May 1990

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John Magee

and the Southern Tier Stage Lines


James D. Folts, Jr.

During the 1820s and '30s John Magee of Bath built a network of stagecoach lines linking Steuben County and the western Finger Lakes region to the outside world. Magee was the leader in the enterprise, but he had partners in Owego, Elmira, Penn Yan, Cohocton, Rochester, and other places. These men pooled their resources to buy coaches and horses, hire drivers, lease barns, and help run the stage lines. John Magee also had a bigger partner—the U. S. Post Office Department. Magee won numerous contracts for carrying the mail, which helped make his stagecoach lines profitable.

Stage lines usually developed out of mail routes. The first post rider came to Steuben County in 1793, when Pulteney land agent Charles Williamson arranged for a weekly mail from Reading, Pennsylvania, to Williamsburgh on the Genesee River. The first post office in Steuben County was established at Bath in 1800. A post rider came up once a week from Athens, Pennsylvania. From Bath he continued north to Canandaigua by way of Prattsburgh. Another post route was opened in 1806 connecting Bath, Upper Canisteo, Arkport, Dansville, Geneseo, and Avon. During the War of 1812 an express rider followed this route carrying dispatches between U. S. Army headquarters at Fort Niagara and Washington, D. C. The trip was made in the remarkable time of four days and eighteen hours. One of the riders was a young man named John Magee. He had served in the New York militia on the Niagara Frontier during the early part of the war, and was twice taken prisoner by the British. (The first time he was exchanged; the second time he escaped.)

Stage lines began to develop in the Southern Tier even before the War of 1812. About 1810 Conrad Teeter got a contract to carry the mail once a week from Sunbury, Pennsylvania, to Painted Post, in a one-horse wagon. He soon was using a covered wagon drawn by two horses. Teeter weighed over 300 pounds, and was long remembered for his high spirits and tall tales. In a rearrangement of mail routes in 1817 Stephen B. Leonard of Owego got the contract for carrying the mail between Owego and Bath. Leonard set up a stage line between the two villages, using a two-seat lumber wagon drawn by a pair of horses. Similar service from Bath to Angelica and Geneva began about the same time.

In 1820 John Magee won the contracts for transporting the mail from Painted Post to Avon and from Bath to Olean, for $840 a year. S. B. Leonard continued to run the twice-weekly stage line from Owego to Bath, probably in partnership with Magee. In 1825 Magee became the principal proprietor and expanded service: he continued the Bath-Owego run, and added twice-weekly stage service from Bath to Geneva, Olean, and Rochester. The newspaper advertisments stated that "Good Horses, new Coaches, and careful, attentive Drivers are employed." the coaches were built in Troy, New York, and were egg-shaped and "resplendent with plush and paint."

At first the stage route north from Bath ran by way of Howard, Hornellsville, and Dansville, but in May 1827 the route was shifted to the Conhocton Valley. The line branched at Cohocton. The main coach went on to Rochester, while another one went to Canandaigua by way of Naples and Rushville. For several years the line to Canandaigua connected at Naples during the warm months with the side-wheel steamship "Lady of the Lake," which completed the trip to Canandaigua. Constant Cook of Cohocton and Calvin Blood of Naples, tavern owners in those places, were associated with John Magee in running the Canandaigua line. A proud moment came in April 1830, when the newspapers announced the start of daily stagecoach service from Owego through Elmira, Bath, Cohocton, Dansville, Geneseo, and Avon to Rochester.

Operations also extended southward. In 1827 John Magee joined with others in Pennsylvania to start a mail and stage line from Painted Post to Washigton by way of Williamsport and Harrisburgh. The coaches lumbering over the Laurel Mountain and along the rocky Susquehanna during the years 1827-30 carried their owner to the halls of Congress. John Magee had already served four years as Steuben County sheriff. In November 1826 he was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives. Magee turned over his share in the mail and stage business to his brother Thomas Jefferson Magee. However, John Magee was appointed a member of the House Post-Office and Post-Road Committee, which furnished him the opportunity to look after his own interests. The Congressman obligingly furnished the editor of the Bath Farmer's Advocate with a long list of new post rider routes established in Steuben County during his term of office.

As it happened, most of the contracts for these routes were won by his brother T. J. Magee.

The establishment of new post routes and offices was a usual means of dispensing political favors. But Magee & Company were extraordinarily successful in gathering the bounty for themselves. During the years 1829-32 they held 27 mail contracts totalling over $10,000. During the rest of the 1830s their contracts amounted to well over $20,000 a year, a figure surpassed in New York State only by the contracts for the great Albany-Buffalo line. T. J. Magee's mail routes included not only the main stagecoach runs, but also a large number of feeder lines, served by post riders. However, in 1837 the partners decided not to bid seriously on the weekly horse and rider routes; the small profits were not worth the effort. The main stagecoach routes must have been profitable, for they had a monopoly of the U.S. Mail and only sporadic competition from other stage lines. The stockholders in Magee's stage lines met every three months to calculate the mileage run, pay the bills, and split the profits.

Travelling by stagecoach was probably quite pleasant, if the weather was good and the trip short. Long journeys could be hard. Stagecoaches were small and cramped, seating nine persons inside and a few more on the roof. Coaches were also slow. On the main route from Bath to Rochester, Magee's coaches averaged five or six miles per hour including stops in good weather. They had to run all night to make the trip in the scheduled twenty hours. Horses were changed every twelve or fifteen miles. In winter the wheels were removed and replaced with sleigh runners, and the schedules lengthened by many hours. Delays and missed connections were frequent, especially in winter. Mail contractors had to pay fines every time they failed to move the mail according to schedule. Stagecoach fares were high. In 1833 a one-way ticket from Bath to Rochester cost $3.25, which was three days' good wages for a working man.

After building a stagecoach empire, John Magee looked to even bigger challenges. In 1831 he became the first president of the Steuben County Bank in Bath. In 1835 he dissolved his partnership with his brother T. J. Magee, who took over the stage lines and mail contracts. In 1840 John Magee and his former stageline partner Constant Cook bid for and got the contract for building the roadbed of the Erie Railroad for forty miles west of Hornellsville. T. J. Magee got out of the stageline business in 1841, probably because he expected that the "iron horse" would soon be hauling passengers and mail across the Southern Tier. The Erie's bankruptcy dashed this hope. In the later 1840s John Magee and Constant Cook won new contracts for building the railroad west from Binghampton. The profits from this immense construction project made both men millionaires. But John Magee got his start in business by running stagecoach lines, and for that accomplishment he is still best known today.

© 1990, James D. Folts, Jr.


This article is based mainly on newspaper advertisments, Badger & Porter's Stage Register, and published reports of U.S. Mail contracts. See also Richard F. Palmer, The "Old Line Mail": Stagecoach Days in Upstate New York [Lakemont: 1977]; Oliver W. Holmes, "The Stage-Coarch Business in the Hudson Valley," New York History, 12, [1931], 231-56; and Oliver W.. Holmes and Peter T. Rohrbach, Stagecoach East: Stagecoach Days in the East from the Colonial Period to the Civil War [Washington: 1983].
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