- 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 horses, once acquired, had to be trained and paired in teams. This took time and patience and skill, and although stable managers and grooms did the drudgery, their masters played an active role in the delicate task of blending the good and bad qualities of individual horses into well-matched teams for the road. While the horses were being trained, the stages for changing horses would be determined and stables at each stage would be engaged. Additional grooms might have to be hired to assist with the changes, and if they had had no previous experience in the intricacies of handling road horses so as to effect the change as swiftly as possible, the grooms too would have to be trained; a botched change could bring an otherwise excellent run to calamitous ruin. Then arrangements had to be made with the hotel chosen as the point of departure to handle the booking of seats; if the destination was a club, an agreement had to be reached extending guest privileges to the passengers for luncheon during the stopover. The latter made it imperative that the passengers should be presentable. Since fares were relatively modest and since, theoretically at least, anyone could book a seat, it seems to have been the duty of the booking clerks to discourage undesirable patrons. For the most part, the passengers were friends of the coachman or of other members of the club, or occasionally they were parvenus trying to become friends.
Mr. Rives, in his history at least, spoke disparagingly of only one of his passengers, to whom he referred as “a Mr. Y.” Mr. Y had booked the entire coach for a party of his friends, but his booking had been disputed by Mr. X, who happened to be a friend of Mr. Rives. There was quite a contretemps in the lobby of the Holland House until Mr. Rives himself arrived on the scene, and, after weighing the claims of the disputants with judicial calm, reluctantly ruled in favor of Mr. Y. When the horn sounded the time of departure, however, and Mr. Y’s party was safely ensconced on the coach, Mr. Y himself was still in the hotel making a phone call. Mr. Rives, naturally, pulled away on the dot, and poor Mr. Y was left fuming on the curb. He tried in vain to overtake the coach in a hansom cab, and then, by virtue of his authority as parks commissioner, ordered a mounted policeman to stop Mr. Rives. But the authority of being Reginald W. Rives, Esq., a member of the Coaching Club, took precedence over mere civic officialdom, and Rives refused to pull up until he had reached the first scheduled stop at the Fifty-ninth Street entrance to Central Park. As Mr. Y finally clambered aboard, trembling with rage and embarrassment, he shook a finger at Mr. Rives and said, “You wouldn’t do that to one of your friends.” “Please get up, and we will be off again,” Mr. Rives replied rather curtly. He refrained from pointing out that one of his friends would have known better than to have expected such a departure from good form. It was a somber drive, and on the return trip Mr. Rives added a final touch to Mr. Y’s humiliation by permitting a servant to ride in the place of honor on the box beside him.
The final fillip to the months of preparation, and the one stamping the whole endeavor with the seal of genuine entrepreneurship, came with the printing of a time-card showing the fares, the amount of baggage carried free, and the precise minute of arrival and departure at the stages and stopping points along the route. Invariably the time-card bore the stern admonition, “Passengers are cautioned to be on time.” This was no idle gesture. “Making one’s time” to the second was the special pride of public coachmen, and no delays were permitted nor any passenger waited for. Reginald Rives himself, in his history, boasted that “It is my record during the seven seasons in which I carried paid passengers over more than 10,000 miles on the road between the Holland House and the Ardsley Club that I had never been more than 45 seconds late at either end of the road.”
Favorite runs were to the Westchester Country Club, then at Pelham, to the Getty House in Yonkers, and to the Ardsley Club at Ardsley, overlooking the Hudson. This last run, a distance of twenty-six miles, timed for two and a half hours each way with a three-hour stopover, was about the longest that could be done comfortably in one day, leaving ample time for conviviality and a leisurely luncheon before the trip back. The fare was $3 one way, $5 for the round trip—and the entire coach, seating twelve exclusive of the coachman and the guard, could be booked for $60. (The seats inside were not for sale. Though preferred by sensible folk in the days when stagecoaches were a necessity, the inside seats were now reserved for the road men who supervised the stages and for an occasional lady’s maid.) There were longer runs made by going down one day and up the next. The longest regularly scheduled run ever made by public coach in America was one made in 1894 between the old Waldorf Hotel in New York and the Stratford in Philadelphia, a distance of over one hundred miles. Sponsored jointly by several members of the club and by a group of Philadelphians, it was also noteworthy as the only run in which double coaches—i.e., coaches running in opposite directions on the same day—were used. It followed the route of old U.S. 1 and was a twelve-hour trip that included luncheon at the University Hotel in Princeton.