Lee Pitts: Stage Fright
One unattained goal in my life was to have my own antique stagecoach and learn how to “handle the ribbons” to control the the four or six horses I’d need to power it so I could drive it in parades. Preferably my stagecoach would be a Concord model, named after the town in New Hampshire that produced the coaches used by Wells Fargo and most other stage lines during a 40 year period when cars and jet planes had yet to be invented. The 2,500 pound road hogs were eggshell like contraptions that rode on two long strips of leather called “braces” that produced a swaying ride that prompted Mark Twain to say, “It’s a fearful thing to be at sea in a stagecoach.”
Although there is a documented case where one stagecoach arrived in San Jose with 29 passengers aboard, Concord coaches were meant to haul 11 people in total, nine inside, a driver who sat on the right side and another passenger seated next to him. In at least one instance the driver wasn’t always a “him.” Charley Parkhurst turned out to be Charlene, a woman who could fight, drink and drive a stagecoach as good as any man. Charley’s biggest claim to fame was that she was the first woman to vote in a national election 52 years before the passage of the 19th amendment that gave all the other women the right to vote.
If you booked passage on a westbound stagecoach in St Joe, Missouri, you could expect to arrive in Sacramento 16 days later, but a stagecoach journey from the east coast to California took at least three weeks. The coaches stopped every 10 to 12 miles to change horses and a trip from El Paso to San Francisco required 79 such stops! Passengers were not allowed to get off or out of the coach for a “bio break” or to stretch their legs on such stops and could only disembark at night when they arrived at a station, or if the driver told them to get off and walk when the coach was having trouble climbing a hill.
Each passenger was allowed 40 pounds of luggage and the tickets back in 1913 were almost identical to what it cost to take a Greyhound bus for the same journey in the 1980’s. A trip, for example, from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe was $250. One of the biggest dangers in riding the coach was being held up by highwaymen who were after the strong box that usually carried money but may have also contained a rattlesnake to bite the bandit who opened the box. Often gold was melted into 700 pound orbs and painted black which were much too heavy for the bandits to carry off.
The closest I came to having my own stagecoach is a five foot long scale model of a Concord coach that rests in my office. Along with it I have collected rules of the road from several stagecoach lines. A few of these rules should be reinstated on all planes, trains and cars today.
• Snoring is disgusting. If you sleep, sleep quietly.
• Don’t lop over on to a fellow passenger or use a fellow passenger’s shoulder as a pillow. He or she might not understand and friction could result.
• If you must drink, share the bottle. A man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling. And don’t forget the driver.
• Chewing tobacco is only permitted if you spit with the wind.
• Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children. This does NOT apply to the driver whose team may not understand genteel language.
• Topics of discussion to be avoided have to do with religion, politics and above all, stagecoach robberies or accidents.
• In the case of a runaway do not jump from the coach as it could kill you, leave you injured, or at the mercy of the elements, Indians, highwaymen and coyotes.
Finally, for any kids who may read this column one final rule of the road: Don’t ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.
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