Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Riding the Stage: Getting around in the Old West

by | September 7, 2013 | 7 comments

Three benches (one at each end and one in the middle)  with nine people squeezing into their allotted 15 inches of space, knees rubbing, thighs touching, babies crying, odors wafting, and dust swirling; riding a stagecoach in the nineteenth century Old West was an intimate affair.

Stage Diligence_Wells_Fargo GNU

Stage Diligence_Wells_Fargo GNU

 The stagecoach routes were established primarily to move around mail and money and, as such, Wells Fargo was a major investor and eventually took over most of the Old West stagecoach lines. Passengers were an additional source of revenue but not the main reason for establishing the lines. As such, conditions were not luxurious for the weary travelers who used them. Inside the coach, the seats and carriage walls were covered in durable leather with leather curtains to cover the large openings that served as glassless windows should it be too cold, rainy, or windy to enjoy the view. However, I’m sure they took pains to keep those curtains up, if possible, given the tight conditions in the coach. Two small glass windows, however, were on each side of the door and the door had a glass window.

George Fredrick Ruxton describes the accommodations of his 1847 stage coach journey with a sense of humor:

An American stage-coach has often been described: it is a huge lumbering affair with leathern springs, and it creaks and groans over the corduroy roads and unmacadamized causeways, thumping, bumping, and dislocating the limbs of its “insides,” whose smothered shrieks and exclamations of despair often cause the woodsman to pause from his work, and, leaning upon his axe, listen with astonishment to the din which proceeds from its convulsed interior.

The coach contains three seats, each of which accommodates three passengers; those on the centre, and the three with their backs to the horses, face each other, and, from the confined space, the arrangement and mutual convenience of leg-placing not infrequently leads to fierce outbreaks of ire. (Excerpted from Wild Life In The Rocky Mountains, The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1916. For more of George’s humorous recollections read the full excerpt at http://www.over-land.com/ccride.html

The stage was pulled by three pairs of matched horses. These horses had to be sturdy and well-trained for the stage alone weighed 2500 lbs. and with passengers, mail, and gold the weight they would have to pull at a good pace could reach 4000 lbs.

  The drivers were the captains of their “ships” entrusted with a good deal of money and goods not to mention the lives of their passengers and thus were accorded respect. Though most often men, there were women who were known to have one of the 50 mile tracts that was the driver’s allotted domain. Women such as Charley Parkhurst, Mary Fields, and Delia Haskett Rawson. The vast majority of drivers were under forty, not the grizzled old fellows typically shown in old Western movies.

 Drivers had to be very skilled to handle six horses over rough terrain. They drove their teams through mountain passes and along the steep, curvy, and narrow trails that had been carved out of hillsides. Sometimes the roads gave way under their wheels and they had to hope their speed carried them over such potentially fatal impediments. Because of the cargo they carried, stagecoaches fell prey to outlaws. As symbols of encroachment, the stagecoach was an easy target for Native American tribes as well. There was nothing glamorous about life of a stagecoach driver but it definitely demanded both courage and skill.

 The stages traveled about 5 miles an hour and stopped to change horses every twelve to fifteen miles. A stage coach driver could expect to have a route of about 50 miles at which point he would turn over the stage to another driver if the journey was a long one. 

 Mark Twain describes his stagecoach journey in Roughing It: Whenever the stage stopped to change horses, we would wake up, and try to recollect where we were – and succeed – and in a minute or two the stage would be off again, and we likewise. We began to get into country, now, threaded here and there with little streams. These had high, steep banks on each side, and every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed somewhat. First we would all lie down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail-bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: ‘Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?

 There are several firsthand accounts of stagecoach travel, many with amusing anecdotes about the trial and tribulations of being knocked about inside a carriage and coming in intimate contact with strangers. You can find some at the following websites:




 The longest stagecoach route was established by John Butterfield with investment from Wells Fargo. It ran from St. Louis to San Francisco beginning in 1858 to transport the U.S. Mail within the 25 days allotted by the government contract. It was a huge undertaking with roads and bridges to build or repair, stations to be set up, and equipment, including stagecoaches, to be purchased. Eight hundred employees were hired to service the contract.  While contracted for mail, the stagecoach also accepted passengers for a price of $200 for the full 2,812 mile route. “Twenty-five pounds of baggage were allowed, along with two blankets and a canteen. Stages traveled at breakneck speeds, twenty-four hours a day. There were no overnight hotel stops—only hurried intervals at stations where the teams were changed.” (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25444 One reporter called the trip 24 days of hell.

 Though railroads put an end to long routes, stagecoaches continued to carry goods and passengers to towns railroads did not service. It was, ultimately, the car that provided the final blow to the stagecoach.

 Any one experience a stage coach ride or want to? 

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. Check out her contemporary novella, Falling for a Cowboy, and her western historical novella, Saving Cole Turner at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobooks.com. Or find her at  www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com

 Picture: Permission under Creative Commons Wikipedia: Information |Description={{fr|1=Diligence à Kanab, Utah (USA) – U.S.Mail Wells Fargo}} |Source={{own}} |Author=PRA |Date=2007 |Permission= |other_versions

 Other sources:





  1. Mairi Norris

    Very interesting post, Anne. It’s curious – though not surprising – that women drove stagecoaches. I loved Twain’s description, lol.

    • Anne Carrole

      Hi Mairi, Thanks for stopping by. The women who drove often disguised themselves as men but over time the other guys caught on. By that time, the woman stagecoach driver had already proven herself. 🙂

  2. Ella Quinn

    Wow! That does not sound at all comfortable! Great post though, and I’m glad to see women drove as well.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping by Ella. Hope you got a chance to check out some of the links for a good laugh at the descriptions of riding in a stagecoach.

  3. Margaret Breashears

    Wonderful post, Anne. Thanks for the details and the sources. Margaret

    • Anne Carrole

      Hi Margaret–thanks for stopping by and you’re welcome. 🙂

  4. Susan Macatee

    Challenging way to travel, Anne! Love Twain’s description. Great post!



Share This