When The Coachman Was A Millionare

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The annual report for the 1906 season of the New York-to-Ardsley run of the public coach Pioneer, operated by the Coaching Club of New York, was both dismal and disconcerting. It showed a net deficit of $6,845.98, and while this was a slight improvement over the previous year (when the deficit had soared to $7,309.01), the seemingly inexplicable downward trend of passenger traffic had continued unabated. The amount derived from the sale of seats had declined to an all-time low of $1,863.

Coming at a time when storm signals for the panic of 1907 were already flying, the appearance of figures in red on a balance sheet was profoundly disturbing to the fiscally sensitive gentlemen who served on the club’s executive committee. After hearing the report of the public-coach committee on February 7, 1907, they requested a more detailed report for consideration by the entire membership at a special meeting to be held on February 16. Ominously for the future of public coaching, it was to be held at the Metropolitan Club in New York, where J.P. Morgan the Elder had decreed the fate of so many faltering industrial enterprises over brandy and cigars.

Although there are many still living who can recall the Coaching Club’s annual spring parade in Central Park, when it was the grand finale of the New York social season, coaching itself is now remembered chiefly in terms of a vague association with old English prints of jolly tavern scenes. Public coaching, as it was called when it was a flourishing anachronism in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, is, on the other hand, now quite forgotten. It was one of those curious but artificial customs that suddenly drop into oblivion. Fortunately its story is inseparably linked with the history of the Coaching Club of New York and has been preserved in the club’s annals. They furnish a droll and flickering insight into the lives of that very small group of Americans, born and bred to wealth and leisure, whose influence on the nation’s social and economic life was so disproportionate to their numbers.

The Coaching Club was founded in 1875 by nine gentlemen who sought to emulate the revival in England of coaching as a sport, rather than as the somewhat disagreeable but sole means of getting from one place to another which it had been before there were railroads. The leading spirits were Colonel William Jay and Colonel DeLancey Astor Kane, two gentlemen of independent means and socially impeccable antecedents, who had been regaling their fellow members of the Knickerbocker Club with tales of their exploits in the mother country. Colonel Jay had driven in England with such noted whips as the Duke of Beaufort and the Marquis of Blandford, and his enthusiasm was so great that he bought and shipped to the United States the coach that the Marquis had driven as a public conveyance between London and Dorking. Colonel Kane had been the first American to put a public coach on the road in Great Britain, and when he brought his yellow road coach Tally-ho to New York in 1876, he became the pioneer of public coaching in this country by making a regularly scheduled run between the Hotel Brunswick on Madison Square and Arcularius’ Hotel at Pelham Bridge in Westchester. The Tally-ho and its distinguished driver made such an impression on the general public that forever after all coaches-and-four have joyfully been called “tallyhos” by the unknowing.

In the original rides of the club, its stated purpose was simply “to encourage four-in-hand driving in America.” The use of vehicles drawn by four horses was, of course, no novelty, either as a form of sumptuous display or as a practical means of transportation. Until the 1840s, when the extensive development of inland waterways and the rapid growth of railroads finally made them unprofitable, stagecoaches carrying mail and passengers had long been a feature of American life, and they remained so in the West until much later. But their use had never been developed on a scale comparable to that in England, where the roads and highways were far superior and where there was an abundance of snug, well-run inns and taverns to solace a tired traveller at the end of a hard day’s run. In the heyday of coach travel in England, people set their clocks by the sound of the mail-coach horn, and the lore of stagecoaching was a tradition that became permanently imbedded in English literature.

In New York, soon after the Civil War, it became fashionable to drive four-in-hands to the races at Jerome Park or wherever one could see and be seen by the right people, and there were coaching clubs in the older cities along the Atlantic seaboard both before and after the formation of the Coaching Club. In time, even Brooklyn had a club which, typically enough, staged an annual carnival in Prospect Park. But these were all rather slapdash and informal and not at all what the gentlemen who formed the Coaching Club had in mind. Their objective was to establish standards of excellence in style and technique comparable to those they had observed abroad, and thus to encourage the development of coaching as a sport in America.