The Rise And Fall Of Stagecoaches In Iowa

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Courtesy Library of Congress

A driver on a dirt road with a stagecoach around 1900. The hey-dey of stagecoach business already had passed for a few decades by the time this photo was taken.

In the 1850s little boys wanted to be stagecoach drivers when they grew up. Perched high on the seat, in control of a team of high-spirited horses, racing through the countryside—a stagecoach driver’s job looked pretty glamorous to the typical 10 year old. In Iowa many boys were in awe of drivers on the Western Stage Company which had been established in 1854.

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Cheryl MullenbachCheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.

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Several men had formed a partnership with a capital investment of $1.5 million, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader. Two were from Iowa—Kimball Porter from Iowa City and Col. E.F. Hooker from Des Moines. The Des Moines headquarters were located in the Everett House at Fort Des Moines. Shops and barns at 8th and Vine streets housed five departments: woodworking, iron works, painting, horse shoeing and harness making. There was also a large station at Iowa City where the company kept supplies, coaches, horses, blacksmith and carpenter shops. Western Stage Company drivers were scattered over the state.

The company quickly scheduled stage routes throughout the state as well as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Missouri. Fares ranged from five to seven cents per mile. The Knoxville Journal reported that receipts for one year on the line between Des Moines and Boone reached $100,000.

Painted in bright colors and named for well-known people or places, the stages—called jerkies—held nine passengers. Two to four horses made up the team. It was a rocky ride during good weather, but could be “violent” when the roadways were rutted from heavy rains or snow. Making three to four miles per hour in good weather, the stages could be delayed for days in bad weather.

Good horses were key to a speedy trip. But passengers were often disappointed. The Ames Daily Tribune reported that passengers complained about the “snail-galloping plugs” that pulled their stagecoach out of Vinton. Stages stopped at stations about every ten miles where they got fresh horses, harnessed and ready to go when they arrived.

Although the Western Stage Company was a major enterprise in the state, other companies were active in Iowa, including Frink & Walker, Ohio Stage Company and Hatch & Company. They competed for contracts with the government to carry U.S. mail. For those that snagged the lucrative deals, it meant several hundred dollars a year in revenue.

Competition was in the blood of the drivers too. The various companies shared the roadways, so it wasn’t unusual for the drivers to race one another to their destinations. Each driver wanted to prove his stagecoach was the fastest.

And those drivers the little boys so admired had reputations to uphold. The Ames newspaper conceded the drivers made their jobs look easy. It reported that a highly skilled stagecoach driver could easily “snap a fly off the flank” of the lead horse with his “long-lashed whip.” And not only that, he could “chew tobacco and talk at the same time.”

The Western Stage Company thrived and expanded. It played a big role in bringing immigrants to the state in the 1850s, and during the Civil War in the 1860s it moved soldiers and supplies. Over the years shares in the company rose from $100 to $2,000 per share.

But times changed, and new forms of transportation took a toll on the stagecoach businesses. Trains could move people and freight much faster. In July 1870 the Western State Company dissolved. It had once employed 1,500 men and operated with 600 coaches and 3,000 horses. The old coaches sold for $10 apiece to people who wanted the iron and wood for scrap.

(For more information about stagecoaches in Iowa see Orville F. Grahame’s article “Stagecoach Days” in the Palimpsest,” May 1924, p 176-185.)

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Sources

  • “A Ride!” Burlington Tri-Weekly Hawk-Eye, May 21, 1855.
  • Briggs, Dr. John E. Exploring the History of Iowa in Ames Daily Tribune, Dec. 31, 1934.
  • “Immigration to Iowa and the Western Stage Company,” Burlington Tri-Weekly Hawk-Eye, Apr. 3, 1855.
  • “Iowa’s Stagecoach Days,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 19, 1924.
  • “The Stage Coach Was Once Means of Transportation,”Knoxville Journal, Sept. 25, 1930.
  • “Traveling Correspondence,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, Feb. 1, 1859.
  • “Western Stage Company,” Davenport Daily Gazette, Apr. 27, 1855.

 

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