June 18, 2010

Stagecoachs - the REAL truth

You can't read a western book without mention or reference of a stagecoach somewhere tucked within the pages of the story. And in most of them, the stagecoach factors into the story in a prominent way. In fact, in some areas, they were the only mode of transportation to get from one town to another if you didn't own a horse or wagon/buggy, or it was too far to walk.

A stagecoach is a type of four-wheeled closed cloach for passengers and goods, strongly sprung and drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers.

In the series I'm writing now, my heroine is a Philadelphian socialite who travels west to pursue her passion for art. She's able to take the train all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming, but from there to Twin Creeks, the stage is the only option. She'd been traveling for almost a week, and the prospect of a bumpy, dusty and sometimes painful ride didn't hold much appeal. Her companions are a lanky gentleman who pulls his hat down over his eyes and sleeps, another portly fellow whose snoring resembles a hog, and a matronly dowager woman who has an incessant need to fill her ears with the latest gossip. Let's just say this wasn't the best of rides.

But I've been having a lot of fun doing research on the stagecoach so I can "see" it through the eyes of my heroine. While it might seem exciting to children and those who have never ridden a stagecoach, the reality isn't so grand.

The type of situation I described above from my book is quite common for those traveling by stage. You don't often choose your fellow passengers, and at times, so many are crammed into the small inside compartment, you end up spending the journey squished shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. There were even "rush hour" situations, where passengers would ride on top with the luggage and hang off the back or sides, wherever they could find a spot.

It was often a gruesome experience, but until the railways were fully established, it remained the only option.

Coaches on the overland (or long-distance) stages traveled continuously for twenty two days, both day and night, through dust or blowing sand, in intense heat or cold, sometimes tormented by insects, with only brief stops at way stations to change teams. It's amazing they managed to stay upright on that bench and hold onto their teams of horses! Passengers often had poor food and no rest. If a passenger got off the stage to rest, he might be stuck in that place for a week or more, or longer if the next stage coming through that stop had no available seats.

Passengers were sometimes even compelled to walk to relieve the fatigued teams or when the coach had to be lightened to make it over a stretch of sand. They were also called upon to help push coaches up hill or get them unstuck when bogged down in mud or sand.

And the penchant for passengers crowded into coaches actually prompted Wells Fargo to post these rules in each coach in an attempt to moderate passenger behavior:
  • Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
  • If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
  • Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
  • Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
  • Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
  • Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
  • In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
  • Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
  • Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.

I don't know about you, but those rules make me chuckle and bring a smile to my face. Oh, if only rules to govern behavior were that easy today. :)

Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood. Today, she is an author, online marketing specialist and freelance web site designer who lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, in Colorado. They have 1 daughter and a border collie.

She has sold eight books so far to Barbour Publishing, is a columnist for the ACFW e-zine, AFictionado, and writes other articles as well. Read more about her at her web site: http://www.amberstockton.com/.


Katie Johnson said...

I love the romantic idea of riding a stage coach, but the reality, while fascinating, sounds grueling. I can't imagine spending a week or more on a stagecoach-talk about NO privacy.

There are some great examples of coaches at Greenfield village in Michigan, I always marvel at how small, cramped and uncomfortable they look. Great post!

Vickie McDonough said...

Those rules are a riot. As romantic as it is to think of stage travel, I don't think I'd care to do it for very long.

Tiffany Amber Stockton said...

Yes, exactly. It's the "concept" and the "image" of them that appeals. But the reality? Not so much. :)

B.K. Jackson said...

Knowing the reality always makes me chuckle when I watch people on stagecoaches in western TV--at most 4 people inside, not a hair out of place and they get off the stage looking like they just took a limo ride. The glory of television!

I've been on a stage before but not for long enough to get a feel for it. Covered wagons, however, are tremendously uncomfortable and jolting. I'm sure the stage is much the same.

Tiffany Amber Stockton said...

Yep. No wonder those pioneers could survive anything. They rode in wagons and stage coaches. That'll toughen up anyone! :)

For His Glory said...

about 27 years ago i visited out west; i believe it was arizona, and we were able to take a stagecoach ride (tourist kind of thing). i couldn't believe how much jostling around there was. i agree that television/movies for the most part make it look like no big deal, when it was probably very uncomfortable and, at times, harrowing. looking forward to reading some of your books. i'm especially interested in your search for art of the west. cool!

Carla Gade said...

This is fascinating. I've done a lot of research on the subject of stage coaches and never get tired of reading about them. What a life! And we complain about car problems! Thanks for a great article, Tiff.

Tiffany Amber Stockton said...

For His Glory - I'm excited to delve into the art of the west too. It will be exciting to pair up my heroine with contemporaries who also paint the west. She'll have to know her competition. :) And who knows? She might even have the chance to meet one or two of them.

Carla, glad you liked the article. Thanks for the kudos and for dropping by.