Friday, December 2, 2016

The story of Frink & Walker Stage Line Company, northern Illinois' transportation monopoly of the 1800s.

What the railroad station was to rural country towns, Frink & Walker’s Stage Lines was to early Chicago. It was the center of public interest. Several times a day strangers arrived in town, residents set out upon long and often hazardous journeys, mail was received and dispatched and it was the transportation center of the growing town. It was a man named John Frink that set up the first successful stage line out of Chicago in 1832. Frink joined forces with Martin O. Walker in 1840. Frink provided the political, operational and sales know-how, while Walker (often as a silent partner) provided cash and business experience.
Frink & Walker’s General Stage Office, two doors west, on the south side of Lake Street, off the corner of Lake and Dearborn streets, Chicago, Illinois. (1844)
Although the first stagecoach ventured west out of Chicago to Fullersburg [1] (Oak Brook), 15 miles from Chicago, on January 1, 1832, following the Indian Boundary Line (Indian Boundary Park, Chicago).

The line was known as the Frink & Walker Stage Lines and their coaches started from a shanty-like building located in the heart of Chicago at the corner of Lake and Clark Streets. By 1835, Frink moved two doors west, on the south side of Lake Street, off the corner of Lake and Dearborn streets.
Frink & Walker’s General Stage Office.
From 1832 until the construction of the first railroad in 1848, the stagecoaches of Frink & Walker were the largest company connecting Chicago with the outside world. For several years after the primitive locomotives had come puffing in and out of town, the stages continued to run regularly, carrying passengers and mail to and from many places not reached by the first railroads. 

Even before Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833, the firm established a stagecoach line to Galena in 1832. Oddly enough, that town was also the terminus of the first railroad.

The Galena-Chicago route had many stops; at Lena, Illinois, going east, the stage route followed today's US 20 through Eleroy, Freeport, Rockford, Belvidere, Bloomingdale and other towns along the way. 

The stages typically left the Frink & Walker Chicago depot between 4 and 6 am to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. They stopped for the night at inns along the route. The 150 to 160 mile trip, depending on the route, took the better part of five days but that was cut to two days when they ran around the clock, with stops every 12 to 15 miles at relay stations to change horses. The fare was $12.50 ($315.00 today). Passengers were often forced to help push the coaches out of the mud or help with repairs. Accidents were common, as were injured horses that often immobilized the stages and forced passengers to continue their trips on the first farm wagon that came along.

Even meals could be an ordeal. The inns usually didn't start cooking until the coach arrived. That took about 50 minutes, so the passengers had to wolf down lunch or dinner in just 10 minutes to avoid being left behind after the hour layover.

A few years later, the 97-mile trip from Chicago to Milwaukee by stage consumed two days, with an overnight stop in Kenosha, but competition from Great Lakes ships had reduced the summertime fare to $3 ($70 today).

The first non-local stagecoach line arrived from Detroit in 1833 after the Black Hawk War of 1832 ended an Indian revolt over ownership of Illinois farmland and made land travel safe west of Chicago.

In 1834, Dr. John T. Temple started a stage line from Chicago southwest to Peoria to meet the steamboats plodding up and down the Illinois River from St. Louis. (The 96-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal that would eventually connect Chicago with the Illinois River at Ottawa was not completed until 1848.) Frink, a Connecticut native who learned the stagecoach business in the East, formed a rival stage-steamboat line in 1834, then in 1837, he bought out Temple.

The mail in the 1830s and '40s traveled on Frink & Walker coaches that rattled and bounced over Potawatomi trails to Detroit, Peoria and Galena at an average of fewer than 10 miles per hour dodging tree stumps and fording streams.

Frink fought all the other stage lines, in true Chicago style, eventually emerging in control of the stages in and out of Chicago. 

The Chicago-Rockford route began sometime around 1837. In 1848 the schedule from Chicago to Rockford was 24 hours. The coaches were always drawn by four horses and the horses were changed at intervals of 15 miles at stations built for that purpose. Coaches left the main office in Chicago on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday and returned on the alternate days. The fare was $5.00 ($145.00 today).

As settlements increased in number, Frink & Walker met the growing demands by establishing new stagecoach lines to all parts of the Northwest, as far as Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Wisconsin, and to the south, a line extended to St. Louis Missouri. Many a lady passenger became hysterical in the stagecoach when the driver seemingly headed for the middle of Lake Michigan while fording the more shallow water in the delta to the Calumet River, in the days before bridges.
The Stagecoach wasn't as glamorous as the movies made them out to be.
The stagecoach office, from which all the coaches departed, and which was usually surrounded by an interested group of idlers [2]. Many of the stages, especially those obliged to traverse muddy roads, were equipped with six horses, and, in addition to the skillful driver, carried a postillion [3], who blew a horn gaily when the stage was pulling out, and played a fanfare on its arrival to notify the idlers that the stage was in with the mail and passengers. 

Now and again the passengers and drivers on these coaches had a brush with the Indians on lonely stretches of the road, but more often their experiences were confined to struggles with the deep mud of the roads through the woods and across the prairies. The extension of the railroad lines to all parts of the territory reached by the stages led to the abandonment of a picturesque feature of life in early Chicago.

Frink sold the stagecoach business to Walker sometime in the 1840s, then began investing in iron horses.

Frink died of a stroke in 1858 at age 63; Walker operated stagecoaches for another 30 years in more remote areas of the Midwest not served by railroads.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] Fullersburg, Illinois was on the edge of Indian Country. It was where a roadhouse once stood along the Old Plank Road (now Route 34 / Ogden Avenue), a stop on the Walker & Frink Line. Known as Castle Inn, it is believed that Abraham Lincoln spoke from their veranda while riding his circuit. 

Lincoln's circuit extended thru 18 counties and that he went from Clinton to Monticello, then to Urbana, Danville, Paris, Charleston, Shelbyville, Sullivan, Decatur, Taylorville, and Springfield. At different times in the course of Lincoln’s circuit-riding, he traveled thru each of the following counties: Sangamon, Menard, Mason, Tazewell, Woodford, Livingston, McLean, DeWitt, Piatt, Champaign, Vermilion, Edgar, Coles, Shelby, Moultrie, Macon, and Christian.


[2] Idler; A habitually lazy person.


[3] Postillion; A person who rides the leading left-hand horse of a pair or team drawing a coach or carriage, especially when there is no coachman.

3 comments:

  1. Fullersburg was a favorite picnic spot for many years. I wonder how many people know the name or the area at this time.

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  2. Where would someone find information about the routes and stops? We have early record of a log cabin in the vicinity of present day Tinley Park that had served as a stage coach stop. Would like to find more info.

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  3. There is a historical site just west of Geneva, Il. called Garfield Farm Museum. It was a stopping point for stagecoaches traveling from Chicago to Galena (and back). It has been kept in its historical state representing the 1840's. The original-still standing-brick building acted as the home of the Garfield's and the inn. They hold various events throughout the year, along with a goodly amount of information on the place and times.

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