by D. Scott Molloy

The stagecoach era; symbol of rapid transportation in 1815.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, March 1994. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Centredale, Greenville, and Harmony stagecoach.
From an early-twentieth century postcard.

The building and extension of turnpikes in Rhode Island spurred the development of the stagecoach, the "symbol of rapid transportation in 1815." A stage from Providence to Boston ran sporadically as early as the 1740s. Drivers, according to legend, would not embark for a destination until assured of a full load. A tongue-in-cheek bit of folklore claimed that operators gave sufficient notice before leaving so that "passengers could settle all their worldly affairs and make their journey." Regular service between the two colonial cities began in earnest in 1767, with daily trips commencing in 1793 at a cost of one dollar each way. Ironically, the development of swift steamers from New York to Providence enhanced the patronage of stagecoaches, as New York travelers would disembark at Providence for the trip to Boston, a journey which was longer by sea due to the geography of the region.

Sometimes eleven miles per hour!

These massive coaches, loaded with freight and up to a dozen passengers, sometimes arrived simultaneously in Providence and drivers raced to arrive first, "seesawing along the leathern thorough braces." [see definition below]. Horses were changed several times along the way to quicken the trip which reached average speeds of six to eight miles per hour and sometimes as high as eleven. In its heyday in 1829, stagecoach service between New England's two leading towns totaled 328 trips a week and carried an estimated 24,000 passengers annually. "Market Square and Benefit Street and North Main Street," a 1902 Providence Journal article reported, "rang merrily with the hoof beats and the rumble of the coach-and-four echoed the blare of the long brass coach horn." In 1832 a traveler on the route exclaimed that "we were rattled from Providence to Boston last Monday in four hours and fifty minutes including all stops on the road. If anyone wants to go faster, he may send to Kentucky and charter a streak of lightening, or wait for a railroad, as he pleases."

Directly related to the establishment of turnpikes and stagecoaches was the growth of hostelries, taverns, and guesthouses along the stage routes. "The stagecoach," according to a Journal article, "carried animation along with it from village to village; and when the driver's horn announced its approach, all the superannuated uncles, idle small boys, and stock loafers would begin to put themselves in motion towards the tavern, that they might enjoy the temporary excitement when the coach arrived." In Providence, between 1845 and 1850, most of the stagecoach lines operated out of the Exchange Hotel and the Weybosset House where passengers enjoyed a separate waiting room before embarking for Greenville, Scituate, Chepachet, Manton, Warwick, East Greenwich, Coventry, or other Rhode Island destinations. Patrons registered at a convenient booking office in designated establishments.

The canal and railroad cometh

The stagecoach had little inland competition until the development of the railroad, "one of the most revolutionary inventions of all time," according to transit historian George Rogers Taylor. However, completion of the Blackstone Canal in 1828 between Providence and Worcester provided a unique rival to the coach route between the two cities. In June 1835, the first steam railroad swayed between Providence and Boston, establishing a profitable line for freight and passengers. Two years later service began between Providence and Stonington, Connecticut, with ferry connections to New York City. In 1847 rail traffic also began to Worcester and quickly eclipsed both stagecoach and canal operations.

The iron horse clearly condemned the stagecoach to oblivion. Ironically, the Boston-based Eastern Stage Company tried to organize a monopoly of stage service in Rhode Island and throughout New England in 1818, just before the coming of the train. Other business interests made similar efforts later in the century to monopolize omnibus, horse car, and trolley service in the state. Contemporaries along the road of the Boston to Providence stagecoach in 1835 worried that the railroad would end economic enterprise along the old turnpike altogether. According to a newspaper account, "They could not conceive it possible for such a mighty enterprise as the turnpike to be abandoned without accomplishing the ruin of all who derived subsistence there-from; and in this opinion they were supported by the prevailing sentiment of the country at that time, which regarded railroads as a curse rather than a blessing." The speed, comfort, and relatively low fares of the railroad were beyond the competitive reach of the stagecoach. Only where there were no other means of transportation did the coach continue to flourish. Several lines survived into the twentieth century.

"Ride slow and cheap" or "quick and dear"

The stagecoach from Providence to Putnam, Connecticut, lingered awhile after the introduction of the railroad. In 1876 the citizens of Georgiaville rebelled against the high prices of the railroad and patronized the slow but reliable stage: "People are contented to ride slow and cheap," a newspaper article remarked, "rather than quick and dear." By the waning days of the nineteenth century the few remaining stagecoaches were nevertheless simply vestiges of an earlier era. Some enterprising owners like the proprietor of the East Providence stage route sold franchises "at a high price" to the Union (Horse) Railroad. By 1892 the three remaining stagecoach lines out of Slatersville to Pascoag, Woonsocket, and Millville, Massachusetts, were retired by the introduction of rural branches of larger railroads.

Service no longer needed

That the stage lasted as long as it did was in some ways a testament to the handlers. John Richards, who began his career as a driver on the Providence-Danielson stagecoach during the administration of Andrew Jackson, was still driving his "box" in the 1890s "in determined spite of and with a kind of contempt for, those modern conveyances, the steam car and steam boat." Richards, like many other drivers, was an owner-operator who hung on after other prudent businessmen would have abandoned the business. At the turn of the twentieth century the last remaining stagecoach line traversed the backwoods from Olneyville to Scituate, Foster, and Danielson, Connecticut. The Providence and Danielson (Electric) Railway opened in June 1901, causing the demise of the last stagecoach line. An article on the new system became an obituary for the old stage. "The world will need its services no longer."


Editor's Note

"Thorough braces," mentioned above, are defined by the Abbott-Downing Concord Coach website as:

...strips of leather, cured to the toughness of steel and strung in pairs to support the body of the coach and enable it to swing back and forth. This cradle-like motion absorbed the shocks of the road and spared the horses as well as the passengers. It also permitted the coach to work up its own assisting momentum when it was mired in a slough of bad road and beasts and driver were struggling to free it. These thorough braces were carefully wrought and intricate in arrangement, and it usually required the hides of more than a dozen oxen to supply enough of them for a single coach.

D. Scott Molloy is a professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. A former bus driver for RIPTA, he is the author of Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line, and an Images of America book entitled All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode Island. As a member of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee he educates the public about the role of Irish immigrants in Rhode Island labor history. 10,000 pieces from his extensive collection of labor movement memorabilia are preserved in the Smithsonian.

More Mass Transit in Rhode Island...

Part 1: The early turnpikes from Indian trails to tollgates
Part 3: The omnibus, a crucial urban link
Part 4: Rhode Island's first horsecar, Providence to Pawtucket
Part 5: Horsecar workers
Part 6: Horsecar drivers and customers
Part 7: The first Rhode Island trolleys: Woonsocket and Newport
Part 8: New England's only cable car, the Providence Cable Tramway: the struggle on 'Quality Hill'
Part 9: The Providence Cable Tramway becomes a reality
Part 10: The first trolley in Providence, 1892

This article last edited November 23, 2015

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