October 20, 2023
Transfer Bus in Front of Jeremiah Twomey Mansion House, Fenelon Falls (now the Cow & Sow)
By Guy Scott
Today, when the term ‘stage coach’ is mentioned, we conjure up an image of the American ‘Wild West.’ In the old movies, a lot of plots involved cowboys and stage coaches. The term ‘shot gun’ for the position next to the driver where a guard armed with a shotgun rode to protect the coach even entered our language from these movies (shotgun being the front passenger seat on a vehicle). But Ontario also had its stage coaches as well, albeit in a different style than the movies (and without the shot gun toting guard!).
In the era before railways, public stage coaches were a common sight in Ontario. They were the ‘luxurious’ way of travelling. The alternate ways were canoe, steam boat, private wagon or buggy, or just walking! As early as the 1820s, there were regular public stage coaches plying the lakeshore route between Toronto and Carrying Place (near Belleville). While there were many entrepreneurs in the business of public stage travel, the best known was William Weller from Cobourg. His lines delivered passengers and goods all over central Ontario. But there were many issues with stage travel. Road conditions were the foremost obstacle. Mud, snow, etc often made the travel by stage from difficult to impossible. The most lucrative part of the stage lines was carrying the Royal Mail. But dealing with the government was always troublesome and changing governments meant changing contracts as politics entered the equation. Weller found the stage coach business not very financially sound and diversified into communication businesses such as telegraphs and railways. Oddly enough, he went bankrupt as his railway venture failed. Ironically, it was the railway that also crushed the stage coach businesses as well.
The Bobcaygeon Road had its own stage coach line in the days before the railway. McGunigles Stage left Bobcaygeon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for Minden and points north. They made the return journey every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Yes, it took a whole day to travel between Bobcaygeon and Minden! That is weather and road conditions permitting. McGunigles had the Royal Mail contract as well, so they could use the term ‘Royal Mail’ in their ads to inject a touch of class.
The stage coach ride was not always the easiest, most pleasant or most economical way of travel to Kinmount. The Bobcaygeon Road was notorious for its poor condition. Mud often made the spring and fall journeys a nightmare. If the stage got stuck, passengers were expected to ‘help out’ getting the coach unstuck. Often the daily trip turned into a several day odyssey. Thank heavens there were inns at regular (usually 5 mile) intervals to accommodate the stranded stage passengers. Winter was another story. Drifting snow blocked the road completely: often for months. The stages could be equipped with sleigh runners, but many times that didn’t help.
In fact, regular travellers in good physical shape, with no baggage preferred to walk! Alexander Niven of Haliburton often travelled south on business. His diaries quite clearly state he preferred to walk from Haliburton to Bobcaygeon. His travels took him 2 days with Kinmount being the goal of each day’s walk; roughly halfway between the two destinations. No wonder there were so many hotels in Kinmount. Nevertheless, the stage was the only practical mode of transport for many travellers from the head of steam boat travel in Bobcaygeon to points north along the Bobcaygeon Road. The lumbermen did run their own cadge wagons up and down the Road to supply the many shanties up north. New settlers often hired out wagons or sleighs or had their own. Businesses also used private cadge teams; but for the solo passenger or visitor, the public stage coach line was the most viable option.
There were many types of stage coaches. The best ones were the enclosed coaches of the move type. While the driver was exposed (no shot gun needed here!), the passengers rode inside the coach. Baggage was strapped to the roof, exposed to the weather. But often the stage coaches were not so elaborate. On the smaller routes, the coach was often just an open 2 seat wagon. Sometimes they had a foldable roof canopy, but rarely sides. We can all image days when the weather would have made life miserable in or on the coach.
The heyday of the Royal Mail Stage was in the 1860s and 1870s. When the railway reached Kinmount, the stage business was finished. The railway was reliable (no weather delays), comfortable (no outside riding), quick (Lindsay to Haliburton in a few hours) and could carry tons of freight. But the railway bypassed the communities on the Bobcaygeon Road, except Kinmount. The inns along the road quickly disappeared. Kinmount boomed and all travel and freight was routed through Kinmount or the new whistle stop at Rettie’s Station (now Burnt River). The days of the stage coach in Kinmount was over.
But the stage coach itself was not quite finished yet. Those communities who were not on the rail line were forced to use local transport. A regular stage coach service was operated from Minden to the nearest rail station at Gelert (originally called Minden Station). The Royal Mail still had to be carried to the dispersed post offices in various settlements. Numerous wagons, buggies would gather at the railway station to complete the cycle of transportation until the era of the motor car arrived in the 1920s.