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Columns

Reflections: Stagecoaches slowly disappeared as railroads grew and canals built

1880 photo of a stagecoach.
1880 photo of a stagecoach.

Chronologies in history books are always neatly laid out, but changes in various eras over time are seldom so clear cut.

Take, for instance, the change from the stagecoach era to the era of railroads and canals. The way it’s laid out in histories is that stagecoaches carried mail and passengers south and west of Chicago until the advent of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and, soon after, the extension of rail lines to the west and south of the city.

But that’s not how things happen in real life. Instead, there’s always quite a bit of overlap while the old ways hang on as the new ways are gradually adopted. Farm mechanization is a good example. While affordable tractors began to replace flesh-and-blood horsepower on farms in the 1920s, it wasn’t until after World War II that draft horses were completely replaced on most Illinois farms.

Railroads began to be developed to serve the areas west and south of Chicago in the 1840s, about the same time the Illinois & Michigan Canal linking Lake Michigan with the head of steamboat navigation on the Illinois River at Peru was being completed. The canal opened first and had an immediate impact on freight, mail and passenger service to and from Chicago from the south and west. The rail lines that pushed south and west of Chicago a couple of years later had an even bigger impact.

Travel during the 1830s and 1840s in northern Illinois was as expensive as it was difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. According to most sources, stagecoach fares averaged five cents a mile. Paying 50 cents to travel 10 miles at a time when good farmland was selling at $1.25 an acre was costly by anyone’s measure. And that was only the basic transportation cost. Ferry service (when required), food and lodging all were separate add-ons.

But the pioneers out here on the Illinois prairie didn’t have any choice; stagecoaches were the only options available. Susan Short May, whose parents ran the combination tavern and post office at Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville in Kendall County, recalled that “the only way of reaching Chicago or Ottawa was by the Frink and Walker stage line. ... The stage left our tavern early in the morning and my mother was a frequent passenger, for she had to get our groceries, and other supplies in Chicago or Ottawa.”

After the I&M Canal opened in April 1848, canal packet boats carried mail, freight and passengers at a steady 5 mph, day and night. Dining and sleeping quarters were onboard, with no need to stop except to negotiate locks or briefly change tow teams. The trip from Chicago to the steamboat wharf at Peru was cut from two or three days to one, while the level of comfort was increased almost logarithmically. And fares dropped substantially. No more surly tavern owners and their unhappy wives. No more dust and grit blowing through open coach windows. No more overturned coaches spilling passengers into the mud. No more waiting while teams were changed and mail was exchanged. No more unlucky passengers assigned the coach’s backless, center bench seat.

Just a few years later, railroads supplanted the canal for passenger and mail service. Railroads were even more efficient because canal boats couldn’t travel during the winter when the canal was frozen over. And prices continued to drop on both passenger and mail service. By the mid-1850s, mailing letters to friends and family back East was 80% cheaper than it had been using the old stagecoach system.

But stagecoaches still soldiered on for quite a while after railroads and the canal appeared on the scene. That’s because, especially in the case of railroads, the network of rails took a fair amount of time and even more money to complete. As a result, stagecoaches continued to serve communities for a couple more decades as the rails pushed ever farther south, west and north of Chicago.

For instance, in an advertisement in the May 13, 1852 Aurora Beacon, John Turner, superintendent of the Galena & Chicago Union Rail Road, announced that stagecoaches met passenger trains running west of Aurora at Cherry Valley for the balance of the trip to Galena, and at Belvidere for those headed farther north to Beloit, Janesville or Madison.

On June 1, 1853, stage line owner A.R. Horton placed a notice in the Kendall County Courier advertising his services, which were headquartered in downtown Oswego’s National Hotel: “A Mail Stage will leave Oswego Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays via Plainfield for Joliet after the arrival of the Ottawa and Aurora stages, arriving at Joliet in time for the Eastern and Southern train of cars.”

And after the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad passed through Kendall County, business owners in Oswego and Yorkville made a living for some years hauling passengers from those villages’ downtowns to the railroad stations serving the two communities.

In addition, some communities didn’t have convenient rail access for quite a while after that. As late as 1876, Plainfield still was being served by a mail and passenger stage line since the village had no rail connection.

Even after rails extended west of the Fox River Valley, stagecoach service continued for many smaller communities here in Kendall County, as well. Not until some years later were all the stagecoach companies, the coaches themselves, their teams and the colorful drivers that piloted them across the prairies of northern Illinois retired.

But while their era gradually faded, the economic boom northern Illinois’ stagecoach pioneers started was just beginning, fueled by more and more cheaper and more efficient transportation options.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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