Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rock Ridge Stage Line

Welcome to Rock Ridge.

While entire books have been written and movies have been filmed about stagecoaches and the people in them, and everybody knows the name Wells Fargo, have you ever thought about what exactly the role of a stage line played in the mid to late 1800's America? Remember that this was a time when most of the threats of highwaymen and attacks by indigenous tribes, while in decline, were not yet gone. Even today we have carjacking and robbery of trucks carrying goods.

Long before everyone drove cars, before paved roads, and even before the railroads served more than the major cities, there was a need to transport goods and people from town to town. The average farmer/rancher/cowboy had a horse available to take trips, and maybe even a buckboard wagon or surrey if they were rich enough. Townspeople and businessmen generally didn't have the time or resources available to care for a horse and/or wagon that wasn't part of their daily work (those that could afford it used a livery stable -- a subject for a future article).

The Pony Express, despite all of the myths surrounding it, only ran for 18 months in 1860-61. The US Post Office used trains to move large quantities of mail between large cities, and stagecoaches to distribute it out to smaller towns. Freight was delivered by wagons from the company that sold it, or by freight companies hired for the job. If you lived and worked in a town or were traveling more than a day's horse ride from home and needed to go to another town, you probably took the stagecoach.

The name “stagecoach” comes from the fact that the “coach”, a well-sprung covered wagon, traveled a set route in “stages” between stations. The stage line stations were spaced as far apart as a set of horses (or mules) could safely drag a coach. The stations were a place for the drivers to switch out the horses, and let the passengers out to stretch their legs for a bit and take a bathroom break, before continuing the journey. Not all stations were in towns, but the ones that were would either provide lodging for overnight stays, or would be close to a hotel that could do so, if travel at night was not safe.

The main job of the station master was to make sure that a fresh set of horses was available for the coaches when they came in, with minor maintenance of the coaches and maybe feeding the passengers as a side job. Depending on the financial health of the line, a spare coach may have been available at a station to cover break-downs.

The coach itself evolved little over the 200 years or so that they were in common use. The passengers rode inside a covered wagon while the driver and guard, who usually carried a "coach gun" and gave us the phrase "riding shotgun", rode on top.  There was often a rear facing seat on the top for "steerage" class travel or extra guards. Luggage and freight was stowed on top and at the rear of the coach to make best use of the interior space.

Between two and six horses would be hitched together to pull the coach, the number determined by the size of the coach and the speed of travel.
Unsprung wagons with rigid wheels were limited to about 3 MPH before they started to shake themselves and their passengers to pieces, whereas the use of leather suspension or steel springs allowed a coach to travel at 10-12 MPH. The leather suspension style involved a frame attached to the axles with the cabin of the coach sitting on wide leather straps strung across the frame. This imparted more of a swaying motion to the ride rather than the up and down motion that you'd experience from springs. Steel bands on the wooden wheels made the wheels last longer on rough terrain and lightened the wheels themselves by requiring less wood to hold their shape. Doors and windows were accessories added as the weather demanded. 

Stage lines were private companies set up in towns and cities to provide a way to move people and small freight with some security. The "strongbox", a portable safe with the keys being held at the stations, was a common feature on stagecoaches and provided a secure way to ship small valuables. The closest we have to the stage lines today would be Greyhound bus terminals and routes, and they've lost a lot of business in the last few decades. UPS and FedEx have taken over some of the small freight business, and private couriers still have a place in commerce. 

After TEOTWAWKI, there may be a call for the resurrection of stage lines to connect towns and cities again. Since the operation of a stage line requires staff, equipment, horses or mules, and several separate places of business, this is a job for someone who has a lot of experience in management. The old saying about a chain being as strong as its weakest link comes to mind, and anyone who wants give it a try had better be ready for headaches. Security will be a major concern, and the level of unrest and random violence in your area will need to be addressed before any form of travel is planned.

All pictures are public domain or my original works.

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