What is a Stagecoach?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A stagecoach is a four wheeled, typically very sturdy, horse-drawn coach designed for use in long-haul journeys. Stagecoaches were classically pulled by teams of four or more horses, allowing them to carry a heavy load of both passengers and cargo. The use of stagecoaches began in Europe around the 1600s, and persisted in the United States through the 1800s. Many people associate the stagecoach with the American West — thanks to the use of stagecoaches in this region — but in fact, various forms of the stagecoach were in use all over the world, from Asia to South America.

Many stages later turned into train stations.
Many stages later turned into train stations.

Stagecoaches were named for the “stages” or rest stops built in to their journeys. Because horses would grow tired after a certain point, a stagecoach would be required to halt periodically to rest or replace the horses. These stops also became stations for passengers and cargo to disembark or join the stagecoach, and they often became community hubs, with inns, pubs, and other facilities provided for the passengers and crew of the stagecoach. Many stages later turned into train stations as trains began to proliferate, with railroads taking advantage of existing community hubs for their operations.

The design of a stagecoach was far from comfortable. The body of the coach was suspended on heavy leather straps known as throughbraces, which were supposed to act as shocks. In point of fact, they didn't absorb very much of the jostling, making a stagecoach trip bumpy and rather unpleasant. Depending on the company maintaining and running the stagecoach, the interior might be clean, or filthy, and passengers were expected to cram in with other passengers and cargo, which could make for an even more uncomfortable ride. The trips were also long, not least because stagecoaches would zig-zag across the landscape to reach various locations.

This method of transportation began to be phased out with the advent of the railroad. Trains could cover the same distance as a stagecoach in a fraction of the time, and without the expense of maintaining horses, guards, and drivers. Stagecoaches primarily persisted in regions where track laying was going slowly, or in areas where the population was so rural that railroads were reluctant to invest in expansion.

Numerous examples of historic stagecoaches can be seen on display in transportation museums. The Wells Fargo Company, famous for its stagecoaches, also maintains a fleet of stagecoaches and horses for promotional events such as parades, making it the last company in the world to use stagecoaches on a regular basis.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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What do you think the stagecoach ride to califorina was like?


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