A 19th Century Shaker and Mover - By John G. Shragge
This article is reproduced with the author's kind permission. Some format changes have been made but otherwise the article is unchanged. The original has since gone off-line. In 3 parts.
For almost 25 years, William (Bill) Weller's stage coaches were an everyday part of the landscape on the main roads in old Ontario. He was one of the shakers and movers of his time -- the shaking from the terrible roads, and the moving part from his line of business.
Born in Vermont and trained as a lawyer, Weller emigrated to Upper Canada with his wife Mercy in the early 1820s. He was a quick study and ambitious. After settling in the Village of Cobourg, he gravitated into a successful career in land speculation like many others of his time.
By the early 1830s he bought into a number of stage coach lines. But the key to Weller's business success was securing a number of lucrative government mail contracts. He managed to hold on to most of them through the rough and tumble of Upper Canadian politics and freebooting capitalism for more than 20 years -- and in the process becoming Ontario's best stage coach entrepreneur. Running a scheduled stage coach service in the 1830s must been challenging -- for the roads were a miserable mess of rough corduroy, mud and pitch holes for most the year and some rivers weren't bridged.
Equally, passengers had to endure the crashing and bruising ride of the leather strap-sprung coaches as they lurched from one sinkhole to another. Even so, Weller became a joint proprietor of the York-Kingston stage route in December, 1829 and by June 1830 had established his first stage coach line from York to Prescott.
Weller's "Royal Mail Line" stages as they came to be called, managed to maintain reliable service. This demanded detailed organization and management as post depots had to be maintained every 15 miles with fresh horses.
In an early advertisement, Bill Weller assured his clients that the stages would leave "...York every Monday and Thursday at 4 a.m. arriving at Carrying Place in Prince Edward County in the evening..." Passengers were to be met by the steamboat Sir James Kempt (at 4 a.m.) which transported them the rest of the way arriving in Prescott before nightfall. The fare for the total route was £2 10s.
Weller emphasized that "...the road (was) being very much repaired and the line fitted up with good horses, new carriages and careful drivers".
Hundreds of accounts penned by early travelers describe the travails of stage travel. Adam Fergusson, a rather portly gentleman, left a written account about a one-day stage coach trip from Cornwall to Prescott in 1831 that became into a two-day trip. Soon after leaving Cornwall, the splinter bar gave way on the coach and the passengers had to wait for someone to come out to repair the damaged rig. Further into the trip the coach became mired in the mud:
"...In one very bad clay hole with a steep bank, our machine fairly stuck fast and was all but upset...the coachman was obliged to repair to a neighbouring farm for a team of oxen, while some of the party provided themselves, sans ceremonie, with stakes from the adjoining fence, to be ready with their aid. In due time the oxen arrived, the body of the carriage was lifted off the frame and the wheels extricated, the whole affair being transacted without any symptoms of bad humour ... ".
Fergusson's main complaint was that the coach was not equipped with a door and that it was difficult for a man of his dimensions to climb in and out through the window.