Thursday, January 12, 2012

Stagecoach Days in Syracuse

(From: From a Forest to a City. by M.C. Hand [Syracuse] 1889. PP. 35-39).
The old four-horse stage-coach was a strong and crude contrivance and as uncomfortable a mode of travel as could be imagined, with its perfume of tar-grease and reeking horses. Steel springs not having been invented, the coach body was suspended upon heavy leather straps, and a large rack was fastened on the rear and called the "boot," where baggage was stowed away.
The top was decked over and a strong iron railing placed around the outside of the deck to keep packages from falling off. When passengers were plenty and anxious to go, twelve persons were crowded inside, and I have seen nearly as many on the outside at the same time. Five miles an hour, under such circumstances, was astonishing velocity.
A journey from Albany to Buffalo in those (P. 36) days, for ladies and gentlemen who were not strong, was undertaken with much reluctance; for sea-sickness was as common on such journeys as on a voyage across the ocean, as the egg-shaped box suspended on these straps, or belts, had the motion of a rocking chair. A that time, when the country was comparatively new, many swamps were bridged over by logs being laid close together across the road and filled in between with coarse gravel which was soon partly forced out, and the most intolerable road was the result.
As the stage went thumping and jolting, long in and log out, over this road the motion of the stagecoach resembled the action of the walking-beam of a ugh pressure engine, and those occupying the rear seat seat would have to grasp, with both hands, the straps that were provided to hold on with, to prevent from being thrown headlong from their3 seats. Under such conditions passengers who were not strong would soon tire out and be compelled to stop at the taverns and rest until another stage was due, sometimes requiring a week to make the trip from Albany to Buffalo.
In those days there was but little traveling for pleasure, yet it was an improvement over what had been, and travelers were satisfied because they knew of nothing better. Although many hardships were encountered, the journey was not altogether void of attractions, - such as the deep dark forest with towering hemlocks and pines, with here and there a little clearing with a log house and a feeble attempt to cultivate the soil. The scenery was varied and sometimes interesting. The passengers were social, and many a warm and lasting friendship had its origin in the old stage-coach. The drivers were hardy class of men capable of great endurance.. This was a necessity, as they were exposed to many hardships which they bore with great cheerfulness.
In the year 1822 there was a great excitement throughout the length of the Genesee turnpike, in consequence of an opposition line of stages from Uticato the west. There were Vanderbilts in those days, and everything possible was done to make this line a success. Its coaches were superior to any that had been used before; the horses were the best that could be found, and the drivers were selected with great care.
At the time there was a young blacksmith in Utica, who had applied for a position as a driver on the new line. It was soon found he had a great knowledge of horses, and that, with his lively and energetic manner, won for him the privilege of selection his horses and coach from all that were to be placed on the line; and as he had the best outfit, he was elected to drive out of Utica the first stage on the new opposition line, which was a great event in this days and was witnessed by a crowd of interested spectators.
These pages may be of value to some young men who have life before them and no definite aim yet decided upon, to watch he carer of this young coachman and emulate his example; for none could commence life nearer to zero than he. All the regular instruction he ever had in school was gained in one winter term in a district school, and after spending five years to learn the blacksmith's trade he started out in the world to seek his fortune with a capital of only eight cents.
Thus the old stage-coach whirls along, up hill and down, through dark forests miles in extent, passing over tedious corduroy roads, then where cultivated fields line the roadside, with here and there humble dwellings, the homes of people who were living in quiet simplicity, never dreaming of the comforts and improvements of the present day.
I always felt the greatest sympathy for this hardy class of people who endured great toil and hardships in clearing the forests away and preparing the soil for cultivated fields of waving grain. They seem to have been martyrs who wore their lives away in hard labor, that the next generation might enjoy the results.
This young stage-driver the we have been describing, encountered nowhere between Syracuse and Utica a worse piece of road, or a more dismal prospect, than that between the hills on the eastern boundaries of the town and the Syracuse House. Every foot of the road-bed was ma de by laying logs close together through the swamp. Pools of water lined the sides of the road where Fayette Park is located, and had a team of horses stepped off this road-bed of logs they would have mired in the swamp and probably never regained the road.
The approach from the east to the Syracuse House at that time was most unfavorable for a display of the stage-driver's skill. When within a mile of their stage-house where horses were changed, it was customary for the drivers to blow a horn to announce their arrival, and constant practice with this simple, straight tin horn enabled some drivers to produce as much music out of it as from a key-bugle.
At the first blast of the horn the weary, tired horses knew that their journey was ended, and taught by their drivers to make a display as they approached their stopping place, would quicken their steps until within a few rods of the house when they would spring into a gallop and, guided to the oppose side of the street, would cut a circle with the utmost precision as they whirled up to the door of the Syracuse House.

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