STAGECOACH TRAVEL. Stagecoaches were familiar vehicles along the main roads of the East and the South before the coming of railroads in the 1830s and 1840s. Even as the nation's network of iron and steel rails grew larger and more comprehensive, stagecoach connections to small and isolated communities continued to supplement passenger trains well into the second decade of the twentieth century. However, stagecoach travel was most difficult and dangerous across the vast expanse of the American West, where it attracted the most attention. In large measure that was because of the inordinately great distances involved and the Herculean effort required to maintain regular service across the region's dry and sparsely populated landscape.
Stagecoach lines in the East tended to connect preexisting centers of population, and passengers took regular meals at the established inns and taverns along the way. Nothing of the kind existed in the West in 1858, when John Butterfield undertook an overland stage line connecting St. Louis and San Francisco by way of El Paso, Texas. The route also ran through Tucson and Los Angeles, but neither was more than a village of a few hundred residents at that time. A federal contract paid the stage company $600,000 a year to carry U.S. mail across the continent, and that money helped subsidize way stations at regular intervals, where, in the absence of existing settlements along most of the proposed route, the coaches could change draft animals and the passengers could find food. The Butterfield organization spent nearly a year getting everything into place to support semiweekly stagecoach service.
When Butterfield's Overland Mail Line opened for business on 16 September 1858, the 2,795-mile journey between San Francisco and St. Louis required approximately three weeks of hard traveling, and that was during the best weather. The coaches kept moving all through the day and night except for brief intervals at way stations. Stagecoach fare did not include the cost of meals, which at an average price of a dollar each three times a day for three weeks might effectively add 50 percent to the cost of a through ticket. Sleep had to be obtained aboard the rocking coach.
Antedating Butterfield's line, a stage line connected San Diego and San Antonio in 1857 with semimonthly coaches. Even earlier, in 1849, a stage line of sorts connected Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. But these earlier carriers were not as ambitious as the Butterfield line, nor were they run with the attention to detail that a large support structure demanded.
In the spring of 1861, with the threat of Civil War and Texas's secession from the Union, the transcontinental stage line moved north. Following the central Over-land Trail, it stretched through the future states of Wyoming,
Utah, and Nevada. Again the Overland Stage Line had to spend a small fortune to build the support structure required for regular operations across the sparsely populated corridor. The long transcontinental journey remained as rigorous as before.
The transcontinental stage line attained its greatest geographical reach under the leadership of Ben Holladay. In the mid-1860s, lines of the Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company extended west from the Missouri River steamboat landings in Kansas and Nebraska to a hub in Salt Lake City. From there additional lines served outposts as distant as Butte, Montana, and The Dalles, Oregon, where steamboat connections to Portland were available. Incurring heavy losses in 1864 and 1965 during the Native American unrest that sometimes prevented overland stagecoaches from running, Holladay in November 1866 sold his interests to Wells, Fargo and Company. Wells, Fargo operated stagecoaches along the transcontinental route between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, California, where steamboats connected to San Francisco. Holladay subsequently acquired and built railroad lines in Oregon.
Railroads generated a great deal of excitement all across the West. As the tracks of the first transcontinental railroad extended east from Sacramento and west from Omaha in the late 1860s, stagecoaches served a shrinking gap. That gap closed when railroad officials drove a last spike at Promontory, Utah, in May 1869 and trains linked California with the rest of the United States for the first time. The era of stagecoaches along the central Overland Trail was over, but thereafter various smaller stage lines linked transcontinental trains to distant outposts. Until buses became popular around the time of World War I, many a road-weary stagecoach continued to meet passenger trains and provide transportation to remote villages in the West. The term "stage" was commonly used to describe any coach, wagon, or sleigh used as a public conveyance. In the 1860s, the heyday of stagecoach lines, the Concord coach, handcrafted in Concord, New Hampshire, by Abbot, Downing and Company, became the quintessential icon of transportation across the frontier West. The first Concord in California, transported aboard a clipper ship that sailed from New England around Cape Horn, inaugurated service out of San Francisco on 25 June 1850.
The familiar egg-shaped body of the Concord coach was renowned for its great strength and its ability to keep passengers dry while floating them across flood-swollen streams. Because the inevitable twisting of the coach body on the rough terrain could easily shatter glass windows, it had only adjustable leather curtains to keep out the dust, wind, and rain. The heavy body, often weighing a ton or more, rode on thick, six-or eight-ply leather belts called thoroughbraces to insulate it from the constant pounding of the wheels over makeshift roads. Nevertheless the swaying made some passengers seasick. Mark Twain aptly characterized the Concord coach as a "cradle on wheels."
Not all stagecoaches were of the familiar type. Vehicles called "celerity" or "mud" wagons were much lighter and cheaper than Concord coaches and, because they had no springs, offered a much rougher ride. They were primarily used on lines where passenger and express traffic was too light to justify the expense of Concord coaches.
A Concord coach could accommodate as many as nine passengers inside and another six or more on the roof, though no one in a crowded coach rode in comfort. In an age renowned for its propriety and formality, perfect strangers, both men and women, might have to interlock knees in the cramped space of the interior or rest a weary head on another's shoulder. Some passengers passed the long hours of an overland journey by drinking themselves into alcoholic stupors, while others organized or participated in impromptu songfests. One common form of entertainment was to shoot at the wild animals, such as antelope and prairie dogs, visible from coach windows. Some passengers probably whiled away the long hours worrying about Indian attacks, even though attacks and stagecoach holdups were both infrequent. The violence associated with stagecoach travel in the West was for the most part an exaggeration fostered by dime novels, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, and Hollywood westerns.
Each stagecoach passenger was allowed a maximum of twenty-five pounds of baggage, which rode in a large rear pouch called a boot. The U.S. mail typically rode in the front or rear boot, although, as Mark Twin recalled from personal experience in Roughing It (1872), a large load of mail might be shoved among the feet of passengers. Any express shipments, often gold and silver, rode close to the feet of the driver, a skilled horseman who handled the team of four or six draft animals from a seat atop the coach. Sometimes a special messenger accompanied express shipments to guard them from bandits. On occasion a stagecoach might carry a shipment of produce, such as fresh apples from the orchards of Utah to remote towns in Idaho and Montana.
Twain's personal account of overland stage travel in the early 1860s is evocative and true to fact. However, the 1939 Hollywood epic Stagecoach, directed by John Ford and featuring a young John Wayne, probably did more than anything else to foster modern perceptions of stagecoach travel as both romantic and dangerous. Louis McLane, onetime head of Wells, Fargo and Company, the most famous name in overland stagecoach travel, wrote to his wife in 1865 about artistic depictions of travel by coach, "I thought staging looked very well to the lithographer, but was the devil in reality." Many hearty travelers who crossed the West by stagecoach in the late 1850s and the 1860s surely would have agreed.
Frederick, J. V. Ben Holladay, the Stagecoach King: A Chapter in the Development of Transcontinental Transportation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Originally published in 1940.
Madsen, Betty M., and Brigham D. Madsen. North to Montana: Jehus, Bullwhackers, and Mule Skinners on the Montana Trail. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1980.
Moody, Ralph. Stagecoach West. New York: Crowell, 1967.
Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo. Long Day's Journey: The Steamboat and Stagecoach Era in the Northern West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.
Winther, Oscar Osburn. The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1865–1890. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Transit before Railroads. If a person wanted to get from one town to another quickly in 1815, especially between the major cities on the Eastern seaboard, he or she took a stagecoach. The construction of good turnpikes had cut the length of a stagecoach journey from Boston to New York by more than half between 1800 and the early 1830s, from seventy-four hours and three over nights to just over thirty-three hours with no overnight stops. With their horse relays and colorful but often reckless drivers, the express stages could sometimes muster eleven and one-half miles an hour on the most competitive routes. The cost to customers for such blazing speed was about seven cents a mile and severely shaken internal organs, especially on the rougher Western roads. In fact, beyond the Appalachians, the most popular slang terms for stagecoaches were the “shake guts” and “spankers.” Yet stagecoaches did more than move passengers. As late as 1847, well into the steamboat and railroad eras, 80 percent of the nation’s mail still moved by horseback or stage. Railroads, canals, and steamboats eventually replaced the stage as the favored means of passenger travel on the longer routes, but the stages continued as an important feeder link to these other modes of transportation.
Wagon Maker’s Art. The skilled wagon makers who fashioned stagecoaches designed them to catch attention and withstand harsh punishment. Painted cobalt blue, bright vermillion, or shiny red (the traditional color for mail stages), the best stagecoaches also sported murals on their sides depicting forest scenes or portraits of the owner’s favorite politician; Andrew Jackson was a popular stagecoach portrait subject in the West. Traditionally owners named stages after cities or states. Thus, Lucius W. Stockton, owner of the National Road Company, named some of his coaches New Orleans, Keystone, Buckeye and Natchez. Stages also came in several designs, from a streamlined but impractical egg shape modeled after the personal carriage to the workhorse Troy, a flattopped behemoth that carried nine passengers inside and two out. One of the more popular models on the National
Road, the Concord coach, weighed in at between 1, 400 and 2, 250 pounds, with ten-and-one-half-inch wheel hubs and a wheelbase of six feet, two inches. All of this rested on metal springs suspended high above the ground to provide clearance over unbridged streams and obstructions such as stumps and boulders that littered Western roads. Costing anywhere from $600 to $1, 000 to build, antebellum stagecoaches represented a significant investment, and the owners of the largest lines might have a dozen in operation at the same time.
Land Admirals. Like their drivers, the owners of the main Western stage lines in the 1830s, sometimes referred to as “Land Admirals,” were a colorful and competitive group of characters. Some of the owners, such as six-foot, five-inch Scotsman James Reeside of the Good Intent Line, had begun their careers as drivers. Reeside served as a teamster during the War of 1812, hauling military cargoes from Baltimore to Pittsburgh and Canada. With his wartime experience and profits he went into the stage business and within a few years won control of the United States mail route between Philadelphia and New York. Through hard driving and good management he cut the running time on that route from twenty-three to twelve hours and soon added several more mail lines. By the mid 1820s Reeside had become one of the largest mail contractors in the country, with one thousand horses at his disposal and four hundred employees. Stockton’s National Road Line represented Reeside’s main rival on the Western roads, and the competition between these two entrepreneurs usually spilled over into competition between their best drivers, Peter Burdine and Redding Bunting. In 1846 Bunting carried Polk’s Mexican war message from Cumberland, Maryland, over the steepest part of the National Road to Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia), a distance of 131 miles, in only twelve hours. Most commentators, however, considered Burdine the fastest driver in the West, as noted in a popular jingle: “If you take a seat in Stockton’s line, You are sure to be passed by Peter Burdine.” State laws made stagecoach racing illegal and subjected violators to fines and damages where necessary, but passengers continued to report that drivers tried to pass the coaches of rival lines while not allowing themselves to be passed by any other coaches.
Democratic Experience. American stagecoach lines, like the nation’s railroads, made no distinction by rank or class when ordering the arrangement of passengers. True, the richest could rent a coach all to themselves, but most stage passengers mingled together in the most democratic of ways. Drinking, gambling, and political discussions helped pass the time on the long journeys. A volatile mix at the best of times, politics and drinking not infrequently led to violence on the stagecoaches. Theodore Weld, ardent moralist and abolitionist, was not particularly well liked in the mostly antiblack, antireform Midwest, and on one trip along the National Road he found himself thrown into a flooded creek by his fellow passengers, presumably for letting loose one of his tirades in the wrong company. Frederick Douglass endured much-harsher treatment. Denied a place in some coaches because of his color, when he did ride, Douglass was sometimes met with heckling or violence. In Indiana an antiabolition mob dragged him from a coach and beat him viciously, then left him on the roadside.
Philip D. Jordan, The National Road (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948);
The critically-acclaimed classic film, Stagecoach (1939), not only helped to revive the A-movie Western, which had been out of favor since the advent of the sound era, but it cemented director John Ford's reputation as one of America's greatest filmmakers. And, as if that weren't enough, Stagecoach was the movie that catapulted John Wayne into stardom. Based on Ernest Haycox's short story, "Stage to Lordsburg," Stagecoach follows eight travelers on a trip through Indian country and explores the tensions and relationships that emerge during times of crisis.
Despite its big-movie pretensions, Stagecoach shares many similarities with B-movie Westerns. Its main characters are standard clichés from any number of low-grade cowboy flicks: Ringo (John Wayne), the young outlaw bent on revenge; Dallas (Clare Trevor), the prostitute with a heart of gold; Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the drunken doctor; Gatewood (Benton Churchill), the pompous businessman; Hatfield (John Carradine), the chivalrous gambler; Lucy (Louise Platt), the snobbish rich lady; and Peacock (Donald Meek), the timid whiskey drummer, are hardly unique to this film. Nor is the plot particularly original, with chases and shootouts that are typical Western fare.
What makes the film special is its character development and, more importantly, the clear social vision it presented to movie audiences mired in the Great Depression. Primary to this vision was the idea of community. The coach itself, set adrift in the savage wilderness of Indian country, represents a microcosm of civilized society. The passengers in the stagecoach-society are clearly from diverse backgrounds. In the course of the film, however, these outlaws, out-of-towners, and snobs work through their differences to form a cohesive unit (with one notable exception). The driving force behind their union is crisis. The premature birth of Lucy's baby forces Dr. Boone to sober up, brings Dallas and Lucy together, and draws sympathy from the others. Similarly, the climactic (if not slightly stereotypical) Indian-coach chase requires these disparate elements to join forces to repel the common foe. The message was clear for contemporary audiences, who themselves faced a different sort of crisis: The best way to persevere through hard times is to band together and fight. Ford was no utopian idealist, however. Once the danger had passed and the stage reached Lordsburg (an ironic name, considering the amount of gambling, prostitution, and gunplay that took place there), the group went their separate ways. Clearly, such a community could only exist in extraordinary times.
But Ford's community is not all-inclusive. Significantly, the banker Gatewood is left out, as if he had no role in society. Depression-era audiences, who largely blamed bankers for the decade's ills, found in Gatewood a figure richly deserving of their scorn. While others try to help Lucy after she gives birth, Gatewood impatiently demands that the coach continue its trip. He is notably absent in the chase scene, remaining invisible inside the moving coach while the others desperately fire at the marauding Indians from its windows.
Gatewood presents an alternative social vision, which is roundly rejected. The other passengers are noticeably bored when he demands that bankers be free from government inspection and proclaims that America needs a "businessman for president." Their disinterest is a swipe at the conservative Republican administrations of the 1920s and is an implicit nod of support for the more liberal Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. At the film's end, Gatewood is revealed as a thief and dragged off in handcuffs.
Ford extended his vision beyond this call for community and used Stagecoach to present a largely traditionalist idea of the perfect man and woman. Stagecoach's heroic men are tough and rugged problem-solvers who are not afraid to use weapons to defend themselves and their civilization from outside threats. Fainthearted men like Peacock are lampooned and exposed as effeminate. "I've had five children," Peacock notes when Lucy is in labor. "I mean," he notes, "my dear wife has." Throughout the movie, Peacock, doing his best impression of a disapproving nurse, tries to dissuade the alcoholic Dr. Boone from imbibing. Women, conversely, are most sympathetic when acting as mothers. The cold and aloof Lucy becomes a much more likable character once she has her baby, and Ringo first expresses his feelings for Stella after he admires her as she holds Lucy's baby. These ideal types are as important to Stagecoach's message as its presentation of a society in crisis; to weather times of trouble, a community needed to be made up of the right kind of people.
Stagecoach struck a chord with both critics and audiences. The New York Times hailed the film as "a noble horse opera," and declared the film "a beautiful sight to see." Variety called Stagecoach a "sweeping and powerful drama" and enthusiastically lauded its "photographic grandeur." The film packed movie houses and won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score.
Stagecoach was John Ford's first Western since 1926's 3 Bad Men, and was his first "talkie" Western (he had made forty-three silent Westerns). He would go on to make many more, including Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), all of which starred John Wayne. Many, however, still consider Stagecoach to be Ford's best.
—David B. Welky
Bergman, Andrew. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York, New York University Press, 1971.
Davis, Ronald L. John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master. Norman and London, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Ford, Dan. Pappy: The Life of John Ford. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.
Roberts, Randy, and James S. Olson. John Wayne: American. New York, The Free Press, 1995.
The industry originated with services run co-operatively by owner-drivers, using inns as their infrastructure. Bookings were made through them, and in central London groups of streets came to specialize in services to specific areas, like later railway stations: Aldersgate and Smithfield effectively monopolized services to Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Debts led to innkeeper control, largely complete by 1750, and thereafter concentration grew, with large firms predominant in the London trade by the 1820s. William Chaplin (1787–1859), an innkeeper's son, was employing 68 coaches, 1,800 horses, and 2,000 men in 1838, and was the ‘Napoleon of coach proprietors’, then shrewdly disinvesting to become chairman of the London and South-Western railway. Stage-coaches collapsed precipitously in the 1840s and 1850s, relegated to feeder and link services, and to serving peripheral areas beyond the advancing tide of the railway.
J. A. Chartres
stage·coach / ˈstājˌkōch/ • n. a large, closed horse-drawn vehicle formerly used to carry passengers and often mail along a regular route between two places.