September 29, 2022

Reflections: Stagecoach passengers always took a backseat to the mailbags in early 19th century

Today favored mostly as fodder for jokes, the U.S. Postal Service in the 1830s was a technological marvel of the era thanks to reforms instituted by Postmaster General Amos Kendall, our county’s namesake.

Kendall was able, through his talent for organization, to get the mails operating on time and, although I know it seems hard to believe, at lower cost.

In fact, the founders considered the mail to be a basic governmental necessity for a democratic society to exist. They decided early on that communication had to be maintained between the people and their representatives in Washington, D.C., so that informed decisions could be made at election time.

And people on the frontier, just as in the settled home areas in the East they’d left, hungered for news. Newspapers and other periodicals were a major fraction of the mails in those days. All this political, financial and private information traveled overland in the form of printed material, and the post office system assured that the mail would arrive on time.

In the 1830s, as the frontier moved ever-farther west, Kendall’s revised and improved system of post offices moved along with it. Since the Constitution gave Congress control of when and where post offices were established, offices were established in communities as soon as they had enough political influence in Washington, D.C., which, in many cases, was fairly soon after they were settled.

When Congress decreed establishment of a post office, that meant the mail had to get there somehow. And in the 1830s on the Illinois frontier, that meant that if it didn’t already exist, a road had to be laid out and the mail carried in either on foot, by horseback or in a stage wagon or coach. As a result, the layout of the area’s earliest road system was largely dictated by which communities were awarded post offices.

Mail, of course, wasn’t the only thing those stage wagons and coaches hauled. They also carried passengers. And on the roads of that era, the going often was less than good. During Illinois’ hot summers, passengers were plagued with dust and almost unbelievable hoards of insects. In spring, summer and fall, roads across the prairie turned into linear mudholes hard on animals, equipment and passengers. In the winter, deep snow, sub-zero temperatures and frequent thaws that turned the dirt tracks of the era into long frozen, rutted mudholes that proved just as challenging.

But passengers lined up anyway, even if they came in a poor second to the mail. Regulations of the day, which were fairly strictly enforced, required the mail be carried at the expense of passengers. After all, about a third of the revenue of stagecoach companies came from their mail contracts and loss of the mail contract meant bankruptcy for the stage company. So if there was a decision to be made on whether to leave behind passengers or mail, the mailbags won every time.

Even so, passengers were eager to travel by stagecoach because it was literally the only way to go. Coaches, however, were badly designed for Western roads, and Eastern ones, too, for that matter. Top-heavy, unstable and narrow-tracked, coaches frequently overturned. Their open windows allowed dust, insects and snow to enter almost at will. Their suspension system of leather throughbraces gave a swaying ride some likened to the motion of a ship in a windstorm. But for two decades, they provided passengers the only regularly scheduled transportation service available.

Some of them have left us with entertaining accounts of their adventures. “The Great Compromiser” himself, Henry Clay, was involved in a stagecoach accident near Uniontown, Pennsylvania while on a political journey. The coach turned over; the driver was thrown clear breaking his nose when he landed. Clay climbed from the overturned coach, brushed himself off and quipped that thanks to the accident, the Clay of Kentucky had been mixed with the limestone of Pennsylvania.

In 1842, poet, reporter and politician William Cullen Bryant took the stage from Chicago to Peru. At the unfinished Illinois and Michigan Canal south of Joliet, disaster struck: “In attempting to ford the channel, the blundering driver came too near the [damaged] bridge; the coach wheels on one side rose upon the stones, and on the other sank deep into the mud, and we were overturned in an instant. The outside passengers were pitched head-foremost into the canal, and the four of those within were lying under water. We extricated ourselves as well as we could, the men waded out, the women were carried, and when we got on shore it was found that, although drenched with water and plastered with mud, nobody was either drowned or hurt.”

Father Pierre Verhaegen, S.J., took the stage from St. Louis to Springfield, after which he left an account of his trip in Latin. According to Father Verhaegen, it was a cramped trip: “There were seats in it [the stagecoach] for six persons and we were nine. As a result, much crowding.” Despite the appalling roads, the priest found the speed of the coach was dizzying. “It seemed to me that I was not rolling along but flying. Such things, however, have no terrors for the half-savage drivers; but for me and my fellow passengers they were, I must confess, a subject of constant alarm.”

The prairie, subject of such vivid descriptions by so many travelers, had no charm for Father Verhaegen: “The way over the prairie is not any too pleasant. Swarms of gnats besiege the stagecoach and the stagnant waters that lie across the road make it necessary for the passengers to proceed on foot through horrid places if they would not see the coach sink in the mud.”

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic at one of our local intersections take heart; you can be fairly confident that gnats, stagnant waters, or even half-savage stage drivers will be unlikely to pester you.

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