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"A Cradle On Wheels"
Stagecoach Travel in the Wild West
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"If you could choose, would you rather be worried about terrorists and air travel today or stagecoach robbers and stagecoach travel of the Old West?"
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Roughing It

When one thinks of a cradle usually an image of a tiny baby snugly bundled being gently rocked to sleep comes to mind. In 1861, Mark Twain describes the stagecoach in his book "Roughing It" as "a cradle on wheels." In fact, because of its unique construction, the stagecoach rocked as it moved instead of bouncing on steel springs. However, many of Twain's fellow travelers might have taken exception to his allusion. As Demas Barnes said in 1866, a passenger was assured only of "fifteen inches of seat, with a fat many on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby in your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or more persons immediately in front, leaning against your knees...." Further, poor weather, uneven roads, and the fear of bandits made stagecoach travel anything but comfortable. When a stagecoach would reach an impassable mountain, passengers were required to get out and walk. English traveler William Talleck told of another hardship in 1860: passengers helped their stagecoach through a narrow gorge where it had gotten stuck "by dint of pulling and pushing all together." On the other hand, stagecoach travel provided beautiful scenery and a wonderful adventure for many. Towns sprang up along the stagecoach routes effectively shaping the face of the American West.

Traveling by stagecoach was mostly an offshoot of government mail contracts. Without the money from these contracts, stagecoaches probably would not have operated for the benefit of passengers and freight. Stage travel out west became especially popular once the 49ers began the rush to find gold in California. As these settlers began to entrench themselves in California, they looked to stagecoach companies for quick mail service as compared to the time it took for mail to be delivered by way of Panama. The contract for this service was given to the Butterfield Overland Mail operation that traveled through Texas where poor weather was less of a factor. It usually took less than 25 days to travel from St. Louis to San Francisco.

The US Civil War marked major problems for the stagecoach industry. Often Confederates would seize coaches interrupting the postal chain. By the end of the Civil War, the stages began to rebound only to be finally superceded by the railroads. By the 1880's, the stagecoach era was basically over in America.

In today's world of fast travel, one might think that we have little in common with stagecoach travelers of the 19th century. Take a look at these maxims published in 1877 in the Omaha Herald as "Hints for Plains Travelers." They still hold true today.

  • "The best seat...is the one next to the driver...."
  • "Never [travel] in tight boots or shoes...."
  • "Don't ... 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...."
  • "Expect annoyance, discomfort, and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven."

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