By Vicki A. Brady
In 1939, a relatively unknown actor, John Wayne, launched his career in John Ford’s classic film, Stagecoach. The movie is considered an influential, cinematic masterpiece, one of the top 100 films ever made. It is reported that Orson Wells viewed the motion picture more than 40 times as he prepared for his production, Citizen Kane. The film established the role of the stagecoach as an important feature of American history and legends.
While the stagecoach did have a place in America’s past, its role was not as glamorous as western films made it out to be. The coach lines were contracted by the Federal government for $600,000 annually, to haul mail across the continent. Passengers, payroll, and supplies were transported as additional revenue sources, but it was clear that they were secondary. If it was determined that a passenger and his luggage exceeded the weight limitations, the luggage would stay.
The Concord coaches were suspended with leather straps which provided a rocking motion as opposed to the teeth-jarring steel springs of other wagons. Windows were a curse and a blessing, allowing air-flow on hot, stifling days, but also permitting rain or snow in the winter. Some coaches were equipped with leather flaps that could be raised or lowered as needed. Glass was installed in other coaches but it was no match for the rough trails of the West.
The cost of stagecoach travel was considered expensive. Mark Twain recorded that he and his brother paid $200 apiece to travel from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, and that was probably First Class. First Class passengers paid extra for a full-ride trip. Second Class rode most of the way but would have to walk through troublesome stretches of road. Third class guests not only had to walk on treacherous roadways, they had to help push the coach up steep hills or on difficult roads. All of that, combined with cramped quarters, a lack of deodorant, infrequent bathing, road dust, and horse manure, takes the glamour out of the experience.
Going the Distance
The stagecoaches would travel approximately four miles an hour on average and cover 80 miles a day. A trip from St. Louis to Springfield would take nearly three days to complete, not the three hours we can drive in a car. Passengers were expected to sleep sitting up during the 12 to 14 hour travel day, without using their fellow passengers as pillows. A team of four to six horses could be changed out as much as three times on an 80 mile trip. By the time the sun went down, passengers and drivers were ready to crash. Most stagecoach stops provided meager accommodations as described in the diary of Christopher Columbus Andrews of 1856. He depicts a two-story lodge with small rooms and every bed taken. Even the floor had men and a dog using up every bit of floor space.
Our Own Backyard
At its peak, the Butterfield Overland Stage Company had 250 Concord stages, 139 relay stations, over 1,800 head of stock and over 800 employees. Even so, many of the stagecoach lines eventually went bankrupt. With the use of a center bench and passengers riding on top, stagecoaches could carry from six to twelve passengers at varying rates. The drivers, also known as “whips,” were the rock stars of the West and the captains of their ships. It was considered a great honor to be invited to sit next to him. If you were chosen for the honored seat, you were expected to handle a shotgun in the event of a raid or robbery, which gave birth to the jargon riding shotgun.
A popular route out of St. Louis was known as the Old Wire Road, named for the miles of telegraph wire it followed. The route was designated Route 14 but is better known as U.S. Route 66 or I-44. Halfway to its Springfield destination, the stagecoach would stop in Waynesville, Missouri at the Old Stagecoach Stop. Still standing, the two-story building is open to visitors on Saturdays, from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. from April through September. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. The two-story building was used as a stagecoach stop until it was commandeered by the Army during the War Between the States in 1862 and used as a hospital until 1865. By then the postal contracts with stagecoach lines were suspended in favor of the railway system.
Summer is approaching and with it comes long road trips with air conditioning, satellite radio, and motels with swimming pools, and hot breakfasts. When the kids are tempted to complain about how long, boring or hot the trip is, a history lesson, the movie Stagecoach, and a bowl of popcorn might be in order.