The iconic sound of the horn came across the Iowa prairie — two notes held and then torn apart by the wind. Then, in the distance, an ornate carriage pulled by four plunging horses came into view.
The citizens of the small community of Andrew rushed toward the Butterfield Tavern to await the arrival of the stage coach and its popular driver — Ansel Briggs. Briggs called Andrew home and was bringing the mail, passengers and news of the day to the isolated village.
It was 1846 and the stage coach lines radiating out of Burlington linked much of Iowa because Burlington had taken advantage of its political connections to establish itself as the hub of the fledgling stage coach routes.
A few years earlier, in 1837, there were few routes and they included a twice weekly run to St. Francisville, Missouri, where the mail from the east was waiting. The 45-mile distance was covered in a grueling 18 hour run by way of Gibson’s Ferry, Fort Madison and Fort Des Moines at the site of today’s Montrose. There was also a weekly 30-mile trip west to Mount Pleasant that took 16 hours and a third route that occasionally ran the 81 miles to Davenport in a mere 37 hours.
Roads were little more an imaginative mark on a map while the reality was a rough path through bog and forest that was marked by blazes on trees while trails across the open prairie were indicated by stakes set 100 yards apart.
Muddy sloughs, called desponds, and snow and cold made travel hazardous and unattractive. Three and a half miles an hour was considered a good average speed for the coach and every 10 or 15 miles a station was placed where the tired team was exchanged for four fresh horses.
The better stage coach lines used the Concord coach — a large oval-bodied affair, flat on top with a triangular “boot” in the rear. It carried nine passengers and the body was suspended on strips of leather attached to bolsters that allowed the coach to swing wildly once the carriage had gathered speed.
It took a special breed of man to battle such a rig through the Iowa countryside. Stagecoach drivers soon assumed a glamorous status and young men aspired to reach this exalted profession.
Eugene Ware remembered during the 1850s he and his young friends felt there were only three jobs that had any “style” — the riverboat gambler, the riverboat pilot and the stage driver.
“The driver always boarded at a first-class hotel,” Ware was to write, “and he wore the finest, high-heeled calfskin boots, which fitted him so tightly as to as to give him pains. He had 'doeskin' pantaloons and large gauntlet gloves which came up to his elbows and a whip which took several years of practice to learn the handling.”
Ansel Briggs was among the most popular of these stagecoach drivers, and his Concord coach ran between Burlington and Davenport. In those days, Burlington was the territorial capital, and during his frequent stays in the town, Briggs expressed political opinions and impressed the citizens of the territory’s most populous town.
On that day in 1846 when Briggs pulled into the tavern at Andrew, he was surprised to find a couple of friends waiting for him with an invitation to join them at the bar. But when Briggs walked through the door he was startled to find the entire own gathered to give him “three cheers and a rouser.”
A glass of whiskey was placed in his hands and then he was raised by the crowd to stand on a table. There he was informed he had just been elected the first governor of Iowa and a speech was in order. Briggs was not much of a speaker and not certain he wanted the job of governor. But he rose to the occasion.
“My friends, having been called by my fellow citizens to the office of governor of the State of Iowa, I enter upon its duties hoping that you will extend to me your aid and indulgence,” he said. Briggs then sat down, finishing one of the shortest speeches an Iowa governor ever made.
Briggs never moved to the new state capital at Iowa City but chose to commute the 80 miles to Andrew and usually preferred to handle the reins of the big Concord by himself. He occasionally remarked that he felt the job of governor was somewhat of a come-down from his previous job.
After four years, Briggs left politics. By then the railroads had begun to cut their way across the Iowa prairie and the stagecoach and their glamorous drivers were relegated to history.