Saturday, October 22, 2011

Stagecoach Travel Years Ago

(From: Proceedings of the Albany Institute, Fourth Field Meeting at Cherry Valley, Oct. 18, 1870, pp. 191-193)

  Mr. Joel Munsell favored the audience with the following interesting account of the stage-coach business, as practiced years ago in this state:
    In the short time that remains for the scientific gentlemen to entertain us with the discoveries they have made, and after what has been so well said already of this interesting locality, I will merely allude to Cherry Valley and its former relations to Albany. In the latter part of the last century it was a far distant town. It was reached only by private conveyances, and with much difficulty on account of the badness of the roads and want of traveling facilities.
    In 1792, a sort of stage was established to run from Albany to Whitestown, near Utica, which performed the route once a fortnight. Some enterprising persons residing in the Genesee country, which was the great west of that day, established another to meet the one at Whitestown. The next year a stage undertook to carry passengers from Albany to Canajoharie, through Cherry Valley to Cooperstown. The success of these enterprises emboldened others, and it is found that oue John Hudson, inn-keeper at Schenectady, absolutely undertook to run a stage three times a week between Albany and Schenectady.
   A still bolder scheme was undertaken, to run a line of stages between Albany and the Connecticut river valley at Northampton. Before this, the mountain was only crossed on foot or on horseback — the paper for the Albany newspapers being all brought over by the latter mode of conveyance. It was announced in 1794, that a line of communication, by stage, had been opened from Portland, in Maine, to Whitestown, in the western part of the state of New York. When we consider that Whitestown is in the vicinity of Utica, we can better conceive what travel by stage was hereabout in its infancy, and where it was supposed the sun went down.
   In 1799, the roads had been so far improved that a stage went from near Utica to arrive at Geneva the third day, with four passengers. Cayuga Bridge, one and a quarter miles in length, the longest in America, was commenced this year, by the Manhattan Company of New York. The Cherry Valley turnpike was incorporated the same year, beginning at the house of John Weaver in Watervliet. Turnpikes now came into vogue, in which capitalists eagerly invested. They were a great improvement over the roads in previous use, but never afforded profitable returns.
   The old stages were a great phenomenon as they reached one point after another, until they connected with Buffalo. No doubt many will recollect with what interest the villagers gathered at the taverns on the great lines to witness the arrival of the stage at the principal halting places, and with what a magnificent flourish the driver came into town, cracking his whip and lashing his steeds to their utmost speed, and fetching up at the hotel with a turn that struck the spectators with awe and amazement!
   By continued gradations Albany became the centre of a large amount of stage travel, which increased from year to year until it engrossed a larger amount of capital than any other enterprise. Stage routes diverged
to every point of the compass, and its streets were thronged with vehicles arriving and departing, sometimes in long processions, at every hour of the day and night. The firms of Thorp & Sprague and of Baker & Walbridge, owned an incredible number of stage coaches, which were subsequently laid up on the completion of the rail roads, and many hundreds of worn out horses went to their rest. The glory of that business has departed; its tired horses and tired men have been superseded by the iron horse that never tires.
   In 1848, barely a score of years ago, the stages that ran out of Albany were all gone, but the solitary line which occupied the route over the Cherry Valley turnpike, terminating at Syracuse, through in twenty-four hours, to accommodate such persons as halted at by-places, or were doubtful of their entire personal safety behind a locomotive. But the iron horse has at length reached Cherry Valley, and now, instead of a tedious ride of a whole day, jolting over bad roads, it is a pleasant trip of four hours, in which the sentimental traveler may ruminate recumbently on the rapidity of riding by rail, the satisfaction of scanning scenery summarily, and the jollity of journeying jauntily without jolting! It brings the savants of Albany to explore its fields and forests, its rocks and streams, and to open an acquaintance with its citizens, who have become by its instrumentality, as it were, next door neighbors."

(From: The Centennial History of the Town of Marcellus by Israel Parsons, M.D. Marcellus, 1878)

(From: The Centennial History of the Town of Marcellus by Israel Parsons, M.D. Marcellus, 1878)

(P. 26)    Before the time of railroads, the running of stages formed quite an important business. These villages along the East and West road, were wonderfully enlivened day by day, by the arrival (P.27) and departure of he stage-coaches drawn by four horses.
    As the states were descending these hills to enter the village, the drivers would make the valley reverberate with the music from their tin horns. They became amateurs in the art, and vied with each other in the use of the horn. Their object in blowing their horn was to notify the drivers at the stables to make ready their horses for a change;  and the landlord that the meals might be in order for the passengers.
    In those days brakes had not been introduced on the stages; consequently they descended these hills with quite a velocity.
    The horses used were of the first quality, athletic, sure-footed and strong. Each stage weighed 2,200 pounds, and carried 11 passengers with their baggage, which was moderate compared with the individual baggage of the present day.
   Two coaches were run regularly each way every day, beside extras, which were frequent to meet the demands of travel.
    The class of young men who turned their attention to stage driving were natural lovers of horses, and as a result of this, became very skillful in the management of their horses, taught them many tricks, and to perform feats.
   Each horse had a name, and when called by that name, obeyed  the mandates of its master. The driver's whip was composed of a stalk from four to five feet long, to which was attached a lash from 10 to 12 feet in length, and on the end of the lash a nicely braided silk cracker.  It was a great piece of dexterity to hold the reins of four horses, and so wield the whip as to give a smart crack with it; or, in coming down one of these hills, to lay the whip upon the top of the stage and blow the horn, holding the four reins in one hand, with the horses under full speed.
   These drivers were usually daring men, but very energetic and faithful to the performance of their duties. To their good judgment, skill and energy, multitudes have owed the safety of life and limb. 
   (P. 28) Hiram Reed of this village relates an instance which well displays the combination of these qualities in one driver. When a lad, at school in Skaneateles, he and a fellow school-mate wishing to go to Auburn by stage, secured seats outside with the driver. As they were descending the steepest hill between the two places (New Seneca Turnpike), one of the pole straps broke; (two straps heading from the front end of the pole to the collars of the wheel horses, and with which they hold back the stage) the driver ready for the emergency said to Reed and his mate, "hold on boys" and at once laid the whip on to his horses, so that they went with "full speed" down the remainder of the hill in perfect safety - passengers, coach and horses unharmed! Mr. Reed says that he never after sought a ride on the outside of a stage. The driver secured the safety of the stage through the leaders making a constant draft on the pole to which hey were directly attached. But amidst all the confusion he did not forget the boys.
   Of the large number of stage drivers who used to ride over these hills, and contend with darkness, storm and tempest; but one is left among us, and that is Adolphus Newton. Much of my information on this subject was derived from him. He commenced the arduous duties of stage driving in 1819, when but 16 years of age, and continued 11 years. Nothing delights him more at his present age, than to sit down before a good listener, and recount the adventures of his youthful years in this department of life. He says that at one period he drove what was called the Telegraph. This was a stage with a limited number of passengers, and that carried the mail. It ran eight miles an hour, when the roads were good.
    They changed horses every 10 miles, but one driver went through from Auburn to Manlius, a distance of 33 miles. He says that on some occasions of carrying important personages, he has made the distance in three hours. Once he had for passengers Gov. Seward and Black-Hawk, and drove 10 miles in 50 minutes. It was a rule to give such men, what was called (P.29) "extra rides." Another load consisted of Gen. Scott, Gov. Marcy and Martin Van Buren.
   There were three periods during Mr. Newton's driving, when opposition lines were placed upon this road; only one of these proved to be a serious annoyance to the Sherwood line. This was what was called the Pioneer. It was well stocked with first-class horses and line coached, but with inexperienced drivers. Fast driving became a natural consequence to competition in staging. This proved the value of experience ind rivers, as well as in all other situations of trust connected with responsibility. For in making quick time, there is called into requisition in the management of horses, which is based only on successful experience, as to when to drive fast, when slow, and when to drive moderately. Also to the care given to the horses at the end of each route, in feeding, watering and exposure.  
    The result was that the old drivers proved themselves heros in the strife. For although in the frequent racing of stages to which they were subject, the Pioneer was fully their equal; yet soon the new line showed impaired horses, the consequence of indiscretion in driving and want of care  at the stables; and this gave rise to such a monstrous relay of horses, that it finally broke down the opposition line.
     As "variety is the spice of life" and competition the life of business; so in this racing of the stages, the inhabitants of this whole region were no idle spectators, but their every day 'hum-drum life" was spiced by the daily news of hair breadth escapes, and the Jehu-feats of the drivers; and, as in these days, so then, quick time increased the amount of travel.
    Stage were entirely removed from this route in December, 1837, when the cars (on the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad) were first run by horse power, and this was changed to steam power in June, 1839.
   The great stage proprietor, whose talents were as celebrated in that day for staging, as Commodore Vanderbilt's have since been for railroading, was Isaac Sherwood. His residence (P. 30) was in Skaneateles, and he is said to have weighed 380 pounds. His successor was his son John Milton, who was almost as ponderous as his father, and as wonderful a stage proprietor.
   The stage fare was five cents a mile, so that in the winter season a trip from this place to New York and back cost $30. But the people traveled principally in their own conveyances. 

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