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Lawton B. Evans

Traveling by Stage‑Coach

I N early Colonial days, the pioneers had to walk or go by canoe from one village or settlement to another. Later on, the trails were improved to the extent that horses could be used; and for a long time this was the only means of travel. Women and children usually rode on a pillion, or on cushions behind a man. Sometimes pack horses followed, carrying the household goods, or provisions for the journey.

One way by which four persons could ride, at least part of the distance, was known as the "ride-and-tie system." Two of the four persons started ahead on foot. The other two, mounted on the saddle and pillion, rode about a mile past the two who were walking, dismounted, tied the horse and walked on. When the two, who had first started, came to the waiting horse, they mounted, rode on past the walking two ahead of them for a mile or more, dismounted, tied the horse and again proceeded to walk. In this way, all four rode half the distance, and the horse had a rest every few miles.

The mail, what there was of it, was carried by post-riders on horseback. The postage was very high, and was paid for by the person receiving the letter,—if he ever received it! It took about a month to send a letter from New York to Boston, and to get a reply. The mail generally lay in the post-rider's house till he had enough to pay for the trip. When the mail was delivered, it was laid on the table at an inn, and any one could have his letter by paying the innkeeper the postage.

After the Revolution, the roads were widened and made better than the old trails. Hence, wagons, or stage-coaches, came into use for transportation. Traveling by stage-coach lasted until the time of the railroads, and indeed still later in some places in the West. The stage between New York and Philadelphia made the trip in two days, provided the weather was good. From New York to Boston took a week's hard riding.

A passenger from Boston to New York thus describes his journey:

"The carriages were old and shackling, and much of the harness made up of ropes. One pair of horses carried us eighteen miles. We generally reached our resting place for the night, if no accident interfered, at ten o'clock, and, after a frugal supper, went to bed, with a notice that we should be called at three next morning, which generally proved to be half past two. And then, whether it snowed or rained, the traveler must rise and make ready, by the help of a lantern and a farthing candle, and proceed on his way over bad roads, sometimes getting out to help the coachman lift the coach out of a quagmire or rut, and arrived in New York after a week's hard traveling, wondering at the ease, as well as the expedition, with which the journey was effected."

On good days, in the spring and summer, travel by stagecoach was not disagreeable. The horses were generally good and strong, and the coach rattled along fairly well. The driver had a long horn which he blew when he approached a stopping-place, so as to let the people know the stage was coming. The stops were frequent, and when the coach drove up to a tavern or inn, the passengers would get out for a meal, or else stretch themselves by taking a short walk.

Some of the turnpikes were beautiful and splendid roads. The way from Albany to Schenectady, New York, ran in a straight line, between rows of poplars, with many taverns along the route. Relays of horses were provided every ten miles; teams were changed in a few minutes; and with blowing of horns the coach would merrily depart. It was not at all unusual, over the fine roads, to make one hundred miles in twenty-four hours.


All the weather was not spring time!

But all the roads were not good ones; some of them were very bad indeed. And all the weather was not spring time! In the dead of winter, over a bad road, a stagecoach was anything but pleasant to ride in. There was no way of heating it, and the passengers had to endure hours of freezing cold, with much jolting and hard pulling over bad places. Sometimes, the coach stuck hard and fast in the mud, when all hands had to get out and pull and dig until the wheels were released.

Sometimes the driver had to call to the passengers to lean out of the carriage, first on one side and then on the other, to prevent it from over-turning or sticking in a ditch. "Gentlemen, to the right," he would call, upon which all the passengers would rush to the right and lean out of the windows to balance things. "Now, gentlemen, to the left," he would say, and the same thing would be done on the left side.

Along the road were inns or taverns for the travelers. Here, the weary passengers could take their meals, get warm by the fire, and find a bed at night. The cooking was good, the food abundant, and the beds usually comfortable. The charge was not high. One can well imagine how welcome these wayside taverns were to the cold, hungry, and tired folks, when they drove up at dark on a winter's day, to find a blazing fire in the big front room with its raftered ceilings, a hot supper ready on the table, and a warm bed to sleep in. What matter if they did have to rise by candle light, and be on their way! Nobody traveled for pleasure, anyway, in those days, and so necessity made the hardships endurable.

Many of these taverns had very curious signs hanging outside, with names upon them, such as "The Red Horse,"  "The Bear and Eagle,"  "The Anchor,"  "The Blue Jay,"  "The Twin Bogs"; and often these signs would be painted to represent the name itself. Even the rooms were sometimes named, instead of being numbered, as in modern hotels. Such names as the "Star Chamber,"  "Rose Room,"  "Sunrise Room,"  "Blue Room," and even "Jerusalem Room" were common.

As one journeyed south, the roads were not so good and the taverns less frequent; because few people traveled by stages in the southern country. Those who traveled at all went in their own coaches, or by horseback. But there were some coaches going over the rough highways, and it was the universal custom for the planters to open their doors for meals and lodging. Eager for news and company they would order their negroes to stand at the gates, and to invite the passers-by to come into the house to be entertained.

Gone is the old stage-coach, with its picturesque history! Nowadays we speed at the rate of a mile a minute over smooth rails, and lay down to sleep to find ourselves several hundred miles away when we awake in the morning.