A Brief History of Stagecoaches

As defined by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a stagecoach is any public coach that travels between two or more stations on a regular basis.

Stagecoaches were in use in London as early as 1640 and about 20 years later in Paris. By the 19th century they gained importance in both England and the United States. They were the only means, for many people, to travel long overland distances.

However, one could go back even further. Goods and merchandise were carried in carts as far back as 2500 B.C., and chariots for carrying men were in use in Egypt in 1700 B.C. By 400 B.C., chariot racing was a popular sport in Roman games; and by 300 B.C. they were building thousands of miles of roads. Whether you want to call them carts, chariots, or wagons, wheeled conveyances have been around for thousands of years.

The stagecoaches not only carried passengers through treacherous terrain and all weather conditions, they began carrying mail and freight. For 169 years between the settlement of Jamestown and the Battle of Lexington, the frontier was no more than 200 miles inland, so there was little need for public transportation. Stagecoaches were used to some extent between inland cities and towns, but at the time there were no mail contracts.

By 1820, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the fur trade increased and St. Louis became the fur capital of the U.S. The same year, the first stageline reached St. Louis from the East. The travel was not strictly by stagecoach however, as the most direct route was used with a combination of coaches and riverboats.

By 1840, the stagecoach days were ending in the East with the increase of rail travel. However, it was just beginning in the West a decade later. Many of the stageline owners whose businesses had dwindled in the East, saw an opportunity to begin again in the West, as there was very little public transportation west of St. Louis. They formed stageline companies, gathering any stock and vehicles they could find and then advertised for passengers to California.

Many companies advertised fast coaches, 2500 miles in 70 days. After several unsuccessful attempts, the lines realized that successful transportation west of the Missouri River had to include frequent stops and a reasonable semblance of roads. Government subsidies in the form of mail contracts were prized as a means to providing this transportation. In California, outrageous fares were charged in for those in a rush to stake claims so that the mail contracts were not needed. With the California gold rush, stagecoaching took a giant leap forward.

That was fine for California, but how do you get the mail from the east coast to the west coast? Trails such as the Santa Fe and Oregon had been in use for many years. New trails branched from these, while others were created. Every ten to fifteen miles swing stations or home stations were developed, and near water sources. The swing stations were provided with only a change of stock. Here passengers had a few minutes to get out and stretch but there was very little to comfort the passengers. Home stations were equipped with kitchens for meals, some even had beds. Most stages didn’t even stop for the night so passengers slept sitting up, trying not to lean over and use a fellow passengers shoulder. If you were lucky and there was room, you could stretch out on the seat, only to be bounced off if the stagecoach hit a rut. Many stations were little more than dugouts along banks of streams or into the sides of hills. Some stations were made of adobe, but rarely of logs because of the lack of lumber.

Much of the profit of the stage companies came from transporting mail and freight. Because mail contracts had to be bid for, competition along some of the routes was fierce. Although stage routes had been established to haul mail and passengers, freighters, immigrants and gold seekers, were also using the routes. On the plains, the routes were hazardous primarily because of the Indians resentment of the whites’ intrusion of their lands. They harassed the travelers to discourage settlement. Other hazards included the lack of water and game was limited, and very few trees that would provide some shelter from the summer sun or logs for fires. With the heat of the summer, lack of water, and harsh winters, many travellers died from thirst, starvation, or freezing to death.

In the mountains, the terrain caused new problems. Though there was usually plenty of water and game, the routes usually had steep narrow passages, sometimes bordering on cliffs. During cold months, snows blocked passages, and spring and summer rains, not only created muddy roads, but flash floods occurred that were also common in the plains.

The post roads listed in the Colorado Trails include the most used routes of travel in Colorado. Many stage stations and even some of the trails used were long abandoned before lands were surveyed and counties were developed. Evidence of their existence only to be found in personal biographies or stories told through the generations.

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