Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cross Country in a Concord Coach

Mark Twain called the stage coach, “an imposing cradle on wheels.”  Some passengers felt seasick. 

California Co.'s stage leaving Virginia City for California 1866
This strange rocking motion was the result of a major design improvement which did away with the steel springs of earlier coaches and suspended the body of the coach on thoroughbraces, heavy lengths of rawhide straps, mounted on steel stanchions.  

Instead of passengers feelings each neck jarring, vertical jolt, thoroughbraces produced a steady rocking motion.  The old springs were also hard on the horses.  Every time the stage hit a rock or hole, the vibration would travel through the traces to the animals’ shoulders and necks. 

And while these newly designed coaches were built in many places, none could compare to the quality of the coach manufactured by Abbott and Downing & Co., in Concord, NH.

A typical western Concord coach was about five feet wide and eight feet long. They were heavier than the eastern coaches weighing about 3,000 lbs. with a load capacity of 4,000 lbs. Only the finest woods were used and the company was especially careful not to use screws or bolts on the wheels, which were usually the first thing to break. The outside of the coach was painted red and gold, and yellow then sanded and varnished to a high shine. Floral and vine designs decorated the coach and a landscape was painted on the door.  On the door panel or above it was printed the stage’s destination. The name of the stage company and the stage’s number were printed on the panel under the driver’s seat.

Passengers entered the coach through one of two side doors, beneath which hung steel step plates. The seat cushions were made of coiled steel springs, stuffed with horsehair and covered with brown calf leather. There were three rows of seats, each big enough for three people.  Two seats faced forward and one faced backward. Those passengers in the backward facing seat had to interlock their legs with the passengers in the middle seat. Victorian ladies of course frowned on this practice. If extra seating was needed, three people could ride on the roof, which was covered with heavy, painted waterproof duck cloth. On rare occasions twenty to twenty-three passengers were squeezed on board.

Some coaches had glass in the windows, but glass didn’t last long in the west. Otherwise there were canvas curtains which were held by leather straps when rolled up, or secured with eye and turn-buttons when rolled down. Inside the coach were tug straps the passengers next to the windows could hang on to when the going grew rough.

Most stage coaches traveled none stop, and were equipped with outside lanterns.
Their average speed was five to six miles per hour. Every ten to twenty miles the stage would stop at a swing station where a fresh team, already harnessed, quickly replaced the tired horses. Every fifty miles or so, the stage stopped at a home station.  For a dollar, passengers could purchase simple meal of crackers, potatoes, hardtack, beans, jerky and black coffee. A new driver took over the next leg of the journey. After three hundred miles the passengers and their luggage was transferred to another coach.

In an article  entitled, Hints for Plains Travelers,  which appeared in the Omaha Herald  in 1877, the author listed several suggestions to help make stage travel more pleasant, though most people were unaware or didn’t care about such courtesy.

“Don’t smoke a strong pipe inside especially in the morning, spit on the leeward side of the coach… Don’t swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping… Don’t ask how far it is to the next station until you get there… Don’t discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed, if delicate women are among the passengers… Don’t grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable ‘tater’ patch…”
In my newest novel, A Tarnished Knight, Ryder and Victoria spend a couple of days traveling on just such a coach. The reality of stage travel I discovered during my research was a bit different than the stage coaches pictured in the TV westerns I grew up with. Is the reality much different that what you thought?

He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away.

Sources: Boyd, Eva Jolene, That Old Overland Stagecoaching, Woodware Publishing, Inc., 1993
               Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West A Fully Illustrated Guide,  Skyhorse Publishing, 2007                   


  1. No wonder your stories ring with such detail. Well-researched and interesting!

    1. Hi Lyndi,
      Thanks for stopping. Did you recognize the steps and description of the stagecoach from my presentation on researching the historical novel?

    2. It did sound familiar. :)

  2. Informative article, Kathy! As I grow older, I find I dread travel and don't think I'd go anywhere at all if I lived back then.

    1. Hi Susan,
      Thanks. It might be fun to ride in a stagecoach for a short while, but not for two hundred miles, night and day to California. No wonder trains soon put the Overland Stage out of business.

  3. My vision of stage coach travel in the west was a combination of what I had read about travel in 19thC Britain and what I saw in movies. Very enlightening article. Thank you.

    1. Hi Alison,
      Glad you enjoyed it. Actually the earliest coaches in this country were based on those from England and France. The change took place in the early part of the 1800's with the invention of the thoroughbrace.
      And my research into stagecoaches for my novel quickly showed me that the stage I saw in the old westerns, was again Hollywood's version. Thanks for stopping. :)

  4. We rode in a stagecoach, but only for about five miles. Still, with eight people, it was crowded--and it held nine. Nearly all the pictures I've seen of stagecoaches have the interior filled and people riding on top, too. Plus, 19th century women's clothing took a lot of room and I had on shorts and a t-shirt. The people in the seat facing back had motion sickness in just that short ride, and it was hot even though the outside temperature wasn't that bad--mid 80s. The tour guide also told us that mail bags were stowed in the passenger compartment, so besides the nine passengers, you had to contend with those. Mark Twain wrote about that--can't remember where.

    1. Hi Jacquie,
      It would have been fun for 5 miles, to get the feel of it in person, without having to rely on journal entries like Mark Twain's. They were only five feet wide, and I read somewhere a complaint from a gentleman regarding those hoops which ladies wore, though I can't imagine anyone wearing one who was traveling any great distance. It might have been a complaint about an eastern coach. I do remember an instance in which the weight of luggage in the back was so heavy the coach tipped toward the rear, and the passengers in the backward facing seats couldn't had to struggle to rest their backs against the seat.

  5. Great post, Kathy! I think the suggestions for how to make a stagecoach ride more pleasant should be used today on airplanes. :) Thanks for sharing this information.


  6. Hi Kirsten,
    Thanks for stopping by. Airplane travel does seem to have gone down hill. I can see the rule applying for not slumping over onto your neighbor, but I'm not sure how to inforce the rule to have passengers spit on the leeward side of the place. LOL~!