AskDefine | Define stagecoach

Dictionary Definition

stagecoach n : a large coach-and-four formerly used to carry passengers and mail on regular routes between towns; "we went out of town together by stage about ten or twelve miles" [syn: stage]

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Extensive Definition

For other meanings see Stagecoach (disambiguation).
A stagecoach (also called diligence) is a type of four-wheeled enclosed coach for passengers and goods, strongly sprung and drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers. The business of running stagecoaches or the act of journeying in them was known as staging.
The stagecoach was supported on thoroughbraces, which were leather straps supporting the body of the carriage and serving as springs (the stagecoach itself was sometimes called a "thoroughbrace"). The front or after compartment of a Continental stagecoach was called a coupé or coupe. An inside passenger or seat was an inside, while an outside passenger or seat was an outside. On the outside were two back seats facing one another, which the British called baskets. In addition to the stage driver who guided the vehicle, a shotgun messenger, armed with a coach gun, often rode as a guard.
The stagecoach was also called a stage or stage carriage. Types included:
  • mail coach or post coach: used for carrying the mails
  • mud coach: lighter and smaller than the Concord coach, flat sides, simpler joinery
  • road coach: revived in England during the last half of the 19th century
A stage wagon was sometimes used as a stagecoach, especially in thinly settled areas.
Familiar images of the stagecoach are that of a Royal Mail coach passing through a turnpike gate, a Dickensian passenger coach covered in snow pulling up at a coaching inn, a highwayman demanding a coach to "stand and deliver", and a coach being chased by American Indians in a Western movie. The familiar "yard of ale" was, by tradition, a beer drinking glass long enough to be handed to a stagecoach driver without his having to dismount.
The stagecoach was first developed in the Great Britain during the 1500s, and only died out in the early 1900s in the United States. Coaching inns opened up throughout Europe to accommodate stagecoach passengers. Shakespeare's first plays were staged at coaching inns such as The George Inn, Southwark. The Royal Mail stagecoach, a mail coach introduced in 1784, hastened the improvement of the road system in the British Isles through the turnpike trust system. In addition, the stagecoach was vital in the colonisation of North America.
The diligence, though not invariably with four horses, was the continental analogue for public conveyance, especially as formerly used in France, with other minor varieties such as the Stellwagen and Eilwagen. Stagecoaches could compete with canal boats, but they were rendered obsolete in Europe as the rail network expanded in the 19th century.

Stagecoaches in the United States

Concord stagecoaches

The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827. Abbot Downing Company employed leather strap braces under their stagecoaches which gave a swinging motion instead of the jolting up and down of a spring suspension. The company manufactured over forty different types of carriages and wagons at the wagon factory in Concord, New Hampshire. The Concord Stagecoaches were built so solidly that it became known that they didn't break down but just wore out. The Concord stagecoach sold throughout South America, Australia, and Africa. Over 700 Concord stagecoaches were built by the original Abbot Downing Company before it disbanded in 1847. Mark Twain stated in his 1861 book Roughing It that the Concord Stagecoach was like "a cradle on wheels".
The term "stage" originally referred to the distance between stations on a route, the coach traveling the entire route in "stages," but through constant misuse it came to apply to the coach. A stagecoach could be any four wheeled vehicle pulled by horses or mules - the primary requirement being that it was used as a public conveyance, running on an established route and schedule. Vehicles included buckboards and dead axle wagons, surplus Army ambulances, celerity [or mud] coaches, and the deluxe Concord. Selection of the vehicle was made by the owner of the stage line, and he would choose the most efficient vehicle based upon the load to be carried, the road conditions, and the weather; and used a two, four or six-horse team based upon those factors and the type of car.
At a time when sectional tensions were tearing the United States apart, stagecoaches provided regular transportation and communication between St. Louis, Missouri, in the Midwest along the Mississippi River, and San Francisco, California, in the West. Although the Pony Express is often credited with being the first fast mail line across the North American continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast, stagecoach lines operated by George Chorpenning and the Butterfield Stage predated the Pony Express by nearly three years. Butterfield Overland Stage began rolling on September 15, 1858, when the twice-weekly mail service began. A Butterfield Overland Concord Stagecoach was started in San Francisco and another Overland Stage in Tipton, Missouri, they ran over the better roads. As the going got rougher, the passengers and mail were transferred to "celerity wagons" designed for the roughest conditions. Each run encompassed 2,812 miles and had to be completed in 25 days or less in order to qualify for the $600,000 government grant for mail service.
In March of 1860, John Butterfield was forced out because of debt. The beginning of the American Civil War forced the Stage Company to stop using the ox bow route and to use the central overland road instead. The Eastern end of the central route, St. Louis to Denver, Colorado was taken over by Ben Holladay. Ben Holladay is characterized as a devoted, diligent, enterprising man who became known as the Stagecoach King. At the western end, Denver to San Francisco, the Stage Company was taken over by Wells Fargo due to large debts that Butterfield owed. Wells Fargo commandeered the monopoly over long-distance overland stage coach and mail service with a massive web of relay stations, forts, livestock, men, and stage coaches by 1866. Transcontinental stage-coaching came to an end with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Final American use: Short haul

The last American chapter in the use of the stage coaches took place between 1890 and the late 1920s, when the road to Young, AZ was paved and the stagecoach was replaced with a Ford. In the end, it was the motor bus, not the train, that caused the final disuse of these horse-drawn vehicles, and many "automobile stage companies" were established in the early 1900s. After the main railroad lines were established, it was frequently not practical to go to a place of higher elevation by rail lines if the distance was short. A town 10 to 25 miles off the mail rail trunk, if it were 1000 or more feet higher, would be very difficult and expensive to serve by rail due to the grade incline. This final portion of the trip, during that 25-year period, was usually served by local stage lines, with a ride of less than a half day being typical. Once the mainline rail grid was in service, the railroad actually stimulated stage line operations well into the 20th century. These were eventually replaced by motorbuses, and so many local private bus lines were early-on called motor-stage lines. By 1918 stage coaches were only operating in a few mountain resorts or western National Parks as part of the "old west" romance for tourists.
Some bus lines still have the word "stages" in their names, though it's difficult to say whether such usages come from actual corporate descent from predecessor stagecoach operators, or is just a marketing strategy.
A real danger for stagecoach travellers was the risk of robbery by highwaymen or bandits, right up into the early 20th century. Cash payrolls and bank transfers were regularly carried by these scheduled stage lines, which operated without a telephone service to report robberies. Charles Bolles aka "Black Bart" is known to have robbed California stages from 1875 to 1883.


  • Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1979 (in English 1984)
stagecoach in Czech: Dostavník
stagecoach in Welsh: Coets fawr
stagecoach in German: Postkutsche
stagecoach in Esperanto: Poŝta kaleŝo
stagecoach in French: Diligence
stagecoach in Italian: Diligenza (Far West)
stagecoach in Dutch: Postkoets
stagecoach in Polish: Dyliżans
stagecoach in Russian: Дилижанс
stagecoach in Swedish: Diligens
stagecoach in Turkish: Posta arabası
stagecoach in Ukrainian: Диліжанс
stagecoach in Chinese: 驿站马车
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