- Historic Sites
When The Coachman Was A Millionare
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century you could ride in a handsome coach-and-four from a fashionable hotel on Fifth Avenue to Tuxedo Park or even to Philadelphia. The fare was just three dollars, and your driver might be a Roosevelt or a Vanderbilt.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
The element of sport in four-in-hand driving may seem remarkably obscure to the blasé possessors of automatic gearshifts and 300-horsepower engines. But managing four horses with the proper flourish and éclat required a skill and a degree of experience that made it quite satisfying in itself and that came to be widely recognized as an accomplishment of a high order. There was also the zest, particularly in England, of competing against the records established both by one’s contemporaries and by professional coachmen in the days when the English mail coach was the fastest thing on wheels. For the driver and his passengers, the sense of speed, exhilaration, and freedom obtained on the top of a swaying, rattling road coach at twelve miles an hour far surpassed the confined and impersonal swiftness of trains. It is therefore not surprising that for many years coaching rivalled even fox hunting as the national pastime of England’s upper classes. Although in this country it was more sedately conducted, it had a vast appeal for masculine tastes, if one had the time and the money to indulge in it.
To be eligible for membership in the Coaching Club a candidate had to be able to drive four horses and to own at least a quarter share of a drag. (A drag was virtually identical to a genuine road coach, though it was of somewhat lighter construction, and the two terms are used interchangeably here.) Voting was done by drags and there was no democratic nonsense about it. Four members who owned only one drag among them could be outvoted by two sole owners. Mere ownership of a drag and the ability to drive it, however, were far from being the only qualifications for membership. It was the unwritten and possibly unacknowledged qualifications that were the real test of eligibility. To the outsider it would appear that the great bond that knit Coaching Club men together was simply inherited wealth and the leisure it produced. But the true gentleman of leisure took such matters for granted; his explanation would have gone something like this: “The members of the Coaching Club are few in number and are bound together by unusual ties of close intimacy, loyal friendship, and harmony of tastes and mutual interest.”
The years most fondly cherished in the memories of old Coaching Club men were those from 1876 to 1884, when Madison Square was still the center of fashionable society in New York. It was in those years that the spring parades started and finished their triumphal prance up and down Fifth Avenue at the old Hotel Brunswick on the north side of the square at Twentysixth Street. Delmonico’s restaurant was diagonally across Fifth Avenue, and other resorts of strictly masculine appeal were not far west on Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth streets. The residences of one’s friends and relatives were all within pleasant walking distance, and the club itself was a permanent and honored guest of the exclusive Knickerbocker Club two blocks north on Twenty-eighth Street. The Brunswick, a bird-and-bottle paradise favored by visiting Britishers, was the rendezvous of the equine smart set. It was also the chief terminus of public-coaching routes. Stables lined Twenty-seventh Street between Fifth and Madison avenues behind the Brunswick, and the air was pungent with the aroma of the reign of the horse, still in its full glory. In such a harmonious setting the parades—with their long line of glistening coaches and drags, each graced with a proud coachman and the gay and elegant ladies and gentlemen who were his guests—were closer to jolly neighborhood parties than to the pomp-and-circumstance occasions they were later to become.
But the parades, for all their glittering display of social rank and eminence, were far from uppermost in the hearts of true coaching men as compared with the two other major activities of the club. One was the annual or semiannual trip to the country seats of hospitable members. The other was public coaching. The country trips, over roads still unmarred by the ravages of the automobile, were elegant adventures we can only envy today, and there is no difficulty in understanding their appeal. But at public coaching we must shake our heads in bewilderment, for here was a phenomenon so unique that it deserves a small but special niche in the history of American social customs.