Fifteen thousand miles by stage

Heather AndolinaHeather Andolina is a Museum Assistant in Charlotte, N.C. A historian at heart, Heather earned a B.A. in History from Thomas More College and an M.A. in History from Winthrop University. She is one of a myriad of Buckeyes who have made their way down I-77 to settle in the friendlier winters of Charlotte.

Rarely will you find Heather without a thick book in hand, but she’s more than a bookworm—she is a person who loves living! She enjoys visiting museums, snorkeling, playing tennis, and going to the gym. But above all else, she loves traveling, seeing new places and meeting interesting people. (SR)

In her memoir, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage, Carrie Adell Strahorn recounts her many memorable travels by stagecoach. Carrie’s husband, Robert Strahorn, had been hired by the Union Pacific railroad to travel and write about Western states and territories. Strahorn’s job was to publicize the West and to encourage more Americans to make the westward journey, preferably by rail. He convinced the officials to allow him to bring his young wife, Carrie, along with him.

Although it was her husband that was hired to write about the West, Carrie’s memoir, published in 1911, became an unlikely propaganda piece for America’s westward expansion. Her vivid portrayals of the beautiful scenery and her unforgettable adventures while travelling on the stagecoach brought the Western Frontier to Eastern readers. While most of her stagecoach experiences were non-eventful, the ones that were eventful were thrilling, exciting, and remarkable. When we read about what Wells Fargo stagecoach passengers had to endure during their travels, Carrie Adell Strahorn certainly experienced all of it.

The Strahorns were unfortunate passengers on board stagecoaches that turned over, were almost robbed, and traveled through hostile territory. Once, they had a runaway stagecoach, trapped inside and no stagecoach driver to stop the horses! They truly lived the mythic Western experience.

Kentucky stagecoachWestern travel by stagecoach had its dangers, excitement, and most often, annoyances. Stagecoach travel in the East had its own story as well. Coaches or wagons were used as early as the late 1600s, but stagecoaches appeared on the scene around the early to mid-1700s in New England. At first they were mainly used to transport people between cities, but after the Revolutionary War, stagecoaches became the official carrier of the U.S mail. In Stagecoach East, authors Oliver W. Holmes and Peter T. Rohrbach elaborated on the importance of mail carrying stagecoaches:

The stagecoach was much more than a mere mode of transportation; indeed, the eastern stage set the very tempo of American life in that period. It carried the mail and thus became the country’s major communications network in those pre-telegraph days. The stagecoach also delivered the newspapers, thereby increasing literacy and disseminating the vital information to the public.

Much like the Western stagecoaches, Eastern stagecoaches were vital in developing faster communication and new modes of transportation in the fledgling nation. Americans became more connected, which indirectly encouraged national growth and democracy. Eastern stage lines had road conditions similar to Western stage lines, but eventually were better able to accommodate stagecoaches, and had better conditions than their Western counterparts. Strahorn describes some of the terrible road conditions of Western stage lines:

Just as one loses himself in a moment’s drowsiness the wheels either fall into a chuck-hole that will send one pawing air for something to grapple, or if the wheels strike a rock in the roadway it will stagger the whole coach and give such a lurching as will throw one’s head nearly off the shoulders.

Tipton Best LeadsFortunately for Eastern passengers, their stagecoach travel went much smoother.

As far as the stagecoach stations were concerned, Strahorn offered mixed opinions. There were very few stagecoach stations that offered accommodations and the ones that did were tolerable at best. The food served at these stations left little to the imagination, the Strahorns would sometimes forgo eating because the food was inedible.

In the East, stations that were also taverns dotted the stagecoach lines. These taverns were cleaner and many had the comforts of home and meals that were usually very good—but more expensive. Holmes and Rohrbach commented that, “In the quality and quantity of its food, the American tavern was outstanding.” The Eastern taverns became the stagecoach passenger’s home away from home.

1820 to 1840 were the golden years for Eastern stagecoaching. But with the advent of railroads and the invention of the telegraph, eastern stagecoaches were becoming relics. After the Civil War, stagecoaches were dying out on the main lines, but were still viable on smaller, less traveled roads.

As Eastern stagecoaches were fading away, Western stagecoaches were just beginning to speed up the expansion of the United States. Strahorn wrote during the heyday of Western stagecoaching in the 1870s and 1880s.

Adirondack Mountains coachBoth Eastern and Western stagecoaches played vital roles in the expansion of the United States, from east to west. From the beginning of a new republic, and with expansion of that republic west, stagecoaches carried American development from sea to shining sea.

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