Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Glory Days of the Stagecoach: Crossing the Blue Ridge in the 1850s

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This group of ladies posed beside an early stagecoach with purported local ties parked in front of “Michie’s Old Tavern”, relocated to Monticello Mountain outside of Charlottesville. The photographer noted, “In 1938 I found this coach in courtyard of Gadsby’s Tavern, Alexandria. It was placed here to save it from vandals.” Phil James Historical Images Collection.

The Richmond Dispatch editor published a letter from one identified only as “P.” in August 1853. That writer lamented the passing of a much slower era. They wrote, “Passengers leaving Richmond at 6:30 A.M., yesterday on the Central railroad cars, reached Staun­ton at 9:30 last night.

“Stage traveling is now one of the departing glo­ries of Virginia; but what substitute on railroads shall we find for its leisurely talks, promoting friend­ship and extending knowledge—the good look at cornfields—the agreeable episode of stopping to change horses and leave mail bags at wayside inns and villages—the fresh substantial meals obtained at such places, &c., &c.”

Taverns were licensed by local governments to serve the traveling public. Moving through western Albemarle’s byways, one could stop off at the former Moon-Layman house at Batesville on the Staunton and James River Turnpike, connecting Scottsville and the Shenandoah Valley via Rockfish Gap. Michie Tavern, originally located between Earlysville and Free Union, served traffic along the roadway passing through northwest Albemarle into Greene County, crossing the mountain at Simmons Gap.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, edition of 1881–’82, took a humorous swipe at the company’s former competitors. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

At White Hall, Maupin’s Tavern, Miller’s Tavern or Shumate’s Tavern welcomed stagecoaches crossing the Blue Ridge at Black Rock Gap. Travelers at John Cocke’s tavern near Yancey Mills and Robert Brooks’ tavern at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge at Brooksville likely navigated over Rockfish Gap.

The Virginia Central Railroad, like its successor the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, was savvy in marketing speedy access to the popular Virginia Springs west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Prior to the full opening of Claudius Crozet’s series of Blue Ridge Railroad tunnels in the latter 1850s, however, getting there was an arduous task that helped to justify extended, leisurely stays of a month or more by the springs’ well-to-do clientele.

As railroad tracks were laid from east-to-west, railroad patrons could travel in the relative comfort of railcars only as far as completed track sections allowed, where they were met by a stage line. In September 1850, a daily westbound train leaving Richmond at 5 A.M., aimed to arrive at Charlottesville by 2 P.M. Waiting at that terminus was the stagecoach firm of C.R. Mason, J.L. Heiskell, and Wm. P. Farish & Co., who advertised their new fast line of “Troy Coaches.” A new and improved stagecoach, the Troy held eleven passengers, with room for five or more on top (depending on the amount of baggage.)

The writer “P.”, continued, “It is to be hoped that men, by and by, will be tired of this new and delightful sport of seeing how fast they can go, and yielding to the force of reason, learn to consider that not alone getting along, but getting along well, is the thing to be desired. Then we shall not be compelled to swallow a good dinner at Charlottesville or elsewhere, in utter disregard of all correct views of mastication, and jump into the cars, thinking we have done a very smart thing in sacrificing health to haste.

“But, whether digestion has gone on or not, we have, and are at Mechum’s River. Seven coaches take us thence. An hour is spent in depositing our­selves, and our baggage within and about them, and the good natured agent has as much as he can do…

Robert Brooks’ four-room brick tavern catered to traffic on the Staunton-James River Turnpike nearby the present day intersection of Rts. 250 and 151. He became the postmaster at Brooksville in 1831 when the nearby post office at New York was closed. The former stagecoach stop underwent extensive renovations in 1950. Courtesy Cole w. Sandridge Jr. collection.

“The stages wheel and file off toward the Blue Ridge, smiling faces are seen in every coach, and the unpopular contrast of this mode of conveyance is, for the time, forgotten, in that elevation of spirits which is experienced when the whip cracks, and the “four in hand” strike the earth with their sixteen hoofs, rocking us on leather springs to and fro. And still more, as we look into the faces of our fellow passengers and the foun­tains of social feeling under the genial influence of close contact and common interest begin to open and give out their treasures in kind looks and kind words.”

After much description of their ride through western Albemarle County and across Rockfish Gap, the writer concluded, “We draw up about sunset at a Tavern down in the centre of Waynesboro’. From this town to Staunton, is 12 miles. The road was dusty, and it was too dark for much observation; but it was plea­sant to know and feel that we were in the Valley of Virginia.”

Another first-person recollection, describing the excitement surrounding the arrival in Waynesboro of such stages from Mechum’s River, was shared in 1925 by Dewitt Clinton Gallaher (1845–1926) for the News-Virginian. “The stage coaches crossed the mountain from Mechum’s River,” he wrote, “the then terminus of the old Virginia Cen­tral R.R., bringing passengers and the mail. There was a keen rivalry between the two stage lines, the horses of one having flaming red pompons or plumes on their heads, the other with white ones, and in summer they came from the east, sometimes four or five at a time, dashing and racing up Main Street to the Gibbs Hotel, a large three-story frame building.

Prior to rail travel, a partnership managing both packet boats and stagecoaches moved the traveling public between Richmond and Staunton. Travel time for a one-way excursion was measured in days. Sleeping and eating en route was mostly catch-as-catch-can. Daily Richmond Times, December 1850.

“Usually, the coming of the stages was heralded by the drivers or some other one blow­ing the merry sounding horn a half mile or more away. This signal always assembled quickly the villagers on Main Street. It was the great sensation of the day when people gathered, especially the boys, from all over the town to see the stages come in. The then great ambition of boyhood was to ride one of the stage horses, which changed there, to the big stables, one a big frame in the rear of the Gibbs Hotel, the other a big brick which stood for many years after near the town spring, in the rear of the present City Hall. On the way out west to the numerous springs, and to Staunton and down the Valley, Main Street was a great thoroughfare and favorite route. Hundreds pass­ed through east and west each summer. In winter, of course, there was less travel when stages plowed through deep snows.”

From horseback to stagecoach to railway to private automobiles, and beyond… we might do well to recall words shared by anonymous traveler “P.”: “It is to be hoped that men, by and by, will be tired of this new and delightful sport of seeing how fast they can go, and yielding to the force of reason, learn to consider that not alone getting along, but getting along well, is the thing to be desired.”  

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him at [email protected]. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2023 Phil James 

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