September 1992

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A Stagecoach Town

from Old Line Mail, Stagecoach Days in
Upstate New York, 1790 - 1840


Richard F. Palmer

"Though I have mentioned the lake first, the little town of Canandaigua precedes it, in returning from the west. It is as pretty a village as ever man contrived to build. Every house is surrounded by an ample garden, and at that flowery season, they were half buried in roses.
"It is true these houses are of wood, but they are so neatly painted in such perfect repair and show so well within their leafy setting that it is impossible not to admire them."—Domestic Manners of Americans by Frances Trollope, London, 1832.

Canandaigua, its broad main street lined with elegant homes surrounded by spacious gardens, was the stagecoach center of the "western country" for more than three decades. From here, stage routes radiated in all directions.

As early as 1805 it was the western terminus of a weekly line of stages linking the western frontier settlements with Albany. Two years later, with the improvement of roads, John Metcalf was granted an exclusive franchise to operate stages between Canandaigua and Buffalo.

Canandaigua was an impressive place with its over-powering atmosphere of great wealth, law and learning. The older families with their long New England pedigrees were regarded as aristocrats of fabulous wealth. There was an air about this well-groomed village placing it far above the normal cut of pioneer settlements.

The traveler passing down Main Street in the coach bound for Blossom's Hotel took particular note of the fine Georgian architecture standing back from the curb in well-kept grounds with box-bordered walks. Here and there was a white or buff-colored law office, with a brass knocker on the door.

The courthouse corner was a beehive of lawyers. On summer afternoons the young gentlemen could be seen reading under the trees. Such notable residents as Gideon and Francis Granger (Postmasters-General under Madison in 1812 and Harrison in 1840) might be seen walking down the street in cloak and broadcloth.

Blossom's Hotel on a bluff with a commanding view of the community was a commodious brick structure built in 1815 by Belah D. Coe, one of the "Old Line" proprietors. William Blossom was its proprietor after 1824. Before the railroad came it was the center of travel. It had a peaked roof with great chimneys coming up from the spits and ovens. Through the dark archway the stagecoach would emerge.

Blossom's was the best hostelry in the town, where the notables of the day came to take the stage for Albany or Washington. It reflected the era of ruffled shirts and gold-headed canes. When the nabobs gathered at Blossom's, the harness brasses and coach varnish got an extra rubbing. The horses were a bit fresher and the driver a prouder man to be carrying important personages.

Before the restless horses got away to the music of the stage-horn, there was a shaking of hands and doffing of beaver hats. A bell atop the hotel regulated most of the affairs of the village. The proprietor was a man of fine appearance and his suavity of manners established his wide reputation as a landlord.

Canandaigua's growth as a center of business and legal life is attributed to its being the seat of the affairs of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase. Its fortunes were built on land speculation and day-to-day prosperity was measured on the number of deeds filed in the county clerk's office. It could be said that Canandaigua did a "land office business."

There were eleven attorneys registered in Canandaigua as early as 1810. Preceding Blossom's in prominence as a "stage-house" was Taylor's Hotel, an old rookery built in 1796 as the Dudley Tavern. On July 26, 1810, DeWitt Clinton, one-time Governor of New York State, noted that Taylors was "an indifferent house," alluding to poor accommodations. But even at this early date, Clinton said, "the main street strikes the outlet of the lake at right angles, and has a great many elegant houses."

Upon passing the local coachmaker's shop, Clinton notices a "plain coachee with leather curtains" belonging to Jemima Wilkinson, in for repairs. Clinton said there was a curious inscription on the back, in large letters, V*F. The prophetess, he noted, resided with 30 or 40 followers at Crooked Lake, some 25 miles to the southeast. "She is opposed to war, to oaths, and to marriage; and to her confidential friends she represents herself as Jesus Christ personified in the body of Jemima Wilkinson."

Clinton spent the night with a friend, John C. Spencer, one of the most prominent political figures in the state in his time; who during his illustrious career had served as Secretary of War.

Like so many towns of its day, the number of taverns was out of proportion to its size. There were "by far too many taverns and groceries (as there are every where in such places)," Horatio Gates Spafford noted in his 1824 Gazeteer of the State of New York. Accommodations for travelers, even in such a place with the great profusion of taverns, often left much to be desired; even in elegant Canandaigua.

Elkanah Watson, noted advocate of internal improvements, found that signing his name to the register bought him little more than space on the floor. On an overnight stop in Canandaigua in 1819, Watson found that "The public hotel was bad, the house full, and myself, at the age of sixty, compelled to lie upon a buffalo robe in the third story, in place of a bed."

Watson noted the village contained many splendid residences, "and a wealthy and genteel population. Here resides Gideon Granger, the late Post-Master General, and eminent for his lofty and diversified intellectual endowments."

Stagecoach service in and out of Canandaigua developed rapidly after the War of 1812. A tri-weekly mail stage left the village for the west starting in 1814. Service commenced July 20, 1815, via Geneva and Auburn; went through to Utica in two days. E. B. Dewey was proprietor and seats were obtainable at Coe's Stage House, later Blossom's.

Bi-weekly service to Rochester was inaugruated January 4, 1816, by Samuel Hildreth. By August, 1817 additional service was running between Canandaigua and Rochester via East Bloomfield, Mendon and Pittsford. Oliver Phelps of Ludlowville, near Ithaca, established a line of tri-weekly stages in May, 1818, between Newburgh and Canandaigua; the trip being accomplished in three days.

William Faulkner of Geneva and W. W. Fenlon of Montezuma commenced their daily line between Canandaigua and Montezuma in August, 1822. Coaches would meet the steamboat "Enterprise" at Cayuga, and the Packetboat "Echo" on the Erie Canal at Montezuma; leaving Gooding's Tavern in Canandaigua at 9 A.M.

The growth of the stagecoach business was quite noticeable in the 1820s; contrary to a theory voiced by many historians that packetboats on the Erie Canal made this mode of travel obsolete. In 1826, eighty stages arrived and departed Canandaigua weekly. "The number of these vehicles, for the conveyance of passengers, increases late with astonishing rapidity," reported the Ontario Repository, the village newspaper, on June 28, 1826. The numerous "extras" also were well-patronized.

C. H. Coe & Co. commenced staging on January 1, 1826. The firm consisted of the brothers, Chauncey and Belah D. Coe, and Samuel Greenleaf. The partnership lasted until the death of Chauncey Coe in 1835, and was then purchased by Asa Nowlen of Avon. Thereafter, the firm was known as S. Greenleaf & Co.

An advertisement in the Ontario Repository of May 10, 1826, alludes to the Coe's connection with the "Old Line" proprietors:

Three Daily Lines of Coaches, Leave the regular Mail Coach office, Blossom's Hotel, Canandaigua, for Utica.
The Eagle Coach at 4 A.M.
Mail do 10 do
Pilot, in the afternoon
Also, Two Coaches a day from the above Office, for Buffalo, and two for Rochester
Mail for Buffalo, 2 P.M.
Pilot do Evening
Pilot for Rochester, 4 A. M.
Mail do 2 P. M.
May 10, 1826 C. H. Coe & Co.
Extras furnished for any of the above routes at short notice.

The year 1826 also saw the establishment of a weekly stage between Perry and Fredonia, intersecting a line between Canandaigua and Warsaw. Larence Lynch and others advertised three daily lines of coaches in July, 1826, called the "Union Line" for Utica, Albany and Buffalo; as well as a run to Rochester. Lynch had recently taken over the tavern in Canandaigua "a little south of the new Court-House, and has fitted it up in genteel style. From his acquaintance with the travelling public in Auburn and Geneva, he hopes to receive a liberal share of the patronage."

Tri-weekly service started in May, 1827, from Canandaigua, via Rushville, Naples and Conhocton (later Cohocton), leaving Lynch's Tavern at 5 A. M. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Returning, the stage left Bath, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. At Conhocton, connections could be made for Dansville and Prattsburgh. Still another line operated Monday and Thursday between Canandaigua and Penn Yan. A Canandaigua newpaper editor commented "thus are the public accommodated with stages running in almost every direction, to and from this place."

In July, 1827, service was started from Canandaigua to Moscow, via Bristol, Richmond and Livonia. The line extended on from Perry to Buffalo, three times a week, and Pierpont, Frost & Co. were the proprietors.

Such a multiplicity of stagecoaches converging on Canandaigua simultaneously had its effects on a confused English traveler in the early 1830s: "When we arrived at Canandaigua, there was a great confusion in consequence of four or five stages being at the door at the same time. As they were going in different directions, the passengers were hunting for the agent, and the agent for the passengers. After the bustle had ceased and I had seen my luggage properly stowed away, I observed to the agent, that it would save much trouble and prevent mistakes, if the names of the places were put upon the coaches, as is done in France and England. His reply was the same as I uniformly received on similar occasions: 'very likely, but we have different customs here,' as if I wanted to be informed of the very thing my suggestion implied."

The staging business continued to thrive, with Canandaigua the hub of a vast network of lines, until completion of the Auburn & Rochester Railroad in 1841. Shortly before the demise of the stagecoach, Samuel Greenleaf helped establish a stage driver's reading room and library for his employees.

The rather unique effort was salutary, and characterized a God-send to the drivers. The group was known as the Canandaigua Stage Drivers Library and Reading-room Association. Dues were 12 1/2 cents a month; the proceeds from which were used to purchase books and periodicals. Articles of association were drawn up January 1, 1839, with Steven S. Austin, President; George B. Hotchkiss, Vice-President; and Perry G. Wadhams, Librarian. On June 4, 1840, Mr. Greenleaf presented a handsome whip to the driver who had read the most Bible scripture during the past year.

The palmy days when Blossom's was a famous stagehouse, where crowds gathered to see the arrival of the four-horse post coaches, disappeared with the coming of the railroad. No longer did weary teams, aroused to a "second wind," wheel into position before the tavern door.

The famous hotel burned to the ground on December 23, 1851, and was replaced by a more commodious but less colorful Canandaigua Hotel, the following year. Ironically, this structure also was destroyed by fire on March 29, 1971, with a heavy loss of life.

The heritage that Canandaigua retains from stagecoach days lives in the many fine old residences and buildings so often remarked of in travelers' accounts. They stand in a fine state of preservation.

The old town today above the railroad tracks is like an old man in silk stocking and ruffled shirt, leaning on a gold-headed cane, contemplating the past. He is eminently respectable, an aristocrat to his finger-tips. He is proud to think he has had a hand in the building of a nation.

Reprinted from Old Line Mail, Stagecoach Days in Upstate New York, 1790 - 1840 with permission of the author, Richard F. Palmer
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