Thursday, November 21, 2019

Stagecoach Travel in Early Chicago and Illinois.

The counterpart of the twentieth-century passenger train was the Stagecoach, which might vary in character from the ordinary farmer's wagon impressed into service for the conveyance of travelers, to the ornate and aristocratic Concord coach.
Note the shock-absorbing axles on this late model, custom-built Concord stagecoach replica.
Concord Stagecoach wheels were usually 40 inches in the front and 60 inches in the rear.
Concord Stagecoach - The leading horses are known as the lead horses. The wheel horses or wheelers are the back pair nearest the coach's wheels. The number of horses, usually four or six, could be even more. Two horses alone would very soon tire.
Concord Stagecoach - The back wheels have brake blocks acting on the iron tires. The driver controls them with a foot lever to his right at the side of his footboard.
Concord Stagecoach were high-end, expensive vehicles; the cost was justified by long service life.
To this was accorded in the realm of passenger travel the position of primacy which among freight vehicles was held by the lordly Conestoga wagon. It stands for all time in America as the acme of achievement in horse-drawn passenger vehicles, and when toward the middle of the nineteenth century the superiority of steam over horses as a motive power was demonstrated, the early passenger cars were modeled in conscious imitation of the vehicle which they were about to crowd into oblivion. 
A Conestoga wagon or prairie-schooner (a covered wagon).
A Conestoga custom-built replica wagon.
The story of the development of the Concord coach is one of the most satisfactory in the annals of the American industry. In August of 1813, Lewis Downing, a young artisan from Lexington, Massachusetts, through the columns of the weekly Concord Patriot "respectfully" informed the townsmen that he had opened a wheelwright's shop in Concord where he flattered himself that "by strict and constant attention to business" he would "merit the patronage of the public." For a dozen years, the business progressed in a small way, until in 1826 the industrious proprietor decided to add to it the building of coaches. 

To this end he engaged J.S. Abbott, a young artisan of Salem, to come to Concord and build for him three coach bodies, the rest of the work being done by Downing's own workmen. In July of 1827, the first coach was completed and sold to a local stage driver. It was the pioneer of a long and famous line, for within the next generation Concord coaches found their way to the ends of the earth. In California, Peru, and Australia—wherever advancing civilization pushed its way—the Concord coach became a familiar sight. Before the advance of railroad construction, the famous vehicle was forced to retire to ever more remote and inaccessible regions, until at length the advent of the gas-propelled wagon wrought its final doom. Detroit replaced Concord as the center for the production of passenger highway vehicles, and now only in an occasional museum can a time-period specimen of the old-time coach be found. 
Concord Stagecoach Interior
In its final form, which was reached, apparently, about 1830, the Concord coach represented the product of a seventy-five year period of evolution. The body was oval but flattened on top to permit the carrying of baggage. Within were three cross seats, each designed to hold three passengers. Those on the front seat faced the rear, the others toward the front of the coach. The driver sat on an elevated seat in front of the covered body, while at the rear was a triangular, leather-covered space known as the "boot," wherein such baggage was stowed that did not ride on top.
Concord Stagecoach Interior
The enclosed body was supported by heavy "thorough braces," made of numerous strips of leather riveted together. By this device, instead of the constant bumping which had attended the traveler in the older stage wagon, the passenger was subjected to a succession of oscillations whose violence was directly proportioned to the roughness of the road.

The coach-body was brightly painted in shades of red, green, yellow, or blue, and the panels were decorated with paintings of landscapes or of noted historical characters.
Paintings on the side of Concord stagecoach.
Mural painted on a Concord stagecoach door.
The interiors, too, were attractively painted and upholstered, while the individual coach bore the name of some noted statesman or other characters. With the coming of the railroads, this custom was transferred to the early locomotives, and it survives today in the naming of Pullman cars. The stage driver was a man of consequence in the community, and he never omitted an opportunity to impress this fact upon all with whom he came in contact. He carried a trumpet which he loudly blew to announce the arrival of the stage at a tavern, and both arrival and departure were made with his four-horse team lashed into a run. 

Such was the Concord stage at its best, and the impression it made on the community is well set forth in the following narration by a western man of certain recollections of his boyhood: "He was fresh from a small western farm and had often been to the village nearby, and with wide-open eyes and bated breath had seen the great old Concord stage come into town with four prancing horses and was nearly blinded in looking upon the great man who held the lines and the beautiful long whip—the observed of all, the glass of fashion and the mold of form. He had at one time the temerity to clamber up and look into the coach, with its brass furnishing and leather. He had seen the stage tavern, the only one in the place, and envied the royal high-life of its borders—the village lawyer and doctor and hatter, and a merchant, and others who worked at their tools in the little town. All these were favored, even great, people, but their lights paled when the whip stepped forth with that peculiar swagger, now a lost art to the world, of a stage driver, chewing tobacco, and who always wore a broad leather belt instead of suspenders. He was the man of authority with whom even the schoolmaster would esteem it a most distinguishing honor to have been found in the company or in confidential conversation."

It was necessary to be organized to attend to such common but necessary details as arranging stage schedules and routes, and providing the requisite supplies of horses, hay, grain, equipment of all kinds, repair shops, and even the monthly payment of the autocratic drivers.

In the early period of settlement in Illinois stage lines were few in number, and the work of administering them was correspondingly simple. With the increase of travel, however, came to the demand for more capital to supply the public needs, and therefore a more elaborate business organization.

Towering above all competitors in the Chicago area was the firm of Frink, Walker & Co., which for years enjoyed a practical monopoly of passenger transportation over a large portion of the Mid-West. John Frink, Jr., who seems to have been the dominant figure in the partnership, was a veritable Connecticut Yankee, having been born at Ashford in 1797.

Early in life, he entered upon the stage business, one of his first ventures being a line between Boston and Albany. A branch line to New York City was soon added, and this grew at length into a line from New York to Montreal.
July 14, 1830
On the 18th of July, 1830, the large barn, owned by Mr. John Frink Jr., stage proprietor of Stockbridge, Massachusetts took fire, and was consumed, with all its contents including a Stage Sleigh -- Seventeen horses were burnt up!  The loss sustained by Mr. Frink is estimated at $5,000. No insurance.
Since the above was in type, we have learned that the inhabitants of Stockbridge, Lee, etc., have generously presented him the sum of nearly $3,000. --- Pittsfield Argus Newspaper. (Printed in the American Whig, August 11, 1830.)
Frink was an experienced man of affairs when in 1832 he migrated to Chicago. Here he purchased the stage line running to Ottawa, and from this beginning, in the West, his operations extended until they covered most of the state of Illinois, with widespread ramifications in all of the neighboring states.

Frink set up the first successful stage line out of Chicago in 1832 with partner Charles K. Bingham. The first Frink, Bingham & Co. stagecoach ventured west out of Chicago to Fullersburg [1] (Oak Brook), 15 miles from Chicago, which followed the Indian Boundary Line.

NOTE:
Indian Boundary Park in Chicago was named so because the park is actually on the Indian boundary.

Frink joined forces with Martin O. Walker and Walker's brother, Curan (a silent partner) on June 1, 1840. Frink provided the political, operational and sales know-how, while Martin provided business experience and funding along with Curan.
An inseparable accompaniment of the stage business in this period was the transportation of the U.S. mail. Indeed, the United States Post Office Department commonly pioneered the way for the stage lines of the West, by establishing post roads through newly settled regions and letting contracts for the carrying of the mail over them.


The substantial aid which this subsidy provided was frequently indispensable, particularly in the earlier period of settlement, to the establishment and maintenance of stage routes, and the bidder who gained the coveted contract thereby attained a position which enabled him to bid defiance to all competitors, at least as far as the route in question was concerned.
Frink, Walker & Co., General Stage Office, two doors west, on the south side of Lake Street, off the corner of Lake and Dearborn streets, Chicago, Illinois. (1844)
The firm of Frink, Walker & Co., proved singularly successful in obtaining mail contracts from the government, and in the absence of other records, the data concerning these now show the best indication of its activities.
In 1844, Frink and Walker have on the road, between Chicago and Peru, 160 horses, making 40 teams, with extras always in readiness to forward any number of passengers that may arrive.

In June of 1850, when the firm was probably near the height of its business development, a Washington correspondent reported to his St. Louis paper that its mail contracts in Illinois aggregated $78,000 a year. Besides these, it had contracts in the states of Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan amounting to $50,000; and the total sum of those contracts was shortly increased to $150,000 annually. Someone connected with the firm must have possessed the political talent to obtain, year after year, the extensive contracts of which the figures cited afford evidence.
Frink, Walker & Co., Offices, 1845.
Apparently, this man was the senior partner, John Frink Jr., because his biographer stated that he spent much of his time in Washington. That so much influence was exerted competitors for the contracts were usually unsuccessful. The firm of Frink, Walker & Co., success, particularly on a widespread scale, stirs up envious comments, and contemporary newspaper criticism of the "huge monopoly," which, having broken down all opposition, proceeded to do as it pleased, sounds curiously modern to the twenty-first-century reader. The scanty records available concerning Frink inspire the reader with a desire to know more about him. Of an aggressive temperament with no opposition in business and competitors were ruthlessly driven from the field. The story of one famous contest of this kind in the middle eighteen-forties, carried down to us in the memory of a pioneer settler, is worth retelling here.

The contest grew out of the circumstance that for once, at least, Frink had encountered a better politician than himself. When the granting of the mail contracts for the ensuing year was announced, it appeared that all the contracts which Frink, Walker & Co., had previously enjoyed had been captured by an outsider. General Hinton of the Ohio Stage Company. The partners recognized, of course, that without the contracts the operation of their stage lines would be a loss, and Walker, beset with anxiety over the situation, urged upon Frink that they should endeavor to arrange with Hinton for some division of the field, or failing this, should sell off their property and retire from business.

Frink, however, rejected with disdain this proposal, declaring that no interloper should take over his territory without a fight and that he would show the authorities at Washington that if the mails were to be carried at all it would be by the firm of Frink, Walker & Co. In due time General Hinton appeared on the scene with a caravan of coaches and horses and began operations. The public, however, sympathized with the "old line," and the Hinton stages were not overburdened with business. To attract patronage, therefore, the proprietor made a cut in fares. This was promptly countered by Frink, Walker & Co., making a still lower cut, which Hinton followed in turn until travel over the rival lines became practically free, with meals thrown in for good measure. 

The rival coaches traveled the same route at the same hours, and races were of frequent occurrence. In those days wealthy southern planters often came north by riverboat to Cairo or St. Louis, where they took the stage to Chicago, proceeding around the lakes to some eastern resort. It need scarcely be said that they greatly enjoyed these impromptu races over the prairies, urging on their own driver by liberal promises of money and liquor, and hurling wild jeers at the passengers and driver of the rival coach. The spirit of Frink rose to the combat and orders were given to his drivers never to permit a Hinton coach to pass them. When, as on occasion happened, a Frink & Walker coach came in last, the unfortunate driver was soundly berated for his failure to observe the order. If he ventured the excuse that he did not wish to kill his horses, Frink would retort with an oath, "I'll find horses, I want you to find whips." 
Both lines maintained headquarters and veterinary stables and hospitals in Chicago, and Frink, whose home was in Peoria, took his station at that place to direct operations. Horses were frequently disabled, of course, and those of the Hinton line was brought in to Chicago by day for treatment. Frink, however, directed that his disabled horses should be brought to the hospital only by night; and when questioned as to why his line had no disabled animals, while the opposition had so many, he gave the ready explanation that this difference was due to the superiority of the drivers. They knew the country, and when a coach was mired in a slough, knew how by quiet command, to extricate it without injuring their animals. The "green fellows from Ohio," on the contrary, when in a similar dilemma would begin to swear and lash the horses, causing one to spring forward while the others hung back, and thus the driver came out with an injured animal.

The war was still at its height, with people traveling over the country cheaper than they could live at home when Frink by quiet inquiries in Chicago and St. Louis learned that Hinton had been borrowing considerable money from the banks on notes that were about to mature. Fortified with this information he went grimly on with the war until Hinton at length sent an agent with an offer of compromise. Walker was eager to settle the difficulty on any terms obtainable, but Frink swore that Hinton had begun the war and must end it at his own cost; if he wanted Frink and Walker out of the way, he must pay them a good price to withdraw.

After some days of negotiation, Hinton agreed to buy the property of the rival firm at an extravagant valuation, paying a small sum in cash and giving a series of long-time notes for the remainder of the debt. When the parties met with their lawyers to conclude the transaction, Frink inquired who was to be the backer of Hinton's notes. Hinton answered that nothing had been said about a backer, and asked whom Frink wanted. "I want Billy Neeley of the Ohio Stage Company," was the answer. "Why," replied Hinton, "Mr. Neeley wouldn't be my backer. We quarreled before I left Ohio, or you wouldn't have had me here in Illinois."

"By God, that Is just what I wanted to know, and I will run you to hell," retorted Frink, and abruptly terminating the Interview strode out of the office. Within a short period, Hinton's notes matured. Being unable to meet them, his property was attached; the unfortunate proprietor, seeing all was lost, fled to Texas, then a favorite resort of adventurers and outlaws from the states, and his stage line went to ruin. For weeks the mail went undelivered until the contracts were relet to the old firm of Frink, Walker & Co.

The first stage line to enter Chicago was the one from Detroit In 1833. The following winter Dr. Temple opened the line to St. Louis, and thereafter the development of stage lines In the region tributary to Chicago kept pace with the growth of the settlement. Some Interesting Facts on the extent of the development In the first dozen years are found In the business directory of 1846, when Chicago had already become the wonder-city of the West, with a population of over 14,000 persons. Four steamboats arrived and departed daily during the season of navigation, carrying an average of 430 passengers, the estimated total for the season being 92,020. There were eight arrivals and departures of stages daily, having an average number of fifteen passengers, amounting to 120 a day and 43,800 for the entire year.

Pursuing the inquiry further, we find that at this time there was a daily stage service between Chicago and Peoria. Tri-weekly stages ran to Galena, both by way of Dixon and over the northern route through Freeport and Rockford. Between Chicago and Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee, the stage service was modified by the existence of water transportation. In the season of open navigation, stages ran tri-weekly to Milwaukee; when navigation closed, a daily schedule was established. By 1846 the Michigan Central Railroad was In operation as far as Kalamazoo, and the Michigan Southern as far as Hillsdale. Between Chicago and these points, a daily stage service was maintained during the season closed to navigation, while In summer a steamboat ran daily between Chicago and St. Joseph, from which point travelers proceeded by stage to Kalamazoo.

On the more important lines the old-time stage, like the steam train, ran night and day. This involved, of course, the maintenance of relay stations at intervals of twelve or fifteen miles where fresh horses were in readiness to take the place of the jaded arrivals, and inns for the accommodation of the passengers. The source already alluded to interesting information concerning the stage schedules and rates of fare. The journey to Peoria, 175 miles, might be made in two days, the cost to the traveler being $10 in winter and $8 in summer. The distance to Galena by the northern route was 160 miles, and by the southern 170; in both cases, the fare was $8 and the time consumed two days. From Chicago to Milwaukee, a distance of 97 miles, the traveler might ride in summer for $3, while in winter he paid $5. The trip required 1½ days' time, the stage stopping overnight at Kenosha. In general, it may be said that stage passenger fares ran from five to six cents per mile. The unusually low summer rate between Chicago and Milwaukee was due to the existence of water transportation, which was commonly preferred by travelers to Stagecoach. In some sections of the country, stage fares were regulated in accordance with the size of the passenger, the assumption being that the normal traveler should weight 100 pounds; one who weighed 200, therefore, found himself under the necessity of paying a double fare. If this custom ever prevailed in the Chicago area the records are silent concerning it. 

The traveler who embarked upon an extended journey by stage committed himself to a venture whose outcome no man could foresee. To be sure the stage company had a schedule for the journey, but the factors making for uncertainty were numerous, and between schedule and performance there was frequently a discrepancy. Oftentimes the stage company was not properly blamable for its failure to convey the traveler comfortably and promptly to his appointed destination. The ability to do this depended chiefly on the condition of the road, and this, in turn, was governed by the state of the weather, for which no one could be held responsible. But the discomforts, not to say the hazards of travel, were often due in large measure to failure on the part of the stage company to provide adequate equipment, or even to a clear absence of desire to fulfill the obligations it had assumed.
Illustrative of all of these conditions is the experience of Moses Strong, who essayed a journey from Milwaukee to Mineral Point in May of 1845. Milwaukee was the metropolis of Wisconsin, and the route, which led by Madison, the capital city, was one of the most important stage lines In the Territory. Strong was one of its leading citizens, lawyer, and legislator combined; accompanying him as far as Madison were his sister-in-law, Mrs. Temple, and her daughter. When the driver called at the Milwaukee House for the party at early dawn, they found the vehicle, by courtesy called a "stage wagon," was nothing but a rickety lumber wagon with some canvas drawn over the top. Eight or nine miles out a rear wheel collapsed, and the occupants were deposited "bag and baggage" In the mud. All plodded forward on foot for half a mile, where the driver succeeded after two hours' delay in procuring a common lumber wagon without springs, in which they were jolted to Troy, a distance of twenty-five or thirty miles. Here they were placed In a coach with a kicking, fractious horse, which the driver, much to the relief of his apprehensive passengers, succeeded in piloting to Richmond without further mishap.

Here, however, their troubles commenced in earnest. It was already dark, with a cloudy sky, and before them lay twenty miles of the open prairie where on previous night journeys the stage had often become lost. Notwithstanding the urgings of the passengers that he light his lamps, the driver set forth without doing so (they learned subsequently that he lacked the proper supplies) and despite momentary peril succeeded in advancing a number of miles. Then he ran the Stage off the side of a bridge, tipping it entirely over and bruising and injuring the occupants. They succeeded in righting the vehicle and again got in (Mrs. Temple first walking half a mile). Within a mile it tipped over again, this time on the other side, injuring the occupants more severely than before. They now determined to ride no more till daylight, and walking on in much pain came at length to a farmhouse where they found shelter until morning when they were taken on to Janesville by a stage that came along. 

The stage continued on to Madison but Strong and his companions were compelled to stay at Janesville to recover from their bruises. The next day Strong procured an open buggy to take them to Madison, and although it rained all day and the women had only their umbrellas for protection they preferred this mode of conveyance to entrust themselves again to the mercies of the Stagecoach.

Leaving his companions at Madison, Strong took the stage for his home at Mineral Point. Although the horses provided were entirely worn out, the agent filled the coach so that they were able to pull it only at a walk. At the end of half a mile Strong and all the other passengers except one, a lady, got out and walked ahead for three miles, beating the coach by half an hour. Despairing of such progress. Strong and two other passengers now hired a private conveyance to take them to Mineral Point, where they arrived towards midnight. Aside from all the delay and discomfort experienced, the extra expense entailed upon him by the delinquencies of the transportation company amounted to more than twenty-three dollars.

It may be supposed by the present-day reader that experiences such as the one described were by no means normal incidents of Stagecoach travel. To some degree, perhaps, such a supposition would be true, yet the narratives of the time leave no room for doubt that they were of distressingly frequent occurrence. On the matter of overturning, an English traveler in America at a somewhat earlier date relates that passengers were trained to respond to the driver's frequent requests to lean on one side or the other, to aid in preventing the upsetting of the coach in the deep ruts with which the road abounded. "Now gentlemen to the right," the Jehu (driver of a coach) would call, and immediately the passengers would project their bodies halfway out of the coach in the direction indicated. "Now gentlemen to the left," would be heard, and all would throw themselves in this direction.

Even on the great National Road, the most famous highway in the country, stage upsets were not unknown. When Black Hawk was taken on his tour of the East, following the disastrous war of 1832, at Washington, Pennsylvania, the horses attached to the coach which was conveying the noted chief and several of his Indian companions ran away. The coach capsized, after a mad dash down the hill, and the men were badly bruised and shaken. Black Hawk was the first to emerge, and to the crowd which quickly gathered, he gave vent to his feelings in loud and vehement tones.

Although no record was made of the warrior's address, the observation of Henry Clay, made on a similar occasion, tells one of the most delightful examples on record of the great statesman's ready wit and unfailing good humor. Near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the coach upset. The driver, catapulting from his elevated seat, landed on his head, and righted himself with a broken nose. Clay, however, emerged from the vehicle unhurt, and with the smiling remark that the Clay of Kentucky had been mixed with the limestone of Pennsylvania.

Judged by present-day standards of comfort and convenience, stage-coach travel in the pioneer West was arduous enough even when performed under the most favoring conditions. At other times it was an experience to be undergone only at the behest of grim necessity. Nor did the conditions of travel materially improve to the end of the stagecoach era. As evidence of this, let's note the experience of Mrs. Ellet on a journey from Chicago to Galena in 1852. By this time the railroad ran as far west as Cherry Valley, seven miles southwest of Rockford, where the journey by stage was begun. At Rockford, there was a pause of an hour for dinner, but fifty minutes were consumed in the preparation of the meal, leaving the passengers but ten in which to eat it and secure their places in the crowded stage. The heat was oppressive and the dust stifling, soon the lumbering vehicle plunged into a dangerous mud-hole from which it emerged with a violent jerk, to the utter discomfort of the "trembling, grumbling passengers." At Freeport, a miserable supper awaited the travelers with the same delay in preparing and hurry in despatching it as at dinner.

The night ride which followed was one of prolonged torture to all concerned. The dust, indeed, abated, for a steady rain came on, which soon turned the prairie road into a morass, appearing, under the fitful glare of the oil lamps, as "a long line of black mud, checkered by holes at one side or another while now and then a tumble-down bridge came in view. But let no one imagine," continues Mrs. Ellet, "that the mere view can give the least idea of a prairie slough, or mud hole. You may see one deceitfully covered with green turf, and suspect no danger till your horses' feet, or one of your wheels sunk so far as to render recovery impossible without the aid of stakes and ropes brought to the rescue. The story of the pedestrian's cap moving just above the black ooze, while the rider and horse were below, appears no fable. Then the mud—it is a peculiar quality, coal-black, and tenacious as tar.

"After our coach had plunged and slipped along an hour or two, lurching almost to an overturn first on one side, then on another, the voice of the driver calling for a light—for he could not see an inch, and never drove over this road before—did not tend to reassure those disposed to think of accidents, particularly as the information was added that a night seldom passed without some stage being overset. The pockets of cigar smokers were searched for matches but vain was the attempt to light the lamp, till the last match had been used. Presently the driver in front roared out "to take care of the bridge which his wheels had just demolished; a caution withheld till we were in the act of going over it, bringing the stage down with a swing from which it seemed impossible to recover it. Next, our driver called in great alarm for help; one of the horses had slipped and lay sprawling in the mud. A succession of such agreeable incidents during the whole night kept before our minds the probability of having limbs broken, or of spending the rest of the hours of darkness on the lone waste prairie, miles from any human habitation, with the wet grass for a couch. These not very exhilarating circumstances were rendered intolerable by the most shocking profanity on the part of the drivers. Ours kept up a soliloquy (talking out loud to yourself) of oaths, and when an accident or a stoppage brought him into the fellowship of his companions, the concert of blasphemies was absolutely terrifying."

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 Southwest Plank Road (now Route 34 / Ogden Avenue), a stop on the Frink, Walker & Co. 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.

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