The Erie Canal and the Stagecoach
In 1821 a traveler could choose between the rough ride in the stagecoach over the dusty or muddy turnpikes or the more leisurely cruise on the Erie Canal, which had opened for navigation between Utica and Montezuma in May, 1821. But contrary to popular belief, this new mode of travel did not render stagecoach travel obsolete as the railroads did later. It merely complemented it as an alternative mode of travel.
In dry weather, travelers found the stagecoach a pleasant mode of
with the spectacular scenery across upstate New York.
But the weather did not always cooperate and travel could be very
At times, passengers had to get out and assist in pushing the coach
up a hill or pry out of the mud.
Packet boat travel thrived on the Erie Canal
prior to the advent of the railroad
For the canal did not pass through all communities across upstate New York. Also, the stagecoach proprietors continued to hold all the mail contracts which provided a lucrative income.
If travelers were in a hurry, or wanted to see a more varied countryside, they usually took the stage, rented one, or purchased their own carriage. If travel was particularly heavy and one stage could not handle the crowd, additional stages were put into service. Frequently three or four of these "extras" would follow the regular coach.
By paying a certain price—usually the fare of seven passengers—an affluent
traveler might reserve for himself and family and servants an "exclusive extra," in
which none but his party and invited gusts might enter. Such a charter ran
on his orders in regard to ours of arrival and departure. However, the destination
had to be reached within an agreed time.
Canal packets were at first a popular novelty. However, it is said very few people - with the exception of emigrants and tourists - traveled the entire length of the canal. Although the packet boat afforded an opportunity to "look around," the stagecoach offered variety of scenery and swiftness. That is if one was able to survive the bone-jolting ride over only moderately maintained turnpikes and public roads.
Also the canal was closed four or five months of the year which left the stagecoach the exclusive mode of public transportation during the winter until the coming of the railroads. There was plenty of passenger business for both the canals and stagecoaches during the navigation season. Many travelers preferred the canal as it was less fatiguing and cheaper as meals and lodging were included in the fare, and it was restful.
From the beginning the principal commodity carried on the canal was freight. The most common canal travelers were curious tourists and traveling families. Merchants, bankers and tradesmen bound to and from the metropolis, lawyers on their way to court and businessmen found the stagecoach more expeditious.
By the the time the canal was opened, the stagecoach business had more than 20 years to develop in this part of the country.. By the 1820s, stagecoach routs spread over the state like a spiderweb. For about two years Montezuma was the western terminus of the canal. Here, perhaps more so than most other places, was a heavy concentration of stage lines that met the packets to convey passengers to their destinations. Connections were so arranged between the packetboat companies and the stage lines so there would be minimal detention.
On Aug. 3, 1821 the editor of the Lyons Republican noted that the traveler could "choose between a continuation in post coaches, or take the canal for 100 miles; by the later mode he would behold that grand project, and form some idea of its vast advantages, but would forego the pleasures that the land conveyance always affords."
Construction problems in the Cayuga Marshes west of Montezuma delayed the opening of that section of the canal until July 30, 1822. On that day the packet boat "Myron Holley" passed over the newly-completed stretch of the canal, from Lyons to Montezuma. That August, William Faulkner of Geneva and W.W. Fenlon of Montezuma established a daily stage line connecting with the packet boats. The stage left Gooding's Tavern in Canandaigua for Montezuma at 9 a.m. , also connecting with the steamboat "Enterprise" at Cayuga Bridge. The returning stage conveyed westbound passengers to Geneva and Canandaigua.
Further evidence of the close association between stagecoach and packet is gleaned from newspaper advertisements. In June, 1823, Samuel Allen established two daily north-south runs between Palmyra and Canandaigua, and Lyons and Geneva, respectively. The stages left Palmyra and Lyons in the morning, returning in the afternoon in time to connect with the packets, eastbound from Palnyra and westbound from Lyons.
An advocate of the canal noted that packet boat passengers were charged only four cents a mile, including meals and lodging, "both which are as good, if not better, than at the taverns on the road." He claimed the passage from Utica to Weed's Basin (Weedsport), 87 miles was "as rapid as the stages travel, much less expensive, no risk of life or limb and no fatigue or dust attending."
The creation of stagecoach service between Lyons and Geneva in June, 1823 also brought daily mail service to Lyons. In turn the Lyons Advertiser was able to get out its weekly newspaper two days earlier than previously. Stage passengers had to be early risers, however, as this coach left Woolsey's Tavern in Lyons at 5 a.m., returning from Geneva at 4 p.m. It was advertised that "Passengers on the canal whose business may require to leave it for the Seneca Turnpike, will find the route a very pleasant one, and the carriages safe and expeditious." Also, that passengers could be assured of punctuality and that "sober and careful drivers will be furnished at all times."
Sources reflect a gradual improvement in stagecoach service in the early 1820s in conjunction with the canal. Stage lines connected with packet boats at such canal towns as Canajoharie, Utica, Chittenango, Syracuse, Weedsport, Montezuma, Lyons, Palmyra, Rochester and Lockport. At Buffalo there were excellent stagecoach accommodations in all directions, with daily lines to Lewiston and Niagara Falls, and long the Ridge Road and turnpikes.
Spafford's 1824 edition of Guide for New York Travellers stated that the packet
boat companies "have extensive connexions (sic) with the lines of stages, the hours of arrival and departure of which are so arranged that there is little detention, in passing, in almost any direction, at any of the considerable villages, from the canal line. These packets also carry the mails." The packet boat companies also offered considerable daily service on the canal while steamboats had extensive service on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, Lake George and Lake Champlain, as well as on the Hudson River.
Stage fare was generally four cents per mile, according to old guidebooks. Competition was keen. In January, 1823, a group of stage proprietors across upstate New York called the "Old Line," reduced fares to two cents a mile to force out competition and retain the mail contracts. One of their competitors was W.W. Fenlon, of Palmyra, established the first such service between Rochester and Auburn in January, 1823. This run east of Palmyra was over what was known as the Montezuma Turnpike, and operated three days a week.
A popular alternative detour between Rochester and Niagara Falls was the scenic 80-mile stagecoach ride over the Ridge Road, which was heavily patronized in the early days especially by tourists. This essentially is today's Route 104. However, travelers had to be early risers as the stages left Rochester westbound, and Lewiston, eastbound, at 3 a.m. Under the best conditions, this trip took 16 hours and can be driven today in about two hours or less.
Fenlon's route was 10 miles shorter than previously established routes. But the the "Old Line" proprietors eventually got the upper hand and Fenlon withdrew from the business. Isaac Sherwood, one of the "Old Line" proprietors, and later his son, John M. Sherwood, controlled most of the business between Utica and Rochester.
The Erie Canal was opened its entire distance with a grand celebration on Oct. 26, 1825. Its benefits were almost immediate. Especially in the larger communities along the canal, stagecoaches lined the docks to take passengers to their final destinations.
An example of the cooperation between the packetboats and stagecoaches is
reflected in an advertisement that appeared in the Oswego Palladium, June
Oswego Palladium, June 6, 1832
New Line of Packet Boats
Between Utica, Chittenango and Syracuse
A line of very commodious boats, for the carriage of passengers and light
frieight. The boats are fitted up in a superior style with spacious cabins
for ladies and gentlemen. The arrangements for sleeping are peculiarly good;
every berth having a canvas bottom, and supplied with large and thick mattresses.
No pains or has been spared to render the boats as commodious as possible.
The boats on the line are—
The Philadelphia, Capt. S. Haight,
The New Kentucky, Capt. P. Westerman jr.
The Naid & Nerid, Capt. J. Bellinger.
And will have their station, at Utica, on the west side of Genesee street, adjoining the store of Butler, McDonough & Co.
A boat will leave Utica every morning at 5 o'clock, after the arrival of the stages and boats from Schenectady - and as there is not a single lock between Chitttenango and Utica, passengers will be able to sleep with as much comfort and ease as in a private house, and every precaution will be taken to ensure quiet and silence.
A boat will leave Chittenango, every evening at 5 o'clock after the arrival of the western and southern stages.
In continuation of the line, a light boat will leave Chittenango every morning, and convey passengers to Syracuse. At 2 P.M. the light boat will again leave Syracuse, and arrive at Chittenango by 6 o'clock, where they will take the larger boat for the night, and arrive in Utica the next morning.
Passengers going west, will arrive at Chittenango in season for the morning states; likewise, passengers wishing to go south, to Cazenovia, New Woodstock, DeRuyter, Homer, Ithaca, and to Perryville, Peterboro, Morrisville, Norwich, and Unadilla, can go immediately on without delay.
This line has been established for village accommodation, and not with any design to compete with any other line of boats. Every attention will be given to those whose business or inclination may induce them to patronize the line. The proprietor has requested all the captains to avoid racing, and to keep out at their regular speed without collision, if practicable.
The director of this line, solicits such a share of public patronage as his efforts to accommodate shall entitle him to; and while he would not deprecate the conveniences of other boats and stages he deems it due to the interest of the proprietor, to caution the public against misrepresentations which are often practiced by the agents of rival establishments.
Application for passage to be made to the captains on board the boats.
For the proprietor,
GEORGE T. PERRY.
Chittenango, April 16, 1832.
Wayne County Sentinel, May 19, 1826
The editor of the Wayne County Sentinel of Palmyra noted on May 19, 1826:
"Since the completion of the canal, the travel through this country has gradually though rapidly increased. There are now nine lines of stages that leave Rochester daily and one semi-weekly in the following manner:
"Three lines via Canandaigua to Albany, one via Palmyra and Montezuma to Albany, one to Geneseo, one to Lewiston, one to Batavia via Scottsville, via Churchville, one to Penfield, all daily and one to Oswego, semi-weekly; besides which there is a departure of three packet boats daily, one east and two west.
"In addition to which, the transportation (freight) boats take a great share of passengers. At a modern calculation there depart daily the round number of 130 persons from Rochester, the site of which 14 years ago was literally a forest. "
This cooperative effort continued until the completion of the chain of railroads across New York State that was to become the New York Central. By 1854, the passenger packet boats were a thing of the past, although stage lines continued to operate on routes not served by either canals or railroads.
But memories of the colorful era of the stagecoach lingered on for the generations of travelers who vividly recalled how the drivers, with great dexterity, handled the reins of four-horse teams and wielded the whip, giving it a smark crack over the leaders' ears. The leaders were the lead horses and the rear horses were referred to as the wheelers.
To all it was an enchanting sight to observe the stage come down a hill at full speed - the driver holding the reins in one hand and cracking his whip with the other. Approaching a stop, usually a wayside inn, he would blow his horn to signal his arrival. It was once written:
He tightens the reins and whirls off with a fling
From the roof of the coach his ten feet of string;
Now lightly he flicks the 'nigh' leader's left ear,
Gives the wheelers a neighborlt slap with the stock
They lay back their ears as the coach gives a rock
And strike a square trot in the tick of a clock!
There's a jumble, a jar and a gravelly trill
In the craunch of the wheels on the slate-stone hill
That grind up the miles like a grist in a mill.
He touches the bay and he talks to the brown,
Sends a token of silk, a word and a frown,
To the filly whose heels are too light to stay down.