A piece of Dixon history: The great stagecoach transfer station

I recently found three statements about early Dixon that stunned me.

The first one appeared in the 1881 “History of Lee County.” It said Dixon was “the great transfer station on the stage lines that traversed the country” in the 1830s and 1840s.

The second statement was published in 1838 in a book titled “Illinois in 1837 & 8.” It described Dixon as the place where the stagecoach roads from Chicago, Naperville, Ottawa, Princeton and Peoria converge before continuing on to Galena.

The two statements surprised me because I never realized Dixon’s pivotal role in the stagecoach business. That fact led to other revelations about early Dixon, especially about its early hotel industry. Stay with me.

Few realize that Father John Dixon initiated stagecoach travel through Dixon. In 1828 and 1829, he ran ads in Galena, promoting his “mail stage” that carried mail and passengers from Galena to Springfield. On April 11, 1830, he famously moved to “Dixon” to take over operation of Ogee’s Ferry and to occupy a more central position for his mail contract.

Traffic backup

The slow process of ferrying frequently created a traffic backup, which was noted by Lt. Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy. When Davis came to Dixon’s Ferry in 1831, he “found the mail coach and numbers of wagons with persons going to the lead mines detained at the river.”

Davis’s testimony matches a statement in the 1880 “History of Dixon and Palmyra,” which recalled that, from 1829 to 1835, “five to twenty teams a day” would wait in line to utilize Dixon’s ferry on their way to Galena in the spring and fall.

The major stagecoach hub

Dixon soon became the hub for several stagecoach lines that threaded northern Illinois. Besides John Dixon, three others operated stage lines in the area: John D. Winters of Elizabeth, Leonard Andrus of Grand Detour, and Frink & Walker of Chicago. James P. Dixon, Father John’s oldest son, served as an agent for Frink & Walker, which likely involved selling stagecoach tickets from James’s livery stables at Dixon’s Ferry.

As all these coaches rumbled into Dixon, they brought exhausted horses and people. The horses would be changed, fed and watered at the local livery. Travelers, too, would require a respite from the bumpy ride. And that’s where the hotel business enters our story.

In 1835 John Dixon’s cabin was converted into a tavern “for the accommodation of the traveling public.” At that time, a tavern was a small hotel offering a meal, a bed and sometimes the sale of “ardent spirits.” Rebecca Dixon, John’s wife, served as the tavern hostess at that time, but she was firmly opposed to alcohol.

The third statement

That brings us to the third statement, published in the 1880 “History of Dixon and Palmyra.” It said that Dixon had grown to 13 families in 1837, and the town had three hotels: Dixon’s tavern, the Western Hotel and the Rock River House.

How could a town of 13 families maintain three hotels?

These hotels were certainly small and probably needed a staff of only a husband and wife. But the important point is that Dixon’s ferry and its extensive stagecoach traffic gave birth to a thriving hotel industry.

Years later, when the first issue of the Dixon Telegraph came off the presses in 1851, the editor touted Dixon’s good rope ferry, “stages [that] meet here from almost every direction,” and three hotels, which would include the famous Nachusa House in 1853.

The end of the stagecoach

In 1855, stagecoach traffic came quickly to an end when the speed, comfort and convenience of the railroad came to Dixon, along with a railroad bridge. Fortunately, Dixon was the recipient of not one, but two railroad lines: the Illinois Central serving north-south travelers, and the Galena and Chicago Union serving east-west travelers.

But with the advent of the railroad and reliable bridges, travelers no longer needed to stop in Dixon. In order to get people to stop in town, the residents needed to rely on its natural charm and beauty, which was there all along.

‘Almost a paradise’

Longtime Dixon resident J. T. Little (1817-1902) described its beauty in the 1893 “Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County” as he told the story of his first visit to Dixon from Maine. He first stopped in Oregon then came down the river from Grand Detour in the stagecoach with Leonard Andrus.

As the horses emerged over the high bluff, probably near today’s KSB Hospital, Little said that he would “never forget the beautiful vision of his first glimpse of Dixon.”

“There never was a prettier place for a town,” he said, “and within two years it will be almost a paradise.”

While other area towns can boast a beautiful view of the Rock River, Dixon’s gradual slope to the river provides a stunning vista that is unparalleled along its 300-mile journey.

So, for many early stagecoach passengers, the Rock River ferry forced them to stay for the night. But for others, the beauty of Dixon’s unique perch above the river would inspire them to stay for a lifetime.

  • A Dixon native, Tom Wadsworth is a writer, speaker and occasional historian. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament.