Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Stagecoach Once Ruled N. La. Travel

     Long before railroads and superhighways crisscrossed America, boats and stagecoaches provided the primary means of commercial transportation. The Smithsonian Institution notes that mail contracts made up the bulk of the profits for most stage companies. The company awarded a contract from the postal service was the one most likely to succeed. The routes used by mail stages became lifelines into new western territories, and were soon traveled by immigrants and fortune seekers.

A typical stagecoach

     Travel by stage was not easy. The journey from Memphis, Tennessee, to San Francisco, California, lasted 25 days. Travelers could find themselves packed tightly with up to eight people inside the coach, several more on top, and mailbags stuffed in among the passengers.
     Stage lines built station stops, or contracted with locals to provide horses and other essentials, every ten to fifteen miles along the route. Except for short breaks to change horses at the designated stops, stagecoaches kept traveling day and night. The rough, bone-jarring, and often dangerous travel tried the patience of the most seasoned travelers.
     Early 19th century transportation in north Louisiana was best accomplished on water. The Red and
Ouachita Rivers and Bayous Dorcheat, D’arbonne, and Macon facilitated north-south transportation for travelers and farmers’ goods. East-west travel was more difficult on crude roads that followed Indian trails.
     By 1825 the first stagecoach began operation across north Louisiana, an agonizing trip over a poor excuse for roads. The trip took 30 hours with a fare of $15.00.
     As use increased, the road became a bit more passable from the erosive effects of wagon wheels smoothing out the bumps. Deep ruts of the old roadbed are still visible in a few spots across north Louisiana. In 1857, this route became known as the Wire Road after the telegraph line was strung along side it.
     During Reconstruction days after the Civil War, the route from Monroe to Vicksburg ceased operation as the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad made the stage obsolete. The Monroe-Shreveport Stage Line operated from the Ouachita River to Shreveport. It would be nearly twenty years after the war ended before the railroad completely crossed the state.
     According to E. R. Hester, who wrote extensively on north central Louisiana history, some of the coaches had names like the “Arcadian,” “Merry Widow,” and the “Southern Belle.” Hester also mentions a stage route from Arkansas through Arcadia to Natchitoches.
     Thomas Tolbert came to Louisiana after the Civil War from South Carolina, tried farming for a year, and suffered so much misfortune he decided to go back east. His account of riding the Monroe-Shreveport stage, specifically the leg from Minden to Vienna, is anything but flattering:
     “The stage, or as it is more properly called ‘mud wagon,’ upset opposite this place [Vienna] last night at 8:00. Fortunately no one sustained any injury but myself. The joint above the armpit in my left shoulder was dislocated. I suffered great pain for the time and was unable to proceed with the ‘mud wagon’ any further.”

The Calhoun Farm between Monroe & Vienna was one of the stage stops.

     A mud wagon was a lighter but sturdier stagecoach built for rough roads. Tolbert was being a bit sarcastic since a mud wagon lacked the suspension that larger coaches possessed to make for a more comfortable ride. Traveling in a mud wagon had to feel much like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
     Tolbert continued: “Our trip for roughness and discomfort has exceeded my worst anticipations. From Minden we had eleven passengers in a very small hack. We were literally wedged in. If I had to choose between a boat and a stage again I would take boat.  Decent people ought not patronize the line from Shreveport to Vicksburg. Mrs. P. and baby stood it pretty well. She held the little fellow in her arms while the stage was upsetting. Seemed more anxious about him than herself. It is a wonder there was no more damage done. We were going in a full trot down a long hill. The driver succeeded in stopping the horses immediately. I think some of the rest were scared as bad as I was hurt. Wiley was lying under the seats. John got fastened someway and the stage had to be prised to let him out. He was frightened out of his wits.”
     A fare schedule of the Monroe-Shreveport stage line notes the stops along the route:
Name of Station                     Number of Miles                    Cost of Fare
First stand                                           12                                $1.20
Forksville                                           17.5                             $1.75
Mrs. Calhoun’s                                    23                                $2.30
Vienna                                                35                                $3.50
Walnut Creek                                      47                                $4.70
Arcadia                                               55                                $5.50
Bennett’s                                            60                                $6.60
Mount Lebanon                                  65                                $6.50
Minden                                               85                                $8.50
Bellevue                                           120                              $12.00
Fillmore                                           120                              $12.00
Red Chute                                        130                              $13.00
Shreveport                                        140                              $14.00

     “Mrs. Calhoun’s” referred to the Calhoun homestead on what is now called the Douglas Road, Louisiana Highway 821 northeast of Ruston. It was the headquarters for the extensive farming operations of John D. Calhoun, which included about 2,000 acres by the turn of the century. The large Lincoln Parish farmhouse still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
     The Vienna stop provided accommodations for those who wished to spend the night rather than endure the nonstop, round-the-clock journey. A hotel there run by the Colvin and Huey families was a well-known resting place.
     Rev. James Buys, a Baptist minister, built a large hotel in Arcadia for stage travelers. It provided nice rooms and huge banquet-like noon and midnight meals for travelers. The building no longer exists.
      The Mount Lebanon stage stop also remains. Built in 1847 by Reuben Drake, one of the founders of the once-thriving town that boasted its own college, the large home is a well-known local landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was occupied by family members, so travelers slept on the galleries [porches].
     Mt. Lebanon had its own university from before the Civil War until the early 1900s. Students from the east and west likely used the stagecoach to commute to school. Mt. Lebanon faded away like Vienna and other towns bypassed by the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad in 1884.   
     More recently, U. S. Highway 80—America’s only coast-to-coast road—and Interstate 20 serve the purpose of the Wire Road and its stagecoaches. Neither highway follows the ruts of the Wire Road exactly. At Ruston, U. S. 80 and I-20 are five to six miles south of the old Wire Road. The Interstate passes four miles north of Mt. Lebanon’s Stagecoach Inn.

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