Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1984 Volume 22 Number 3, Pages 89–94

The Stage Coach

Grace Winthrop

Page 89

The stage coach is somewhat less well-known than the Conestoga wagons; it usually went flying by them, with prancing horses showering dust up into the teamsters' faces! In fact, while the "Conestoga wagon" is included in the indexes of many books, seldom do you find anything under "Stage coach". Most of the information about stage coaches comes from descriptions of inns along the roadway and the places where they stopped. But they certainly were an important part of the early transportation scene.

Stage coaches were seldom seen outside of Philadelphia until after the Revolution. In fact, at the time of the Revolution there were only eighteen coaches in the whole Province, most of them private coaches of the "aristocrats". The general public either walked or rode horseback.

The earliest settlers used the narrow Indian trails as their first land routes of communication. These trails were usually only two or three feet wide, so the white man blazed the trees on each side and made what were known as "bridlepaths" for horseback travel.

When traveling, the men rode on a saddle, with the women riding behind them on pads or cushions, called pillions. The pillion was attached to the rear of the saddle, and strapped to the horse.

For hauling goods long distance, pack horse trains were used. These trains began as neighborhood enterprises, in what at that time was the western part of the Province. Neighboring families would collect their pelts and furs, usually in the early fall, and send them by pack horse into Philadelphia for barter.

Page 90

A master driver was chosen, with several assistants, to take the goods into town. Two men could handle twelve or fifteen ponies, which were preferred to large horses. The average load was 180 to 200 pounds, and the average speed was about 15 miles a day.

The pack horses walked single file, led by the caravan captain. The halter of each horse was tied to the pack saddle or tail of the horse in front of it. At the rear was a man who checked to keep the packs balanced. Feed bags were carried and dropped at convenient places on the way, for use on the return trip. Food bags, usually filled with bread and cheese, were also carried by the men.

At night the horses were fed and hobbled, their bells and stuffed packs laid aside. If lucky, the men would go into an inn for the night. (The old "Blue Ball" was a favorite stopping place for these pack trains.)

Because of the bad roads, the earliest conveyances were a heavy cover-Jersey wagon, imported from England. It had straight sides, three or four movable wooden benches - and no springs.

Up to the time of the Revolution, roads for the most part were still merely opened, not constructed. Little more than Indian trails - usually no more than eight feet wide - they ran through woods and fields. Not infrequently there were abrupt turns, where an irate farmer would not remove a fence to allow the road to cross his field and the road simply had to go around it. Trees were cut down, but the stumps and brush often were not removed. The traveler had to carry an axe and a shovel to clear these obstacles out of his way.

As a result, travel by land was both dangerous and costly, and undertaken only when absolutely necessary. Elizabeth Drinker, going from Philadelphia to Lancaster, for example, wrote in her diary on April 9, 1778, "This day we forded three large rivers, the Conestoga ye last, which came into ye carriage and wet our feet, and frightened more than one of us."

After the Revolution, in part in response to pressure from the Lancaster County farmers, the Commonwealth embarked upon a program of road construction that made Pennsylvania foremost among all states in this respect. More money was spent in Pennsylvania for the improvement of its roads from 1790 to 1793 than had been spent from the beginning of the colony up to that time, from 1681 to 1789.

At the same time, as an incentive to American wheelwrights to enter into the construction of heavy coaches, a 45% tariff was imposed on imported vehicles. In 1794 847 carriages were taxed in Philadelphia: 33 were stages, 157 coachees, 35 chariots, 22 phaetons, 80 light wagons, and 520 chairs and sulkies.

Page 91

Up until the 1820's, most of our stages, or four-in-hands, as they were called, were still being imported from England. But after that, American carriage makers began turning out handsome coaches in great numbers. Many of them were made in Concord, New Hampshire, and were called Rockaway coaches. They were painted red, with gold stripes and lettering, and lined with red plush. For greater passenger comfort, they were also equipped with cushioned seats, and had heavy leather springs.

The craftsmen of the carriage trade were the wheelwright, the trimmer, and the painter. Great care was taken in the decorative scenes painted on the door pansls of the coaches; on order forms it was requested "ornament up rich and tasty", "flowers and also landscape", "a fancy lady on horseback".

These coaches were drawn by four horses. The driver sat up on a high seat in front. He carried a whip with a hickory stock and a buckskin lash, ten or twelve feet long, with a silk cracker at its end.

Ten passengers made a full load, nine inside the coach and one up beside the driver. Trunks were carried on the roof.

A "coachee" was an American type carriage, used by many stage lines. Its body was longer than that of the regular stage coach, but had the same shape. It had C-springs, made of hickory wood. The driver sat on a bench in front, under the roof. Passengers entered from the rear, and sat on two benches, facing the front. (They had to climb over the rear bench to reach the front one,) The roof was supported by four posts, placed at the corners. It was an open carriage, but in bad weather curtains could be let down from the roof and fastened to buttons on the sides.

A coach known as the "Tally-Ho" became very popular in the early nineteenth century. It was first brought to this country from England by a Colonel Delancy Kane, and used in New York, It was a heavy, closed coach, and soon was seen everywhere. The Alert Line used Tally-Ho'son the Lancaster Turnpike. (This is the type of coach we most often see now on Christmas cards. One of them was stored for many years up in the Slaymaker barn.)

The stage driver was "king of the road" from about 1760 to 1840, At the height of the Turnpike Era, it was not uncommon to see as many as fifteen stage coaches in continuous procession. (Actually, Tally-Ho's and similar coaches were used in cities and towns as taxis right up to the First World War.)

Since one of the most important early roads was the Provincial Road, or Lancaster Road, running through Tredyffrin and Easttown, stage lines were passing through this area from an early date. The "General Paoli" Inn, opened in 1769, was a hub of this traffic.

Page 92

The first attempt to run a stage line from Philadelphia to Lancaster was made in July 1777, It took two days to go the sixty miles, the road was in such bad condition. During the spring season, at certain places it was impassable, and the line was soon abandoned.

It was not until 1784 that a line was actually able to operate successfully along the road, which was still in wretched condition, especially in the spring. Often the coaches would be so deep in mire that the male passengers would have to get out and walk up the hills, and even sometimes help the coachman push the coach along the way.

But it was the construction of the Lancaster Turnpike that made coach travel - and, in fact, all land transportation - really practical. It was opened in 1794, and brought significant stage traffic through this area. It was the first turnpike in America, and was called "a masterpiece of its kind" many years later. Laid out for the most part along the old Lancaster Road roadbed, it was built with an 18-inch stone base.

Martin Slough ran the first successful stage line along this new road in 1795. It left Lancaster at 5 o'clock in the evening, and arrived in Philadelphia at 5 o'clock the next morning. Each coach carried ten passengers.

After 1800, as the good roads movement began to make headway further to the west, stage coach travel increased rapidly. John Tomlinson ran the first line from Philadelphia to Pittsburg in 1804. It was the first regular stage line to cross the Appalachians. It left Market Street in Philadelphia every Friday morning, and arrived in Pittsburg, by way of Harrisburg, in seven days. The fare was $20, with twenty pounds of baggage free. This stage stopped at the "Paoli".

By this time, it also became apparent that the federal government had to find a better way to carry mail between Philadelphia and the west. The first public notice of a new mail operation appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper on June 13, 1804, under the heading "Philadelphia and Pittsburg Mail Stage". "A contract Is being made with the Postmaster General of the United States," it was announced, "for carrying of the mail to and from Philadelphia and Pittsburg in stage wagons, a line of stages will be in operation in July next. It will start from John Tomlinson's 'Spread Eagle', Market Street, Philadelphia and terminate in seven days at Thomas Ferree's 'Fountain Inn' Water Street, Pittsburg. Printed details may be had at different stage houses, giving distance and times of arrival at the several towns along the way."

The first run of the new mail line was made on July 4, 1804. The stage to make this historic run was drawn up in front of Tomlinson's "Spread Eagle", at 8th and Market streets. The bridles on the horses were decorated with red, white and blue ribbons. The mail was ceremoniously placed in the "boot" and the honored passengers took their seats inside the coach. The driver and armed guard took their places on the box; the lines were tightened; the whip cracked; and away they went, amid the cheers of the assembled crowd.

Page 93

The stage was greeted with cheers and well wishes at every tavern along the Turnpike, but it stopped in this area only at the "Buck", the "Spread Eagle", and the "Paoli" for quick liquid refreshment. It was the "Warren" that had the honor of serving the dinner. At two o'clock the stage came dashing down the Valley Hill and through the toll gate at the 20th milestone. With six sharp blasts from his bugle, the guard gave the innkeeper, Casper Fahnstock, the signal he was to have dinner ready. Fahnstock came out personally to greet his guests as they alighted. A large crowd had gathered around the inn for the historic event, and cold punch was served in the yard. After a few toasts, the guests went in to dinner. Outside, the crowd had improvised a cannon, and load after load of shots were fired in honor of the occasion. After dinner, a relay team was hooked up, and with a few more toasts and handshakes, the coach was off again.

This line was known as the "Good Intent Line". It made 35 regular tavern stops between the two cities. It carried passengers as well as the mail.

When stage coaches first appeared west of the Susquehanna River, they met bitter opposition from the pioneer pack men, who feared that this new method of transportation would soon put them out of business - and rightly so! They overturned stages at every chance they got, and the coachmen retaliated by crowding the pack horses off the road.

The following schedule of stage coaches was posted on the wall at the "Paoli" in 1814:

Baltimore Stage Turnpike Route via Lancaster. Leaves 2nd, 4th day of week
Harrisburg Stage Every day, Seventh day only excepted
Carlisle Stage
Columbia Stage
The Pittsburg Stage via Harrisburg
The Lancaster Stage a daily line leaving High and Eighth streets at 7 o'clock in the morning
York Stage
The Valley Stage from No. 18 N. Fourth street. 3rd, 5th, and 7th days at 8 a.m.
The Westtown School from No. 80 High street. Every 4th and 7th day

By 1823 there were eleven principal stage lines operating daily along the Lancaster Turnpike and stopping at the "Paoli": the Berwick, the Downingtown, the Harrisburg Coachee, the Harrisburg Stage, the Lancaster Accommodation, the Lancaster and Pittsburg Mail, the Mifflin and Lewistown via Harrisburg, the Philadelphia and Pittsburg by way of York, the Pittsburg via Harrisburg, and the Philadelphia and West Chester. The standard fare was now six cents a mile, and the average speed was ten miles an hour.

Page 94

Many of the innkeepers along the road operated with the stage lines and furnished them teams. The teams were relayed from inn to inn, approximately every twelve miles. Teams were changed in a twinkling of an eye. The moment the coach came to a halt, the driver, who did not leave his seat, threw down the reins. Almost instantly, the in-coming team was detached, with a fresh one taking its place, and the reins thrown back to the driver. Away he went, full speed, with the usual group of loafers meanwhile looking on and enjoying the exciting scene.

Thomas B. Searight wrote this account of stage coach travel in 1825: "Excitement followed in the wake of the stage coaches, all along the road. Their arrival in town was the leading event of the day and they were so regular that farmers along the road knew the exact hour by their coming." (This was on the Turnpike; the schedules were still "subject to change" on the back roads, many of which were still in quite poor condition.)

Another writer of about the same period wrote: "At dusk when we stopped at the Paoli to water the horses and brandy the gentlemen the busy scene round the Inn by the roadside, with several great four-horse stages pouring forth their cargoes by the dozen, would have furnished material for a page in the sketch book."

Even though some of these old accounts make stage travel seem exciting and romantic, in reality it was more often dangerous and exhausting. The main hazards to the traveler were the poor roads, robbers along the way, and drunken drivers. Often, especially in cold weather, good-hearted passengers would treat the driver to a glass of toddy at every stopping place. If the weather was very bad and the journey long, many times the driver and his male passengers would be showing heavy symptons of intoxication by the last stop of the day!

The coaches, of course, were not heated, so in cold weather footwarmers were used. Most of them were of the type where charcoal was put into a little tin box in a wooden frame. Another type was a metal container, often of copper, which was filled with hot water and tucked under the coat, in the same manner as a hot water bottle today. It was also used in the bedroom to warm up the tavern bed, and was especially popular with the women.

As with the Conestoga wagon, the coming of the railroad also brought about the end of most stage coach travel along the Turnpike. But for about eighty years the stage and its driver were "king of the road", carrying the mail and providing passenger travel between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pittsburg, and other western cities.


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