Museum Blog

Setting the Stage

Stagecoaches were so called because they traveled in segments or “stages”. In the early 16th century, stagecoaches were becoming familiar in England. These early stagecoaches could only travel about 5-6 miles per hour because there was a lack of suspension. Highwaymen also posed a danger often holding up coaches and stealing mail and valuables. Mail was already slow enough using coaches and having it stolen didn’t help the situation. By the mid-1700s coaches had steel sprung suspension increasing their speed to a grand 8 miles an hour. Coaches were also now split between mail and passenger coaches meaning the mail could arrive in a timelier manner. No unruly passengers to slow you down!

Stagecoaches were in use in the Eastern United States for long distance travel by the early 1800s. While interest in traveling by coach waned in the east once the railroads took over, it was just beginning in the west! There were few transportation opportunities past St. Louis, so stagecoach companies stepped in to fill the market. Just like the early coaches in England, people, mail, and money were carried across the west. Unlike England, the mail wasn’t sent separately from passengers. The mail would sit under the driver’s seat while passengers were crammed inside the coach which could fit up to nine. Luggage was placed in the back or the top depending on the type of coach. Passengers could also ride on the tops of the coaches but that meant exposure to elements. While those inside still became covered in dust, they had slightly more protection than those riding on the top. But sitting inside didn’t mean any luxury. Each bench had room for three but the seat behind the driver faced backwards meaning those in the front and middle seat had to interlock their knees for the entirety of the, sometimes multiple, day ride. If you were seated in the middle row, all you had for a backrest was a strip or leather or wood hanging from the ceiling. Sleeping would have to be done sitting up or not at all since it was considered against etiquette to fall asleep on your neighbor. Coaches would often only stop with enough time for passengers to get out to stretch their legs and perform any bathroom necessities before you were back on the road with a fresh team and driver. After all, the coaches had a very strict timetable because of the mail or packages and sometimes even payroll they were carrying along with passengers. The passengers were much less important than the mail!

Passengers were not only enduring extremely uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful conditions, they also had to worry about all the dangers along the road. Highwaymen weren’t confined to Europe, they made their appearance in America as well. Stages also had to contend with potential attacks by American Indians whose land the stages were crossing.  Then there was the environment itself.  Roads were often treacherous with deep ruts and drop offs that could lead to injury for both the horses and people. Coaches could overturn leading to injuries. When runaway horses happened, passengers were advised to stay in the coach to avoid injury or death by jumping out. Not only that, many of the trails were on canyon edges or high mountain roads. Some passengers actually preferred traveling at night so as not to see the road they were on.

Fremont County was in need of way to travel between cities since the railroad was slow in making it out to them. This was especially apparent in the need for travel to many of the mining towns high in the mountains. Many people were heading up to the mountains to mine and a few were returning with their newfound wealth. Cañon City was the link to many of the towns in the mountains and those in the Wet Mountain Valley. One of these was the Colorado Stage and Express Co. which ran daily from Cañon City to Rosita and Silver Cliff. The stage would leave Cañon City at 7:30 am and arrive in Rosita and Silver Cliff at 3:00 pm. It also serviced Ula, Colfax, and Dora City. In total it was only a 7 ½ hour trip (one that can be done now in only an hour).

Another company ran between Cañon and Silver Cliff with a round trip costing on $7. The Megrue & Smith Stage Lines claimed they were also the fastest, beating the competition by more than an hour. The Cañon City & South Park Stage Co. ran three times weekly and emphasized their direct connection with the Fairplay coach. There was also variety of stage lines that ran up to Leadville. They generally ran about $14 one way and was 26 hours traveling both day and night. This included 50 lbs. of luggage – anything over went at a higher rate. Barlow & Sanderson added Leadville to their already established lines in the area. The railroads had made it to Cañon City by the mid-1870s and the stage companies knew their time would be coming to an end. They would continue as long as possible however, since many towns still didn’t have access to the railroads and likely wouldn’t soon, if ever.

Stage stops were needed along routes for fresh horses, rooms for passengers, and food. Glendale House is one of the easily recognizable ones in this area. According to an 1885 guide it is “15 miles east from Cañon City by good wagon road”. Near Penrose, on the banks of Beaver Creek, Glendale House was built in the late 1800s, possibly 1868. It was a stage coach station built of stone with large gathering rooms and bedrooms upstairs. Many of the early stage stations were about the necessities rather than comfort but as time went on they became larger. Some were known for their food while others were known for lodging. It was highly dependent on the location and owners of what service you would receive at each station. Glendale House was not only a stop for stagecoaches but also a gathering place for local farmers and ranchers. It had nice rooms with space for people to meet. Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on this once popular spot. Burned down in a fire, the shell of the once grand house is all that stands today.

Riding in a stage coach is something that tended to leave an impression on many. One woman wrote her account of the “most exciting ride” she had in her life. Born in 1886 in Rosita, Colorado, Davena Warner wrote of her trip in 1892 from Cañon City to Cripple Creek. Along with her mother and brother, she was going to join her father who had rushed to find gold like so many other men. She remembers how the road was primarily a one-way road and the majority of the trip was on the shelf road. While it was only 35 miles, there was a large elevation climb so many areas were very steep. Drivers had to be on the alert for others traveling the opposite direction as there were few places where passing could be done. Davena recalls how the safety of the women and children was foremost and the men would even hang over the sides to help keep the coach steady. While she had the chance to ride all manner of conveyances through her life, Davena concludes it was the most exciting ride she had in her life.

Stagecoaches on Main Street Cañon City, ca. 1879. Object ID: 1986.043.004; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Stagecoach at the corner of 5th and Main Street with Methodist Church in the background, ca. 1880. Object ID: 1986.043.682; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

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