The Bumping, Thumping, Jumping Stagecoach
The stagecoach of western films is not a North Carolina Stagecoach.
North Carolina stagecoach service was a critical piece of the state’s early transportation mix. But we may have an unrealistic idea of what it was like to travel in one.
For those of us who spent a not insignificant portion of our youth sitting in a darkened movie theater, leaning forward in our seats, mesmerized by scenes of the wild west, the stagecoach is part of our shared remembrance. Across a stark, but majestic landscape the stage clips along smartly and smoothly (unless, of course it is being pursued by “hostiles”), its passengers jostled just enough to suggest motion, but comfortable in their travels.
That image would have struck North Carolina stagecoach passengers as a utopian hallucination.
Before the arrival of railroads, if you wanted to travel a long distance, the stagecoach was the way to go.
From colonial days until steam-powered rail came on the scene in the mid 19th century, regularly scheduled coach service was the most efficient way for a traveler to cover long distances.
Coaches would stop at 10 to 15 mile intervals, or stages, to take on a fresh team of from 2 to 4 horses. (In the rough terrain of the North Carolina mountains, often 6-horse teams were used, and the stages were reduced to 8 to 10 miles. The stopping places began to be referred to as “stages,” and eventually, the name was applied to the vehicles themselves. Running this kind of business or even traveling in this manner became know as “staging.”
The accommodations on this line are excellent – having good coaches, able horses and experienced drivers. This is the speediest and shortest route for those who are traveling either westwardly or eastwardly, as it harmonizes with the Salem NC and Greenville line, which runs 50 to 60 miles a day. FARE – 6 1/4 cents per mile.
The North Carolina stagecoach connecting Morganton and Asheville may have traveled 60 miles in a day, but that would have been a long day on the road. Stagecoaches averaged only 8 to 10 mile per hour on the best roads, and far less on most roads in North Carolina. It was commonly accepted that if a stagecoach arrived at its destination on the day of its scheduled arrival, it was “on time.” And stagecoach travel was not for the faint of heart.
Even at the best of times, a North Carolina stagecoach passenger's ticket did not buy comfort.
Personal comfort was a stranger to stage travel, especially in the early days. In colonial times, coaches were simply heavy wagons with crude or nonexistent suspension. Passengers rode from dawn to evening on backless, unpadded wooden benches. In inclement weather, passengers enjoyed scant protection from a flat roof mounted on simple support posts and from roll-down leather curtains. In fair weather the side curtains were left open for ventilation and a view, but that meant passengers were subjected to clouds of dust kicked up by the team of horses and by the coach wheels. Curtains up or down, the inside of a stagecoach tended to be freezing in cold weather and stifling in hot.
John Bernard, and English actor touring the American south around 1800, described his stagecoach experience:
The said wagon was a mere oblong, unpainted box, with three seats nailed across, and without springs or cushions, a little grease on the wheels supplying the place of the former, and a scanty sprinkling of straw the place of the latter luxury, while the horses drew us along at a villainous jog-trot, too slow for a hackney coach and too fast for a funeral.
A mile’s ride was about the most powerful experience on one’s anatomy a man could desire.
Stagecoaches improved over the years, becoming more enclosed, as in the egg-shaped box in the picture at the top of this page. Later stagecoaches also featured more cushioning suspensions. In the early 1800, these were simple leather straps, but later on they were steel leaf springs.
After a long day on the coach, travelers had more to endure at their accommodation stopovers.
After spending a long dusty day being jostled in the coach, a traveler was unlikely to find healthy food and a restful night of sleep at a stage stopover. North Carolina accommodations were notoriously difficult. Women travelers were often crammed into one room, while males slept two to a bed. Personal hygiene was accomplished at a horse trough in the stage yard. The food was commonly dismissed as unpalatable.
Stagecoach accidents, mechanical failures, and bog-downs were so common as to be expected.
Given the pitiful state of North Carolina roads, stagecoaches were prone to all manner of unscheduled stoppages. In deep mud, with the horses straining to move forward, passengers were frequently asked to climb down and walk, or even to throw their weight into pushing the coach. When wheels sank into he mire so far that the coach became completely bogged down, all hands were called on to extricated it with whatever tools were at hand.
Harriet Martineau, an English novelist and essayist traveling in America in the 1830s, described such a scene and the ready remedy:
…we proceeded without incident, though very slowly, till daylight. Then the stage sank down in a deep rut, and the horses struggled in vain. We were informed that we were ‘mired,’ and must all get out… The driver carries an axe, as part of the stage apparatus. He cuts down a young tree, for a lever, which is introduced under the nave of the sunken wheel; a log serving for a block. The gentlemen passengers all help; shouting to the horses, which tug and scramble as vigorously as the gentlemen… This is pretty to watch once, but wearisome when it occurs ten times a day.
New York Daily Times reporter Frederick Law Olmsted had better luck with mud holes in his 1850s travel. But his account reflects the experienced passenger’s stoic acceptance of the odds of a coach actually tipping over.
The road was as bad as anything under the name of a road can be conceived to be. Wherever the adjoining swamps, fallen trees, stumps, and plantation fences would admit of it, the coach was driven, with a great deal of dexterity, out of the road. When the wheels sunk in the mud, below the hubs, we were sometimes requested to get out and walk. An upset seemed at every moment inevitable. At length it came.
Olmsted remembered his stagecoach stopping at an inn in Weldon NC for dinner. Finishing his meal, he strolled outside only to discover that the stage had already departed. He ran after the coach and in about 30 minutes, he overtook it. Now a passenger again, he estimated that the stagecoach traveled about 14 miles in 4 hours. And he noted that the quality and speed of travel improved for the last 10 miles of his trip when the stagecoach was using a newly constructed plank road.
Englsh actress Fanny Kemble captured the turbulent quality of 1830s American stagecoach travel:
Oh, these coaches! English eye hath not seen, English ear hath not heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of Englishman to conceive the surpassing clumsiness and wretchedness of these leathern inconveniences. Away wallopped the four horses, trotting with their front, and galloping with their hind legs: and away went we after them, bumping, thumping, jumping, jolting, shaking, toss ing and tumbling, over the wickedest road, I do think, the cruelest, hard-heartedest road, that ever wheel rumbled upon. Through bog and marsh, and ruts, wider and deeper than any Christian ruts I ever saw, with the roots of trees protruding across our path, their boughs every now and then giving us an affectionate scratch through the windows; and, more than once, a half-demolished trunk or stump lying in the middle of the road lifting us up, and letting us down again, with most awful variations of our poor coach body from its natural position. Bones of me!
Of course you could argue that Fanny Kemble’s reservations about American stagecoaches were simply a reflection of her experience with the relatively smooth roads and more refined coaches of England. She freely admitted that her American fellow-passengers did not seem to mind.
Even my father’s solid proportions could not keep their level, but were jerked up to the roof and down again every three minutes. Our companions seemed nothing dismayed by these wondrous performances of a coach and four, but laughed and talked incessantly.
Maybe their nonchalance was because the other passengers understood that despite the jolting discomfort, when traveling long distances, the stagecoach was as good as it got.