By Mary A. Helmich, Interpretive Specialist
California Department of Parks and Recreation
The following article is reprinted from the Golden
Nuggets, the newsletter of the Sacramento County Historical Society.
MOVING EXPERIENCES BY STAGE
Director John Ford offered his film
audiences a rather romantic impression of 19th century stage travel. With
only a few passengers and a very photogenic Concord coach, the images he
projected through his movies were more nostalgic than historic. In mid-19th
century California, lightweight celerity wagons, mud wagons, spring wagons
and ambulances ruled the roads. Mules pulled these stages more often than
The driver and conductor (or guard) sat
on the bench at the front. Mail was secured beneath the driver’s seat, in
the “boot” at the back or, at times, inside. Some vehicles could carry
luggage and extra passengers on the roof. However, mail was the first
priority of the cross-continent stage companies — not passengers! Overland
stages traveled continuously, day and night, with no more than brief stops
at way stations for often-poor food and no rest.
Through choking dust, constant heat or
intense cold, passengers huddled inside the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder, and
three to a bench. Each had about 15 inches to call his own. Those stuck on
the center bench of a large coach had only a leather strap to support their
backs. Raphael Pumpelly, who rode the Butterfield Overland Mail stage west
to Tucson, explained the interior seating arrangements:
"As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was
necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being
room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was
graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a
place of support. An unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the
rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constantly bent forward."
One stage passenger at Maricopa Wells
"Eight of us inside, not able to stretch much. Mere lying a full length is a
considerable part of the relief as sleeping in a good bed. In coach the
knees get weary, the back bone gets crooked, and it can only be straightened
by a severe effort, and every nerve, muscle tendon and bone has a little
protest of its own to make upon the natural strain upon it…"
Passengers push a stage in the
California gold fields
(from Alonzo Delano’s Pen Knife Sketches, 1853)
Coaches had a lurching, rolling motion
that increased with rough roads. Travelers often suffered from motion
sickness — but without any refreshing sea breezes. The heat could be
unbearable. Dust permeated every inch of clothing. Sweat, insects and other
irritating conditions made for an interesting, if not particularly pleasant,
Besides the heat, dirt and cold, there was the darkness to be experienced
inside. Waterman L. Ormsby, the first through passenger on the westbound
Butterfield Overland Mail and a reporter for the New York Herald, wrote
feelingly of “the heavy mail wagon whizzing and whirling over the jagged
rock…in comparative darkness…to feel oneself bouncing —now on the hard seat,
now against the roof, and now against the side…was no joke.”
On occasion, passengers were required to get off the stage to relieve the
fatigued teams or to push the vehicle. Ormsby recalled, “We were obliged
actually to beat our mules with rocks to make them go the remaining five
miles to the station, which is called Pinery…”
If passengers chose to stay in a town or
at a home station to seek relief from their journey, they could become
stranded for a week or more before resuming their travels. A ticket did not
guarantee the passenger the right or the pleasure of traveling on the next
stage when another occupied the seat.
Next time you watch a Western film or a television rerun, reflect on the
moving experiences of long-suffering 19th century stage passengers and enjoy
the comforts and conveniences of 21st century travel.
DINING ON THE ROAD
When driving or flying, reflect upon the
hardy souls who had to rely on 19th century stage companies for their food
while traveling. Stage outfits used two types of stops — swing stations,
situated from 12 to 30 miles apart, and intermittent home stations, about
every 50 miles. Ten minutes usually were allowed to exchange teams and for
giving passengers a stretch. At home stations, travelers had a little more
time for a quick meal.
A mile or two from a scheduled stop, conductors blew a small brass bugle or
trumpet. When close to the station, another long blast was sounded. The
first call alerted the station keeper to begin food preparations for the
passengers and to ready a fresh team for the stage. The final blast meant
the stage had arrived. The meals were always an adventure.
Often there were not enough plates or tin cups available to serve everyone.
In West Texas in 1858, the first through passenger on the Butterfield
Overland Mail Line, Waterman Ormsby, breakfasted on jerked beef cooked over
buffalo chips, raw onions, slightly wormy crackers and a bit of bacon.
Sometimes passengers partook of chicory coffee sweetened with molasses or
brown sugar, fried pork floating in grease, hot biscuits and corn bread.
Ormsby noted “…the fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so
far from civilized districts.” On his journey, he also ate bread and fried
steaks of bacon, venison, antelope and tough mule. Milk, butter and
vegetables were served toward the two ends of the overland trip.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his brother Orion traveled the central
overland route by stage in the early 1860s. Twain described one of their
miserable dining experiences in his book, Roughing It:
The station-keeper up-ended a disk of last week’s bread, of the shape and
size of an old-time cheese, and carved some slabs from it which were as good
as Nicolson pavement, and tenderer.
He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old
hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the United
States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company
had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employés. We
may have found this condemned army bacon further out on the plains than the
section I am locating it in, but we found it — there is no gainsaying that.
Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slumgullion,” and it is
hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to
be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it
to deceive the intelligent traveler. He had no sugar and no milk — not even
a spoon to stir the ingredients with.
We could not eat the bread or the meat, nor drink the “slumgullion.”
Stage-stop food service in the 19th century may have been fast, but it
certainly was not reliable. Consider how lucky we are today when dining at a
restaurant with the county Health Department’s posted “A” notice.