Stagecoach Differences

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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“If I’d only known then what I know now.”  It’s a thought that many of us have probably uttered before. In my case, if I’d had any idea of how diverse, complicated, and extensive the workings of America’s first transportation industry actually were, I’m not sure I would have jumped into the study so whole-heartedly in the first place. Then again, it’s tough to not be captivated by something with so many mysteries yet to be solved. As it is, the subject is faithful to regularly give up secrets, albeit slowly. So, I find myself constantly immersed in this hunt for history; waiting in anticipation for what’s uncovered next. Through all of the research, one of the things I continue to notice is the huge number of accurate but overly-generic references to so many of our country’s early rides. 

Case in point… Terms like road wagon, mountain wagon, freight wagon, spring wagon, and even the phrase ‘covered wagon’ are all common identifiers of American horse-drawn vehicles. While the names seem to offer sufficient descriptions, there’s often much more information needed to paint an accurate image of each design. In fact, one of the greatest challenges to understanding these (and other) basic classifications is that each of the names can refer to various types of transports.    

As confusing as the above examples might be, the term “stagecoach” is often applied to a multiplicity of designs. As a result, without a photo, it’s not always easy to correctly imagine what the title of ‘coach’ or ‘stage’ is referring to. There were a host of four-wheeled creations that were used and labeled as a stage. 

In the absence of information, it’s often assumed that a reference to a coach must mean that we’re talking about a heavy Abbot-Downing-style Concord. While these particular designs are iconic, it’s this type of mass generalization that can make it difficult to get an accurate perception of transportation in the Old West. Yes, Abbot-Downing Concords played a very prominent role in a large part of the American frontier. Likewise, so did many other commercial vehicles carrying both passengers and packages.  Some builders of these stages even borrowed the “Concord” designation to describe a coach that was considerably different than the legendary Abbot-Downing patterns originating the name. Legendary builder, M.P. Henderson of Stockton, California, is just one of the vehicle makers that capitalized on the popularity of the Concord moniker by attaching it to their own stage designs. 

Labeled as being built by Lewis Downingin 1851, this Hotel-style Concord coach is just one of the variations that wereproduced in Concord, New Hampshire.

Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were numerous types of vehicles serving as stages in the eastern portions of the U.S.  At the same time, the collective hauling of mail, passengers, express packages, money, and gold was handled by an equally diverse group of transports in the West. From coast to coast, these old wheels took on a variety of titles. They may have been referred to as a Mud wagon, Stage wagon, Overland wagon, Celerity wagon, Passenger wagon, Passenger hack, Mail hack, Mail coach, Mail jerky, Western coach, Concord coach, Mountain wagon, or any number of other names that could (and usually did) vary in style and construction. Making things even more convoluted, this overview of stage nomenclature doesn’t include all of the coach vehicles used for cities, hotels, and touring.  In still more instances, even covered farm wagons are known to have been occasionally used as a stage.  Due to trail/road conditions, vehicle availability, acquisition costs, serviceability, individual manufacturer styles, loads to be hauled, passenger requirements, or a multitude of other reasons, it was common to see a fair amount of diversity in commercial stage designs. 

While many stages in the American West were mounted on a suspension of springs or thoroughbraces, that observation could easily be where construction similarities stopped.  When comparing side-by-side photos of these old vehicles, a particular set of wheels may – or may not – have a tripler each, single reach, lamps, full-length side springs, thoroughbraces, open top, enclosed body, raised driver’s seat, fixed rear boot, folding rear rack, footbrake, hand brake, roof rack, side curtains, round top, flat top,  wood hubs, Sarven hubs, dodged spokes, drop tongue/pole, stiff tongue, bunters, 6 horse hitch, mule hitch… Whew!  Well, you get the picture.  It’s impossible to corral and strictly define a single group of features that encompassed every early stage. 

This period image from the Americanplains shows 2 different styles of mud coaches as well as a smaller stagewagon.  One of the mud wagons is drawn bymules.

Working to get a better understanding of the variety of designs and regional distinctions, we’ve spent decades searching for and acquiring original, period imagery. Looking through the collection of tintypes, daguerreotypes, CDV’s,cabinet cards, glass plates, stereoviews, and even real photo postcards in theWheels That Won The West® Archives,it’s easy to see the wide range of vehicles used as coaches throughout the U.S.    

To that point, I recently came across anold photo showing a pair of touring coaches in California.  While one is a typical open-sided design resting on a thoroughbrace suspension, the other is equipped with side elliptical springs similar to those positioned front and rear on a Dougherty wagon.  Also unique, the spring-mounted coach utilized a dual-block braking system on the rear wheels. Specifically, I’m referring to the use of four brake blocks – one in front of and one behind each of the rear wheels.  I’ve seen this twin “brake-clamping” of the rear wheel before but, typically, it’s been associated with wagons doing heavy freighting in rugged, mountainous terrain. Finding this configuration on a stage is akin to discovering yet another needle in a haystack.  Again and again, we’ve been fortunate to uncover a world of forgotten and lost details related to America’s first transportation industry. Ultimately, these types of encounters not only help us avoid false assumptions but also provide a more complete picture of what was truly happening in the West. 
This small stage has been traced to service in the AngelsCamp, California region.  While the maker of this piece is unknown, similar vehicles were made by avariety of builders – including M.P. Henderson and Abbot-Downing.  

When it comes to carrying passengers, stages weren’t the only means of commercial transportation. Inside cities and larger communities, conveyances like omnibuses, Herdic coaches, Accommodations, Wagonettes, Depot wagons, Station wagons, and livery vehicles were a common sight at train stations and along community streets.    

So, ultimately, what’s the definition of a staging vehicle?  Clearly, the look of these wheels can be incredibly diverse and different regions were known for using different designs.  Recognizing the need to first identify the type of stage, (touring, western, hotel, city, mud wagon, stage wagon, etc.) perhaps the most encompassing definition would include points like… a four-wheeled, commercial vehicle typically drawn by 2 to 6 equine (sometimes even oxen) and dedicated to hauling passengers, packages/express, and luggage with many also carrying money, mail, and gold.  For a longer definition of the design (reflecting more of its complexity), you can find details in Don Berkebile’s book, “Carriage Terminology: An Historical Dictionary.”   

Still more information can be gleaned from the articles and presentations of well-known stagecoach authority, Ken Wheeling. He’s researched and written extensively on the subject for decades.  You’ll find a few of his coach articles in the following issues of “The Carriage Journal” – Summer 1993, Fall 1993, Winter 1993, August 2001, October 2005, October 2008, March 2009, and October 2016.  These are far from being Mr. Wheeling’s only writings but they do give a good overview of stages and coaches and the challenges associated with their study.

Have a great week!

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
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