Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More Stage Stories & More on Concord Coach #259

Over the years, countless reports have been shared regarding the challenges of stage coach travel in the American West.  One of my favorite books cataloging many of these events was authored seventy-five years ago, in 1942, by Mae Héléne Bacon Boggs.  The title of the large tome is My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach.  The anthology includes a vast collection of newspaper accounts and related photos.  It’s not a piece that comes available too often but if it’s not a part of your early vehicle library, I’d encourage you to stay vigilant for a copy. 

Reinforcing the obstacles to coaching in the West, the book includes numerous stories profiling encounters with weather, water, bandits, animals, rock slides, mud slides, and generally poor roads.  Complications from soft edges on mountain paths, rocks, holes, and even strong winds consistently wreaked havoc on the drivers, horses, passengers, and vehicles.  As a result, the rugged terrain was littered with problems from axles, hounds, tongues, brake beams, rough lock chains, wheels, king bolts, and other weakened or broken vehicle parts.   

While many of these hurdles were unavoidable, there were times when a little extra attention to detail could have made a huge difference.  Such was the case in 1874 when a loose brake block rendered the downhill trip of a coach into a catastrophe.  As reported by the Yreka Journal on December 30, 1874...

“...  It seems that the block on the brake had come off, and in descending Myrtle Creek hill the horses became unmanageable and ran away.  Near the foot of the hill, in making a curve in the road the stage upset, and was uncoupled.”

In this particular incident, the loss of a brake block allowed the coach to push and spook the horses as they felt the vehicle bearing down and hitting them.  It was an oversight with life-altering results.  It’s a good reminder that regular attention to vehicles and equipment is important – even in the seemingly small things. 

Mud wagon stages ran throughout the West.  This original image was taken in Casper, Wyoming and is one of several hundred period coach photos preserved in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Another old article tucked within the pages of My Playhouse Was A Concord Coach contained a brief reference to Abbot-Downing’s coach #259.  On page 511, the photo of the legendary shipment of thirty Concord Coaches to Wells Fargo in Omaha was accompanied by a note indicating that Coach #259 was part of this shipment.  As of 1935, the coach was still located “on the portico of the museum in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.”  This is yet another bit of published data tying the coach that is now at the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis to the famed shipment made on April 15, 1868.  The information from this brief account bolsters the vehicle’s provenance while filling in some missing historical time frames.  For those who missed it, you might want to look closer at Abbot-Downing’s coach #259 by checking out our April 5, 2017 blog post.  As we’d mentioned in that post, we believe the original photo of the coach (in our Archives) will date to 1893 and not only includes largely unknown heritage of the coach but what is likely the most detailed history of the surviving stage. 

While many stage lines had facilities dedicated to repairing, re-painting, and maintaining coaches, the pressures of schedules, general forgetfulness, and other obstacles could contribute to maintenance oversights.  Clearly, vehicles in regular and heavy use tended to need more attention than those only rented from the livery on rare occasions.  As we’ve already discussed, the consequences of negligence could range broadly; from minor inconveniences to financially costly or even life-threatening results.  In 1901, Frank Root and William Connelley published a work entitled The Overland Stage to California.  Relatively early on in the book, an encounter is described that took place during the summer of 1863 near the Little Blue River...

“...Now and then some rather strange things occurred on the ‘Overland.’  It was imperative that the stage-coach axles be greased (or rather “doped” as the boys used to call it) at every ‘home’ station, and these were from twenty-five to fifty miles apart.  This duty had time and again been impressed upon the drivers by the division agents, but occasionally one of them would forget the important work.  As a natural consequence the result would be a ‘hot box.’

One afternoon early in the summer of 1863, while we were on the rolling prairies near the Little Blue River, one of the front wheels of the stage was suddenly clogged and would not turn.  On examination, it was found to be sizzling hot.  The stage had to stop and wait until the axle cooled off.  As soon as practicable, the driver took off the wheel and made an inspection, the passengers and messenger holding up the axle.  On further examination, it was found that the spindle had begun to ‘cut,’ and there was no alternative but to ‘dope it’ before we could go any farther.  But we were stumped; there was no ‘dope’ on the stage. 

The driver, an old-timer at staging, suggested, ‘since necessity is the mother of invention,’ that as a last resort he would bind a few blades of grass around the spindle, which he was certain would run us part way to the station, and we could stop and repeat the experiment.  But one of the passengers chanced to have a piece of cheese in his grip sack, and a little of it was sliced off and applied; and it worked admirably, and was sufficient to run the coach safely to the next station, where the difficulty was quickly remedied by application of the proper ‘dope.’”

This century-plus-old illustration was included with the “hot box” story above from The Overland Stage to California.

So much has changed over the last 150 years but vehicle maintenance and lubrication is just as important to all forms of transportation.  More pertinent to the stories above, wheel bearings can still overheat and brake systems always deserve regular attention. 

Finally, with so many airline ‘seat’ issues being covered in the news these days, I thought I’d pass along one more story from The Overland Stage to California.  In this case, the passenger not only paid for her seat but made it clear her spot was not available to any other...

“...  A rather amusing and somewhat ludicrous scene occurred in the summer of 1864 at Cottonwood Springs.  There had been some fresh Indian troubles along the Platte between Cottonwood and Fort Kearney, and the division agent had prudently exercised his prerogative by holding for two or three days all the stages at the former place until the road was deemed safe to travel.  While the agent was getting the first east-bound coach in readiness for its departure, he stated that the through passengers would have precedence over those from Denver.

It happened that there was a woman from Denver... she was ‘chief engineer of a millinery shop and ran a sewing machine.’  After listening attentively to the agents remarks, and when the coach was about ready to depart – the passengers discussing among themselves who would and who would not go on the first coach – she opened with her ‘chin music,’ as follows:  ‘Here are passengers from California, Nevada, Salt Lake, Idaho, and Montana.  I suppose Denver is nowhere; but I’ll play that I take the back seat’; and into the coach she climbed – and she ‘held the fort.’  She had paid full fare, had arrived at the Springs from Denver on the first coach, and, being armed with a revolver, dared them to detain her.”

While seat reservations are still in strong demand within commercial travel, we definitely don't advise packin' heat on your next plane ride.  Times and safety considerations have changed dramatically and the outcome would clearly be a lot different today than with the determined coach rider above.  Nonetheless, from business to politics and everything in between, there were all kinds of happenings surrounding America’s first transportation industry.  The term ‘Wild West’ was certainly well earned.  Over and over again, the vehicles and brands from these days had a front row seat to virtually all of the action.  Discovering who was doing what, when, where, how, and why makes up a large part of our everyday studies.  It’s a pursuit that not only helps us better understand our nation’s first wheels but, increasingly, separates fact from fiction while opening even more doors of drama and opportunities to preserve history.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC