National Stamp Collecting Month: The Mail Coach

Jersey - Scott #311 (1983)
Jersey – Scott #311 (1983)

With these early posts celebrating October as U.S. (and Philippines) National Stamp Collecting Month, I have been concentrating on the early history of the mail itself, from the earliest postal systems and methods of transporting the mail itself. Future articles will deal with aspects of the hobby including tools we collectors use and a few famous (and not so famous) stamps along the way. If you are enjoying the articles, please take a moment and give the A Stamp A Day Facebook page a “like”, too. It’s new and needs a bit of support.

Today, I take a look at the mail coach. In Great Britain, a mail coach was a stagecoach built to a Post Office-approved design operated by an independent contractor to carry long-distance mail for the Post Office. Mail was held in a box at the rear where the only Royal Mail employee, an armed guard, stood. Passengers were taken at a premium fare. There was seating for four passengers inside and more outside with the driver. The guard’s seat could not be shared. This distribution system began in 1784. In Ireland the same service began in 1789.

A mail coach service ran to an exact and demanding schedule. Aside from quick changes of horses the coach only stopped for collection and delivery of mail and never for the comfort of the passengers. To avoid a steep fine turnpike gates had to be open by the time the mail coach with its right of free passage passed through. The gatekeeper was warned by the sound of the posthorn.

Mail coaches were slowly phased out in Britain during the 1840s and 1850s, their role eventually replaced by trains as the railway network expanded. The same thing occurred with the express companies use of stagecoaches in the American west in the late 1860s and early 1870s. However, in some places in the United States, stagecoaches continued to deliver the mail as late as the 1920s.

The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail, 1838. The guard can be seen at the back. Oil on canvas painting by John Frederick Herring Jr., 1838. The original painting is currently in the Berger Collection of the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado.
The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail, 1838. The guard can be seen at the back. Oil on canvas painting by John Frederick Herring Jr., 1838. The original painting is currently in the Berger Collection of the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado.

The first crude depiction of a coach was in an English manuscript from the 13th century. The first stagecoach route started in 1610 and ran from Edinburgh to Leith. This was followed by a steady proliferation of other routes around the island. By the mid 17th century, a basic stagecoach infrastructure had been put in place. A string of coaching inns operated as stopping points for travelers on the route between London and Liverpool. The stagecoach would depart every Monday and Thursday and took roughly ten days to make the journey during the summer months. Stagecoaches also became widely adopted for travel in and around London by mid-century and generally travelled at a few miles per hour. Shakespeare’s first plays were performed at coaching inns such as The George Inn, Southwark.

The speed of travel remained constant until the mid-18th century. Reforms of the turnpike trusts, new methods of road building and the improved construction of coaches led to a sustained rise in the comfort and speed of the average journey — from an average journey length of two days for the Cambridge-London route in 1750 to a length of under 7 hours in 1820.

Robert Hooke helped in the construction of some of the first spring-suspended coaches in the 1660s and spoked wheels with iron rim brakes were introduced, improving the characteristics of the coach.

In 1754, a Manchester-based company began a new service called the “Flying Coach”. It was advertised with the following announcement – “However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually (barring accidents) arrive in London in four days and a half after leaving Manchester.” A similar service was begun from Liverpool three years later, using coaches with steel spring suspension. This coach took an unprecedented three days to reach London with an average speed of eight miles per hour.

Mail coach decorated in the black and maroon Post Office livery. : Illustration from 'The Costume of Great Britain', 1808 (originally issued 1804), written and engraved by William Henry Pyne (1769-1843).
Mail coach decorated in the black and maroon Post Office livery. : Illustration from ‘The Costume of Great Britain’, 1808 (originally issued 1804), written and engraved by William Henry Pyne (1769-1843).

The postal delivery service in Britain had existed in the same form for about 150 years — from its introduction in 1635, mounted carriers had ridden between “posts” where the postmaster would remove the letters for the local area before handing the remaining letters and any additions to the next rider. The riders were frequent targets for robbers, and the system was inefficient.

John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, believed that the coach service he had previously run for transporting actors and materials between theatres could be utilized for a countrywide mail delivery service, so in 1782, he suggested to the Post Office in London that they take up the idea. He met resistance from officials who believed that the existing system could not be improved, but eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to carry out an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old system the journey had taken up to 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4pm on August 2, 1784, and arrived in London just 16 hours later.

Impressed by the trial run, Pitt authorized the creation of new routes. By the end of 1785 there were services from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added the next year and Palmer was rewarded by being made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office. By 1797, there were 42 routes.

Initially the coach, horses and driver were all supplied by contractors. There was strong competition for the contracts as they provided a fixed regular income on top of which the companies could charge fares for the passengers. By the beginning of the 19th century the Post Office had their own fleet of coaches with black and maroon livery. The early coaches were poorly built, but in 1787 the Post Office adopted John Besant’s improved and patented design, Besant made additional improvements, notably in 1792 and 1795. His coach had a greatly improved turning capacity and braking system, and a novel feature that prevented the wheels from falling off while the coach was in motion. Besant, with his partner John Vidler, enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of coaches, and a virtual monopoly on their upkeep and servicing.

The period from 1800 to 1830 saw great improvements in the design of coaches. Steel springs had been used in suspensions for vehicles since 1695. Coachbuilder Obadiah Elliott obtained a patent covering the use of elliptic springs — which were not his invention. His patent lasted 14 years delaying development because Elliott allowed no others to license and use his patent. Elliott mounted each wheel with two durable elliptic steel leaf springs on each side and the body of the carriage was fixed directly to the springs attached to the axles. After the expiry of his patent most British horse carriages were equipped with elliptic springs; wooden springs in the case of light one-horse vehicles to avoid taxation, and steel springs in larger vehicles.

This Royal Mail coach was used between London and York circa the 1820s. It is one of the few genuine surviving mail coaches, preserved at the Science Museum in London. Photo taken on July 5, 2006.
This Royal Mail coach was used between London and York circa the 1820s. It is one of the few genuine surviving mail coaches, preserved at the Science Museum in London. Photo taken on July 5, 2006.

The mail coaches were originally designed for a driver, seated outside, and up to four passengers inside. The guard (the only Post Office employee on the coach) travelled on the outside at the rear next to the mail box. Later a further passenger was allowed outside, sitting at the front next to the driver, and eventually a second row of seating was added behind him to allow two further passengers to sit outside. Travel could be uncomfortable as the coaches travelled on poor roads and passengers were obliged to dismount from the carriage when going up steep hills to spare the horses (as Charles Dickens describes at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities). The coaches averaged 7 to 8 mph (11–13 km/h) in summer and about 5 mph (8 km/h) in winter but by the time of Queen Victoria the roads had improved enough to allow speeds of up to 10 mph (16 km/h). Fresh horses were supplied every 10 to 15 miles (16–24 km). Stops to collect mail were short and sometimes there would be no stops at all with the guard throwing the mail off the coach and snatching the new deliveries from the postmaster.

The cost of travelling by mail coach was about 1 penny (1d). a mile more expensive than by private stage coach, but the coach was faster and, in general, less crowded and cleaner. Crowding was a common problem with private stage coaches, which led to them overturning; the limits on numbers of passengers and luggage prevented this occurring on the mail coaches. Travel on the mail coach was nearly always at night; as the roads were less busy the coach could make better speed.

The guard was heavily armed with a blunderbuss and two pistols and dressed in the Post Office livery of maroon and gold. The mail coaches were thus well defended against highwaymen, and accounts of robberies often confuse them with private stage coaches, though robberies did occur. To prevent corruption and ensure good performance, the guards were paid handsomely and supplied with a generous pension. The mail was their sole charge, meaning that they had to deliver it on foot if a problem arose with the coach and, unlike the driver, they remained with the coach for the whole journey; occasionally guards froze to death from hypothermia in their exposed position outside the coach during the harsh winters (see River Thames frost fairs). The guard was supplied with a timepiece and a posthorn, the former to ensure the schedule was met, the latter to alert the post house to the imminent arrival of the coach and warn tollgate keepers to open the gate (mail coaches were exempt from stopping and paying tolls: a fine was payable if the coach was forced to stop). Since the coaches had right of way on the roads the horn was also used to advise other road users of their approach.

Construction of a macadamized road, the Boonsborough Turnpike Road between Hagerstown and Boonsboro, Maryland, 1823.. These roads allowed stagecoaches to travel at much greater speeds. Illustration painted by Carl Rakeman, inspired by the work of John Loudon McAdam.
Construction of a macadamized road, the Boonsborough Turnpike Road between Hagerstown and Boonsboro, Maryland, 1823.. These roads allowed stagecoaches to travel at much greater speeds. Illustration painted by Carl Rakeman, inspired by the work of John Loudon McAdam.

Steady improvements in road construction were also made in the 1810s and 1820s, most importantly the widespread implementation of Macadam roads up and down the country. The speed of coaches in this period rose from around 6 miles per hour (including stops for provisioning) to 8 miles per hour and greatly increased the level of mobility in the country, both for people and for mail. Each route had an average of four coaches operating on it at one time — two for both directions and a further two spares in case of a breakdown en route. Joseph Ballard described the coach industry in 1815:

The stage fare from Manchester to Liverpool, distance forty miles, is only six shillings. This is caused by the strong opposition, as there are eight or ten coaches continually running between those places. Besides the fare in the coach you have to pay the coachman one shilling per stage of about thirty miles, and the same to the guard whose business it is to take care of the luggage, &c. &c. Should the passenger refuse to pay the accustomed tribute he would inevitably be insulted. You must pay also, at the inns, the chambermaid sixpence a night, the “boots” (the person who cleans them) two pence a day, and the head waiter one shilling a day. The porter who takes your portmanteau up stairs moves his hat with “pray remember the porter, Sir.”

The beds at the inns are surprisingly neat and clean. In many of the inns in a large town, the chambermaids furnish the chambers and depend upon their fees for remuneration. The stagecoaches are very convenient and easy. No baggage is permitted to be taken inside, it being stowed away in the boot places before and behind the carriage for that purpose. Here it rides perfectly safe, not being liable to be rubbed, as they ride upon the same springs that the passengers do. A person can always calculate upon being at the place he takes the coach for (barring accidents) at a certain time, as the coachman is allowed a given time to go his stage. The guard always has a chronometer with him (locked up so that he cannot move the hands) as a guide with regard to time.”

North Country Mails[note at The Peacock, Islington. Oil on canvas painting by James Pollard, 1821. Currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
North Country Mails[note at The Peacock, Islington. Oil on canvas painting by James Pollard, 1821. Currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

The mail coaches continued unchallenged until the 1830s but the development of railways spelt the end for the service. The first rail delivery between Liverpool and Manchester took place on November 11, 1830. By the early 1840s other rail lines had been constructed and many London-based mail coaches were starting to be withdrawn from service; the final service from London (to Norwich) was shut down in 1846. Regional mail coaches continued into the 1850s, but these too were eventually replaced by rail services.

In Ireland, a twice-weekly stage coach service operated between Dublin and Drogheda to the north, Kilkenny to the south and Athlone to the west as early as 1737 and for a short period from 1740, a Dublin to Belfast stage coach existed. In winter, this last route took three days, with overnight stops at Drogheda and Newry; in summer, travel time was reduced to two days. In 1789, mail coaches began a scheduled service from Dublin to Belfast. They met the mail boats coming from Portpatrick in Scotland at Donaghadee, in County Down.

By the mid-19th century, most of the mail coaches in Ireland were eventually out-competed by Charles Bianconi’s country-wide network of open carriages, before this system in turn succumbed to the railways.

Imported Concord stagecoach, photographed in 1853 at Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia. The coach is packed with equipment with Chinese passengers inside and on top of coach leaving for the diggings.
Imported Concord stagecoach, photographed in 1853 at Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia. The coach is packed with equipment with Chinese passengers inside and on top of coach leaving for the diggings.

Australia’s first mail coach was established in 1828 and was crucial in connecting the remote settlements being established to the larger centers. The first mail contracts were issued and mail was transported by coach or on horseback from Sydney to the first seven country post offices — Penrith, Parramatta, Liverpool, Windsor, Campbelltown, Newcastle and Bathurst. The Sydney to Melbourne overland packhorse mail service was commenced in 1837. From 1855, the Sydney to Melbourne overland mail coach was supplanted by coastal steamer ship and rail. The rail network became the distributor of mail to larger regional centers there the mail coach met the trains and carried the mail to more remote towns and villages.

In 1863 contracts were awarded to the coaching company Cobb & Company to transport Royal Mail services within New South Wales and Victoria. These contracts and later others in Queensland continued until 1924 when the last service operated in western Queensland. The lucrative mail contracts helped Cobb & Co grow and become an efficient and vast network of coach services in eastern Australia.

Royal Mail coach services reached their peak in the later decades of the 19th century, operating over thousands of miles of eastern Australia. In the 1870s, Cobb & Co’s Royal Mail coaches were operating some 6000 horses per day, and traveling 28,000 miles weekly carrying mail, gold, and general parcels.

A preserved Cobb & Co Australian Royal Mail Coach with Concord mud-coach undercarriage. Photo taken at Timbertown, Wauchope, NSW Australia, on March 4, 2009.
A preserved Cobb & Co Australian Royal Mail Coach with Concord mud-coach undercarriage. Photo taken at Timbertown, Wauchope, NSW Australia, on March 4, 2009.

Some Concord stagecoaches were imported from the United States made in New Hampshire by the Abbot-Downing Company. This design was a ‘thorough-brace’ or ‘jack’ style coach characterized by an elegant curved lightweight body suspended on two large leather straps, which helped to isolate the passengers and driver from the jolts and bumps of the rough unmade country roads. Soon Australian coach builders using many of the Concord design features customized the design for Australian conditions.

Beginning in the 18th century crude wagons began to be used to carry passengers between cities and towns in the United States, first within New England by 1744, then between New York and Philadelphia by 1756. Travel time was reduced on this later run from three days to two in 1766 with an improved coach called the Flying Machine. The first American mail coaches appeared in the later 18th century carrying passengers and the mails, replacing the earlier post riders on the main roads. Coachmen carried letters, packages, and money, often transacting business or delivering messages for their customers. By 1829, Boston was the hub of 77 stagecoach lines; by 1832 there were 106. Coaches with iron or steel springs were uncomfortable and had short useful lives. Two men in Concord, New Hampshire developed what became a popular solution. They built their first Concord stagecoach in 1827 employing long leather straps under their stagecoaches which gave a swinging motion. In his 1861 book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord stage’s ride as like “a cradle on wheels”.

Typical stagecoach of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails, circa 1869. Buffalo soldiers guard from atop.
Typical stagecoach of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails, circa 1869. Buffalo soldiers guard from atop.

Henry Wells, founder of Wells and Company, and William G. Fargo, a partner in Livingston, Fargo and Company, and mayor of Buffalo, NY from 1862 to 1863 and again from 1864 to 1865, were major figures in the young and fiercely competitive express industry. In 1849, a new rival, John Warren Butterfield, founder of Butterfield, Wasson & Company, entered the express business. Butterfield, Wells and Fargo soon realized that their competition was destructive and wasteful, and in 1850 they decided to join forces to form the American Express Company.

Soon after the new company was formed, Wells, the first president of American Express, and Fargo, its vice president, proposed expanding their business to California. Fearing that American Express’s most powerful rival, Adams and Company, would acquire a monopoly in the West, the majority of the American Express Company’s directors balked. Undaunted, Wells and Fargo decided to start their own business while continuing to fulfill their responsibilities as officers and directors of American Express.

On March 18, 1852, they organized Wells, Fargo & Company, a joint stock company with an initial capitalization of $300,000, to provide express and banking services to California. They commenced business on May 20, the day their announcement appeared in The New York Times. The company’s arrival in San Francisco was announced in the Alta California of July 3, 1852. The immediate challenge facing the company, was to establish themselves in two highly competitive fields under conditions of rapid growth and unpredictable change. At the time, California regulated neither the banking nor the express industry, so both fields were wide open. Anyone with a wagon and team of horses could open an express company; and all it took to open a bank was a safe and a room to keep it in. Because of its comparatively late entry into the California market, Wells Fargo faced well-established competition in both fields.

Concord stagecoach No. 251 in Wells Fargo livery. Front and back boots have leather covers. Displayed at the Seeley Stable Museum, Old Town San Diego, California. Photo taken on April 26, 2010.
Concord stagecoach No. 251 in Wells Fargo livery. Front and back boots have leather covers. Displayed at the Seeley Stable Museum, Old Town San Diego, California. Photo taken on April 26, 2010.

From the beginning, the fledgling company offered diverse and mutually supportive services: general forwarding and commissions; buying and selling of gold dust, bullion, and specie (or coin); and freight service between New York and California. Under Morgan’s and Barney’s direction, express and banking offices were quickly established in key communities bordering the gold fields, and a network of freight and messenger routes was soon in place throughout California. Barney’s policy of subcontracting express services to established companies, rather than duplicating existing services, was a key factor in Wells Fargo’s early success.

In 1855, Wells Fargo faced its first crisis when the California banking system collapsed as a result of unsound speculation. A bank run on Page, Bacon & Company, a San Francisco bank, began when the collapse of its St. Louis, Missouri parent was made public. The run soon spread to other major financial institutions all of which, including Wells Fargo, were forced to close their doors. The following Tuesday, Wells Fargo reopened in sound condition, despite a loss of one-third of its net worth. Wells Fargo was one of the few financial and express companies to survive the panic, partly because it kept sufficient assets on hand to meet customers’ demands rather than transferring all its assets to New York.

From 1855 through 1866, Wells Fargo expanded rapidly, becoming the West’s all-purpose business, communications, and transportation agent. Under Barney’s direction, the company developed its own stagecoach business, helped start and then took over Butterfield Overland Mail, and participated in the Pony Express. This period culminated with the ‘grand consolidation’ of 1866, when Wells Fargo consolidated the ownership and operation of the entire overland mail route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and many stagecoach lines in the western states.

In its early days, Wells Fargo participated in the staging business to support its banking and express businesses. The character of Wells Fargo’s participation changed when it helped start the Overland Mail Company. Overland Mail was organized in 1857 by men with substantial interests in four of the leading express companies — American Express, United States Express, Adams Express Company, and Wells Fargo. John Butterfield, the third founder of American Express, was made Overland Mail’s president. In 1858, Overland Mail was awarded a government contract to carry United States Postal Service mail over the southern overland route from Memphis and St. Louis to California. From the beginning, Wells Fargo was Overland Mail’s banker and primary lender. A more detailed look at the Overland Mail will be the subject of another article on A Stamp A Day later this month.

Wells Fargo Overland stage at the Wells Fargo History Museum, San Francisco, California. Photo taken by Adam Engelhart on July 25, 2006.
Wells Fargo Overland stage at the Wells Fargo History Museum, San Francisco, California. Photo taken by Adam Engelhart on July 25, 2006.

In 1859, there was a crisis when Congress failed to pass the annual post office appropriation bill, thereby leaving the post office with no way to pay for the Overland Mail Company’s services. As Overland Mail’s indebtedness to Wells Fargo climbed, Wells Fargo became increasingly disenchanted with Butterfield’s management strategy. In March 1860, Wells Fargo threatened foreclosure. As a compromise, Butterfield resigned as president of Overland Mail, and control of the company passed to Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo, however, did not acquire ownership of the company until the consolidation of 1866.

Wells Fargo’s involvement in Overland Mail led to its participation in the Pony Express in the last six of the express’s 18 months of existence. Russell, Majors and Waddell launched the privately owned and operated Pony Express. By the end of 1860, the Pony Express was in deep financial trouble; its fees did not cover its costs and, without government subsidies and lucrative mail contracts, it could not make up the difference. After Overland Mail, by then controlled by Wells Fargo, was awarded a $1 million government contract in early 1861 to provide daily mail service over a central route (the American Civil War had forced the discontinuation of the southern line), Wells Fargo took over the western portion of the Pony Express route from Salt Lake City, Utah to San Francisco. Russell, Majors & Waddell continued to operate the eastern leg from Salt Lake City to St. Joseph, Missouri, under subcontract.

By 1866, Holladay had built a staging empire with lines in eight western states and was challenging Wells Fargo’s supremacy in the West. A showdown between the two transportation giants in late 1866 resulted in Wells Fargo’s purchase of Holladay’s operations. The ‘grand consolidation’ spawned a new enterprise that operated under the Wells Fargo name and combined the Wells Fargo, Holladay, and Overland Mail lines and became the undisputed stagecoach leader. Barney resigned as president of Wells Fargo to devote more time to his own business, the United States Express Company; Louis McLane replaced him when the merger was completed on November 1, 1866.

Stagecoach at Holladay Express office in Boise City, Idaho, circa mid-1860s.
Stagecoach at Holladay Express office in Boise City, Idaho, circa mid-1860s.

The Wells Fargo stagecoach empire was short lived. Although the Central Pacific Railroad, already operating over the Sierra Mountains to Reno, Nevada, carried Wells Fargo’s express, the company did not have an exclusive contract. Moreover, the Union Pacific Railroad was encroaching on the territory served by Wells Fargo stagelines. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, causing the stage business to dwindle.

While the railroad took over most long-distance mail deliveries in the United States, the stagecoach continued in use until the late 1920s when the road to Young, Arizona, was paved and the coach was replaced by a Ford motorbus. The Arizona and Sonora Stage Line had been started in 1870 by experienced freighter Pedro Aguirre to carry mail and passengers between Tucson and Altar, Sonora, Mexico, with connections southward to the Sonoran capitol of Hermosillo and the important Gulf of California port at Guaymas. Gold was discovered south of Arivaca, near the border with Mexico, setting off a mining boom and the development of the Oro Blanco mining camp. This strike, along with successful silver mining around Arivaca, led Aguirre in 1877 to start regular stagecoach service to Arivaca, south to Oro Blanco, with continuing service to Altar, Sonora.

Aguirre continued to provide stagecoach service to this intermittently successful borderland mining region until 1886 when he sold his company and retired to his Buenos Aires ranch west of Arivaca. From 1892-1908 stagecoach service to Arivaca and Oro Blanco was provided by Mariano Samaniego, a Sonoran-born freighter, cattle rancher and merchant, and the acknowledged most successful Hispanic Tucson public official in the territorial period. Stagecoaches heading south from Tucson stopped at James Brown’s Sahuarita Ranch and the “halfway” station in Amado to change horses or mules and obtain food for passengers.

Two of Arizona’s biggest mining strikes occurred in southeastern Arizona in 1877. Within a month of arriving in Tucson from Kansas in October 1878, J.D. Kinnear started Kinnear’s Express stagecoach service (every four days) to the new silver area. Discovery of huge deposits of silver and copper led to the development of Tombstone in 1879 and Bisbee in 1880. Kinnear formed the Tucson & Tombstone Stage Line to provide daily service to Tombstone and soon thereafter on to Bisbee. In the spirited competition to provide the best service, another new Tombstone arrival from Kansas, named Wyatt Earp, sold out his own stagecoach line interests to Kinnear.

A Kinnear Express stagecoach operating from Tombstone to Bisbee in the 1880s. This thoroughbrace stage used thick leather straps to support the body of the carriage and serve as shock absorbing springs.
A Kinnear Express stagecoach operating from Tombstone to Bisbee in the 1880s. This thorough brace stage used thick leather straps to support the body of the carriage and serve as shock absorbing springs.

In 1880, John Pleasant Gray recorded after travelling from Tucson to Tombstone on J.D. Kinnear’s mail and express line:

That day’s stage ride will always live in my memory — but not for its beauty spots. Jammed like sardines on the hard seats of an old time leather spring coach — a Concord — leaving Pantano, creeping much of the way, letting the horses walk, through miles of alkali dust that the wheels rolled up in thick clouds of which we received the full benefit . . . It is always a mystery to the passenger how many can be wedged into and on top of a stagecoach. If it had not been for the long stretches when the horses had to walk, enabling most of us to get out and ‘foot it’ as a relaxation, it seems as if we could never have survived the trip.”

The horses were changed three times on the 80 miles (130 km) trip normally completed in 17 hours.

Stages from Tucson to Tombstone and Bisbee started out using the old Butterfield overland stage relay stations at Cienega and San Pedro near Benson. When the southern transcontinental railroad tracks were laid right over the station at Cienega in 1880, a new station was built a mile and half to the east at Pantano. The San Pedro station was “reopened,” advertising “excellent meals for the traveler” in the Tucson Daily Citizen.

The main reason that coach lines continued successfully in Arizona was that after the main railroad lines were established, it was frequently impractical to extend short rail links into higher elevations. A town 10 to 25 miles off the mail rail trunk, if it were 1000 or more feet higher, would be very difficult and expensive to serve by rail due to the grade incline. Thus, the final portion of the journey between the late 1890s and 1920s was usually served by local stage lines, with a ride of less than a half day being typical. As improved roads replaced rough wagon trails, the coaches themselves changed. The huge, heavy Concord coaches used on overland routes were supplemented with smaller, lighter stages, wagons or buckboards. The vehicles were pulled by teams of two, four, or six horses or mules.

Gentlemen ordered out of the coach to lighten the load on the horses. Three put their shoulders to the back. Image from
Gentlemen ordered out of the coach to lighten the load on the horses. Three put their shoulders to the back. Image from “The Hand-book of Wyoming and Guide to the Black Hills and Big Horn Regions” by Robert E. Strahorn, published in 1877.

In 1877, in response to increased mining activity in southern Arizona, Wells Fargo reestablished its Tucson office that had been briefly operational in 1860 for the Butterfield Overland Mail. Wells Fargo began leasing space on stagecoaches to carry “treasure boxes,” a good source of income for stage lines but somewhat risky. According to the Encyclopedia of Stage Robbery in Arizona, there were 129 stagecoach robberies in Arizona between 1875 and 1903. Two 1878 robberies in Marana were committed by highwayman Bill Brazelton, who supposedly turned his horse’s shoes around to confuse trackers, but was later shot dead by a pursuing posse.

Once the mainline rail grid was in service, the railroad actually stimulated the Arizona stage line operations well into the 20th century. With increased links to population centers and agriculture, livestock and mining enterprises, Tucson’s population grew to about 14,000 by 1910. Stagecoach lines were prosperous right up to the time of Arizona statehood in 1912. By that time, local railroad such as the Tucson to Nogales line, had proliferated and automobiles and trucks began to take the place of horse- or mule-driven stagecoaches.  The old coaches were eventually replaced by motorbuses and many local private bus lines were initially called motor-stage lines.

A few Tucson mail contract stagecoach services continued into the 1920s. One of these was mail delivery from 1914 to 1921 between Tucson and Wrightstown Ranch at the corner of Harrison and Wrightstown Roads.  By 1918, stage coaches were only operating in a few mountain resorts or western National Parks as part of the “old west” romance for tourists.

[url=https://flic.kr/p/2aiATxD][img]https://farm2.staticflickr.com/1957/44175091095_c7f3d770b3_o.jpg[/img][/url][url=https://flic.kr/p/2aiATxD]Jersey - 310-314 - 1983 [FDC001][/url] by [url=https://www.flickr.com/photos/am-jochim/]Mark Jochim[/url], on Flickr
Jersey – Scott #310-314 (1983) first day cover [NIMC2018] – image from active eBay auction

In 1977 the General Assembly of the United Nations suggested that a World Communication Year be proclaimed as part of the Transport and Communication Decade in Africa. Thus, in November 1981 the General Assembly declared that 1983 would be “World Communications Year: Development of Communications Infrastructures.” The Assembly did this in recognition of the fundamental importance of communications infrastructures to the economic and social development of all countries. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was designated the lead UN Agency for the preparation and celebration, on a world-wide scale, of WCY 83, with responsibility for coordinating the inter-organizational aspects of the programs and activities of other intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The United Nations viewed WCY 83 as “the beginning of a new era where every nation will be in a position to benefit from the services provided by equitably and harmoniously developed communications infrastructures.” Its was hoped that during the year the world would vastly improve its communications network so that no one would be isolated from the local, national, or international community. A special fund was be built up with voluntary contributions from governments and other organizations. A large part of this was made by enlisting the assistance of postal services throughout the world. With its worldwide network of connections, the postal service has long been almost synonymous with communication, according to a 1983 press release by Canada Post, “the postal service puts an end to isolation, promotes commerce, connecting governments and people, facilitates the exchange of ideas, the culture and heritage of many nations.”

Sixteen different stamp-issuing entities released stamps marking World Communications Year in 1983: Aitutaki, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Canada, the German Democratic Republic, Jersey, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tunisia, and the USSR.

Jersey - Scott #311 (1983) - with partial marginal inscription describing the London-Weymouth-Jersey mail coach service (NIMC2018); image from active eBay auction.
Jersey – Scott #311 (1983) – with partial marginal inscription describing the London-Weymouth-Jersey mail coach service (NIMC2018); image from active eBay auction.

Jersey issued a set of five stamps on June 21, 1983 (Scott #310-314). The 8-pence denomination depicted Jersey’s first postmaster Charles William Le Geyt (1733-1827), and the Battle of Minden which occurred on August 1, 1759. A mail coach — specifically that which served the London to Weymouth, Dorset route — appears on the 11-pence stamp; mail was transported the remainder of the journey to the Channel Islands via a packet boat run by the Great Western Railway (GWR) but contracted by the Post Office. The 24-pence value depicts one of these Post Office mail packets, the Earl of Chesterfield which was attacked by a French privateer. The island’s “first mail deliverer” Mary Godfray (appointed 1798) in front of the first Jersey post office in Hue Street is portrayed on the 26-pence stamp. The 29-pence denomination pictures a mail steamer leaving St. Helier harbor. The set was designed by Alan Copp of Jersey and printed by House of Questa Colour Security Printers, London, using offset lithography, perforated: 14¼ x 14. There were  961,725 copies of the mail coach stamp printed, with the issue withdrawn from sale on June 30, 1984.

Flag of Jersey
Flag of Jersey
Jersey coat of arms
Jersey coat of arms
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One thought on “National Stamp Collecting Month: The Mail Coach

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