When The Coachman Was A Millionare

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Although public coaching was the one true test of a coaching man’s skill and devotion, the number of members who ever actually engaged in it was relatively small, and of these only a few persisted in it year after year. Of the 104 gentlemen who were members of the Coaching Club between 1876 and 1910, only twenty-five could qualify as members of this elite of the elite who took part in public coaching, and of these only six—Rives, Kane, Vanderbilt, Frederic Bronson, James Roosevelt Roosevelt, and George R. Read—put coaches on the road in three or more seasons.

Through the eighteen eighties and on into the early nineties, no club member could have dreamed that public coaching would not continue forever as a proper diversion for gentlemen. Not only did it have intrinsic merits as a sport, but, with its pseudo-commercial trappings, it provided an incomparable means of exhibiting one’s disdain for the vulgarians who took money-making too seriously. In 1893, however, with the onset of a severe depression that lasted into 1897, the winds of change commenced to penetrate, if ever so slightly, even into the Coaching Club. Public coaching, of course, was essentially a social enterprise and was immune to the economic ills common to the nation as a whole. In fact, it had been blithely introduced in 1876 in the midst of one of the worst depressions the United States had ever known, and, as far as the mere financing was concerned, there was no reason for coaching to have been disturbed by the somewhat milder lapse in prosperity during the nineties. The years 1892, 1893, and 1894 had been banner years both for public coaching and for coaching in general, but as the depression dragged on, the temper of the times made coaching men wary of indulging in conspicuous displays of wealth and leisure, particularly as individuals.

Nevertheless, in spite of all adverse influences, the membership as a whole was strongly of the opinion that it was the duty of the club to carry on the traditions of public coaching. If the club itself should sponsor a run, it was believed that the onus of disapproval that might be incurred by individual proprietors would be avoided. Thus, in 1898, after two years in which no public coaches ran out of New York, the expense of putting the club’s own Pioneer on the New York-to-Ardsley run was underwritten by a group of the members.

The Pioneer, laden with elegant ladies and gentlemen, was a great success at first. Its departures and arrivals at the Holland House on Fifth Avenue at Thirtieth Street were scenes of gaiety that stirred memories of the great days on Madison Square. It reached its peak in 1903, when a profit of $3,609.84 provided a festive occasion for the underwriters, but then came the sharp decline from 1904 to 1906, and the call for the special meeting on February 16, 1907.

When the meeting was called to order, the Committee on Public Coaching presented an “elaborate and exhaustive report,” and a discussion ensued. The report made no definite recommendation, but it did recognize the fact that coaching faced ruthless competition from a new quarter. It was clear that the automobile, derided only a few years earlier as a fad, was here to stay. Its speed and power fulfilled one of man’s age-old dreams, and the wondrous pride of ownership it inspired was irresistible. The production of autos had been rising fantastically, even during the prevailing depression: 4,192 had been produced in 1900, 33,500 in 1906, and there was no end in sight. No one could deny that the blasted things were becoming an infernal nuisance on the road, and it did no good to point out that the hard-surfacing of roads beyond city limits would inevitably bankrupt the nation. To some Coaching Club members it was unthinkable that a vehicle it had taken centuries to bring to the pinnacle of perfection—the English mail coach of the early nineteenth century—could so swiftly be replaced by a rickety, ugly, and still unreliable mechanical contraption. But the cold statistics were undeniable. Even Wall Street was beginning to show an interest in automobiles, and several club members sheepishly confessed taking a flyer in auto stocks themselves. Something should be done about it, but no one knew quite what, and the meeting came to a glum end with the decision not to place the Pioneer on the road during 1907. There were only scattered protests, but many members walked home shaking their heads in dismay.

After the club’s withdrawal from public coaching, only young Alfred Vanderbilt had the courage to go it alone, and even he did not keep at it for more than a season longer. In the fall of 1907, he ran his coach Venture over the Pioneer’s old route between the Holland House and the Ardsley Club, and that was the end of genuine public coaching in this country.1

The last spring parade, a pale facsimile of its colorful predecessors, was held in 1910, and the last of the elegant trips to the country seat of a fellow member in the fall of 1916 was an ignoble anticlimax: the return trip was made by train. In the years before and after the First World War a few members maintained their rigs for junketing about the countryside in solitary splendor and for informal meets at Newport, but the war itself and the gaseous tyranny of the mass-produced automobile that followed ended forever any hope of a revival of coaching.