Friday, November 18, 2011

The Good Old Stagecoach Days

    (From: Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly January - June 1886)

"A cloud of dust shut out the view of the gaping crowd." 

                      By H.W. DeLong
  A century of assiduous labor was necessary to bring stage-coaching in the United States up to any degree of perfection, while but a quarter of that time was required to destroy the glory of that sort of locomotion for ever.
  One need not delve among musty tomes and dusty manuscript for the record of the good old coaching days. Yonder gray bearded gentleman hurrying to catch the special limited express could tell you all about it had he time. His wedding trip was made in a "thorough trace" coach drawn by four stout bays, and I venture to assert that the glamour of that journey still lingers about him, and is in no danger of being dissipated by the superior speed, comfort and elegance of the Pullman car in which he is about to enter. Yes, fifty years ago the railroad was an experiment and the stagecoach an established fact; and it is of those good old days I propose to write in the course of this article.
   In these days of hurry and bustle, where time is money, and the annihilation of space by sea and land seems to have reached its utmost bounds, when man lives at a rate of speed in keeping with the times, and crowds a whole life into a single year, it is restful and profitable to give to retrospection full sweep, and retrace the years to those times when things moved slower, and man had not become an automaton, borne down the noiseless tide of money getting, but was content to glide easily through life to a good old age, unhampered by the rush and worry of this latter so-called progressive era.

   At the opening of the present century, when the populous portion of the union comprised but a comparatively narrow strip of country along the Atlantic seaboard, the necessities of the people demanded and obtained a very good system of stagecoach communication between the cities and towns. Every morning, from the different booking offices and taverns in the larger places, long lines of great, yellow, thorough trace coaches, drawn by splendid horses, would rattle away to the music of key bugles and snapping whips, bound for different points near and far away. The inside and outside seats would be full of passengers, and the spacious leathern boots packed with trunks and boxes.
   Comfortable vehicles were these old stagecoaches of our fathers, strong and massive, rocking in their great leathern springs as easily, almost, as a palace car, unless the roads were very bad, when the tendency of the passenger's head would be to seek the roof, in spite of convulsive clutchings at the handstraps. The seats were covered with leather, and the inside of the coach was upholstered with the same slippery material as high as one's shoulder. Thirteen people, nine inside and four outside, was a good solid load, although twenty and even twenty-five passengers were often accommodated. There was always room for one more on the old stagecoach.
   It was a very pretty sight on a pleasant Autumn morning a half-century ago, to see a coach of some popular line, well loaded with passengers, speeding through the country bound for some distant city, its four powerful horses guided by the subtle hand of an experienced "Jehu," whose lofty seat and exquisite finger on the reins were the admiration and envy of all the hangers-on at the numerous taverns along the route. Ten miles the hour was schedule time on many a line, and to arrive and depart "o. t." was the pride of every driver's heart.
   To the little hamlet fortunate enough to be on a stage route, the arrival of the coach was the event of the day. Picture a score of houses scattered irregularly along a grassy street! Two of them, from their wooden awnings. signs, and rows of glass candy-jars in the windows, are seen to be stores, while another, with an array of skeleton-wheels and wagon-tires leaning beside its gaping doors, as well as a sprinkling of old harrows and other agricultural debris scattered before it, mark it as the village smithy.   
   A modest church-spire further down the street points quietly heavenward, and the soft grind of an overshot water-wheel, mellowed by distance, comes up from the stream below the road. But the crowning glory of this rural scene is the village tavern, a long, two-story wooden building, with a veranda or stoop extending its whole length, supported by a row of round, wooden pillars. The whole structure is painted white, and the green blinds at the upper windows are in vivid contrast to the prevailing color. 
   A huge swinging sign, suspended from a sort of gibbet, proclaims to the traveling public that this is "The American Hotel," with accommodations for man or beast. A venerable willow-tree shades not only the building, but a large share of the open plot in front, while a capacious watering-trough at its foot, fed from a never-failing penstock, offers refreshment to thirsty beasts and delight to a colony of ducks dabbling and quacking in the copious overflow.
   It is high noon of a bright October day. The rays of the sun pour down with almost the brilliancy and fervor of midsummer. A gentle breeze modifies the air and whispers amongst the gorgeous foliage of the trees, rustling the dry blades in the corn-shocks and bearing on its mild breath those subtle Autumn odors, nowhere so sweet as in rural America. All is quiet in the straggling street. The golden rod and daisies dotting the dusty grass side nod to one another, and a patient cow, chewing her cud in the shadow of an overhanging plum-tree, gives an extra touch of still life to the picture. A faint clatter of queen's ware from the kitchen of the inn says plainly that, in spite of a sleeping lounger tilted back in an armchair on the stoop who is the only ocular evidence of humanity in sight, that there is still an element of wakefulness existing in this second "Sleepy Hollow."
   Suddenly the mellow note of a horn far up the hill, breaks the peaceful silence. What a sudden transformation! Like the prince's kiss on the lips of the "Sleeping Beauty," that bugle-call has wakened everything into activity. The slumbering lounger springs to his feet and becomes metamorphosed into the active hostler of the inn. A dozen men and boys come stringing out of the stores. Women appear at the doors, and heads in all degrees of frowziness are craned from the open windows. Dogs bark, ducks quack, and the cow in the shade lifts up her voice to the general clamor. Again that mellow note, nearer and clearer, fills the air. The rumble of wheels is heard, and the day coach between Boston and an interior city dashes down the hill, and, describing a critical curve, draws up with many a flourish and rattle of drawbars beside the hotel stoop, missing it by that fraction of an inch so dear to the old-time driver.

        "There was always room for one more."       

   "Twenty minutes for dinner," shouts that functionary, as he descends from his perch and magnanimously hands over his steaming team to the hostler, and elbows his way through the crowd to the barroom. A thundering gong now announces dinner, and the hungry passengers, after hurried ablutions from a tin hand-basin hanging beside the watering-trough, rush to the dining-room. In the meantime the horses are unhooked, and the fresh relay brought out and harnessed. Promptly to the minute the driver appears, consults his watch, shouts a peremptory "all aboard " in the direction of the dining room door, mounts his box and, as the passengers hurriedly take their places, picks up the lines, uncoils his long whip, and with a " Let 'em go I" to the men at the horses' heads, rolls away at a quick trot, and a cloud of dust shuts out the view from the gaping crowd, who immediately disappear from sight and the village settles down to that state of quiet restfulness again that prevailed before that magic bugle-note roused it from its midday slumber. 
   As the great West began to develop and towns sprung up as if by magic, dotting the boundless prairies that but a short time before were the home of the buffalo and the red man, lines of communication between the East and West became imperative. The settlers were almost wholly composed of Eastern people, whose interests, business and social, were so intimately connected with the Atlantic States that to be cut off from direct contact with the old home was a condition not to be thought of. 
   Men were found equal to the emergency, and a net-work of stage routes soon permeated to the furthest border settlements, and, like the famous devil-fish, a new tentacle was always ready to reach out at a moment's notice and connect some mushroom settlement with the whole system. It was on these primitive lines that the miseries of stagecoaching developed themselves to the last degree of human endurance.
   There were no roads except the wagon-trails, and, as the bulk of travel was in the spring, when the prairie was like a huge sponge, the coaches would go crawling along at a snail's pace through mud to the hubs, the horses straining every nerve to drag the heavy vehicle, while the driver, with stinging lash and choice expletives, urged on the jaded beasts to greater efforts. It is difficult to conceive the miseries of the passengers on these pioneer lines; jolted and bounced until every bone in the body ached, fi)rced to alight at times and help pry the wheels from the tenacious mud in which they had become firmly set, eating only at irregular intervals, and then such food as only a cast-iron stomach could digest. I tell you that, fifty years ago, the man who made the stage-trip from the little lake port of Chicago, with its plank pavements laid over a bottomless swamp, to the Mississippi Paver and arrived at his destination with sound bones and stomach, was to be congratulated.
   Fifty years ago the commercial traveler did not play the important part in the business of the country that he does to-day. Now, you find him with his sample case or a'ray of trunks on every passenger-train and in every hotel throughout the length and breadth of the land. The merchant sits in his store or steps over to the sample-room of the hotel, and, while discussing a capadura cigar from the traveling man's case, looks over all the new things in his line and makes his selections as well or even better than he could at headquarters.
  But in the good old days of which I am writing, this necessary and ubiquitous person was not known. A merchant, to be up to the times, must make a semi-annual, or at least an annual, trip to New York or some of the other great Eastern marts to replenish his stock.

Stagecoaches ran night and day, regardless of the weather. It was the fastest mode of public transportation before the railroads.

 Today, if a merchant in Rochester, New York, for example, wishes to visit the metropolis, he takes a sleeping-car in the evening and has plenty of time next morning for a bath before taking breakfast at his favorite hotel. How differently his father made this pilgrimage, way back in "thirty-five"! The 5 a.m. stage rattled up to his door, and, as the merchant's belongings were stowed away,
"Good-byes !" and kisses were as feelingly given by the wife and children as if the contemplated trip were an experiment fraught with many dangers. Five long days and nights of incessant travel by stage and boat were necessary before the spires of "Gotham" would gladden the eyes of the traveler, and the many vicissitudes en route were such as to make timid and cautious people hesitate before trusting themselves for long distances in a stagecoach.
But there were many delights about these old stagecoach days that are utterly lost to the traveling public of this rushing age of steam. What could be finer, to the lover of nature, than a deck-seat on a rambling four-in-hand, spinning through some charming section with the whole delightful panorama of hill and dale, tilled fields and bosky woodland, stretching out before him? his gaze taking in the whole picture, even to the horizon frame.
   No dirty, contracted car-window cutting off here a bit and there a corner of the daintiest vistas. No clouds of pitchy smoke blotting out the whole view at times, but everything open and free, and the speed just right to study all tho details of the landscape. And then this sort of traveling seemed to bring its votaries so much nearer to one another than modem railway travel. There seemed to be a bond of sympathy existing between all whom fortune chanced to huddle together in an oldtime stagecoach. 
   The first thing, after getting well started on the road, was to get acquainted all around, and many a friendship, many a courtship, besides other pleasant social combinations, sprang into being on the route. Today, the millionaire traveler takes his section in the palace car, and, away from the common herd, is as secluded and free from annoyance as though sitting in his own library at home. But he who traveled in the cosmopolitan old stagecoach of a half-century ago could not pick his company ; poverty and wealth occupied the same seat. 
   The honorable senator or M.C. bound for legislative halls was unceremoniously sandwiched in between the pauper and the pickpocket, while the clerical dignitary oft-times had for his vis-d-vis the horse-jockey or gambler. And history does not say that harm often came to the traveler through the indiscriminate contact with all sorts of people. Our pockets were full as—save from the deft fingers of the cutpurse—as they are to-day on an ordinary railway car, and safer, I will venture to say; for the field of operation being small, robbery without detection was almost impossible. The money men and sharpers who work our railway trains, accounts of those exploits in fleecing the unwary are found in nearly every daily paper, were then unknown, and the persistent train-boy, with his indomitable perseverance and unlimited audacity had not yet blossomed into being.
  To travel, was not looked upon as a luxury—although there were conditions under which coaching was the very acme of delight to the traveler—and people took the stagecoach because there was nothing else to take.
 What an opportunity to study human nature those old coaching days offered to the reflective traveler! It took but a few hours for the good or evil in a man to find the surface and crop out, and so it would come to pass that each man would know his neighbor—not superficially, but through and through—long before the journey was over. The fat passenger and the lean passenger, the jolly and the morose, the loquacious and the taciturn, each had a place in every load, and the reigning peculiarities of individuals made themselves felt all through the trip, and to travel all day in an old-time stagecoach was to learn more of men and things than a week's trip could reveal on a modern passenger train.

Stagecoaches shared the busy roads with freight wagons and drovers of cattle, sheep, horses, turkeys and even geese. Those were busy times on the pioneer roads. Frequently taverns were located within sight of each other.

   The driver of the old stagecoach was indeed the autocrat of the road. He held a high position and a high prerogative, and ho knew it, and exercised his powers to their full extent. He was engineer, fireman, brakeman and conductor, welded into one symmetrical whole, and happy was the traveler who, through some delicate attention, like the tendering of a well-filled cigar-case or potent flask, secured the goodwill of this mighty factor on the box; while correspondingly miserable was the condition of he who brought upon himself the Jehu's enmity. 
"Always make friends with the driver," was a saying understood by the traveling public, and the attentions showered upon this functionary at the opening of a trip would have spoiled a less modest man. To secure a seat beside the driver was the pride of young America, and while listening to his conversation be able to look down from his noble elevation on the box to the less favored "insides" below, and return condescendingly the glances of admiration of the boys along the road. 
   The box seat was also very desirable to boys of a larger growth, particularly those to whom the country was new, and who desired to become familiar with the route. The average driver was a perfect cyclopedia of information. Every house and farm and village and church along the line held some incident or story with which he was conversant, and these he would reel off with sundry additions and embellishments, to the delight and amusement of his auditor.
   More than one story-writer and novelist has found food for fiction, seated beside some old-time driver, listening to and drinking in his wonderful tales. Tho veneration in which the skillful stage-driver was held by the hangers-on at the wayside inns was something wonderful to behold. Every trip was a sort of ovation, in a mild way, and at these stableyard receptions the knight of the currycomb or broom who was favored with a nod or grunt of recognition was happy, while he who could press the hand that held the reins so skillfully had food for comforting reflection all day. The boys in the little schoolhouses along the route each had their favorite driver, and if by chance he should accost some admirer as he swept by in a cloud of dust with a "Mornin' Billy," or " Hullo Dan," the said Billy or Dan would be the hero of the hour.
   In these days of competition, when parallel railway lines have reduced tho cost of traveling to a minimum, it scarcely seems possible that a half-century ago there would have been any strife for traffic ; but there was, and an examination of old newspaper files contemporaneous with coaching reveals the fact that a fierce rivalry existed between different stage lines.

A typical advertisement in the Geneva Gazette of April 10, 1830.

   Great inducements were offered in the way of "quick time," "easy coaches," "skilled drivers" and "low fares," to secure traffic. Even the religious sentiments of the public were appealed to, and the "Pioneer " line of coaches, started in the thirties, when the Sabbath agitation was at its height, was brought out in defense of the Christian element, and made a great point of carrying neither Sunday passengers nor mails.
  This great moral line was advertised from the pulpits, and a certain Monroe County, N. Y. divine was credited with saying: "The Pioneer line of stages must, shall and will succeed. I will sacrifice every cent of my property to support it. If necessary, I will take the bread from my children's mouths for its support. It is on God's side, and must prosper. Rather than see this pions undertaking crushed, rather than see the hopes of God's people cloven down, I will write reverend on the front of my hat, mount the Pioneer stage box, take the reins and drive the coach myself."

E.L. Henry's famous depiction of the first train on the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad between Albany and Schenectady in 1831. This was the beginning of the end of the stagecoach era.

  When the railway came, and a practical test convinced capitalists of its utility, then began the decadence of the old stagecoach. It did not die out at once ; but as the great railway systems began to ramify and reach out to the larger cities, taking in all the important towns en route, the first blow was struck at the old, time-honored stagecoach. It lost prestige at once ; from being the chain itself it dropped back to the position of a weak and hesitating link, and had to be content to act as a simple feeder for its swifter and more popular supplanter.
   The once unapproachable driver became simply a driver, and nothing more. From the giddy elevation of a through line box, he was forced to descend to the level of the man who steered the fish-wagon or drove the hotel 'bus. In time the corporate towns east of the Mississippi without railway facilities were very few indeed, and the sphere of the stagecoach became very contracted. A few two-horse vehicles, by courtesy stages, might still have been seen plodding out of the cities and larger towns, bound for such outlying hamlets as the railway had skipped ; but scarcely a decade after the completion of the first trunk line, the stagecoach became practically a thing of the past.
  Coaching west of the Mississippi River, however, furnished the only means of public conveyance for many years after it had become entirely extinct in the East, and the completion of the transcontinental railway gave it a new impulse, opening up numerous lines, connecting the mountain towns with that great transcontinental highway.
   Stagecoaching can still be seen to perfection in the far West; but even there the inexorable iron horse is crowding it out. No engineering problems are too abstruse for the modern railway-builder, and soon Hank Monk and others of his like will find their occupation gone, and the road-agent will look in vain from his cover in the chaparral for the Concord coach with its load of bullion.
   In the East, coaching is now indulged in as a luxury, to a limited degree. For a consideration one can take a deck seat on a real old-time coach, in several of our large cities, and spin out a half-score of miles or so, get a good dinner, and back again, getting a very good idea of what coaching was a half-century ago. Wealthy gentlemen have formed clubs, and it is a very pretty sight to see one of these organizations start out of a pleasant morning, with horns tooting and bits jingling; the bright vermillion and orange of the coaches, enhanced by the delicate costumes of the fair ones, sparkling out amidst the more sober garbs of the gentlemen. Yes, coaching is having quite a revival among those who can afford it, and to-day he who would aspire to own a first class array of turnouts must be sure to have a big yellow "Concord" amongst the lot.
   But the old coaching days have gone, never to be revived. The inexorable finger of progress has crowded them out, and to-day only the pleasant memories remain. The discomforts, the breakdowns, the long, tedious trips, the thundering down the narrow causeways with locked wheels, when the variation of an ell meant certain destruction, all these are forgotten and hidden underneath that kindly cloud which time so mercifully diffuses over the past, blotting out the evil, revealing only the good. And to those who lived in the years long gone by, and have been spared to mark the wonderful progress of# this progressive age, I venture to assert, no sweeter memory comes, as they review the past, than the thoughts of the good " old stagecoach days."

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