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What is it like to ride a stagecoach?

Excerpt from “Sagas of Old Western Travel & Transport” by Wilbur Hoffman,
copyright 1980, Howell North Publishers, Inc.

Parts of a stagecoach

By the early years of the twentieth century, the iron horse had largely replaced the stagecoach. Thus faded from the American scene one of the great episodes of the Old West--the radiant red Concord, laden with treasure, express, baggage, mail and passengers, driven by the most skillful and courageous reinsmen the world has ever produced. May drivers, or jehus and whips as they were then called, had colorful names to match their characters; names such as Hank Monk, Sage Brush Bill, Billy Carll, Cherokee Bill, and “polite, profane, tobaccer chewin’, cigar smokin’ One-eyed Charlie.”

Alongside the driver sat the equally courageous “shotgun,” Together they drove the endless expanses of the Old West in extremes of heat, cold, rain, or snow, in the face of danger from Indians and road agents. Almost forgotten now, these men and the builders of the stage lines deserve the honor and credit due for their important share in creating a great empire that is part of our great nation.

What was it like to ride a Concord stagecoach in the late 1850’s? Time has suddenly turned backward to 1859 and you will board a stagecoach outbound. Bearded miners, shopkeepers and tradesmen stroll about the Plaza. Others loiter under the shade of wooden awnings covering boardwalks. White clouds slowly drift against an azure sky. You notice stacks of merchandise piled along the levee and more being hand-trucked by stevedores unloading the (riverboat). Black smoke lazily drafts from her stacks. Most of her freight will ultimately reach the gold diggings transported in huge freight wagons drawn by six and eight mules. One of these “mountain schooners” just now lumbers away from a commission merchant’s warehouse.

What finally catches your eye is a large, magnificent Concord coach, her new paint glistening in the sunlight. Her wheels are a bright yellow. Hitched to the coach are six sleek chestnut bay horses.

Under the driver’s seat is a leather compartment called a “boot” that is used to stow the express box and cargo. On the rear is another leather boot, the familiar triangular shaped one. Into this boot and on top of the stage, cargo such as mailbags, round-topped trunks and miners’ packs are stowed.

You queue up with other passengers at the ticket window and purchase a ticket for Sacramento. Someone remarks, “Here is the jehu.” Others refer to someone as “Charlie” or “whip.” Looking around, you realize they are referring to the stage driver.

He is typical of western stagecoach drivers. Actually they were individualistic, but most of them shared certain qualities to a greater or lesser degree. They were good drivers; they had to be. Not everyone could control six spirited horses galloping at perilous speed over rough and treacherous frontier roads, especially narrow, curving mountain roads where a miscue could hurl a coach hundreds of feet down a steep canyon.

Some drivers were swaggering, rough-spoken men, but in spite of these manners, nearly all of them were courteous to their passengers, especially ladies. As Bancroft the historian wrote: “The average stage driver was above all, lord in his way, the captain of his raft, the fear of timid passengers, the admiration of stable boys, and the trusted agent of his employer.” In the Old West only steamer captains were held in higher esteem.

The driver walks slowly around the coach carefully inspecting running gear and harnesses. A loose wheel bolt, a faulty brake, a twisted trace, or a loose buckle could cause disaster. During inspection a hostler stands by the lead span (the two horses in the front) grasping the team’s reins.

The driver now draws the reins from their place, places three between the fingers of each hand (since the team has six horses), grabs a whip and in three steps is on the seat.

You board the coach. This Concord seats nine passengers. Two seats are on the ends, one facing fore, the other aft. The other is in the center. Three can sit on each seat, allowing fifteen inches per person. “Rather a tight fit, especially if the traveler is large or a lady is wearing bustles,” you reflect. Six more could ride on top. Including freight, passengers and crew the coach has a capacity of four thousand pounds.

Inside, the seats and walls are covered with fine leather. Tapestry and embroidered cloth are also used for covering, but since western stages are subject to rough treatment, leather is generally used. As you enter and sit in the rear you feel a slight rocking movement, first aft and then fore. The seat is padded but not as plush as those of a modern airliner or train. You are next to a window that reaches from the ceiling to the armrest. The coach has four such windows, next to the end seats. No glass encloses these openings; during cold weather, however, leather side curtains can be rolled down from the top. The stage has two small glass windows located on each side of the door; the door also has a glass window.

You observe last minute preparations. Two bearded men emerge from the express office carrying a green, locked box labeled Wells Fargo Express. Both men strain to hoist the box to the driver’s seat and into the boot. You wonder what valuables it contains--gold perhaps from the high Sierra Nevada on its way to San Francisco. How much you wonder--enough to lure road agents? An armed messenger (sometimes called the shotgun) mounts the seat alongside the driver. Two newly invented Colt revolvers dangle from his hips and across his lap lies a double-barreled, ten-gauge, sawed-off shotgun. The driver is similarly armed. Several male passengers also carry side arms.

One of them remarks, “In case o’ trouble, we and the jehu, an’ the shotgun kin throw out a lot o’ lead; shore make it hot fer any road agents what wants tuh rob the stage.” You wonder just what you may be getting into.

Other passengers begin boarding the stagecoach. Among them is a well-dressed lady of about thirty years. She seems to experience difficulty boarding because of her long skirt.

Immediately the driver jumps to the ground and helps her into the stage. You wonder if a lady traveling alone in this primitive land is safe. Actually she is safer in the Old West than in many other parts of the world then or today. Ladies were rarely molested, provided of course that they were ladies and acted like ladies. Other passengers include a middle-aged, gray-bearded miner dressed in a red wool shirt and black trousers tucked into work-scuffed boots; a stocky, well-dressed Englishman with a handlebar moustache that turns sharply upward at either end and a bowler hat resting squarely on his head; a handsome Spanish-Mexican with black intelligent eyes, a colorful blanket draped over his shoulder, and on his head, the traditional sombrero; and a genial-appearing merchant wearing a dark, wrinkled business suit.

Departure time has arrived. The driver scans the hitching gear for twisted straps or faulty fittings that he might have missed from the ground. Satisfied that all is in order, he shouts, “All aboard! Keep your feet off the seats please!” Then nodding at the hostler holding the lead span of horses, the driver gives the order, “Let ‘er go, Johnny!”

The hostler drops his hands and steps aside. Now you observe the driver gently pulling the reins up until he feels the horse’s mouths, then suddenly loosening them and simultaneously releasing the brake, he shouts, “G- long! H-up, there!”

Six horses lurch against their collars in union, traces snap taut, metal fastenings clink and the stage leaps into motion. You feel the coach gently pitch backward and then roll forward as the Concord gets underway. The hostler waves as the coach passes him; looking backward you see the station agent and passersby wave in admiration at the beautiful departing vehicle.

The team is trotting at a smooth rhythmic gait. Each of the six horses’ right front legs hits the ground simultaneously, and so do their left front legs. Their hind legs follow the same pattern. This is an excellent team, well-trained.

The road is fairly smooth; the coach gently teeters forward, and then backward, occasionally rolling sideways as the wheels on one side pass over a depression. You estimate the speed to be almost fifteen miles per hour. Dust billows skyward in the Concord’s wake.

Suddenly the stage violently pitches forward and jerks backward. You brace your feet and clutch the armrest. But as the coach gradually steadies, you relax. The wheels have bounced over a deep rut that runs across both tracks of the road. You now realize the worth of thorough brace suspension. Without it, passengers and horses would be taking punishing jolts.

As the Concord stagecoach rolls along, you glance upward at the driver. He is sitting straight as a ramrod and almost as still as a statue. He holds a whip but rarely uses it and then just gently cracks the “popper” (several foot-long strands of silk cord at the end of the whip over a horse’s head to correct the animal.

The coach rumbles to a halt in front of a small house surrounded by corrals and barns. The merchant tells you, “This is a place where teams are replaced. Teams are changed about every ten to fifteen miles.”

As hostlers unhitch the team, you and the other passengers disembark to stretch your legs, as do the messenger and driver. In a very few minutes the fresh team is hitched. The driver takes the reins, calls, “All aboard!” and mounts his seat. Soon the Concord is rolling again. Shortly a stop is made where two passengers leave the stage and another boards it. Mail is picked up and some dropped.

“Doesn’t take long to change teams,” explains the merchant. “Many stages average ten miles an hour including stops.”

The miner looks up and turns his face to the window. Remembering that he is chewing a large cud of tobacco, passengers pull away from the windows in unison. Again the wind is in the right direction.

He shifts the tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other and says, “Thet ‘ere express box must have lots of gold in ‘er. Notice how it took two men tuh swing it aboard?

“Speakin’ o’ gold reminds me o’ the time a stage was held up some time back. Thar was a shotgun ridin’ on the seat with the jehu, an’ inside wuz two passengers, men. It wuz kind o’ cold, so the leather side curtains wuz rolled down.

“Thet stage hed to slow down fer a curve an’ right then three road agents jumps right in front o’ the stage.”

Suddenly the Concord violently lurches forward and with a sharp jerk pitches backward; wheels bounce over rocks and ruts; passengers are shaken and lifted from their seats. After a few seconds, the stage is again on smoother road. You look out and notice that the coach has passed over a dried stream bed.

The miner continues. “Now whar wuz I? Oh, I remember; three road agents hed stopped thet ‘ere stage. They got the draw on the jehu and the shotgun all right. Then them robbers asked fer the express box, but for some reason they didn’t pay no ‘tention to them two passengers. Didn’t know they wuz thar, I guess. Wal, when them passengers seen what wuz up, they reached for their newfangled Colt revolvers.

“One passenger stuck his gun just barely through the openin’ in the curtain; t’other one did the same on t’other side. Each drawed a bead on a road agent and fahred together. Two robbers dropped to the ground dead. T’other rode away with a hole in his hide.”

The stage now rumbles onto the wooden bridge over (a river). The lady passenger remarks, “This has been a much nicer trip than one I took a few years ago. The roads are some better now, and the recent rains have helped settle the dust.

“I made that other trip in the middle of the summer; it was 110 in the shade, and the stage was crowded, sixteen people on board, I believe. The heat was stifling, and the dust was so think; it got into your eyes and nose and hair and your clothes, even your mouth. The road was so rough. Some of the wooden bridges must not have been very strong because the driver made the passengers walk across several of them. It took over six hours to make the trip.”

As the stagecoach rolls into the depot you look at your watch. The trip has taken about four and one-half hours.

The driver helps passengers disembark; he is especially helpful to the lady. You look at her and realize that perhaps because she was on board, not a single word of profanity was spoken on the trip.


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