The Stage & Mail Coach In Iowa

More than seventy-five years have passed since men began to travel in Iowa over a regular stage line. Such a line was run about 1840 from Bloomington (now Muscatine) to Iowa City, the new capital of the Territory. Three times each week the two-horse rig carried passengers and baggage either way over this journey of thirty miles. The men, and women too if any were traveling in that way, paid three dollars each, and three dollars more if they had one hundred pounds of baggage. Children went for half-fare as they do now on the railroad. If one could now go directly by railroad between those two cities it would cost only about sixty cents, and a moderate amount of baggage would be taken free.

Very soon the four-horse coach displaced the old two-horse outfit and the time to make the journey was shortened. There were two well-known names of stage lines in Iowa and they are worth remembering. One which came into the Territory very early was known as the Frink and Walker Company; the other one, which was much more powerful and which ran coaches in several great States of the west, was called the Western Stage Company.

When a main line of coaches was run east and west it went just as far as settlements were made. Gradually it was extended until it crossed the whole State; but as the railroads were built the oldest part of the line was abandoned in the eastern section of the State. All along the main east and west line other shorter ones were run north and south. It was in just the same way that the railroads have built short lines out from the main ones like the veins in a tree leaf.

Anyone will understand how important the roads were from the very first; for traveling by stage was very unpleasant and very slow when roads were bad. Besides, the mails were very much delayed at certain seasons of the year. Even now people become impatient because a railway train is delayed; but what would such persons do if they had to travel in the old way?

In 1844 another line of stage and mail service was established from Galena, Illinois, past Bellevue on the Mississippi, to Andrew in Jackson County; to Maquoketa post office, Thorn, and Anderson's Mills on the Wapsipinicon. It went through Tipton, in Cedar County, and crossed the Cedar River at Washington or Gower's Ferry, now called Cedar Bluffs; and from there it followed a direct road to Iowa City.

From Iowa City westward there were two long mail routes in 1844. One ran to the county seat of Poweshiek County, now Montezuma; and another to the county seat of Mahaska County, now Oskaloosa. Probably the county seats where the mail route ended were no more than a few cabins where a town has since been built.

The round trip from Galena to Iowa City, about one hundred miles long, was to be made once each week. The man who agreed to make this trip and to carry the mail for the United States, must set out on his journey from Galena at six o'clock on every Monday morning. It would take him all of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to get to the end of his trip. The second half of the weekly journey, on the return trip, must be begun at Iowa City at six o'clock on Thursday morning and be completed at six o 'clock on Saturday night at Galena.

It was about seventy miles across the country to the county seat of Mahaska County. To this place the stage driver or mail carrier must start at four o'clock in the morning on Wednesday and arrive at the court house at Mahaska the next day by eight o'clock at night. On the return he set out at the same hour on Friday morning, and arrived at the end of his journey at eight Saturday evening. Over these routes the drivers or riders must go in all kinds of weather in both summer and winter.

One of the first mail carriers on the Galena road has told of his experiences in 1846. For two years he made the two hundred miles once a week. Every day, therefore, he averaged thirty-three and one-third miles on horseback. He always spent Sunday in Galena, Illinois, although his home was in Tipton, Iowa. He kept two saddle horses so that he could change them at his home each way on the journey. For this service he was paid $750 a year; about one dollar and a half a day after paying all of his expenses.

The old mail carrier, now more than eighty years of age, says that there were many pleasant things about his rides over the prairies during the two years. Often he rode fifteen or twenty miles without passing a single house. There was, he said, plenty of time to think; and in the pleasant summer weather there was much to be enjoyed. But when the biting cold and fierce storms of winter came on there was not only discomfort but great danger. He remembers riding one day when the thermometer stood at thirty-five degrees below zero. To keep from freezing he wore buckskin trousers tanned by the Indians. His overshoes were made of buffalo skin with the hair on the inside and he never went without his big fur coat and cap. Even then on the great open prairie where there were no trees or houses or barns to stop the gale, he was much exposed in the blizzards, which are known only to those who have lived or traveled during the winter in such regions.

The Albin stage line ran from Davenport through Blue Grass and Center Grove in Scott County; past the Albin home in Cedar County; across the Cedar River at Rochester, and by the post offices of Peedee, Springdale and West Branch in Cedar County. It ran as far west as Iowa City. In 1849 an Albin boy, thirteen years old, helped his father in driving the teams on this forty-mile ride, and he recalls many events of that time. Since the Albin home was about the middle station on the route, there the horses were changed and stages were sent out in either direction, east or west. In the winter time the Cedar River, the only large stream on the way, could be crossed on the ice. In the summer time it was forded unless the water was too high. When anything prevented crossing, coaches would run to either side and passengers and baggage could be ferried over.

It took ten hours to go the whole length of this stage route of about forty miles; and horses were changed every ten miles. When roads were bad four horses were driven on each coach. Sometimes extra outfits were added to carry the passengers; for seven passengers made a load and during the last years of the service an average of twenty-one passengers on each trip had to be carried. There were many men coming into Iowa to buy land or to go to the capital of the State on business.

Sometimes the boy driver was glad to get rid of his load; for the stage often carried valuable packages of money sent from the land offices to the government treasury. Guards were sent along with these shipments of gold, but still there might be danger of robbery. Once a party of southern gentlemen came to Davenport and took passage on the stage. They were in search of negro slaves who had escaped from their masters; and the whole party was going to the end of the journey with the boy driver. The five men questioned the boy, who says that he knew well where darkies might be concealed. Indeed, the stage ran right through a neighborhood where the slaves had many friends who would hide them during the day and carry them on their way north at night. But this boy could keep a secret and the slave drivers got ho information from him. He has said that he was "never so glad to unload any passengers as those five fellows.''

Not until about 1855 was this stage line given up. Then the first railroad in Iowa running west from Davenport took the place of all the stages. Westward, however, there were the same stages, which continued to carry on this work for many years. At first main lines were established east and west, and afterward short lines in all directions north and south. From Des Moines to Keokuk, for example, the Western Stage Company furnished, at first, wagons without springs and with white muslin covers. These were drawn by two horses. The first day out from Des Moines took the load to Oskaloosa, the second day the stage reached Fairfield, and at the end of the third day the traveler would arrive at Keokuk. His trip would have cost him ten dollars; probably three times as much as now.

A line of two-horse vehicles called "jerkeys" ran from Keokuk to Davenport. It, also, was managed by the Western Stage Company, a great concern running stages in as many as eight States like Iowa at the same time. It took many thousands of men to drive the stages and care for the horses and stables kept at many points by this company.

An old Concord coach like those owned by this company may now be found in the State Historical Department at Des Moines. It took four horses to pull the big coach and its load of passengers who rode on the inside and also on the outside. It was quite an exciting event in the history of a new town or post office when the stage came rolling in with its high seated driver, its four strong horses, and its big swinging coach full of passengers. Nothing more interesting, perhaps, occurred until the first railroad train made the old coach useless for traveling long distances.

After that happened the old coaches that cost as much as one thousand dollars when new could be had for as little as ten dollars. A great many men would pay much more than ten dollars now for an old coach just to keep it as a curiosity.

It should not be forgotten that in the days of the stages and four-horse Concord coaches the roads were very often troublesome. The wide muddy sloughs or wet bottom land along some streams were dreaded by both drivers and travelers. On the main coach line from the eastern part of Iowa to Des Moines the Western Stage Company arranged to keep at certain places oxen and wagons with wide tires, that is, with wide rims, on the wheels.

Because the oxen were better able than horses to cross soft ground; and because the wide tired wagon wheels would not settle down so far in the mire, loads could be carried over to meet coaches waiting on the other side. At rivers impassable for teams passengers and baggage would be taken over in boats and coaches or wagons would be ready over on the other side.

But by day and by night the drivers were faithful and the weary horses did not fail to bring passengers through to their journey's end. Fresh horses were ready at short distances so that they were driven hard all the way. Over rough roads the old coach was not so comfortable as a Pullman sleeping car. It made no difference what kind of a man or woman was traveling in such vehicles. Rich or poor, high or low, they must share the same comforts or discomforts; and be glad that there was a way to get over the country. Just as a boy now might wish to be an engineer so the boy in stage coach days probably looked forward to becoming a driver of a four-horse team hitched to a big coach. The big .whip would crack like a pistol when swung over the horses by the driver; and he, in his tipsy seat, laughed at the danger along the way. It took courageous men to follow the business of driver through the whole year, and none should forget what that meant to Iowa in the early days of its settlement.

[Iowa Stories, Volume 1, 1920]
Submitted by Cathy Danielson


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