When Iowa became a U.S. Territory in 1838, our first governor, Robert Lucas, who came here from Ohio, brought with him a vision that Iowa would have accessible transportation throughout the territory, allowing both people and commerce to travel freely and safely. With Iowa City being established as the new territorial capital, the priority was getting accessible transportation in and out of Johnson County.
Since our sister-cities on the Mississippi were so well-connected via river traffic, the thought was that riverboats steaming up and down the Iowa River would be a great option for Iowa City. Back in Ohio, Governor Lucas had successfully built a canal system, so between 1841 and 1860, a series of steamboats did make their way into our community. But ultimately, unreliable water levels simply kept this option from finding any lasting success. Click here to read more.
The railroad was the up-n-coming promise for early Iowans. Back east, steam locomotives were connecting communities in amazing ways. But it was still only a pipe dream here in Iowa in the 1840’s and Iowa Citians would not hear a train whistle until December 31, 1855. Click here to read more.
So, with waterways limited and railroads still a dream, Governor Lucas went with an extensive plan for road construction – and within days of his inauguration, federally-funded roads were proposed. On December 31, 1838, U.S. Congress passed a bill appropriating $20,000 for Iowa’s first “Military Road,” requiring it to pass through as many county seats as practical. President Martin Van Buren, on March 3, 1839, signed the bill into law and Iowa’s Military Road was underway: one north/south road stretching from the mining and river town of Dubuque in the north to Keosauqua, near the Missouri border on the south. Read more about this road-building process here.
Thus, between 1840 and 1870, the stagecoach business was a-rolling all over Iowa, with Iowa City being right in the center of the action. Writer Orville Francis Grahame, in his 1924 article, Stagecoach Days, tells us these details…
- 1837 – The United States Post Office authorizes the first stagecoach mail service in Iowa – Burlington, the Iowa Territorial capital, to St. Francisville, Missouri. This first route centered around Burlington – which was the largest village in southeastern Iowa and, in 1837, became the capital of the Wisconsin Territory, so 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. Read more here.
- 1838 – 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 Yellow Springs (Jacksonville), Florence, Toolsborough (Black Hawk), Wapello, Harrison, Grand View, “Mouth of Pine”, Bloomington (Muscatine), Geneva, Montpelier (Wyoming), and Glendale/West Buffalo (Clark’s Ferry). This route connected at Stephenson (Rock Island) with a stage line to Galena, Illinois, which linked with the Chicago stages at Dixon’s Ferry.
- 1840 – The Iowa Territorial Legislature approves three new stagecoach mail routes between Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Davenport, and Macomb, Illinois, and twice-weekly mail service between Dubuque and Davenport. Click here to read more about USPS mail service to Iowa City.
- 1840 – Frink & Walker is the first company to bring stagecoach service into Iowa City. $3 will buy you a seat on the thirty-mile trip to Bloomington (Muscatine) via a two-horse stage coach.
- 1841 – As the transition of the Territorial capital continues, semi‑weekly stage service is added between Burlington and Iowa City. Fares cost anywhere between 5 and 10 cents per mile, depending on the season.
- 1842 – Chauncey & Dolly Swan manage Swan’s Hotel, located on the National Road right in the heart of Iowa City. A stagecoach stop/tavern/inn, The Swan becomes a major point of interest in early Iowa City history. Read about the first four hotel/taverns that were established in the early Iowa City days.
- 1842 – Another independent firm advertises tri-weekly stagecoach service from Iowa City to Bloomington for only $1.50. The price competition has begun!
- Mid-1840’s – More routes become available – connecting Iowa City with Davenport, Burlington, Des Moines and Marion. Read here about the stage line to Oskaloosa and its 16-mile stop in Joetown/Amish. Records indicate that it took 10 hours to travel from Davenport to Iowa City, with the average speed – between 5 and 8 miles per hour.
- 1852 – Frink & Walker begin twice weekly service between Ft. Des Moines (Polk County) and Iowa City. People begin talking about moving the state capitol to Des Moines.
- 1854 – Frink & Walker close their operations in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa. The Western Stage Company buys out John Frink, opens for business across Iowa, announcing daily four-horse coaches running in and out of Iowa City in all directions.
- 1854 – The Western Stage Company opens regional centers in Des Moines and on Iowa Avenue in Iowa City, hiring one-hundred mechanics here, while housing coaches, horses, supplies, and a blacksmith and carpenter shop. The company schedules stage routes throughout Iowa as well as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Missouri.
- 1856 – The M&M Railroad arrives in Iowa City, opening up rail transportation to the east.
- 1857 – Between November 5 and December 15, Western Stage moves state officials from Iowa City to the new state capital in Des Moines. As business thrives and expands, shares rise from $100 to $2,000 per share, and at its peak, the company employs 1,500 men and operates 600 coaches while utilizing 3,000 horses.
- 1857 – Louis Englert opens his tavern/inn on North Dubuque Street – across from Terrell’s Mill – becoming yet another popular stagecoach stop for Western Stage competitors.
- 1860’s – The railroad begins expanding westward across Iowa with service to Des Moines beginning in 1866. Stagecoach service now must coordinate its schedule to coincide with train arrivals and departures – see chart (below left) for Iowa City. Still, Western Stage plays an important role in moving soldiers and supplies during the Civil War.
Stagecoach drivers generally 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. Read more about one such stop south of Iowa City – which became the Johnson County community of Amish.
Read about Iowa’s first state governor – Ansel Briggs – who began his career in Iowa by being a stagecoach driver!
- 1870 – But times change, and new forms of transportation take a huge toll on the stagecoach business. Trains can move people and freight much faster, so on July 1, 1870, Western Stage Company‘s last coach leaves Des Moines, and by month’s end, coaches that once cost $1000 to make, are now being sold for scrap for $10 each.
And just like that, the stage coach era in Iowa (1840-1870) comes to a close. Gone – but not forgotten…
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
The Rise And Fall Of Stagecoaches In Iowa, Cheryl Mullenbach, IowaWatch.org, May 20, 2017
Tips To Stagecoach Travelers, Lynn Nielsen, Explorations in Iowa History Project, UNI, 2003
Stagecoach Days, Orville Francis Grahame, The Palimpsest – Volume 5 – Number 5 – Article 4, May 1924, pp 176-185
Travel by Stagecoach: Read Beyond the Beaten Path, SCblogger, The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library, July 16, 2022
Transportation in Iowa – A Historical Summary, Iowa Department of Transportation
Misc. graphics, 1851 Iowa Township Map Info, Iowa Dept of Transportation
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