A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 24, Transportation: Stage Coaches

Crabb Robinson was all his life a great walker. Indeed, when he first came to London [1796], and for many years after, Robinson observed that a poor man had no means of getting about except on his legs. Small as the town was, compared with the London of to-day, it nevertheless required time and strength to cover the distance between the various suburbs that were springing up. When Crabb Robinson visited friends at Islington or Hoxton or Dulwich he had no alternative but to walk, unless he had the good luck to meet a coach which happened to have a spare place and was willing to pick up a stray short-distance passenger.1

It was not just the poor man that walked or got a drive because he was able to flag down a horse drawn conveyance. Keeping a carriage for your own or family purposes was not for the light of purse, though it most certainly "was the surest, most coveted, and eagerly worked-for and saved-for mark of gentility."2 Long distances might be covered in your own carriage, but it meant hiring post-horses while on route, thus resting your own horses and cutting your traveling time. Postboys, "ready booted and spurred' and ready to go in a moment with the call "Horses on," travelled with the post horses; presumably your horses would be keep until you came through again. As it is to a large extent now, it was then: only the rich could afford to travel long distances.

Well, as we have seen, if you had no money and couldn't catch a ride in a wagon, you walked -- and back in those days people walked a lot, some of them many, many miles, often for days if they were to make their destination, apparently not thinking much of it. Of course, especially at Halifax, one could hire a Hackney Coach for short trips. Murdoch set out an advertisement made on January 16, 1811, as follows:

"W. Madden begs to acquaint the ladies and Gentlemen of Halifax, that he has fitted up Three Carriages, which he will send to the Stand for their accommodation, on Monday next, 21st instant, on the following reasonable Rates: To any part of the Town, for one person, 2s.6d. - for two, 3s.6d. - for three, 5s.6d.. - for four, 6s.3d. - for five, 7s.6d - for six, 8s.9d. When kept in waiting longer than one Quarter of an hour, to pay at the rate of 5s.6d. per hour. When taken out of Town, for one or two persons, 2s.6d. per mile - for five or six, 3s.9d. per mile. The Carriages to be found on the Stand fronting the Custom House, or in bad weather at the Stables of the Proprietor. All jobs about town after Dark to pay one third more fare. Close and open Sleys, Gigs and Saddle Horses, to Let as usual."3

The horse is the cynosure of English eyes. To ride him had been the chief delight for centuries; to drive him was no less desired. The aspiration of youth was to sit beside the mail-coachman on the box. Of course it was not just the sight of harnessed horses that the spectator enjoyed, it was the overall sight, "the finest sight in England is a stage coach just ready to start."4

With the financial assistance from government, a person by the name of Isaiah Smith, established a stage coach5 service in 1816. It was a scheduled run, twice a week, by stage-coach, Windsor/Halifax; each passenger, six could be accommodated, was charged six dollars, each.6 The road between the two centres was one of the oldest in the province and really the only road suitable for coach travel when Smith established his service. The main purposes of this service and the principal reason for the government help, was to advance the postal service in the province.7

"The first coach left Halifax on Tuesday, the 24th of February [1816], at 2 p.m. It accommodated six passengers at a charge of six dollars each. Nine hours were at first required for the forty-five mile mile journey.8 Small parcels were carried at a reasonable charge, and every passenger was allowed baggage up to ten pounds in weight."9
On some roads a long distance intervened without any settlers, consequently travellers had no place for rest or refreshment. Bounties were given in such instances sometimes by the assembly, to induce parties to settle who would accommodate travellers. Joseph Langley "who had settled at the bridge over the West branch of St. Mary's river, on the road from Musquodoboit to Guysborough, and had received £30 on that account, prayed aid."10
"The inns in the towns such as Windsor, or Annapolis, are much the same as those we find in the larger villages of England. The country inns are usually detached cottages, of which the owner having originally commenced as a farmer, and looking to that occupation as his chief resource, is a very different being from his accomplished prototype in England. I know of no occasion more likely to arouse the choler of an aristocratic Englishman than his arrival at one of these inns, before he has become acquainted with the character of the country. The last crack of the whip, which, in England, places, as if by magic, a stable-boy at the head of each leader and a waiter at the door, here dies away unheeded in an echo among the woods. He looks round with surprise -- surmises that he may have mistaken the house -- descends to inquire. By this time, a countryman makes his appearance from the field, announces that the host will 'be here after fixing the next load,' and coolly begins to unharness. Milord Anglais may walk in if he pleases -- for though there is no one to invite, there is no one to forbid his entrance: a neat little parlour will then receive him; perhaps even the 'mistress' will be sufficiently on the alert to perform the office of introduction in person. Woe betide him if any symptoms of dissatisfaction or hauteur express themselves! If he has the address to conceal his impatience -- to open the heart of the good lady by a few civil inquiries -- all will be well; his wishes will be attended to with all the ability in her power; but if the costume of Boniface from the hay-field shock his sensibility; if his pride take offence at the nonchalance and the familiar style of conversation opened by his host in the shape of question and answer -- adieu to his expectations of attention and speedy refreshment; he must submit to the convenience of both master and mistress, for they will not put themselves out of the way for him. This may present no very favourable picture, when contrasted with the corresponding establishments at home; yet I confess myself a great admirer of these little inns. ... Their cleanliness would match that of a Dutch housekeeper; and if the larder be not so well supplied, nor the cookery so piquant as that of our friend Wright at Dover, the best that the farm, the poultry-yard, and dairy afford, seasoned with the best exertions and modest excuses of a pretty hostess, may at least be graciously accepted as a reasonable compensation."11

By 1828, the Eastern Stage Coach Company was established to provided a service from Halifax to Pictou.

"In 1828 Witter and Lynds were running their stage once a week from June to the middle of November. It left Halifax every Tuesday at seven in the morning, reached Truro at seven the next morning, and Pictou at eight that evening. It left Pictou one hour after the arrival of the Prince Edward Island packet and reached Halifax on Saturday afternoon."12
In the same year, 1828, again with government assistance, the Western Stage Coach Company was formed establishing a service to Annapolis. The first coach left Halifax on June 3, 1828. The passengers were charged, if they were traveling the whole way, £2 or $10. A passenger could take baggage to the extent 20 pounds, more at the discretion of the ground agent. The trip took the best part of two days.13

In 1833, a person by the name of Leonard D. Geldert, established a stagecoach service from Windsor to Liverpool, via Chester and Lunenburg. Some time was to pass before there was any service directly along either the southern or eastern shores.

"By 1848 the direct road from Halifax to Chester had been sufficiently improved to enable Geldert to inaugurate a direct service from Halifax to Lunenburg twice a week at a fare of £1. This Royal Western Mail Shore Line was extended next year to Yarmouth, running twice a week to Liverpool and once to Yarmouth."14
We have been using the term "coach," whereas in the early days, what was used, more often than not was a wagon:
"The common English chariot is used in travelling, by some persons; but the more usual vehicle is a light waggon, much the same sort of thing as the pony phaeton on four wheels we see at home, and, certainly, the best adapted to a country where an occasional windfall (a tree blown down across the road,) not unfrequently reduces you to the alternative of lifting your carriage over the obstruction, or dragging it through the woods on either side. Posting is out of the question : every one travels with his own or with hired horses, or takes advantage of a stage, which plies on the two principal roads."15
Earlier, in 1836, a service was established between Yarmouth and Digby. Run by Jesse Wyman, it had a "covered carriage drawn by two horses" and took two days for the 65 mile run.
"For people going from Halifax to New Brunswick and Canada the most popular route, if not by way of the United States, was by way of the Western Stage from Halifax to Windsor or Annapolis and by ship thence to St. John. For travellers from Halifax to Amherst and Eastern New Brunswick the route most commonly used was by way of the Western Stage to Windsor, the Parrsborough packet, and horseback or some sort of a wagon to Amherst. But neither of these routes was possible during the winter. The very few travellers then abroad were forced to resort to the difficult journey over the Cobequid Mountains between Truro and Amherst, or use an all sea route."16
As we have already noted, the establishment of stagecoach service in Nova Scotia, including that of government help, was to setup a regular postal service in Nova Scotia. Wagons, and as time went by, coaches, were employed principally to carry the Royal Mail; carrying passengers, if there was room, was at first but a side line. Samuel Cunard had won contracts to carry the mail. He was to establish a reliable and regular schedule for the pickup and delivery of mail destined for North America. Though he had already secured an exclusive contract for the delivery of mail to Halifax and Boston and/or New York, in 1841 he had another contract to get the mail from Halifax to Quebec. Cunard put a number of four-horse coaches in service between Pictou and Halifax; it was a two day run.17 A smaller steamship, the Unicorn would then take the mail and the passengers up the St. Lawrence to Quebec. Horses were stabled every ten miles along the way. Though Cunard and others were interested in the prosperity of both Halifax and Pictou which was thought would occur as passengers and mail spilled through the two spots and into the fast developing interior -- it was not to be. They did not increase the business at these two places, indeed, it decreased. This was because Boston was getting the business and customers preferred this way. "It was so much quicker and more comfortable to disembark at Boston and take the railroad up to the Lakes."18 Because of the loss of money, Cunard eventually took both the overland coaches and the Unicorn out of service.19

With the establishment of a regular mail service back and forth to Europe in the Cunard steamships, by 1840, a change is noted in the overland service, as was also established by Cunard. It was costly for Cunard to maintain this service; and so, in 1845 the Cunard service was discontinued in favour of another route to Quebec and Upper Canada. In that year, the British mail was landed "at Boston instead of Halifax and transmitted through the United States. The change was largely due to the delay and difficulty caused by the bad state of the roads on the Pictou and Amherst routes, in contrast to the railway services available in the United States for most of the distance to Montreal."20

Notwithstanding Cunard's reverses, stagecoach service throughout Nova Scotia grew and by 1850 was well established. "The improvement in the roads combined with the increased demands of pleasure and bigger business, had last made stage coaches really profitable investments. What began to bring the service at an end, was, of course, the arrival of the railway in Nova Scotia, which in 1858 was established to both Windsor and Truro. The runs to Truro and Windsor were ended, though the auxiliary lines continued to serve. It was only in 1860, incidentally, that a regular service was finally established to points in Cape Breton. The runs from Pictou to Sydney were done in eleven different stages and used 46 horses on route.21

R. D. Evans, in his very well done article, "Stage Coaches in N.S., 1815-1867," summed up the era of Stagecoaches in Nova Scotia, as follows:

"The period 1815 to 1867 saw the beginning and the culmination of stage coach travel in Nova Scotia. In 1815 there were no stage coaches in the entire province. By 1830 there were two lines operating a tri-weekly schedule, one from Halifax to Annapolis with a weekly extension to Digby and one from Halifax to Pictou. By 1850 two lines operated a daily schedule from Halifax to Windsor, and one of these ran three times and the other twice a week to Annapolis: another line operated at least twice a week from Annapolis to Digby and Yarmouth: another ran twice a week from Halifax to Liverpool and once to Yarmouth by the south shore, thus completing a coach circuit from Halifax to Yarmouth and back; another maintained a schedule of four times a week from Halifax to Pictou: and another ran semi-weekly between Truro and Amherst. By 1865 stage coaches had reached the peak of prosperity. ... Every part of the province was served by some sort of stage. From this position of first importance in the communication system, however, the stage coach was soon to fall. With Confederation came another period of railroad building. This time long lines were constructed, which effectively reduced the stage coaches to a minor auxiliary service."22

NEXT: [Chapter 25, Transportation: Railroads]


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Peter Landry