The History of the Stagecoach

Written by christina hamlett
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The History of the Stagecoach
(Photograph by J. F. Pickard)

No definition of fun in 19th century America would have included the word "stagecoach." For many travellers, however, it was the only alternative if they were headed to a destination that the existing rail lines didn't quite reach. While safety in numbers was no guarantee of a stress-free journey, it also beat riding a horse and having to travel light.

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Purpose and Features

The stagecoach was designed to transport four to nine passengers--excluding the driver--in a compact compartment that also had room for passenger luggage. In addition to moving people, stagecoaches were used for the delivery of mail as well as consumer goods. They were drawn by teams of four to six horses that were rested or changed out at swing stations. These rest points, however, offered passengers little more than a chance to stretch their legs. Although it was permissible for passengers to ride on top with the driver, this carried the responsibility of "riding shotgun," or literally looking out for potential attackers such as Indians and bandits, ready to fire on them at a moment's notice.

Concord Stagecoaches

At their massive factory in Concord, New Hampshire, Lewis Downing and J.S. Abbott were the premier manufacturers of American stagecoaches between the late 1820s and 1900. Quality control was paramount to the partners, who put each of their creations through the functional equivalent of a modern assembly line review. The price tag of each of their stagecoaches averaged around £1,072. Comfort, however, was not a high concern. The interior seats were hard and narrow, with no glass on the windows to protect passengers from rain or dust, and the constant bouncing over rocks and hilly terrain made it impossible to catch a nap.

Bandit Magnets

Because a stagecoach was top-heavy and couldn't move very fast, it was essentially a nice fat target for anyone who wanted to attack it. Furthermore, the likelihood of anyone coming to the riders' rescue was pretty remote which, accordingly, allowed the attackers to take their time. Stripping a stagecoach of its wheels and burning them and/or unhitching the horses was yet another way to ensure that no one reached their destination.

Overland Express

One of the most well known names associated with stagecoach travel was Overland. This was a company that had been purchased from the Pony Express in 1862 by entrepreneur Ben Holladay. Holladay's contractual agreement with the United States Post Office made stagecoaches a much welcomed sight because of their prompt and efficient delivery of news and packages. Holladay also recognised the importance of class and panache and paid his drivers handsome salaries to dress in smart uniforms that attracted favourable notice. Following the Civil War, he sold his company to Wells Fargo in order to invest his money in the burgeoning rail industry.

The Demise of Stagecoach Transportation

The combined growth and expansion of railway companies across the country--coupled with the invention of the car--meant the end of stagecoach travel. While a few were still in use by 1900, the invention of faster, safer and more comfortable vehicles saw the stagecoach quietly slide into the pages of history. One of its most enduring legacies, however, is that it became the iconic symbol of Wells Fargo Bank, which still has a number of its original stagecoaches on display for public viewing at some of its branches.

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