IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
ON THE HIGHWAY
TO-DAY the California Limited whisks Iowans west for the winter, and automobiles speed comfortably along the new Iowa roads. But a trip in pioneer days was not such an easy undertaking.
The first travellers in Iowa, the hunters and trappers, had only the trails of the Indian for roads. But twelve-inch Indian paths were not wide enough for a yoke of oxen, so the pioneer widened the trails. Nor was it long before roads were laid out between settlements. Year by year the surveyors drove stakes in the prairies and blazed trees in the timber to mark out the new roads. The ox teams slowly cut tracks in the matted sod, and in time Iowa became crossed and crisscrossed with a network of highways.
Many of the early roads followed the ridges, for it was difficult to haul loads through the low places where there were many sloughs. This explains why the roads in eastern Iowa do not run straight east and west and north and south. In western Iowa where the land was surveyed before the settlers came the roads follow the section lines in a checkerboard pattern.
As soon as possible after Iowa was opened for settlement the government established roads known as territorial or military highways. The longest military road in Iowa began at Dubuque and ran through the counties of Dubuque, Jones, Linn, Johnson, Washington, Henry, and Van Buren to the Missouri line.
Before bridges were built, the early settlers crossed the streams and rivers at a ford or on ferries. Many of the early bridges were toll bridges - that is, a traveller had to pay to cross them just as he had to pay a ferry owner to take him across a stream. Bridges built from money raised by taxes were free to all.
Many of the early highways in Iowa became stage lines. Nearly every town was located on a stage line. The main lines ran east and west connecting the inland towns with those on the Mississippi. The principal stage lines ran from Dubuque to Cedar Falls; Dubuque to Iowa City; Clinton to Cedar Rapids; Davenport to Council Bluffs by way of Des Moines; Davenport to Cedar Rapids; Burlington to Des Moines by way of Mount Pleasant, Fairfield, Ottumwa, and Oskaloosa; Keokuk to Keosauqua; and Oskaloosa to Council Bluffs by way of Knoxville, Indianola, Winterset, and Lewis. Routes extended north and south from Cedar Falls to Cedar Rapids; Iowa City to Keokuk; and from Dubuque to Keokuk by way of Davenport, Muscatine, and Burlington.
Over these stage lines the coaches of the Western Stage Company, Frink and Walker, and many smaller companies carried the travellers of the forties and fifties. The Western Stage Company was the largest and had lines in all the settled parts of Iowa.
Vehicles used as stagecoaches in early Iowa ranged all the way from a farmer's wagon to the famous Concord coach. On some lines two-horse vehicles known as jerkies were used.
The Concord coach was the finest vehicle on the highway in those days. The body of this coach was oval in shape but flattened on top to make a place for baggage. There was a triangular shaped space at the rear called the "boot" to hold such baggage as could not be carried on top. Inside the body of the stage were three seats each wide enough to hold three passengers. The front seat faced the rear. The driver sat outside on a high seat in front of the covered body. The body of the coach was swung on thorough-braces composed of several strips of leather rivetted together and fastened to the bolsters. The oval coach body roacked to and fro on these braces as the coach moved along the road.
The coach body was painted in bright colors inside and out. On the panels were gay pictures. Each coach was named for some noted person as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
The stage driver was an important person. On both the arrival and departure of a stage at a tavern, or wayside hotel, he lashed the horses into a run and became the center of all eyes. Many a small boy practiced flourishing a whip so that he too might some day become a driver. One driver, Ansel Briggs, who came to Iowa in 1836 and operated a stage in Jackson County, became the first governor of the state of Iowa.
But the work of the stage driver was not all swagger. On the road he was lookout, pilot, captain, conductor, engineer, brakeman, and fireman - in fact, the whole crew. It was his duty to know every hill, slough, stump, and stone on the road.
For the most part stage companies in Iowa were large concerns. The Western Stage Company not only operated lines in Iowa but in many other states. At important crossroads this company had large stations where it kept many horses, several extra coaches, and perhaps as many as one hundred mechanics. This company had an army of agents and drivers in Iowa. Stations for changing horses were established from ten to fifteen miles apart. On the arrival of a stage the tired teams were quickly unhitched and a fresh four pulled the coach to the next station.
In summer, when the roads were good, stage fares were lower than in winter. In general it cost from five to seven cents a mile to travel by stage. Often the passengers had to get out and walk up a hill, or climb out in the mud when the stagecoach got stuck. Meals could be had at the taverns where the stage stopped. Although the stagecoaches tried to run on time, bad weather and mud often made them late. In the spring it was not uncommon for a stage driver to carry rails to pry his coach out of the mud. Three to four miles an hour was considered fairly good speed.
The coming of land seekers to Iowa gave the stage lines much business; a company which operated between Des Moines and Boone made one hundred thousand dollars in a single year. During the Civil War, stage lines carried troops from the interior of Iowa to the river ports. The entire Twenty-third Iowa Infantry was carried from Des Moines to Iowa City in three days.
The stagecoach business in Iowa, which began in the thirties, reached its height in the fifties and sixties. But its end was near. With the coming of the railroads the stagecoach lines were doomed. The Western Stage Company, which had flourished for thirty years, went out of business on the first of July, 1870. Their fine Concord coaches, each of which cost on an average a thousand dollars, were sold as low as ten dollars. Some parents, it is said, bought old stagecoaches for their boys and girls to play with in the back yard.
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