"Cruel and Unusual Punishment"

Travel by Coach Along the Overland Trail

Several overland diarists have described the Overland Trail Stage ride as "Cruel and Unusual Punishment!" They were probably right!

Forget first class. The three bench-like seats that divided the interior, each to carry three passengers, were only about four feet long--barely 15 inches per passenger! The passengers, some small, some huge, were wedged into place like so many sardines in a tin, knee-to-knee. The mail had first priority on the Overland Express, and if there was a large shipment of mail, the sacks oftentimes were put inside the coach on the floorboards. This meant that the passengers rode across country awkwardly with their chins up on their knees.

Being first in line to board the stage was the key to ensure some semblance of comfort. These passengers were at least able to choose the wider back seat, while latecomers got stuck with the center bench seat, with only a narrow leather strap as a backrest. Those that could afford it, purchased two or more seats. With three seats, one could at least stretch out and recline. This was especially advantageous on overnight trips.

No matter how comfortable one made themselves inside the coach with the purchase of extra seats, they could not escape the dust. It was everywhere. Particularily bad was when there was a tail-wind: not only the dust stirred up by the horses came into the coach, but also clouds of dust came into the "windows" from the coach's wheels. It only took a very few minutes to made every one the same brown, gritty color.

Even with such a short existence, the saga of traveling the Overland Stage remains in many minds a romantic period in the history of the westward movement. Western thrillers and television mini-series have the stage driver standing, furiously using his whip on the team of horses, the messenger is reaching back over the top of the stage, his gun aimed at the pursuing Indians, a gentlemanly pistol appears thrust out of the window, and the female passengers are terrified.

Today, almost a century and a half after the first Concord stages rolled, even with the hours of Westerns we've all watched, it is still hard to imagine how awesome the actual trip across the miles of virtually unknown terrain must have been. There was definitely nothing romantic about the actual journey. The traveler experienced the hot blistering sun, dust, thirst, hunger, heat, cold--all within the confines of the finest horse-drawn transportation of the day. And then on top of all that, there was the possibility of Indian attack! It's no wonder that many of the travelers wrote about their experiences when the journey was complete. See also Mark Twain's account of his stage coach trip: "Overland to California, 1861"

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