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Stagecoaching in Texas

Filed Under: 
Texas History Features
Filed Under: 
Timeline of Texas History

 

a restored 1880 stagecoach
A restored 1880 Butterfield Overland stagecoach.

Early-day Texas travelers had only four choices when they needed to get from one town to another — walk, ride a horse, bounce along in a buggy or take a stagecoach.

Multi-passenger horse-drawn stagecoaches — Texas’ first regularly scheduled non-maritime, for-hire public transportation — came into use soon after the Mexican province won its independence from Mexico in 1836. By 1837, only a year after the Battle of San Jacinto, a stage line connected Houston and Harrisburg, a distance of five miles.

A year later, the Telegraph and Texas Register carried a display advertisement noting availability of a “Regular Line of Stages From Houston to Washington.” The stage departed an inn called the Houston House at 6 a.m. on Thursdays, and, weather permitting, rolled into Washington-on-the-Brazos 30 hours later. A stage left Washington-on-the-Brazos for Houston at 6 a.m. every Wednesday. As proprietor J.F. Brown noted in his ad, “The subscriber having the contract for carrying the mail, will run regular with a carriage to accommodate passengers.”

That not-so-well-crafted sentence from 1838 summarizes the business model for stagecoaching that stood for more than 70 years in some parts of Texas. A stagecoach operator’s bread-and-butter came in the form of a government mail contract. Passengers and light freight sometimes paid for themselves, sometimes not, but an annual payment from the government enhanced that profit or loss.

The first Congress of the Republic of Texas set up a postal system and established postal routes, but as with most government enterprises in the near-decade of Texas national sovereignty, a lack of money left Texans with mail service that fell far short of its model in the neighboring United States.

By 1839, with the founding of Austin as the republic’s capital, a stage line carried mail, passengers and freight along a hardly improved 150-plus-mile route from Houston to the new city on the frontier.

Rolling Stock

Though “stagecoach” served as the generic description for horse-drawn conveyances carrying passengers, three types of coaches traveled the rough roads of Texas. The first, the one that comes to mind for most when they think of stagecoaches, was the Concord coach.

The distinctive teacup-on-four-wheels design of the stagecoach emerged as an icon of the Old West, but the coaches came from a manufacturer in New England. The history of the Concord coach traces to 1813, when 21-year-old Lewis Downing moved from Massachusetts to Concord, N.H., and began operating a carriage shop. Thirteen years later, Downing hired journeyman coach builder J. Stephen Abbot, who soon became his partner. In 1827, they built the first vehicle that came to be called the Concord coach.

The firm of Abbott & Downing went on to produce more than 3,000 stagecoaches, the “Cadillacs” of the industry. Pulled by either four or six horses, the coaches came in 6-, 9- or 12-passenger sizes. (Up to six passengers, including the driver and a messenger in charge of the mail sacks, also could sit on top of the coach.) Handcrafted from oak and ash, with elm wheels and a curved body of basswood, the coaches had red upholstered seats (though some had leather seats) and a leather “boot” on the back for luggage. Standing 8-½ feet high and weighing 1-¼ tons, the Concord usually came in red with yellow trim. Fancy paintings and gold scroll often decorated the coach’s doors.

“It is roomy and grand, with rhythm in its roll and the play of its wheels,” one happy traveler wrote of the Concord stage. “It is poetry in motion.“

That “rhythm” came from the coach’s innovative thoroughbraces, long, 4-inch-wide leather strips that in a latter era would be called shock absorbers. In addition to lessening the bumps associated with traveling unpaved roads, the thoroughbraces caused the stagecoach to swing from side to side. If the coach got stuck in the mud, savvy drivers knew that motion made it easier for the horses to extract it. Mark Twain, in Roughing It, likened a stagecoach to a “cradle on wheels.”

At the height of their popularity and production, Concord coaches ranged in price from $500 to twice that. Other carriage makers, mostly smaller operations, also built coaches similar in appearance to the Concord-made vehicles. Still, the Concords saw the most use on the basis of their deserved reputation for quality.

The second commonly used vehicle was a four-horse wagon covered with a canvas tarp that could be rolled up in warm weather or tied down in cold or rainy conditions. Built on a Concord frame, these vehicles were called celerity wagons. Also known as mud wagons, they had a lower center of gravity and being lighter, could travel faster. Often pulled by mules, they usually served the shorter, less-trafficked, more rugged routes, particularly in West Texas.

In later years, two-horse hacks, also with roll-down canvas tops, plied routes connecting smaller communities with towns having rail service.

Stagecoach Inns and Stations

Every stagecoach route in Texas stretched along a series of stopping points where drivers could hitch on a fresh team in 10 minutes and be on their way again. Three times a day, passengers could get a hurried meal. Long-haul stages tended to run 24-hours-a-day, but some stage stops featured overnight accommodations.  The distance between stops varied depending on the terrain and the availability of water, but 15 to 30 miles apart was the norm.

In the early days of stagecoaching in Texas, especially in the more populated areas, those stops came at rural inns offering travelers bed and board. These inns ranged from log cabins with a dogtrot to handsome two-story Greek Revival–style houses. In cities, hotels often served as departure points. As Texas grew to the west and south, the stops in more remote areas tended to be less fancy. In the vastness of West Texas, a stage stop usually amounted to little more than a stone or adobe structure and a corral for the stock.

Stagecoach stop fare ranged from terrible — wormy biscuits and grease-laden meat of unknown source — to something weary travelers looked forward to. Meal prices ran from 40 cents to a dollar in the late 1850s.

A man named Sargent ran a hotel that served as the stage stop in Brackettville, the town that had grown up outside the Army garrison at Fort Clark in Kinney County. Vinton E. James, passing through on the stage in 1876, spent the night at the Sargent Hotel. He later wrote: “Next morning, after a hearty breakfast of hot cakes and coffee we told our host, Mr. Sargent, goodbye.”

At most stage stations, pork or wild game, beans, bread and coffee awaited tired, dusty travelers. But at the better places, usually those in the more settled areas of East Texas, a hungry stage passenger might find a variety of wild game, oysters or fish. Biscuits or cornbread could be slathered in butter and washed down with sweet milk, as it was called.

“The fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts,” New York Herald correspondent Waterman L. Ormsby said of stagecoach stop food in Texas. “It consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh — the latter tough. …” He added, “the stomach does not long remain delicate after a few days of life on the plains.”

Connecting Texas Ports

Stagecoaches carried passengers inland from Texas’ two busiest ports, Galveston and Indianola. “The U.S. Mail stage leaves the Planter’s House on the arrival of the steamers from New Orleans and Galveston by which travelers will have a speedy and direct passage to Victoria, Cuero, Gonzales, Seguin, New Braunfels, and Austin,” a Dec. 29, 1848, advertisement in the Galveston News said of the stage service available at its rival port down the coast. “Messrs. Harrison and McCullough, the well known proprietors of the line, have placed upon it an excellent coach, and will make their trips so as to enable passengers landing at Indian Point [Indianola] to proceed to the interior with as little delay as possible.”

Overland Routes

The 1848 discovery of gold along the American River in California turned Sacramento and San Francisco into boom towns and stimulated the development of stagecoach transportation in Texas, half-way across the continent.

Frontiersman Henry Skillman garnered a mail contract to provide service from San Antonio to El Paso to Santa Fe in 1851, the first of his stages rolling out of San Antonio on Nov. 3, 1851. Skillman lost his contract in 1854, but after a short interval partnered with George H. Giddings to resume the Texas-to-New Mexico service. In the summer of 1857, the operators suddenly faced a business challenge from James Birch, who landed a $150,000-a-year contract to provide through service to San Diego.

Birch owned 400 mules and horses and employed 65 men to run 50 Concord stages or celerity wagons (which saw more usage in Texas) on a 1,476-mile route that took an average of 27 days to cover. A passenger wanting to get all the way to El Paso from the Alamo City had to pony over $100. Passage to California from Texas cost twice that. Mules provided most of the motive power, giving Birch’s enterprise its nickname, “The Jackass Mail.” When Birch died in the fall of 1857, Giddings and R.E. Doyle bought his contract.

The Jackass Mail not being sufficient to handle all the non-maritime mail going in and out of the Golden State, U.S. Postmaster General Aaron Brown executed an ambitious mail contract with New Yorker John Butterfield in March 1857. Butterfield’s contract netted him $600,000 yearly to provide twice-a-week mail service in each direction. The agreement also allowed him to collect fares for carrying passengers.

Butterfield oversaw the surveying of a route that extended 2,795 miles from St. Louis to San Francisco. The oxbow-shaped route, selected by the postmaster general because it would be usable year-round (though Brown, being a Southerner, may also have had something to do with it) crossed the Red River into Texas at Benjamin Franklin Colbert’s ferry at Preston in Grayson County and continued for 740 miles toward El Paso, cutting across the upper Pecos River to Pine Springs at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains, then via Hueco Tanks to El Paso. After mid-1859, Butterfield moved the trans-Pecos segment of the route more to the south, his stages fording the snake-like river at the legendary Horsehead Crossing. The Texas leg of the trip took eight days on average.

With significant financial support from William G. Fargo and Henry Wells (owners of Wells, Fargo & Co. and American Express), Butterfield’s Overland Mail Co. built a stage stop every 15 to 20 miles, digging cisterns and putting up corrals. The significance of the operation — the nation’s first commercial transcontinental transportation system — can be judged by the level of investment: The company purchased 250 stagecoaches or celerity wagons in addition to freight and water wagons, some 1,200 horses and 600 mules, and kept nearly 800 drivers, conductors, station keeps, blacksmiths and wranglers on its payroll.

The first Butterfield stage left the St. Louis area on Sept. 16, 1858, with the initial east-bound stage having pulled out of San Francisco the day before. Butterfield’s contract stipulated that the trip take less than 25 days.

“Remember boys,” Butterfield famously said, “nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!”

Twenty-three-year-old Waterman L. Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald, rode with Butterfield and his son aboard the west-bound stage when it left Missouri. In what became a classic of Western Americana, the young journalist chronicled the inaugural trip for posterity.

When the stagecoach finally reached California, Ormsby wrote: “Had I not just come over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.”

Stage Lines Span the State

“As a general thing,” the 1859 Texas Almanac informed its readers, “the service is as good as can be found elsewhere.” Travel by stagecoach normally cost a dime a mile, though rates could be doubled when rain-swollen streams and muddy roads made operations more difficult.

The Austin-based firm of Risher & Sawyer operated two important routes in the 1850s, a line than connected Austin and San Antonio three times weekly and a Houston–Austin route. The Texas State Gazette offered its “best wishes for … success” in 1852 when Col. George W. Grant had formed a company that would run a stage “every alternate day” from Austin to Houston, making the trip in only two days. One way from the Capital City to Houston cost $15.

From Austin to the Alamo City, one old-timer later recalled, “the trip was made in 18 hours with breakfast at the Blanco Creek, supper in New Braunfels and arrival at San Antonio sometime during the night, weather and floods permitting.” In wet weather, the 75-mile trip took the worst part of a week.

Shortly before the beginning of the Civil War, Texas had 31 stage lines in operation. B. Risher and a new partner, C.K. Hall, ran 16 of those lines. They had some 300 men working for them and owned more than 1,000 horses and mules.

The Overland Mail Co. ranked as the largest stagecoach firm doing business in Texas, but Butterfield’s connection to the company ended in 1860, when Fargo and the other stakeholders relieved him of his day-to-day managerial authority over a difference in operational philosophy. The Overland line continued its Texas runs until March 2, 1861, less than six weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War, when Congress moved the main mail route farther to the north.

With blue-coated U.S. cavalry troopers having been withdrawn from the state following secession, and with most able-bodied Texans off fighting Yankees, the virtually unprotected Texas frontier contracted eastward by a hundred miles or more. Indian attacks increased while stagecoach travel decreased. Except for a line connecting San Antonio and Eagle Pass, San Antonio represented the western-most extent of stage service in Confederate Texas.

Stage traffic increased, however, between the state’s southern-most railhead at Alleyton in Colorado County and the Rio Grande Valley, where Southern-grown cotton was shipped to foreign markets on blockade runners via ports at the mouth of the river on the Mexican side. The route from Alleyton to Brownsville came to be called the Cotton Road.

Following the war, Texas stagecoach operations and routes expanded. Communities without service eagerly sought a connection.

“Here we are, 35 miles from a stage line, and have to send the mail that distance every week to the Post Office,” the Tyler Journal lamented in November 1865. Only a few weeks later, another Tyler newspaper, The Reporter, informed its readers that “Sawyer, Risher & Hall have established a stage line from Marshal via Tyler, to Crockett. This is a much needed improvement and places Tyler again within reach of the balance of the world by stage.”

By the early 1870s, Risher and Hall ran seven routes operating out of Austin, Brenham, Columbus, La Grange, San Antonio, Victoria and Waco. E.M. Sawyer and his brother Frederick, had four lines, including the one through Tyler. Calling them “indefatigable and enterprising,” the editor of the 1867 Texas Almanac said the state “is probably more indebted [to Sawyer, Risher and Hall] for mails … than to all others together. There is nominally a mail agent for Texas and Louisiana, but so far as Texas is concerned, he is only nominally an agent.”

Ben Ficklin operated a stage line connecting Fort Smith, Ark., and San Antonio with service to El Paso beginning in 1868. After Ficklin’s death in 1871, his partner F.C. Taylor took over the operation. One of their more important stations, a stop on the Concho River, became, along with Fort Concho, the nucleus for the city of San Angelo.

Indian Attacks

Stagecoach travel in the less-settled areas, particularly far West Texas, remained risky even after the Civil War. The caution John Butterfield had offered his customers before the war still held sway: “You will be traveling through Indian country and the safety of your person cannot be vouchsafed by anyone but God.”

During the 2 years, 5 months and 17 days that the Overland Mail Co. served Texas, it lost more than 50 employees to Indians and many of its stage stops were sacked by Indians bent on stealing mules and horses. They escaped with hundreds of head.

Before the Butterfield line supplanted the San Antonio–San Diego “Jackass Mail,” Apaches killed all occupants of a west-bound stage in Quitman Canyon, southwest of present-day Sierra Blanca in what is now Hudspeth County.

“The Indians had ambuscaded the road by building blinds on each side of the road,” former Texas Ranger Capt. George W. Baylor recollected in 1899. “They riddled the stage with bullets and arrows.”

When searchers found the battered stage, Baylor continued, “There was a great deal of blood on the dashboard and the bottom of the stage … showing the first volley at close range must have killed or wounded most of the party [aboard the stage].”

Only one body was ever found, and it had been burned beyond recognition.

The last known Indian attack on a stagecoach occurred in January 1881, also in Quitman Canyon. Rangers trailed the warriors responsible for the raid and killed most of them in the final clash between the state officers and hostile Indians.
 

Guards brandish weapons on a Wells Fargo wagon
Guards brandish weapons on a Wells Fargo wagon transporting $150,000 of gold bullion in 1890. John C.H. Grabill Collection.

Robberies

Stagecoach robberies happened so often it came to be considered something of a right of passage to hand over one’s money and valuables to a masked man with a gun on some lonely roadside.

“At one time,” wrote journalist Alexander Sweet in his humor sheet Texas Siftings, “the traveling public became so accustomed to going through the usual ceremonies that they complained to the stage companies if they came through unmolested. Being robbed came to be regarded as a vested right.”

Fifty-eight years after the fact, Austin resident Sam Moore still liked to talk about the time he faced highwaymen in 1879.

Just back from a trail drive, Moore had boarded the west-bound stage in Austin. The Capital City had rail service to points north and east, but stagecoaches remained the only form of public transportation to West Texas.

“When we reached the Peg Leg Crossing, on the San Saba River, a fellow wearing a mask rode out and unhitched the horses and ordered everyone from the coach,” Moore recalled in an interview in the long-defunct Austin Dispatch in 1937.

Riding with him that day were four traveling salesman — then called “drummers” — and a young woman. Drummers usually conducted their business in cash and road agents considered them “rich pickings.”

The outlaws searched the salesmen and relieved them of cash and coin. After examining the lady’s purse and jewelry, the lead robber handed it back, courteously saying he didn’t rob women.

Then the gunman turned his attention to Moore.

“He … punched me in the ribs with his gun, and said, ‘Keep your stuff, there ain’t no cowboy got a damn thing.’ ”

Noticing the masked man’s eyes looked somewhat familiar, Moore figured the robber knew him. The young cowboy may or may not have known the robber, but he later maintained the man was Rube Burrow, “a rather notorious character with whom Uncle Sam was acquainted.”

Eventually arrested for murder in Tucson, Ariz., “Burrow” was extradited to Texas and booked into the Travis county jail, a castle-like stone structure built in 1875 across from the Capitol.

“After a time,” Moore continued his tale, “a woman, representing herself to be ‘Burrow’s’ wife, appeared at the jail to visit her husband, with food and clean clothing.”

The visits continued with regularity for several months.

“Then one afternoon, when time came to let her out the ‘wife’ pushed a Colt into the jailers’ ribs and demanded the keys. Wearing a Mother Hubbard, ‘Rube Burrow’ clattered down the steps and made his escape. The woman dressed in her husband’s garb, remained in jail.”

“Burrow,” whoever he really was, never again appeared in Texas.

That was Moore’s story, anyway. An Alabama-born character by the name of Rube Burrow with a Robin Hood–like reputation did spend some time in Texas during the 1870s and 1880s, but his first crime is not believed to have occurred until 1886, well after the robbery Moore remembered.

The Texas Rangers eventually rounded up the Peg Leg stage robbers, but the only thing that truly put an end to stage coach robbing was the expansion of rail service in Texas. And then bandits took to robbing trains.

Hard Travel

Even without Indians or outlaws, stagecoach travel was hard going.

“To make excellent jam,” the San Antonio Herald wrote with its editorial-tongue-in-cheek, “squeeze six or eight women, now-a-days, into a common stagecoach.”

A Nebraska newspaper published a list of stagecoach travel tips that worked just as well in Texas. “The best seat … is the one next to the driver,” the newspaper advised. Three important “don’ts” included not slumping over on a fellow passenger when sleeping, not asking how far it is to the next station “until you get there,” and not discussing politics or religion. Finally, “Expect annoyance, discomfort, and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven.”

On the Austin–Houston route, wet weather always made the trip more difficult. “On the river and creek bottoms,” one old-timer later recalled, “passengers were requested by the driver, politely or otherwise, to step out and down, and walk in the mud, packing rails to help the stage out of the mud. Then, the trip was made in five or six days. Yet, we got along very nicely.”

A Baptist preacher making the 150-mile, 35-hour trip from San Antonio to Corpus Christi encountered an unexpected form of annoyance in 1879 — a “hilariously drunk” driver. The driver’s boss, the San Antonio station agent, recognizing the extent of his driver’s level of intoxication, decided to accompany him at least as far as the first stop to give him time to sober up.

“When [stage employees] loosed the heads of the four wild mules and jumped quickly out of the way,” Dr. J.M. Carroll later recalled, “the stage left the side entrance of the Menger Hotel like it was shot out of a cannon. Away we went as fast as those mules could possibly go. No effort was made to do more than keep them in the road.”

Yelling and cracking his whip, the stage driver continued to operate his coach as if there were no tomorrow, which was what the terrified passengers had come to believe.

 “Our driver was still unsobered when we reached the first stand,” Carroll continued, “so the agent decided to go with us to the next. … The new quartette of mules was not quite so wild, so we made it to the next stand more decently. We wanted the agent to continue with us, but he said the driver was now all right, so … the agent went back.”

The Rev. A.H. Sutherland never forgot his stagecoach trip from San Antonio to El Paso in the late summer of 1881. The coach left from the Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza.

“The stage line passed through Forts Concho, Stockton and Davis and covered a distance of 720 miles,” the Methodist preacher recalled in an 1917 article in the El Paso Herald.

The trip took one week. Though 14 different drivers handled various legs of the route, Sutherland got no such relief as a passenger. When the stage pulled up in front of the Central Hotel, the preacher was “nearly dead of fatigue.”

Stages to Trains

When Sutherland made that stagecoach trip half-way across Texas, two railroads had crews laying track toward El Paso.

By 1888, Texas had more than 8,000 miles of railroad with more track going down all the time. Two transcontinental routes spanned the state.

For a time, two West Texas towns, Albany and Cisco, had the distinction of being possibly the only communities in the nation where a railroad and a stagecoach line competed with each other. When the Houston & Texas Central reached Albany from Cisco, the man who operated the stagecoach between the two points vowed that the railroad would not put him out of business. Indeed, the railroad lost money on that part of its route. The result was irregular and slow service.

“Albany is a local option town,” The Dallas Morning News reported on June 10, 1888, “and when an old toper goes up on a round-trip ticket and fails to take a supply along with him, he is cured of the alcohol habit for the want of fuel to feed the fires by the time he gets back to Cisco. It is different with the runner of the stage line. He makes, or causes to be made, a trip every day. He keeps his horses fat, and for his own part he wears diamonds and is rapidly evoluting into a bloated bondholder.”

Stagecoaches Hang On

Though the stagecoach era in Texas essentially ended by the mid-1880s with the widespread availability of faster and more comfortable travel by rail, stagecoaches endured as a means of transportation in some parts of the state well beyond the declared death of the frontier.

A stage line from Alice to Brownsville remained the only form of public land transportation to the Rio Grande Valley well into the 20th century. Pulled by a four-horse team, the stage left Alice at 6 a.m. every day. With a change of horses every 10 miles, the trip to the southern tip of the state took 36 hours.

That line, the last long-haul stage route in Texas, operated until 1904, when the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railroad completed its tracks into Brownsville.

A couple of years before the railroad killed the Alice-to-Brownsville line, a family on their way from Corpus Christi to a South Texas ranch in a mule-drawn wagon saw the stagecoach as it passed them.

“We watched until they were out of sight,” one member of that family later wrote, “and could see the stagecoach for a long way — it finally became only a tiny black speck on the horizon.”

From 1904 to 1906, Walter Dunlap drove a stage from Ozona to San Angelo, following a route stretching 83 miles. With a two-horse team pulling a four-wheeled, canvas-topped wagon, Dunlap normally made the trip in 9-½ to 10 hours. Once, he later recalled, he raced his stage between the two towns in slightly more than 8 hours, thanks to a pair of horses he remembered fondly nearly 60 years later, “Crazy Jim” and “Goodeye.”

Dunlap changed horses every 18 or 20 miles and had to stop and open 32 different ranch gates. Tiring of that and wanting to do something that earned better money, Dunlap went to work as a cowboy and later became a rancher.

Demise of the General Sam Houston

The General Sam Houston, a Concord stage named after the first President of the Texas Republic, made its first run between Austin and Brenham in 1841. Pulled by six horses or mules in good weather and eight in muddy weather, the stage later made regular Austin–to–San Antonio runs.

But in 1873, road worn and made obsolete by Austin’s connection to the state’s growing network of iron rails, the General Sam Houston was parked in an alley outside Patterson’s Livery Stable. And there it stayed, slowly falling apart. Finally, after more than three decades of non-use, Austin city officials ordered its removal.

Noting that a movement to save the coach for posterity had “failed to bear fruit,” the Austin Statesman lamented its demise, reporting on July 17, 1909, “the ‘Sam Houston’ was torn to pieces yesterday and the timber cast in a waste heap.”

Jehus, Reinsmen, Whips, Whipsters

Newspaper advertisements placed by stage lines promised the usual things like comfortable rides and regular service. The quality of a company’s drivers also figured in their promotional efforts. One firm serving Austin and San Antonio assured potential customers that it had “pleasant and convenient coaches and fresh teams and skilled and accommodating drivers.” In an ad published by the Texas State Gazette in Austin, stage operators Brown & Tarbox declared they had “after a great length of time and expense, been able to procure careful and skillful drivers; and they recommend them as punctual and honest men. …”

Drivers may not always have been accommodating or honest, but they definitely had to be skilled to survive in an enterprise that involved dealing with teams of unruly animals and sometimes equally unruly passengers, not to mention protecting them and their cargo from Indians and outlaws.

One of the most famous drivers who ever cracked a whip in Texas was one-time Texas Ranger William A. “Bigfoot” Wallace, who drove a stage for a time on the San Antonio to El Paso route.

“Uncle” Jim Davis, who died in Fort Worth at 72 in the fall of 1910, was recognized as “perhaps the last of the old-time frontier stage drivers” in North Texas. From Fort Worth to Fort Concho at San Angelo, via Granbury and Brownwood, he had driven a stagecoach until railroads drove the line he worked for out of business.

Once, with 14 passengers on board, the “Lone Highwayman” held up his stage.

Davis’ life symbolized the story of stagecoaches in Texas. After Fort Worth gained rail connections with most of the rest of Texas, Davis used his talent at handling teams to haul freight. In 1889, he began operating a horse-drawn cab in Cowtown and continued with that until he got too old.

Davis’ life came to an end on Nov. 22, 1910, but stage coaches in Texas rolled more slowly toward the sunset of obsolescence.

Indeed, as The Dallas Morning News observed that same year, “Though modern transportation agencies have stolen away the glories of the stagecoach with its galloping spans, it can still be found in commission by those who seek it. … In the South and West it is known and respected. Its latest commercial competitor is the rural free delivery, and as this expands and railroads find a way of profitably negotiating mountain passes and tapping regions whose resources are vastly greater than their population, the stage coach must yield what place it still has, but the process will be so slow that the lovers of the inconveniently picturesque may count for years to come on the chance of meeting the vehicle.”

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, stagecoaches continued to operate in areas of the state not served by railroads. As late as May 1918, a stage line ran between Llano and Mason, Fredericksburg and Mason, and Brady and Mason. Motorbuses and automobiles operating on improved roads finally sent stagecoaches and their teams and drivers to the barn for the last time.

Last Stage Coach

The last known use of a horse-drawn vehicle for regularly scheduled public transportation came in Lake Jackson during the gasoline shortage associated with World War II.

People who lived in Lake Jackson, almost all of them connected to the newly opened Dow Chemical plant at nearby Freeport, needed a convenient way to get from their homes to downtown businesses and to get their children to the day school operating in the Community Center.

 “We were building a new town and needed to interest people to live in Lake Jackson,” A.C. Ray later told longtime Dow employee Bill Colegrove, author of the 1983 book Episodes: Texas Dow 1940–76.

Noting that Dow still used horses and mules to pull graders, someone among the business leaders suggested that the nascent town should provide its residents transportation with a modern day stagecoach.

Committee members secured a used lumber dolly and added two automobile axles with balloon tires. To accommodate a team of horses, a wooden wagon tongue went on the front of the vehicle. A row of wooden seats anchored each side of the coach, with an aisle down the middle. Passengers boarded by walking up a two-step platform on the rear of the coach. Finally, a rounded canvas top provided protection from the blistering coastal sun. The conveyance, which could carry a couple dozen people, looked more like a long covered wagon than an Old West stagecoach, but they called it their stagecoach.

Following the acquisition of two black draft horses, the Lake Jackson stagecoach began serving the community. “Pop” Crumrine, a farmer who knew how to handle a horse-drawn wagon, operated the one-vehicle, privately funded “transit system.” Starting at 8:30 a.m. and continuing every 45 minutes until 4:15 p.m., the coach left downtown for the residential area and then returned to the local drug store.

Youngsters took particular delight in riding the stagecoach, though they preferred to hop on it from a running start rather than step up on it like the adults did.

Quite popular with all concerned, the stagecoach saved passengers precious motor fuel and reduced mileage on already well-worn tires with free trips from their houses to the businesses downtown. In turn, the merchants and service providers saw a much-appreciated upswing in their receipts.

But eventually a problem developed. Traditional iron horseshoes did not last long on concrete pavement. And soft horseshoes could not be had because of war-time demands for rubber. Also, with Lake Jackson having no blacksmith, Ray and fellow businessman J.T. Dunbar shoed the stagecoach horses every Sunday whether they wanted to or not.

Finally, the two men had enough of their extracurricular civic duty and the Lake Jackson stagecoach rolled into history.

Old West Icon

Long after stagecoaches had any paying passengers to haul, they continued to capture the imagination of people through outdoor spectaculars and tent shows. Col. W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody used a large “genuine” Concord stage coach in his Wild West shows, even shipping it to Europe when his 500-person company traveled overseas. Stagecoaches also carried many a plot line in pulp fiction magazines, Western novels and the movie screen, the most notable film being the 1939 classic Stagecoach. Directed by John Ford and starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne, the movie used a stagecoach as a literal stage for human drama and conflict. Set in New Mexico but filmed in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border, the movie captured a colorful era in transportation history.

In the early 1970s, the mystique of the word “stagecoach” struck the developers of a residential community and resort in Montgomery County. The acreage under development having been located on a 19th-century stagecoach route, Stagecoach is the name the owners picked for their property. In 1980 the community incorporated as a general rule city and by 2006 had a population of 537.

Impact on Texas

Given the role stagecoaches performed in the settlement of Texas — for a time they provided the state’s only form of commercial transportation and communication — having a town named “Stagecoach” is a faint commemoration of the industry’s impact. Particularly across West Texas, stagecoaches fostered, along with the U.S. Army, the first settlement and development.

“The Butterfield Overland and San Antonio–San Diego mail lines spurred development of the Texas portion of [the] frontier,” wrote historian Glen Ely in his 2005 Texas Christian University master’s thesis, “Riding the Western Frontier: Antebellum Encounters on the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858–1861,” “establishing much of the regional infrastructure that later became modern West Texas.”

Indeed, the San Antonio–El Paso stage line and the long arc of the Butterfield trail can be viewed as the 19th-century equivalents of Interstate-10 and Interstate-20.

Ely continued: “The community histories of Sherman, Gainesville, Denton, Decatur, Bridgeport, Jacksboro, Belknap, Fort Stockton, Fort Davis, San Elizario, Socorro, Ysleta, and Franklin–El Paso all testify to the significant impact the Butterfield Overland Mail had upon their growth and development.”

Midland historian Jack Scannell wrote in the West Texas Historical Association’s 1971 Yearbook that:  “Where the stagecoach led, the rails followed, and with the rails came settlers, new businesses, and prosperity. To the present day, the highways, railroads, and even the airlines follow the routes laid out by the pounding hooves and spinning wells of the stagecoach.”

Referring to the stage lines that connected San Antonio with El Paso, and points west, in his landmark study “Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules: The San Antonio–El Paso Mail, 1851–1881,” historian Wayne R. Austerman used a quotation from Gen. William T. Sherman that applies to stagecoaching across all of Texas and the West. The mail companies and their stagecoaches, the Army officer said, amounted to “the skirmish line of civilization.”

— written by Mike Cox for the Texas Almanac 2008–2009.

Sources

Austerman, Wayne R. Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules: The San Antonio–El Paso Mail, 1851–1881. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1985.

Carter, Kathryn Turner. Stagecoach Inns of Texas. Austin: Eakin Press, 1994.

The Dallas Morning News Archives, 1885–1977.

Davy, Dava McGahee. “The Pinery Station: Guadalupe Mountains National Park Texas.” Carlsbad, NM: Carlsbad Caverns Natural History Association, 1979.

Ely, Glen. “Riding the Western Frontier: Antebellum Encounters on the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858–1861.” Master’s thesis, Texas Christian University, 2005.

The Handbook of Texas Online, www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online.

McSwain, Ross. “Crazy Jim, Goodeye Helped Establish New Time On Stage Run From San Angelo to Ozona,” San Angelo Standard-Times, Aug. 23, 1964.

Moody, Ralph. Stagecoach West. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.

Nolen, Oran W. “By Stage From Corpus Christi to San Antonio.” The Cattleman, January 1946.

Ormsby, Waterman L. The Butterfield Overland Mail. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1942, 1991.

Scannell, Jack C. “A Survey of the Stagecoach Mail in the Trans-Pecos 1850–1861,” West Texas Historical Association Yearbook, 1971.

Smith, Marian. “The Stagecoach in Travis County.” Manuscript, Austin History Center, Austin, Texas.

Texas Almanac, 1859, 1861, 1863, 1867, 1869, 1871, 1873.

Thonhoff, Robert H. San Antonio Stage Lines, 1847–1881. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1971.

Wells Fargo Bank, “The Overland Stage,” ND.

Wikipedia.org “Stagecoach” www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stagecoach

For Further Reading

Barton, Barbara. Stagecoach Lines and Freighters of West Texas. Knickerbocker, TX: 2007.

Greene, A.C. 900 Miles on the Butterfield Trail. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994.

 

Texas Almanac

Texas Almanac