Virginia by Stagecoach

by Virginia C. Johnson

Travel in old Virginia was many things, but it was never dull. Stagecoaches were the primary means of transport, carrying mail as well as passengers. Trips that now take hours lasted for days. Coach trips could be dangerous, and all-hands situations arose quickly. A traveler might need to apply horsemanship, carpentry, leather-mending or the sheer brawny effort of shoving the coach out of a muddy ditch. Inns across the state catered to stagecoach riders and acted as community gathering places. 

Some still stand, like the Rising Sun Tavern in Fredericksburg and Michie Tavern in Charlottesville. 

Author Virginia Johnson relates tales of those wild early days on the road.

THE START OF THE STAGECOACH (excerpt pages 15-16)

Americans certainly had an example to which to aspire, but the lower population density, rawness of the terrain, and not entirely calm relations with both native tribes and French colonials made for a less stable environment in which to run such a business. Even so, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in his Stagecoach East, writes that there was a modest amount of staging in the East during the fifty years before the Revolution. Service was largely disrupted during the war, but as the British began to retreat and withdraw from various areas, a renewed and expanding stagecoach industry started to appear up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

By the 1750s, the major northern port cities of New York and Philadelphia had established stage lines connecting them, with stage-boats helping with water passages. Some stage lines ran as far south as Wilmington, North
Carolina, according to the article “Stage Waggons and Coaches,” written by Ron Vineyard for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He notes that in the beginning of the eighteenth century, “stage coach” and “stage
waggon” were used interchangeably, but, by the later eighteenth century, stage waggon was in favor, with stagecoach returning to common use with the revolutionary coach redesigns of the early nineteenth century.

Those first stage waggons were based on freight wagons and met with mixed reviews from passengers. Francis Bailey wrote in his Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America, in 1796 & 1797


This book is both an excellent resource and fascinating! The information presented is divided into short chapters exploring the history and happenings around stagecoaches and the Virginia taverns they visited. Each section is so enthralling that you will find yourself rushing to find a friend with whom to share the interesting tidbits.

It discusses larger than life characters such as Extra Billy, who—while in congress—got into a fist fight in the middle of the street in DC with the editor of a major newspaper; or Charles Dickens, who left a record of his travels in America by stagecoach; or just the fact that stagecoaches were so prevalent and so important to our history.

In this age where we are losing touch with our roots, losing touch with the way people used to live, this book presents the way things were in an enjoyable and accessible form.

Joe Tennis writing for the Herald-Courier (10/27/2019):
“A look at traveling along old Great Stage Road”

Long before cars and trains, paths like Route 11 were crossed by stagecoach, with horses pounding the ground from Wytheville to Marion to Abingdon to Bristol.
Virginia C .Johnson details such stories of horse, inns and taverns in her latest book, “Virginia by Stagecoach” (The History Press, 2019, $21.99).

This 192-page book ventures through chapters called “An American Way to Travel,” “A Visit to the Springs,” “Heading South,” “Roads West” “The Civil War” and “The End of the Line.”

“In this small volume, we’ll explore some of the history, scenarios and personalities that ran alongside the stagecoach trade,” Johnson writes.

Illustrations show off such landmarks as the Swan Tavern of Yorktown, Virginia, and an old tavern at Hanover, Virginia.

But this is more than just about old hotels.

Johnson is also the co-author of “Virginia Horse Racing; Triumphs of the Turf.”
So she knows her way around horses — and that’s a big reason why her book focuses on the horses that pulled the wagons on such roads as Route 11, once known as the Great Stage Road.

Ultimately, railroads began to put stagecoaches out of fashion with travelers.
And an era would slowly trot to an end by the late 1800s.

“People in towns eventually stopped anticipating the melodious sound of stage horns and listened for the screams of steam whistles instead,” Johnson writes. “The train’s faster, most mechanical rhythm became the daily underlying tempo of progress.”

Martha Steger writing for Boomer magazine 6/24/2020:

Not-So-Ordinary Inns & Taverns
By Martha Steger | June 24th, 2020

Virginia entrepreneurs provided stops for meals and lodging in the early 18th century to give travelers a much-needed break (especially for their lower extremities!) after a long day – or days – of travel. (For an excellent overview, check out the recent book, Virginia by Stagecoach, by local author Virginia C. Johnson.)