The STAGECOACH

by Eric Bombeck

[A jam-packed stagecoach rushes through town. Source unknown.]

It’s hard to believe that around the time Sharon, Pennsylvania, was first settled c. 1800, 500 yards up the west hill was considered “The West,” or more accurately, “The Western Reserve.” In those early days if you wanted to get somewhere you rode a horse, drove a horse-drawn buggy, sailed in a ship, or walked. The 1800s, however, was a century of change. If you were born about the same time Sharon was founded and lived to be 100, you would see life-changing advances in transportation, primarily in steamboats, trains, automobiles and in the increased number of canals and roads.

There were many small communities in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, but they were all isolated from each other. It really was not much different from how it was back in Europe since antiquity. Many communities over there, a mere fifty miles apart, often barely spoke the same language. Here in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the advent of one thing began to tie all the communities together — the stagecoach.

[French forts in the Ohio Valley, 1754. Source: http://www.ncpedia.org]

In the late 1700s, the French began to expand the ancient Indian trails so that they could build a series of forts in western Pennsylvania to protect their land from the British: Fort Presque Isle in Erie, Fort Le Boeuf in Waterford, Fort Machault in Franklin and Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh. (Concerned by reports of French expansion into the Ohio Valley, the British sent a young George Washington right through our area in 1754 to negotiate with the French.) 

By the War of 1812, as troops began to travel on foot to Erie, it became clear that better roads were needed. Turnpikes were being built all around the region. It was inevitable then that stagecoach lines would begin to pop up. The first stagecoach lines began to appear here around 1817. The stagecoaches were not initially received very well. In Ohio, when the Conneaut-to-Poland stage line came in, people were so leery of it that they protested. 

[Excerpt from Map of Pennsylvania, 1832, showing (in blue) stagecoach route. General Maps Collection, Library of Congress.]

Soon other lines sprang up. The Franklin & Warren (PA) stage line had three routes in the region. The route between Mercer and Warren, Ohio, ran right through the Shenango Valley. The stagecoach named “The President Jackson” left the Greentree Inn in Mercer at noon, then stopped in Sharon, then Charleston where the horses were switched out with a new team. This was done Nascar-style every 12 miles with teams switching out in under 10 minutes and passengers rarely even getting out. The route continued through Sharpsville, Sharon, Brookfield and Vienna, and ended up in Warren, Ohio. The miracle of the stagecoach: 31 miles in only 8 hours! Or at least that’s how long it was supposed to take.

The “dean of the Mercer-Warren stage line drivers” during the 1860s was the rough-riding, independent Mike Malhony. Even though it was his job to be prompt, Mike was one of those guys who wasn’t exactly tied down to any schedule. Sometimes the stage would leave at noon, sometimes closer to 1:00. Many passengers who were trying to get to the stage stop in Sharon (Tom Porter’s Tavern) often arrived an hour late. 

In the 1840s, Randall D. Wilmot opened up a stagecoach stop on the other side of Warren, Ohio. The complex had a bar, store and lunch stand. Randall, somewhat of an eccentric marketing genius, named the area “The Center of the World.” When the railroad made “The Center of the World” obsolete, Wilmot moved to Cortland, Ohio, and opened a grocery store called “The End of the World.” (If you travel Route 5 on the other side of Warren you’ll still see a road sign that reads “The Center of the World,” where an unincorporated community of a few houses still exists.)

As stagecoach lines grew, so did communication between towns. Travelers from bigger cities carried “gossip” and often newspapers with them that small-town folk could read. Villages that were once isolated now had a lifeline to the rest of the region. The post office, realizing horses were now antiquated, began using stage lines to send mail. (The number of post offices in Pennsylvania rose from only 3,000 in 1815 to 28,000 in 1860.)

The life span of the rough-and-tumble stagecoaches was relatively short. In the earlier years of the 1800s, they contended with the Erie Canal. In later years, railroads offered relatively luxurious travel accommodations and were faster and cheaper than the stage lines. In many places around the country, the stagecoach lines lasted until the automobile knocked them out, some even lasting until World War I.

[George Bancroft, John Wayne and Louise Platt in Stagecoach (1939). Source: “Stagecoach (1939 film),” Wikipedia.]

We all have some image of the stagecoach era in our psyche, something akin to Jimmy Stewart sauntering up to help a pretty pioneer girl off the stage or John Wayne in the classic Western movie, Stagecoach. But the next time you get into your SUV with heated seats and electronic stability control remember this quote from the 19th-century American author Washington Irving on stagecoach travel…

There is certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.

Source: www.quotehd.com
[The Old Stone House, Slippery Rock, PA. oldstonehousepa.org]

If you travel on the William Flynn Highway to Slippery Rock, PA, you can see an old stagecoach stop and tavern. The Old Stone House was constructed in 1822 by John Brown as a resting place for weary travelers on the busy Pittsburgh-to-Erie Pike. Go to oldstonehousepa.org for more information about this stagecoach inn and history museum of rural life.

— Eric Bombeck (SHS 1979), South Pymatuning, PA.

Sources: 

Bombeck, Eric. The Way It Was Newspaper, Facebook, June 2019. 

“Center of the World, Ohio.” Wikipedia.

History of Rail Transportation in the United States.” Wikipedia

NCPEDIA, an online encyclopedia about all things North Carolina. www.ncpedia.org

“The Old Stone House” website. oldstonehousepa.org

“Tales of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys.” Recordings made in the 1950s by The Industrial Information Institute, Inc., Youngstown, OH, 1951-10. 

For an eyewitness account of stagecoach travel, read Roughing It (American Publishing Company, 1872), a semi-autobiographical book by Mark Twain. With his rough-hewn humor, Twain tells of his jarring ride over potholes and ruts from Missouri to Nevada.