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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Stagecoaches in the Wild West

    Thinking back to the times I saw scenes in cowboy movies of passengers riding in stagecoaches there was always a pretty lady and two or three passengers bouncing along while the horses raced at breakneck speed. That's not quite an accurate picture.
     Stagecoach travel was dangerous business in the American West: roads and rutted roads that sometimes impassible. Bandits were a constant threat. And, stagecoaches were uncomfortable. On long trips, passengers had to sleep sitting up and rest stations, or swing stations as they were called, were used to changes horses. The movies often showed passengers chowing down on beans and coffee, but in reality rest stations rarely offered food unless you were a horse. Nevertheless, the stagecoach was a popular form of travel in the American West, particularly during a time when the only other option was a wagon or riding a horse. 
A REAL Stagecoach

     During the gold rush years in the Rocky Mountains the Wells Fargo line had such a difficult time protecting its passengers and cargo that it created a standard form letter for reporting robberies. They nailed safes to the floorboards of the coaches, hired armed guards and taught silver shippers how to melt the silver into bars too large to be carried by men on the run. It didn't always work; stagecoaches still got robed.  
     Wells Fargo finally had to create its own detective agency. It was a good paying job, too. Salaries matched the amount previously lost in robberies. Nevertheless, the detectives were, for the most part successful, bring to justice (or killing) such famous outlaws as John Sontag and Black Bart
     Most stagecoaches were Concords. It was like a basket on leather straps that swung from side to side. Concords had seats in front, in back, and in the middle, seating nine when full and leaving little leg room with seating for up to 12 passengers on top. 
     Created by J. S. Abbot and Lewis Downing, the two personally inspected every coach that left the factory. The Abbot Downing Company had a huge factory in Concord, New Hampshire on six acres and offered designs for forty coaches and wagons. The company was supervised by one of the Abbot or Downing family members from 1827 to 1899. 
     Concord coaches came in various heavily varnished, bright colors and various sizes, but generally were only 8-1/2 feet long, weighed 2500 pounds and cost around $1300 depending on the amount of detail. 
     In the cowboy movies and on television the driver was always called the “driver”, but that's not correct...he was a called a “jehu” after a king of Israel who ordered the death of Jezebel. When it was tie to hit the road, the jehu shouted, "All aboard! Away!" and all the passengers scrambled for their seats because the schedule had to be kept and there was no time to wait for dawdling passengers. That's because stagecoaches carried, besides passengers, important legal documents, large bank deposits, or company payrolls. 
     The jehu held three pairs of reins in his left hand, which kept his right hand free to hold the whip. The jehu also spoke to the horses, shouting commands, encouragement and sometimes soothing words. The horse team consisted of four or six draft horses and sometimes there was a crew member “riding shotgun” to guard against bandits. 
     Odd as it sounds, jehus held the reins was carefully and with a sensitive touch because the horses responded to the slightest movement and it was the jehu's job to carefully guide the horses' every movement. In the movies the jehu always had big work gloves, but in reality they wore thin gloves to feel the reins and in cold weather frostbitten fingers weren't uncommon. 
well dressed men in the 1860s
     Stagecoach travel was pretty safe back East, but it was difficult and dangerous across the West. City slickers in the East provided regular meals at the established inns and taverns along the way. But that wasn't the case in 1858 when John Butterfield established 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. 
An 1860s lady

     A federal contract paid $600,000 (over $10 million today) a year to carry mail across the continent. Service was semi-weekly. It was a 2,795-mile trip between San Francisco and St. Louis that took three weeks of hard traveling...if the weather was nice. 
     Stagecoaches were on the move 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 and that would double the cost of the trip. Plus, you had to sleep sitting up in the stagecoach. The whole trip could end up costing you nearly $3,500 in today's dollars! 
     The most famous stagecoach owner was Ben Holladay. His personal stagecoach looked like a royal carriage with gold scrollwork and prancing, dapple-gray horses.  He bought the Overland Mail Express Company from the Pony Express in 1862 and had a contract with the United States Post Office that paid $365,000 a year, over 6.8 million in today's currency. Overland transported passengers, cargo and mail over a 3000 mile area. Its well-paid jehus wore velvet-trimmed uniforms and Irish wool overcoats. 
     Holladay employed more than 15,000 people and owned 110 Concord Stagecoaches and in 1866, he sold out to Holladay Wells Fargo and invested his money in railroads, the transportation of the future. Wells Fargo operated stagecoaches along the transcontinental route between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, California, where steamboats connected to San Francisco. 
     Even with railroads the stagecoach still served a purpose because railroads were confined to their tracks, but in the early 1900s the introduction of the automobile brought an end to the use of stagecoaches. 
     In the 1860s, the heyday of stagecoach lines, the Concord coach, handcrafted in Concord, New Hampshire, by Abbot, Downing and Company, became the standard. It was famous for its great strength and its ability to keep passengers dry while floating them across flood-swollen streams. Because the twisting of the coach body on the rough terrain could easily shatter glass windows, it had 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 which serve as shock absorbers. 
     Constant swaying often made some passengers seasick. The best seat was behind the driver, riding backwards because it produced half the bumps and jars of any other seat. Riders were admonished that if another passenger offered to trade seats, “don’t do it.” 
     A Concord coach could accommodate nine passengers inside and another six or more on the roof. Passengers were allowed twenty-five pounds of baggage which was stored in a large rear pouch called a boot. Mail was carried in the front or rear boot, or if there was a lot of it, it might be shoved between the passengers' feet. Stagecoaches also carried produce. 

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