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March 18, 2014 | 02:40 PM
John Wayne once hopped on board one of these heading to movie stardom. The best known are frequently thought to be “western,” but the stagecoach was a vital link between communities in Wisconsin long before the railroads arrived. 

A stagecoach is a type of covered wagon for passengers and goods. It is strongly made and generally drawn by four horses. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers. The term “stage” originally referred to the distance between stations on a route, the coach traveling the entire route in “stages,” but through metonymy it came to apply to the coach. 

A fresh set of horses would be staged at the next station so the coach could continue after a quick stop to re-hitch the new horse team. Under this staging system, the resting, watering and feeding of the spent horses would not delay the coach. In winter, the drivers traded their coaches for sleighs. 

Great buffalo robes and the use of a contrivance known as a “foot stove” protected travelers from wind and cold. The latter device was made of wood and metal combined in such manner that when live coals were placed within, the stove would give off heat for a considerable time. 

Stagecoach service began as road networks were extended from town to town across the state. Numerous stage companies obtained franchises and provided regular service throughout southern Wisconsin and neighboring states. 

Stagecoaches traveled along established roads, including military roads, territorial roads and local roads. As such, the trails, together with the region’s waterways, served as the earliest corridors of travel, communication, trade and warfare. Indian trails often followed earlier trails created by deer and other animals. 

They typically followed easy grades, wound around hills and other obstructions and crossed rivers and streams at shallow crossings. When possible, these trails followed streams and rivers, which provided escape routes and drinking water. In open areas the trails offered views of the surrounding areas so that animals could see if enemies were near. Indians followed these animal routes for the same reasons and European settlers would soon do the same. As the trails became worn from human use, they were marked by Indians for future travelers.

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A broken twig served as a pointing finger; a stroke of the axe or blaze on a tree served as a signal to turn in that direction; a sapling bent across the trail was a warning signal; a stick in the mud meant that there was no bottom; and a feather on a bush or located along the side of the trail meant that there were friends ahead or nearby.

Early fur traders, missionaries and explorers made extensive use of the established network of Indian trails. Settlers arriving in the region during the first decades of the 19th century widened many of the trails into roads suitable for ox carts and wagons. 

By 1829, lead miners had blazed several meandering wagon roads through southern Wisconsin for hauling lead to the Mississippi River and Milwaukee for shipment to eastern markets. 

The established Indian trail between Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Howard (Green Bay) was eventually straightened by settlers and used as a wagon road. Even this improved road was difficult to follow and the trip from Chicago to Green Bay took four days. Although the locations of many of the old trails are known and recorded, remnants of only a few trails remain visible today. 

The first stage service between Milwaukee and Chicago was begun in 1836 by Lathrop and Johnson. 

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The stage was an open lumber wagon and the trip took one-and-one-half days, with an overnight stop in Kenosha. Other companies soon followed, providing both passenger and freight transportation. The majority of stage companies had obtained contracts from the federal government for transporting the U.S. mail in addition to passengers and freight.

As the stagecoach system gained popularity, it expanded into all areas of the state. Stagecoach service remained an important secondary link to more remote areas of the state until the late 19th century, when the expanding railroads offered faster and more comfortable travel to extended areas of the state. 

As railroad interests grew, less attention was paid to Wisconsin’s roads.

Learn more about the history of Williams Bay, join the Williams Bay Historical Society. Email Soplanda, society president, at dsoplanda@williamsbayschools.org.

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