Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



Stagecoaches were built as early as 1732, a century before steam railroad cars were operating. The first regular route was established between Albany, New York City, and Philadelphia in 1785. Mail was the most important commodity carried by stagecoaches. Before train service, coaches carried mail, passengers and a variety of freight. Travel was slow and schedules were not often reliable. Several types of coaches included small two-horse units known as “mudwagons.” These “hacks” and “jerkies,” swung on leather thorough-braces, were extremely inferior and were subject to many accidents. Large 9-passenger vehicles pulled by four or six horses were reserved for routes where passenger and freight demands were greatest.

Before 1800, stagecoaches were in operation as far west as Ohio, reached Kentucky in the 1820s, Illinois in 1831, and Wisconsin Territory in 1836. On November 1, 1837 the first route was established in the territory: a two-horse stage running south between Burlington and St. Francisville, MO. Here it connected with the larger St. Louis-Galena Stage Line.

Stagecoaches were scheduled to leave Burlington on Sundays and Thursdays at 4 am, passing through Gibson’s Ferry, Ft. Madison, Ft. Des Moines and Montrose, and reaching St. Francisville the same day at 10 pm, taking 18 hours to travel 45 miles.

In 1838 several more lines were added. The first advance into Van Buren County was made on November 11, 1840 when a semi-weekly route began service from Ft. Madison to Benton’s Port through Farmington. In 1841, weekly mail was carried by coach from Iowa City to Keosauqua via Washington, Trenton, Mt. Pleasant and Salem.

Prior to this, all mail was carried by horseback. John Fairman made trips for mail on horseback from Van Buren (Keosauqua) to St. Francisville as early as 1836, and by 1838 regular routes had been established to points as far west as Iowaville.

Proprietors of the early lines that ventured into Wisconsin Territory were not very concerned about efficiency or their service to the public. This changed in 1842 as the new form of proprietors in Iowa Territory attempted to serve all communities on a regular basis. In 1849 the route between Keokuk and Des Moines took six days to complete. By this time, most Van Buren towns were on a service route. Included were Birmingham, Winchester, Bonaparte, Keosauqua, Bentonsport, Kilbourne, Farmington, Portland and Iowaville. By the late 1840s there was stiff criticism of the stagecoaches because charges were expensive, and Iowa people demanded better service.


1842: Keokuk to Burlington $3.00 per person

1854: Keokuk to Des Moines $10.00 per person

Inefficient service at high cost proved a need for bringing the railroads across the Mississippi. Railroads were much faster, could handle far more freight, operated more competently, and were better at keeping schedules.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick