19 March 2015

The myth & reality of stagecoach travel in the Old West

Several factors have combined to create in the public mind a glorious but entirely false conception of stagecoach driving in the West. First there were European tourists and newspaper editors from the East who crossed the continent by stagecoach in the late 1850s and early '60s and then hurried home to write glamorised articles and memoirs. Few of them failed to include a stagecoach careening down a snakelike, precipitous mountain road hacked from the sheer granite walls with six horses galloping wildly, the driver flailing them with his whip and shouting at the top of his voice to urge them on while the skidding wheels struck sparks and "hurled rocks into the awesome canyon thousands of feet below".

Then there were the magnificent and highly imaginative paintings by Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell of Indian attacks on stagecoaches, the horses running frantically and the driver pouring on the leather.

The third factor was the western novel, stories of a romantic, glamorous, imaginary West that never was, with violence and fast action the chief ingredients used to achieve suspense and drama. In these sagas of the fantasy West no cowboy ever rode and no stagecoach ever rolled at less than an all-out gallop.

To complete the misconception, the movies, and now television, have firmly fixed the image, presenting visually this West-that-never-was, where every stagecoach is driven up hill and down at a breakneck gallop.

One may form a fairly good idea of the speed at which stagecoaches generally travelled throughout the West by making a few comparisons. A hundred and fifty miles a day - equal to six and a quarter miles an hour - was considered excellent cross-country time. This, of course, included stops for meals and for changing teams at relay stations, but a man has walked a rate of six and a quarter miles per hour. Ten miles per hour - six minutes to the mile - was bragging time for a stagecoach run over reasonably good non-mountain roads, but men can run a mile in under four minutes.

- Ralph Moody, Stagecoach West, New York, 1967, p.49-50.

Wells-Fargo stagecoach, San Francisco, April 2013
See also:
HistoryPublic transport comes to Onehunga, 10 February 2015
History: Coach travel from London in 1658 & 1739, 4 October 2013
History: The mysterious Mr Tibbet, 27 April 2009
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