Stagecoach

March 18th, 2015

Stagecoach was the principal mode of travel in the early 1800s until approximately 1840 and was the only method of travel besides horseback or walking.  According to Bell’s History of Northumberland County the earliest activity of stagecoach use for Northumberland was in 1801 with mail delivery being a primary concern.  The community of Northumberland was a strategic point for stagecoach lines merging from eastern and southern routes.  The most notable roadway from Sunbury leading south toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia found its terminus at Reading and was known as the King’s Highway.  William Coleman (1757-1819) was credited with operating the stagecoach line along this route during the early part of 1800 with Miller Horton (1793-1847) establishing a similar line along a route from Sunbury to Wilkes Barre. 

By 1816 a stagecoach line operated regularly from Sunbury to Harrisburg with departures beginning every Monday and Friday.  The journey would begin on Monday or Friday morning at 5:00 am arriving in Harrisburg the following morning at 10:00 am.  The return run from Harrisburg to Sunbury would begin on Tuesday or Saturday afternoon leaving Harrisburg at 3:00 pm and arriving in Sunbury the following afternoon at 4:00 pm.  The fare was $4.00 which according to the consumer price index would be the equivalent of $55.68 in 2014.

Two Harrisburg men by the names Amos E. Kapp (1809-1887) and William Calder (1788-1861) established the Calder and Kapp Coach Lines that ran from Harrisburg to Williamsport.  Eventually their line included packet boats when the canal system was established and made shipping items faster and more affordable.  The construction of the coach allowed for five people to ride inside and five people to ride outside the vehicle.  The coach itself was drawn by four horses and a trip between Williamsport and Harrisburg would result in changing horses seven times as not to wear out the animals.  Hotel keepers and stagecoach drivers acted as agents for the coach lines and collected all the fares.  Price of travel was usually four cents per mile and a horn was blown by the driver when entering a town.  Stagecoach drivers were usually well informed and were prone to sharing jokes and stories along with news as a way to pass the time on the road much to the entertainment of the passengers.  The length of the journey depended on the terrain, the condition of the horses and the equipment and the weather.  The average horse trots about 8 to 10 miles per hour and according to the Wells Fargo site, their coaches traveled 5 to 12 miles per hour along their southern route during the pre-Civil War years 1857 to 1861.

Travelers could purchase meals at various stage stops along the way.  A good meal cost 25 or 30 cents.  Lunch was called a “cold check” and cost 12 cents [equivalent to $1.67 in 2014] and consisted of bread, butter, cold ham or beef, cheese, pickles and coffee.  One of the most reputable stops was the great Stage Hotel located on Front and King Streets in Northumberland.

The stagecoach line worked closely with the canals when the canals began in the late 1820s and early 1830s.  However, in the wake of the success of the canals, the stagecoach line in central Pennsylvania was left in the dust.  The stagecoach continued to be the main form of transportation as settlers moved west until the railroad industry became established and the “iron horse” made its appearance.

Last Modified: 11.25.14

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