Over the years, countless reports havebeen shared regarding the challenges of stage coach travel in the AmericanWest. One of my favorite bookscataloging many of these events was authored seventy-five years ago, in 1942,by Mae Héléne Bacon Boggs. The title ofthe large tome is My Playhouse Was AConcord Coach. The anthologyincludes a vast collection of newspaper accounts and related photos. It’s not a piece that comes available toooften but if it’s not a part of your early vehicle library, I’d encourage youto stay vigilant for a copy.
Reinforcing the obstacles to coaching inthe West, the book includes numerous stories profiling encounters with weather,water, bandits, animals, rock slides, mud slides, and generally poorroads. Complications from soft edges onmountain paths, rocks, holes, and even strong winds consistently wreaked havocon the drivers, horses, passengers, and vehicles. As a result, the rugged terrain was littered withproblems from axles, hounds, tongues, brake beams, rough lock chains, wheels,king bolts, and other weakened or broken vehicle parts.
While many of these hurdles wereunavoidable, there were times when a little extra attention to detail couldhave made a huge difference. Such wasthe case in 1874 when a loose brake block rendered the downhill trip of a coachinto a catastrophe. Asreported by the Yreka Journal onDecember 30, 1874...
“... It seems that the block on the brake had comeoff, and in descending Myrtle Creek hill the horses became unmanageable and ranaway. Near the foot of the hill, inmaking a curve in the road the stage upset, and was uncoupled.”
In this particular incident, the loss ofa brake block allowed the coach to push and spook the horses as they felt thevehicle bearing down and hitting them. It was an oversight with life-altering results. It’s a good reminder that regular attentionto vehicles and equipment is important – even in the seemingly smallthings.
|Mud wagon stages ran throughout theWest. This original image was taken in Casper,Wyoming and is one of several hundred period coach photos preserved in the Wheels That Won The West®Archives.
Another old article tucked within thepages of My Playhouse Was A Concord Coachcontained a brief reference to Abbot-Downing’s coach #259. On page 511, the photo of the legendaryshipment of thirty Concord Coaches to Wells Fargo in Omaha was accompanied by anote indicating that Coach #259 was part of this shipment. As of 1935, the coach was still located “onthe portico of the museum in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Park,Wyoming.” This is yet another bit ofpublished data tying the coach that is now at the Gateway Arch Museum in St.Louis to the famed shipment made on April 15, 1868. The information from this brief accountbolsters the vehicle’s provenance while filling in some missing historical timeframes. For those who missed it, youmight want to look closer at Abbot-Downing’s coach #259 by checking out our April 5, 2017 blog post. As we’d mentioned in that post, we believethe original photo of the coach (in our Archives) will date to 1893 and notonly includes largely unknown heritage of the coach but what is likely the mostdetailed history of the surviving stage.
While many stage lines had facilitiesdedicated to repairing, re-painting, and maintaining coaches, the pressures ofschedules, general forgetfulness, and other obstacles could contribute to maintenanceoversights. Clearly, vehicles in regularand heavy use tended to need more attention than those only rented from thelivery on rare occasions. As we’vealready discussed, the consequences of negligence could range broadly; fromminor inconveniences to financially costly or even life-threateningresults. In 1901, Frank Root and WilliamConnelley published a work entitled TheOverland Stage to California. Relatively early on in the book, an encounter is described that tookplace during the summer of 1863 near the Little Blue River...
“...Now and thensome rather strange things occurred on the ‘Overland.’ It was imperative that the stage-coach axlesbe greased (or rather “doped” as the boys used to call it) at every ‘home’station, and these were from twenty-five to fifty miles apart. This duty had time and again been impressedupon the drivers by the division agents, but occasionally one of them wouldforget the important work. As a naturalconsequence the result would be a ‘hot box.’
One afternoonearly in the summer of 1863, while we were on the rolling prairies near theLittle Blue River, one of the front wheels of the stage was suddenly cloggedand would not turn. On examination, itwas found to be sizzling hot. The stagehad to stop and wait until the axle cooled off. As soon as practicable, the driver took off the wheel and made an inspection,the passengers and messenger holding up the axle. On further examination, it was found that thespindle had begun to ‘cut,’ and there was no alternative but to ‘dope it’before we could go any farther. But wewere stumped; there was no ‘dope’ on the stage.
The driver, anold-timer at staging, suggested, ‘since necessity is the mother of invention,’that as a last resort he would bind a few blades of grass around the spindle,which he was certain would run us part way to the station, and we could stopand repeat the experiment. But one ofthe passengers chanced to have a piece of cheese in his grip sack, and a littleof it was sliced off and applied; and it worked admirably, and was sufficientto run the coach safely to the next station, where the difficulty was quicklyremedied by application of the proper ‘dope.’”
|This century-plus-old illustration wasincluded with the “hot box” story above from The Overland Stage to California.
So much has changed over the last 150years but vehicle maintenance and lubrication is just as important to all formsof transportation. More pertinent to thestories above, wheel bearings can still overheat and brake systems always deserveregular attention.
Finally, with so many airline ‘seat’issues being covered in the news these days, I thought I’d pass along one morestory from The Overland Stage toCalifornia. In this case, thepassenger not only paid for her seat but made it clear her spot was notavailable to any other...
“... A rather amusing and somewhat ludicrous sceneoccurred in the summer of 1864 at Cottonwood Springs. There had been some fresh Indian troublesalong the Platte between Cottonwood and Fort Kearney, and the division agenthad prudently exercised his prerogative by holding for two or three days allthe stages at the former place until the road was deemed safe to travel. While the agent was getting the firsteast-bound coach in readiness for its departure, he stated that the throughpassengers would have precedence over those from Denver.
It happened thatthere was a woman from Denver... she was ‘chief engineer of a millinery shopand ran a sewing machine.’ Afterlistening attentively to the agents remarks, and when the coach was about readyto depart – the passengers discussing among themselves who would and who wouldnot go on the first coach – she opened with her ‘chin music,’ as follows: ‘Here are passengers from California, Nevada,Salt Lake, Idaho, and Montana. I supposeDenver is nowhere; but I’ll play that I take the back seat’; and into the coachshe climbed – and she ‘held the fort.’ She had paid full fare, had arrived at the Springs from Denver on thefirst coach, and, being armed with a revolver, dared them to detain her.”
While seat reservations are still in strong demand within commercial travel, we definitely don't advise packin' heat on your next plane ride. Times and safety considerations have changed dramatically and the outcome would clearly be a lot different today than with the determined coach rider above. Nonetheless, from business to politics and everythingin between, there were all kinds of happenings surrounding America’s firsttransportation industry. The term ‘WildWest’ was certainly well earned. Overand over again, the vehicles and brands from these days had a front row seat tovirtually all of the action. Discoveringwho was doing what, when, where, how, and why makes up a large part of oureveryday studies. It’s a pursuit thatnot only helps us better understand our nation’s first wheels but,increasingly, separates fact from fiction while opening even more doors ofdrama and opportunities to preserve history.Please Note: As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved. The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC