Cheryl Anne Stapp
The Old Stage Lines
Stagecoach travel in California’s 1850s Gold Rush era— and beyond—was no sedate buggy ride in the park. Passengers frequently complained that they arrived at their destinations clinging to their hats and checking their teeth for loose molars. According to them, they’d been “jostled near out of their insides” by the coach’s up and down, side to side, spine-crunching swings as it clattered along rugged flat-ground roads or—much worse—along narrow mountain roads, skirting breath-taking precipices at a death-defying 10 miles an hour.
There were plenty of other discomforts. Hard-bodied coaches such as the magnificent Concord (and its imitators) that were manufactured for rough California roads had no glazed windows (lest the windows shatter); and canvas-topped mud wagons had cloth sides that were usually rolled up. The Concord’s leather curtains and the mud wagon’s fastened-down cloth panels shielded passengers from the worst of inclement weather, but neither curtains nor panels, which effectively kept passengers in the dark, kept freezing cold from seeping in. Summer weather brought different tribulations to endure, because the interior of a Concord coach could heat to the level of a low-degree oven. While passengers in open-paneled mud wagons suffered less stifling conditions, the dust constantly kicked up by the horses’ hooves around every make or model of coach filled the air, permeating luggage, hats, hair and skin—at times covering passengers so thoroughly that everyone’s clothing and faces were one grimy color.
More than one passenger alighted from a California stagecoach vowing never to take another, yet for most, there was little choice. Unless one owned a wagon or saddle horses, travel by stagecoach was the primary mode of public overland transportation for several decades—even after the railroads came—because railroad tracks, although ultimately extensive, didn’t extend into every little town or hamlet everywhere. California rivers offered more pleasant travel via steamboat, but rivers didn’t wend everywhere, either. At the end of the rail line, and at the river docks, stagecoaches stood waiting to carry people, baggage and mail to their final destinations through the 1890s.
But the day came when phrases such as “The old days of the stagecoach” were seen more often in various publications. The iron horse had supplanted trans-Sierra stage routes with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869; and the automobile finally rendered the California stagecoach obsolete in the early 20th century.