The Stagecoach

Stagecoaches came in a variety of styles. Some as just open carriages. The stagecoach of course most of us is more familiar with is the famous Concord Stage. This is the coach that many associate with Wells Fargo. This will give you an idea of the Concord Stagecoach. The coach weighed about 2,500 lbs. Amazingly, the coach could carry eighteen people. This configuration would place nine inside and nine on top of the stagecoach. The wood used in it’s construction was both ash and oak and generally four to six horses were used to pull the coach.

stagecoach

Coach display at San Juan Bautista California

Making the Westward Journey by Stage

Much has been written about stagecoach travel during the old west days. Mostly it’s been depicted as none too comfortable. This is probably an accurate description especially if you’ve read some of the observations put down on paper by Mark Twain and a few others. His experience occurred about eight years before the transcontinental railroad was built. The stagecoach was about the only choice a person had to travel westward aside from horse riding alone or joining a wagon train.

Mark Twain, in his publication “Roughing It“, which describes he and his brother Orion’s stagecoach journey from St. Joseph Missouri to Carson City Nevada in the summer of 1861, gives one an understanding of what was involved in making the trip. Here are a few excerpts from Mark Twains journal

plaza stable in san juan bautista

Plaza Stable, San Juan Bautista

“Our coach was a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description – an imposing cradle on wheels”.

“We began to get into country, now, threaded here and there with little streams. These had high, steep banks on each side, and every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed sowewhat. 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”.

Stage Lines on the Old El Camino Real

Western Trips came across an interesting site in California which still displays advice given to stage coach travelers over a century ago by newspapermen. This display is showcased at the old San Juan Bautista California livery stable, the Plaza Stable,  built in 1861 and which once served as the stop for the stagecoach. In fact, San Juan Bautista was established as both a settlement and mission by the Spaniards directly on the old El Camino Real “The King’s Highway”. Because of it’s location, San Juan Bautista at one time had as many as seven stage lines passing through it.Most of the traffic was going between San Francisco and Los Angeles but also a fair amount to Monterey, Watsonville and Santa Cruz on the coast.

Also, see our articles on the Black Canyon Arizona Stagecoach LineRiding on the Butterfield Stage Route and The Woman Called Calamity Jane

concord stage coach

Concord Stagecoach model at Wells Fargo Museum, Old Town Sacramento CA

Visiting San Juan Bautista California

Today, the Plaza Stable is preserved as a museum which houses a variety of carriages, wagons, harnesses and other stable gear. San Juan Bautista, being only about 93 miles south of the center of San Francisco and also directly on the way to the popular Monterey Peninsula, is a great place to add to your California trip planner. If you’re heading out from the San Jose area it’s obviously much closer. San Juan Bautista is also home to Mission San Juan Bautista which is  a very popular tourist site.

You’ll find an interesting photo article about  Mission Juan Bautista on our Western Trips site.

Advice For Stagecoach Travelers

Travel advice and tips during the 1870’s was scarce and even scarcer when it came to traveling by stagecoach in the west. Newspapers generally took the lead in informing it’s readers about stage coach happenings.

charley parkhurst stagecoach driver

Charley Parkhurst Mural, California's famous female stagecoach whip

In this endeavor, the information below was first published in the Omaha Herald newspaper, on October 3, 1877. Keep in mind that a stagecoach trip in many instances could be a long journey, not necessarily to the next town down the line. Because of this, there could be a variety of occurrances along the way, some okay and some not as okay. The advice given out by the Omaha newspaper was probably the result of either people desiring to know what to expect traveling by stagecoach and/or the stage lines themselves asking the paper to inform it’s readers so as to make the journey easy on all parties involved.

 

The published information is as follows:

“The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver.  Even if you have a tendency to seasickness when riding backwards, you’ll get over it and will get less jolting and jostling. Don’t let any “sly elph” trade you his mid-seat.

In cold weather, don’t ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes, or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling. he won’t request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away, sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine times out of ten you will get hurt.

In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence. Don’t growl at the food received at the station: stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

Don’t keep the stage waiting. Don’t smoke a strong pipe inside the coach. Spit on the leeward side. If you have anything to drink in a bottle, pass it around. Procure your stimulants before starting, as “ranch” (Stage Depot) whiskey is not “nectar”!

central overland stageline

Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Stage Line stamp

Don’t swear or lop over neighbors when sleeping. Take small change to pay expenses. Never shoot on the road as the noise might frighten the horses. Don’t discuss politics or religion. Don’t point out where murders have been committed especially if there are any women passengers.

Don’t lag at the wash basin. Don’t grease your hair, because travel is dusty.

Don’t imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort, and some hardship.

Expect the Unexpected

Not exactly a twenty-first hiking guide, but the article above appears to have been printed in an honest effort to make the journey as comfortable as possible for all passengers. Much of it pertains to issues of how to get along with your fellow passengers as well as the driver, usually referred to as the “whip”.

There were so many variables coming into play during a stagecoach journey that most advice can be summed up as “expect the unexpected“. To be sure, not every journey was horribly difficult. Just as in today’s news, the extraordinary is what gets publicized the most. By the same token, traveling by stagecoach was quite different from rail travel. That’s one of the reasons that the railroad brought more people west and created towns all along it’s way.

In addition to the Plaza Stable at San Juan Bautista, a lot of information about the old west stagecoach can be found at any one of the Wells Fargo museums such as the one in Old Sacramento and San Diego California. Also, you can view the old Deadwood Stagecoach at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody Wyoming.

(Stagecoach and San Juan Bautista photos from author’s private collection. Charley Parkhurst Mural and Overland Stage Line stamp from the public domain)

See the Deadwood Stagecoach in Cody Wyoming

Many people familiar with the old west would say that the most famous stagecoach to have plied the trails of the frontier west was the Deadwood Stagecoach. This is Deadwood as in Deadwood South Dakota and the Black Hills. Deadwood South Dakota could easily have been called the capitol of the Black Hills.The photo below is of Deadwood circa 1877.

deadwood south dakota

This is where people from all walks of life hastened to as soon as gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The fact is that Deadwood was, in a way, founded by none other than George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who led an expedition into the Black Hills which was at the time a very sacred area of the country to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux in fact had ownership of the Black Hills per a treaty with the federal government. When Custer filed a report of his expedition to the Black Hills, whose purpose was to ascertain if gold was truly there,  he emphasized that gold was there in abundance. Somehow, at about the same time Custer filed his report, the startling information also found it’s way to the eastern newspapers.

concord stagecoachThe national economy was in a slump at the time and this only added fuel to the fire and what appeared to be another California Gold Rush, this time in the Black Hills, was in the making. Beginning in April of 1877 the first stagecoaches started rolling between Bismark South Dakota and Deadwood. The Northern Pacific Railroad had a terminal in Bismark and this offered the fastest way to Deadwood from the east. Three time a week service began in May and it didn’t take long for the stages to make the trip daily. Deadwood South Dakota was booming and people were trying to get there fast. The coach of choice was none other than the Concord coaches which were built well for the rough western trails.The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827 by the Abbot Downing Company. The innovation that made these coaches so popular lay in the construction of their suspension. Traditional stagecoaches employed metal springs which gave the coach a very bouncy ride when the trail got rough. Concord coaches instead used leather braces which gave the coach a gentle swinging motion, prompting Mark Twain to refer to the Concord as the “cradle on wheels.” Freight and passenger revenue was doing very well and in addition to that the stage company received the coveted U.S. Mail contract. During the stage lines heyday it was reported that they employed about 175 men. This was quite a large operation in 1877.

sam bassAnytime there was a flourishing stagecoach route, and the route to the Black Hills was one of them, there were stagecoach robbers. In that era they were often referred to as “highwaymen”. People handy with firearms such as Wyatt Earp were hired to sit beside the driver with a shotgun to protect passengers and gold from the highwaymen. There was a lot of criminal activity in the area. The infamous Sam Bass, pictured above, and his gang reportedly robbed the stage four times in two months. In fact, the Sam bass gang was credited with the largest Union Pacific train robbery that took place in Nebraska. The amount and value of gold dust being shipped via stagecoach was such that precautions were taken that included a special coach to protect the gold. The treasure box was bolted securely to the floor, the coach was even lined in lead, and there were two portholes guards could use to fire back at the robbers.

The transportation boom ended suddenly when the railroad reached Pierre, South Dakota. In 1880 the company moved the majority of its coaches and livestock to Pierre and opened an alternate line. After that the service on the Bismarck line was cut to tri-weekly trips and was soon after abandoned.

To illustrate how popular Buffalo Bill’s Deadwood Stagecoach was in his Wild West performances, while performing in England the highlight of one of the shows came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, climbed aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the Indians engaged in a mock attack. It doesn’t get much more real than that for the visiting monarchs. Obviously this was a show business first and gained wide publicity for the Wild West.

Today, you can see the original Deadwood Stagecoach which played a big part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. The stagecoach is on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The Cody Historical Center began as a log cabin tribute to William  F. Cody, founder and namesake of Cody Wyoming, and has materialized into  a seven-acre building which houses five museums and a research center. The museum is located at 720 Sheridan Ave. and features everything about Buffalo Bill Cody, his Wild West and the old west in general. They have done an excellent job with this museum and I would recommend anyone traveling on a Wyoming vacation to make a visit there. It is the largest repository of William Cody artifacts in the west.