staging activities were so extensive. (14) In Albany it was the factory of the  Goolds, established by James Goold in 1813  This firm built the stagecoach bodies which, when placed on iron wheels, were used as the coaches on the first train of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in 1831. (15)
   The manufacture of carriages and coaches was one of Troy's early Industries. By 1815, Veazie & Barnard were building these vehicles in a two story wooden factory. Thomas Williams was engaged in the same business there in Troy in 1818.   Charles Veazie remained in the business until 1836. Orasmus Eaton began making coaches and carriages in 1820. In 1836 he and Uri Gilbert formed the partnership of Eaton & Gilbert,
manufacturers of carriages and stagecoaches. This business continued until their factory was destroyed by fire in 1852. (16)
    The Troy Sentinel in a review of the business in its issue of May 8, 1827, remarked on the progress made over the years in carriage and stagecoach construction:
   The improvement in the mode of conveyance in this country is not confined to steamboats and the water, as those may well testify who recollect the differences between our light, elegant and convenient stage-coaches, with their spring seats and easy motion, and the lumbering vehicles which were in use for the purpose some twelve or fifteen years ago. We are happy to know that the public are indebted to the ingenuity and enterprise of citizens of Troy for some of these additional conveniences. 
   The valuable improvement of fixing a seat over the baggage and a railing around the top of the carriage was introduced, we believe, by Mr. Charles Veazie of this city; and one of the elegant stage-coaches lately turned out from the shop of 0. Eaton, we notice a still further improvement of a similar kind. An extra seat is placed, on the top of the coach, just behind the seat of the driver. It is thus fixed in a more pleasant and agreeable
situation, and gives, at the same time, a better balance to the load.
   In 1830, about 50 post-coaches and 100 other carriages were produced at the works of Charles Veazie and
Orasmus Eaton, with a total value of $50,000. (17)  "Eaton and Veazie have rendered Trojan carriages almost as noted as the wooden horse of old Troy," comments the Troy Budget. "Their coaches are sent to all parts of the Union and are everywhere noted for their superior beauty and utility." (18)
   Troy coaches were then in use on the National Road, on the stage lines in the southern states and into the expanding West. Everywhere they were recognized as the best. The 1840s were zenith years for Eaton & Gilbert. In 1850 not less than 5,000 of their coaches were in use throughout North America. (19)
   After the erection of their new factory after the fire, Eaton & Gilbert gave up tike stagecoach line and focused their attention to constructing railroad  and street cars. (20)  Abbott & Downing of Concord, New Hampshlre carried on the stagecoach business, meeting the demand with their famous Concord coach of a later generation.
   Horatio Gates Spafford, author of numerous tour guides and New York State Gazetteers, offers some Interesting observations on the construction of stagecoaches.   He said the wobbling motion which on rough and stony roads constantly threw the wheels to the right and left, was caused by the height of the load, raised
above the center of the wheels. He said the higher the load was raised, the greater and more violent Is the motion and the greater the friction and loss of propelling power,  "Stages for passengers, and pleasure-carriages, which have their loads thus raised, sustain a very great loss in this way, besides the increased inconvenience, and danger of upsetting. It, therefore, these premises be correct, there will be great advantage
in these respects also, by suspending the load In the way I propose, below, rather than above the centre of the wheels."
   In his 1815 monograph, Spafford also noted: 
    The very great increase of travelling by Stages In the United States, within a few years past, has given an increased importance to the enquiry, whether or not the construction and form of these vehicles be susceptible of improvement? I think they may be very essentially improved; and certainly, without resorting to any new invention, they may at least be made much easier draught, and far more secure from the danger of upsetting.  Nor ought it to be unworthy of consideration, that the labor nay be made far less cruelty severe upon the thousands of poor animals that are every year worn out in drawing them.
    The stagecoaches operating on the system between Albany and Buffalo weighed about 2,400 pounds each. Of this vehicle, and English traveler noted:
   The American Mail Stage in which we journeyed over so many as well as civilized regions, deserves a place at our hands. The springs, it will be observed, are of hide, like those of the French Diligence — and every thing about it is made of the strongest materials. There is only one door, by which the nine passengers enter the vehicle, three for each seat, the centre sufferers placing themselves on a movable bench, with a broad leather band to support their backs. Instead of panels, these Stages are fitted with leather curtains. The baggage is piled behind, or is thrust into the boot in front. They carry no outside passengers - and indeed it would try the nerves as well as the dexterity of the most harlequin that ever preserved his balance, not to be speedily pitched to the ground from the top of an American coach, on almost any road that I had the good fortune to travel over in that country. (22)

(22) Hall, Basil, Forty Etchings From Sketches Made with a Camera Lucida  In North America, in 1827 & 1828 London, 1830, Plate No. XL
               THE OLD STAGE-COACH

The rude rugged bridges all growled at the stage,
The rough rolling ridges all gave it a lift,
You read of the route like the line of a page,
When dropped out of day into twilight and rift
Through the sloughs of October it heavily rolled
And lurched like a ship that is mounting a sea,
O'er settling macadams on torrents untold.
Now in silence and sand midway up to the knee
It visioned the night with Its yellow-eyed lamps,
Like creatures that prowl out of gunshot of camps,
When plunging along through the gloom of the swamps
With bolt, jolt and thump and the driver's "Ahoy"!
It struck with a "bounce on the ribbed corduroy,
And from hemlock to hemlock log in and log out,
The coach jumped and jounced in a trip-hammer 'bout,
Through Gothic old chasms that swallowed the night
Out into the clearings all golden with light:
Where flooks of white villages lay in the grass,
And watched for the stage and its cargo to pass
                                        -- Unknown

1. P. 428, Kingman, LeRoy W. Early Owego (1907)
2. Miller, Elijah, The Early History of Cayuga County, unpublished manuscript
3. Albany Gazette, Oct. 16,1794, advertisement.
4.     P. 261, Earle, Alice Morse, Stagecoach and Tavern Days The MacMillan Co., N.Y. (1900) 
5.     P. 19, Woodworth, John, Reminiscences of Troy, I860.
6.     PP. 5-6, Duncan, John M., Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819 London, 1823, Letter XII dated October, 1818; PP. 59-60, Twining, Thomas, Travels in America 100 Years Ago (1890) (speaking of 1795);  Weld, Isaac,  Vol. 1 PP. 26-27,  Travels Through the States of North America and Provinces  of Upper and Lower Canada in 1795, 6 & 7. (London, 1799).
7.    Duncan, op.oit. P.6
8.    Twining, op. cit. P. 59
9.    P. 178,  Janson, Charles W., The Stranger in America, 1793-1806. (London, 1807)                .
10. Duncan, op.cit, P.5
11. Weld, op.cit., P.26.
12. Janson, op.clt.,  179.
13. Holmes, Oliver W., The Stage-Coach Business in the Hudson Valley.  Journal of New York State Historical Association, Vol. XII (1931). Holmes said in 1800 and 1801 the stage wagon was being replaced by the new type of stagecoach between Albany and New York.
14.   Holmes op.cit. P.236
15.   Ibid. P.252
16.  Ibid. P.252; Weise, James Arthur, Troy's One Hundred Years, 1789-1889 Troy, 1891, P. 168.
17.  Weise op. cit. P. 169.
18.  Quoted from the Troy Budget in the American Traveller,  Aug.12, 1831
19.  Holmes, op.cit. P. 253.
20.  Holmes, op.cit. P. 253.
21.  Spafford, Horatio Gates, Some Cursory Observations on the Construction of Wheel-Carriages Albany, 1815.


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