History of the American Stagecoach

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In Hollywood movies, stagecoach rides offer cozy seats and grand views, but in reality, travel by stagecoach was uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

In the 1800s American West roads were rocky, rutted, and sometimes impassible by stagecoach without a good push from behind. Bandits were a constant threat and undoubtedly viewed stagecoach passengers like cats watching birds in a cage. On long trips, passengers generally slept sitting up or not at all since it was considered bad etiquette to rest ones head on another passenger. Rest stations, which were called swing stations, were only used to change out horses and rarely offered food. Nevertheless, the stagecoach was a vital method of transportation in the American West, and far more comfortable than riding on horseback.

The Concord Stagecoach

The Concord Stagecoach was built like a basket on leather straps that swung from side to side, weighed more than a ton, and cost somewhere between $1500 and $1800. Concords had a seat in front, in back, and one in the middle seating nine when full and leaving little leg room, but passengers were also allowed to ride on top. The creators of the Concord were J. S. Abbot and Lewis Downing who were so careful with their products that not one stagecoach ever left the factory without their inspection. The Abbot Downing Company was a huge factory in Concord, New Hampshire that took up six acres and produced forty other types of coaches and wagons. It operated under the supervision of one or another of the Abbot or Downing family members from 1827 to 1899.

Ben Holladay and the Overland Express

One of the most famous stagecoach owners and operators was Ben Holladay who traveled in a personalized stagecoach with gold scrollwork and matching dapple-gray horses. Holladay owned the Overland Mail & Express Company, which he bought from the Pony Express in 1862. Holladay had a contract with the United States Post Office that paid $365,000 a year and the Overland transported humans, packages and mail over a 3000 mile area. His stagecoach drivers wore velvet-trimmed uniforms and Irish wool overcoats, and Holladay paid them well. There were more than 15,000 employees in the Overland Company and 110 Concord Stagecoaches. Holladay sold his stagecoach company to Wells Fargo in 1866 to invest in the railroads.

Stagecoach Robberies

Stagecoach travel could be dangerous, too. 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 nailed safes to the floorboards of the coaches, hired armed guards to protect shipments and taught silver shippers how to melt their precious metals into bars too large to be carried by men on the run, and still their stagecoaches were robbed. They finally created their own detective agency, but the salaries of these officers were so high they matched the amount previously lost in robberies. Nevertheless, the company felt some satisfaction in knowing justice was served when famous robbers such as John Sontag and Black Bart were apprehended or killed.

The End of the Reign of the Stagecoach

Ben Holladay may have made a wise financial decision when he sold the Overland stage line as railroads soon became the primary method of transporting both humans and cargo, but trains were still confined to their tracks and it was actually the introduction of the automobile that finally brought an end to the use of stagecoaches in the early 1900s.

Sources:

  1. Niven, David. The Old West: The Expressman (Time Life Books, 1974).