Travel by Stagecoach: Read Beyond the Beaten Path

With the arrival of the first stagecoach in 1837, the state of Iowa welcomed its second kind of public transportation after steamboats, which first began cruising the Upper Mississippi River in 1827. They carried mail, passengers, and their baggage.

The first routes centered around Burlington, Iowa, which was the largest village in southeastern Iowa and became the 2nd capital of the Territory of Wisconsin in 1836. The Federal government made contracts for delivering mail through designated post roads when demand called for it. Getting mail and news to and from the territorial government was the priority.

Stagecoach routes usually followed the same trails used by Native Americans, bypassing creeks and wet or swampy land and marshes. Early settlers used the same routes with their ox carts or wagons, cutting deep ruts into the soil with their wheels. These dirt roads eventually became highways.

Drivers made stops at 10-mile stations, exchanging their tired horses for a fresh set of horses ready to go on the next leg of the journey. The change could be made in a minute or two. There were stations at the post office in Center Grove, the post office in Lackton west of Durant, a hotel in Round Grove west of Plainview, a tavern in Maysville (or Amity as it was called then), and one east of Blue Grass on Highway 61 South, north of the Jamestown Road.

Morton M. McCarver won the contract for the mail route from Burlington to Davenport – 81 miles in 37 hours – which began running in January 1838, with stops at post offices in Jacksonville (Yellow Springs), Florence, Black Hawk (Toolsborough), Wapello, Harrison, Grand View, “Mouth of Pine”, Muscatine (Bloomington), Geneva, Wyoming, Iowa (Montpelier), and Clark’s Ferry (Glendale/West Buffalo). This route connected at Stephenson (Rock Island) with a stage line to Galena, Illinois, which linked with the Chicago stages at Dixon’s Ferry.

According to Rudy Bluedorn, Walcott rural mail carrier who researched and traced stagecoach lines in Scott County in 1962, there were 7 stagecoach lines in Davenport between 1837 and 1856:

  • Davenport to Muscatine through West Liberty to Iowa City
  • Davenport to Iowa City through Center Grove near Durant via Petersburg Road
  • Davenport through Maysville, Bennett, and Tipton to Marion, operated by Frink & Walker
  • Davenport through Allen’s Grove, Dixon, Big Rock to Anamosa
  • Davenport to Blue Grass, to the river, to Muscatine, operated by Western Stage Lines
  • Davenport to Dubuque through Vandenburg and Andrew
  • One that followed the Mississippi River upstream from Davenport

It took 10 hours to travel from Davenport to Iowa City. The average speed was between 5 and 8 miles per hour. Fares cost anywhere between 5 and 10 cents per mile, depending on the season and if there was competition from other lines.

Colton, Kenneth E. “The Stagecoach Comes to Iowa,” Annals of Iowa Vol. 35 No. 3 Winter, 1960

Mail Contracts

  • 1838 Burlington to Davenport – Morton M. McCarver
  • 1839 Davenport to Rochester – Ansel Briggs
  • 1840 Dubuque to Davenport – Parker & Donaldson
  • 1842 Stephenson (Rock Island) to Davenport – John Wilson
  • 1842 Dubuque to Davenport to Stephenson – Ansel Briggs – $1.50
  • 1844 Davenport to Dubuque – Beers & St. John – $4
  • 1845 Davenport to Iowa City – Joe Albin
  • 1849 Davenport to Iowa City – M.P. Donahey
  • 1849 Davenport to Oskaloosa – W.W. Kendall
  • 1854 Iowa City to Muscatine to Davenport – Western Stage Co.
  • 1850s Ft. Des Moines to Davenport – Western Stage Co.
  • 1850s Davenport to Des Moines to Council Bluffs – Western Stage Co.
  • 1855 Keokuk to Davenport – Western Stage Co.

The Concord Coach

The 2,500 pound Concord stagecoach cost between $1,200 and $1,500. They were made of oak, with iron bands, and brass, and were mounted on oxhide leather strips. They were painted in bright colors, either olive green or vermillion red, and the inside had panels with landscapes or historical characters. The windows had shutters or blinds instead of glass. They were oval-shaped with a flat top for baggage and had a triangular leather-covered space in the back called the “boot” that held more baggage. Inside were 3 seats large enough to seat 3 passengers each, the front seat facing the rear. The driver sat in front, high above the horses, holding the reins with his left hand and using his right hand to control the slack and wield the whip. They were drawn by 4 horses.

Hacks or Jerkies

Smaller, less comfortable, lighter spring mud wagons with white muslin cloth tops and no doors. Up to 4 Passengers entered through an opening above the lower paneling and sat on benches with no backs. They had broad, high wheels held by wooden pins, designed to drive through mudholes. If the pins broke off or slipped out passengers were expected to help dig them out of the mud using a fence rail.

Iowa Sun, March 5, 1842

Western Stage Co.

On May 26, 1854, the Western Stage Company bought Frink & Co. They ceased operations in Iowa on June 30, 1870.

3 factors helped the success of stagecoach travel in Iowa: The Gold Rush and influx of emigrants passing through the state in the 1850s, the need to transport passengers to and from the railroad, and the disruption of railroad construction caused by the Civil War.

The stagecoach was an uncomfortable and inconvenient mode of transportation. It was more expensive than traveling on a steamboat. They were very slow and needed to leave very early in the morning to get as much daylight as possible. It was bumpy, muddy, and freezing cold. Once the railroads expanded their service, there was no looking back.

(posted by Cristina)


Arpy, Jim, “Stagecoach Routes,” Times-Democrat. July 8, 1962

Briggs, John Ely, “Exploring the History of Iowa,” Davenport Democrat. January 7, 1935

Briggs, John Ely, Iowa Old and New. [The University Publishing Co. : 1939]

Burrows, John McDowell, Fifty Years in Iowa. [Davenport, Iowa : 1888]

Colton, Kenneth E., “Stagecoach Travel in Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 22, no. 3. January 1940

Colton, Kenneth E., “The Stagecoach Comes to Iowa,” Annals of Iowa vol. 35, no. 3. Winter 1960

Corbin, Bernie, “Joseph Albin Carried Mail in 1850,” Iowa City Press-Citizen. July 10, 1951

Grahame, Orville Francis, “Stagecoach Days,” The Palimpsest vol. 5, no. 5. May 1924

Hoffman, Mildred Albin, “Stagecoach and Pioneer Mail Carrier,” The Cedar County Historical Review. July 1965

Iowa Sun. August 11, 1838; December 25, 1839; March 5, 1842; June 25, 1842

Pratt, LeRoy, “Ten Cents a Mile and a Fence Rail,” Annals of Iowa vol. 39, no. 8. Spring 1969

Scovel, Donald, Tips for Stagecoach Travelers: Explorations in Iowa History Project. [1970-?]

Tanner, Halpin, & Co., Davenport, Rock Island, & Moline Directory, 1858-9.

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