Medallion Name – MISERY
Significance – We all complain about flying coach. Cramped cabins, not enough legroom or places to store you stuff. Now imagine not having armrests or dedicated seats, facing the people who are the row in front of you, knees entangled by sacks of mail encasing your legs as your coach gallops along a stone-strewn kidney-busting trail. And this experience isn’t just a couple of hours…going cross country prolongs this travel agony for weeks at a time. Such was the misery of stage coach travel.
Inscription – Before the coming of the rails, stagecoaches were a major form of passenger transportation to and from Denver.
In 1878, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote, “The public coaches are here, as everywhere, uncomfortable, overloaded, intolerable. I know of no surer way to rob a journey of its finest pleasure than to commit one’s self to one of these vehicles It means being obliged to get up at hours you abhor to sit close to people you dislike, to eat when you are not hungry to be drenched with rain, soaked with dust and never have a chance to pick a flower. It means misery.”
Location – 39°44’46.2″N 104°59’28.3″W
Details – Stagecoach travel was not for the faint of heart. It was a most uncomfortable form of travel. The roads of the American West were little more than well-trod dirt and the path was rocky, rutted, and sometimes impassible due to landslides and other obstacles.
On long trips, passengers generally slept sitting up. There were no neck pillows and was considered bad etiquette to rest one’s head on another passenger. Some trips offered a respite of lodging on a dirt floor every few days. Bandits prowled stagecoach passengers like cats stalking birds in a cage.
Intrepid passengers paid royally for the experience. A through passenger going cross country paid around $200 (around $3,000 today) for a ticket. They were limited to 25 pounds of baggage. A cross country trip was a seemingly endless twenty five days of ceaseless travel.
Raphael Pumpelly, who traveled on Butterfield’s line west to Tucson wrote, “The coach was fitted with three seats, and these were occupied by nine passengers. As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support. An unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constantly bent forward…
“The fatigue of uninterrupted traveling by day and night in a crowded coach, and in the most uncomfortable positions, was beginning to tell seriously upon all the passengers, and was producing in me a condition bordering on insanity…”
In the old West travel by horse was the only alternative to walking or staying home. Faster than foot, safer than riding solo, stagecoach travel was slow and time consuming. On average, with stops, a stagecoach traveled a tedious five miles per hour. The upside? No environmental beyond impact dirt roads and tired, faithful horses.
Ahhh, the Old West stagecoach – a type of covered wagon used to carry passengers and goods inside. It is strongly sprung and generally drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Originating in England, it was widely used before the introduction of railway transport. Called stagecoach, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for the coach travelers. The business of running stagecoaches or riding in them was known as staging.
Numerous stagecoach lines traversed the West in the 1800s, as entrepreneurs competed for freight, mail contracts, and passengers. The Concord Stagecoach, named after Concord, New Hampshire, was preferred by stagecoach companies. Essentially, the design of the coach was sort of a basket on leather straps that swung from side to side.
According to The Story of the Great American West, Concord coaches came in various heavily varnished, bright colors and various sizes. They were 8 ½ feet long, weighed 2,500 pounds and could be deadly if they tipped over on a road. It took around $1,300 to purchase a coach, depending on the amount of detail.
Models were built to hold 21 people in that 8 ½ foot space. With seats in front, in back, and in the middle, it held nine when full, with additional seating for up to 12 passengers on top. This was drawn by four horses controlled by a jehu holding a four-in-hand.
The stagecoach driver was known as a jehu, named after a Biblical king of Israel. On the Old West stagecoach, the jehu was the man, he was in charge. He was the one who shouted, “All aboard! Away!” He held a four-in-hand – three pairs of reins in his left hand, which kept his right hand free to hold the whip. The jehu interacted with the horses, with words of command and encouragement and affection – particularly in precarious situation like narrow mountain roads.
Route stations were established about every 12 miles. There were two types; swing and home. As the stage driver neared the station, he or she would blow a small brass bugle or trumpet to alert the station staff of the impending arrival.
These larger home stations were about 50 miles apart and provided meager meals and overnight lodging to passengers. They were often run by a couple or family. Meals were offered for purchase twice a day. Legend has it that breakfast at a way station in West Texas, offered jerked beef cooked over the buffalo ‘chips’, raw onions, old crackers and a bit of bacon.
Rest stations, or swing stages, were used to change out horses and rarely offered food. Horses were changed out about every 12 miles…all day, every day…that’s 8 horse swaps on a 100 mile trip.
Mark Twain described his 1861 stage journey the Nevada territory in the book Roughing It. “…Every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed somewhat. First we would all lie down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail-bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: ‘Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?’”
Stage Coaches and outlaws – Beyond the constant, grueling discomfort, traveling by stagecoach was dangerous. Coaches often carried important legal documents, large bank deposits, or company payrolls. According to Wells Fargo history, 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. Wells Fargo tried to find solutions. They nailed safes to the floorboards of the coaches. Hired shotgun messengers who sat shotgun and protected shipments. Taught silver shippers how to melt their precious metals into bars too large to be carried by men on the run, and added two more horses to the running order. Still, their stagecoaches were robbed by famous outlaws like Black Bart.
Safer than riding solo, the stagecoach offered the latest technology in travel, carrying its careening passengers across the Western Plains at speeds greater than any other transport available. As railroad construction pushed westward, stagecoaches became less necessary, and by the early 1900s, only the most rural enclaves without railroad service still utilized them.
In each Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoach, a list of rules was posted…which are pretty entertaining to modern day readers…how different it was from our lives…
- Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
- Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
- Don’t snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger’s shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
- Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back.
- In the event of runaway horses, remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, and at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians, and hungry coyotes.
- Why did people choose stage coach travel?
- How did they come up with the name stagecoach?
- What made stagecoach travel difficult and limiting?
- Where did we get the term “riding shotgun”?
- What is something you find interesting about stagecoach travel?