Delays and dangers during Tennessee’s stagecoach era

Published 8:36 am Wednesday, January 15, 2020

My fifth-grade son complains about long trips in our SUV. He gets bored and says he has nothing to do.
When other parents hear such complaints from their children, they probably tell their kids how much worse things were in the days of station wagons and no air conditioning. When my son complains, I tell him about how much worse things were in the era of the stagecoach.
Tennessee’s first stagecoach road went from Abingdon, Va., to Knoxville, via Blountville, Kingsport, Rogersville and Rutledge. Most of East Tennessee’s early settlers migrated to Tennessee using this road. Stagecoaches that traveled along it brought mail and other commodities to and from Knoxville. Today there are still some stagecoach inn buildings along this route, such as Blountville’s Old Deery Inn, Kingsport’s Netherland Inn and Rogersville’s Hale Springs Inn.
People might get sentimental about the idea of stagecoach travel, but it would interfere with our modern sense of urgency. Today, depending on traffic, it takes as little as 45 minutes to drive from Nashville to Murfreesboro and about three hours to drive from Murfreesboro to Knoxville. In 1817, James Eddington had a stagecoach business which ran between those two cities. According to advertisements (which were probably optimistic), he claimed that it only took 19 hours to get from Nashville to Murfreesboro and another three days to get to Knoxville.
Three years later, stagecoach operator Ulysses Spalding boasted that his passengers could get from Nashville to McMinnville in only 21 hours.
Like many modern-day bus services, stagecoaches usually stopped at every town along the way. In 1829, a stagecoach left Knoxville and stopped in Maryville, Tillico (now Madisonville), Athens, Washington (in Rhea County), Pikeville, Jasper and Bellefont, en route to Huntsville, Ala. The coach left Knoxville every Friday at 1 p.m. and arrived at 11 a.m. on the following Friday!
At about that time, the Memphis to Nashville stagecoach journey took three and a half days and stopped in Raleigh (formerly the seat of Shelby County), Somerville, Bolivar, Jackson, Huntington, Reynoldsburgh and Charlotte.
According to advertisements, the Memphis to Nashville stagecoach was “fitted up in superior style.” However, we can only imagine how bumpy, cold, uncomfortable, crowded and dangerous the stagecoach would have been compared to the smooth, climate-controlled rides of today. Every sharp curve in the road, creek, and boulder was a potential hazard to travel. On those occasions when a stagecoach broke down — when the axle or a wheel broke, for instance — everyone (including passengers) would have gotten to pitch in.
No one knows just how dangerous stage travel was compared to what we are used to today. However, here are some incidents that might give you some idea: In 1823, a coach was crossing Nashville’s Mill Creek when one of the horses fell and drowned. The entire stagecoach was washed down river, and the passengers only survived by clinging to trees.
Nine years later, a stagecoach overturned in Montgomery County’s Red River. The three passengers escaped unharmed, but they had to swim for it.
By 1850, the Southwestern Stage station in Nashville was the closest thing to Grand Central Station that Tennessee had at the time. Coaches left as early as 4 a.m. and as late as 8 p.m., with regular service to Memphis, Louisville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Huntsville and Tuscumbia.
It was about that time that railroads came to Tennessee, reducing dramatically the time it took to travel from one place to another and wiping out most stagecoach services in the process.
In any case, these are some of the things that I tell my son when he complains about long drives. It does give him something else to complain about, such as his dad boring him with stories of Tennessee history.
(Carey is the founder and executive director of

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