Monday, April 26, 2021


By Caroline Clemmons

When my husband and I lived in Parker County, Texas, we sometimes went to events at the Doss Heritage Center in Weatherford. There, a skillful reproduction of a stagecoach was on exhibit, donated by the late Mr. Brown, a man who painstakingly built them for Hollywood and other customers. It’s a beautiful stage with red body and yellow wheels.

The only stage in which I’ve actually ridden was a less impressive reproduction with only two seats. It was fun, but the ride lasted no longer than five or ten minutes. Traveling for very long in such a vehicle would be uncomfortable and onerous.

The stagecoach I use most in my writing is the nine-person Concord stage. Actually, these varied from six-person to special twelve-person models. Another six passengers could ride on top. If you think this would be a heavy vehicle, you’re correct. They could weigh over 2500 pounds and could stand over nine feet tall. The passengers on the back and front seats had the advantage of a backrest, but contended with a sloping roof overhead. The center seat had no backrest. Passengers kept their balance by grasping a wide leather harness suspended across the interior ceiling. Don’t you know that was tiring on a long journey? If the stage was full, passengers were forced to sit with knees touching or interwoven those of the person across from them. In case there was a steep hill or mountain pass, the passengers could be required to walk to the top.

So far in my books, the stage is empty enough that the heroine can bring her trunks—or at least one trunk. In reality, this is where I’ve taken poetic license. Most times, the only luggage space is in the boot on the back of the stage (no room for trunks) and a box under the driver’s seat for valuables. You can imagine with nine interior passengers and six on top of the coach, there was little room for anyone’s luggage. Trunks would have to be shipped via a freighter.

A reproduction used by a private venue.

We’re familiar with weight limits in modern air travel. That’s n
ot new—stage travel had similar rules. Each stagecoach passenger was allowed a maximum of twenty-five pounds of baggage, which rode in the large rear pouch boot. The U.S. mail typically rode in the front or rear boot, although, as Mark Twain recalled from personal experience in Roughing It (1872), a large load of mail might be shoved among the feet of passengers.  The stage line depended on funds for transporting the mail.

Mark Twain, the author and humorist, described his coach trip west in the 1870 book ROUGHING IT:

Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description – an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat the ‘conductor,’ the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags – for we had three days’ delayed mails with us… We changed horses every ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the hard, level road.”

The cost was between $1,000 and $1,500 apiece, a lavish sum when a worker considered a dollar a day a good wage. Think about a bachelor sending for a mail order bride at these fares! Abbot-Downing’s biggest customer was Wells, Fargo & Co., although institutions such as hotels would buy a coach to carry guests back and forth from a railroad station.

Concord coaches’ style of suspension and construction was particularly suited to North America’s nineteenth century roads. They were first developed by coachbuilder J. Stephen Abbot and wheelwright Lewis Downing of Concord, New Hampshire. Their high-end expense was justified by their long service life.

The reason a Concord coach was more comfortable was the suspension system. Leather thoroughbraces suspended passengers who were in constant motion while the coach was moving. The swaying was accepted by passengers for the shock absorbing action of the leather straps and for the way the special motion eases the coach over rough patches of roadway. That doesn’t mean they were comfortable, just not as uncomfortable as other types. The swaying caused motion sickness for some.

The back wheels have brake blocks acting on the iron tires. The driver controls them with a foot lever to his right at the side of his footboard.

The familiar egg-shaped body of the Concord coach was renowned for its great strength and its ability to keep passengers dry while floating them across flood-swollen streams. Because the inevitable twisting of the coach body on the rough terrain could easily shatter glass windows, it had only adjustable leather curtains to keep out the dust, wind, and rain. 

Wish you could go back in time? 

Picture yourself riding in a stage across the rough roads that existed in, for example, 1870. You’re sitting with your knees pressed against those of the person facing you. If that person is tall, you may have to weave your knees indelicately. If you’re unlucky enough to be on the middle seat, you’re hanging onto the leather strap connected to the roof. Your feet are resting on a pile of mail as you sway back and forth with the coach’s movements. You’re traveling the 2795 miles from St. Louis to San Francisco over three weeks in these conditions. Food isn’t included, so you have the cost of sixty-three meals to add to your fare--if the opportunity to eat presents itself. Doesn't sound like fun, does it?

Louis McLane, onetime head of Wells, Fargo and Company, wrote to his wife in 1865 about artistic depictions of travel by coach, "I thought staging looked very well to the lithographer, but was the devil in reality." 

A great video on stagecoaches is at

Next month my post will be about other types of stagecoaches, especially the celerity. 

Have a great month! 



1 comment:

  1. Caroline, great post about the Concord Stagecoach. For my second book, Destiny's Journey, I did quite a bit of research on that stagecoach which Wells Fargo & Co. used. I was fortunate to visit the Wells Fargo Bank museum in Sacramento which had a authentic stagecoach and other historical items incl. treasure box, etc.


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