Lost Skills of Old West Stagecoach Travel

Stagecoach travel came with many hazards—treacherous terrain, bandit attacks, and snoring passengers.
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Stagecoach travel came with many hazards—treacherous terrain, bandit attacks, and snoring passengers.
Credit: Erwin Sherman

Credit: Erwin Sherman

Tough travel

Numerous stagecoach lines traversed the West in the 1800s, as entrepreneurs competed for freight, mail contracts, and passengers. Traveling by stagecoach could be dusty and dangerous, but it was often the only means of travel and certainly safer than traveling alone. In 1827, the Abbot Downing Company revolutionized passenger travel with its invention of the Concord Stagecoach, which used leather straps braces instead of spring suspension. This allowed the coach body to swing rather than bounce, which made for a more comfortable ride. Stagecoaches were commanded by drivers, revered and respected for their ability to handle a six-up as well as hostile road agents. In 1864, during a trip to California, Reverend Henry W. Bellows said of stage drivers: “I think I should be compelled to nominate the stage drivers as being on the whole, one of the most lofty, arrogant, reserved, and superior class on the coast—that class that has inspired me with the most terror and reverence.” As railroad construction pushed westward, stagecoaches became less necessary, and by the early 1900s, only the most rural enclaves without railroad service still utilized them.

Tire tone

A good driver could gauge the soundness of his stagecoach’s wheels by paying careful attention to their tone. If the wheel had a ringing tone, then it was sufficiently tight. A dull thudding sound, however, meant the wheel was starting to come loose and should be set at the next station.

Whip work

Stagecoach drivers considered their whips badges of honor, and many were constructed as works of art. Lore holds that they were never loaned, borrowed, or traded. Whips were always hung so that the stock wouldn’t warp, and the lash was never wrapped around the handle for fear of curling the thongs.

Road agents

Divers and shotgun messengers were especially watchful in areas where a stagecoach naturally slowed: soft sand, narrow bridges, sharp curves, and long grades. It was in these areas that highwaymen were most likely to commit robberies.

Riding Shotgun

Shotgun messengers were employed to protect valuable freight. They typically sat next to the driver riding on top of the coach, and their job was to discourage anyone interested in stealing the contents of the stagecoach’s strongbox—a task usually accomplished with a persuasion from a shotgun. The shotgun of choice was a short 10- or 12-gauge double-barreled shogun, called “messenger shotguns” or “coach guns.” 

Follow the Rules

In each Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoach, a list of rules was posted. These rules included:

· Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.

· Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.

· Don’t snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger’s shoulder for a pillow; he or she many not understand and friction may result.

· Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back.

· In the event of runaway horses, remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, and at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians, and hungry coyotes.