The Last Stand of the Stagecoach
The next time you are stuck in midsummer traffic, crawling your way across the Bourne Bridge and cursing all motorized vehicles, turn up your air conditioning and consider traveling around Cape Cod in a time before modern conveniences.
Relics of the horse-drawn era are embedded in Cape Cod’s history.
From the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, the sole alternative to walking, horseback riding, or a packet sailboat from Cape Cod Bay was the stagecoach—a narrow, springless carriage that jostled up to eight passengers, their baggage, and, often, the daily mail, behind four slow-moving horses. And the teeth-clattering ride on hard seats over rutted sand paths spawned a growth industry of tavern stops, some of which remain fixtures on Cape Cod’s roads today.
In his book Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau devotes an entire chapter to his coach journey through the Cape’s towns during the waning days of the stagecoach. His nostalgic view of the “good humor” of his “free and easy” fellow passengers and the leisurely unfolding of small town scenes as the stagecoach passes from village to village serves as a welcome reminder of a slower-paced Cape Cod.
As this new form of transportation grew in prominence, Keith Car Works of Sagamore reinvented itself into a nationally renowned stagecoach manufacturer. Begun in 1826 as a small blacksmith shop, the company first made sleighs before constructing stagecoaches. Bourne selectman and historian Donald “Jerry” Ellis describes the stagecoaches from Keith Car Works as the “Cadillac of carriages between Yarmouthport, Harwich, and the Lower Cape.”
As the stagecoach became a popular means of transportation, resourceful Cape Codders turned their homes into “stages” or stations offering food, rest, and libations for weary travelers.
David Dimmick’s family home in Cataumet served as one of these taverns from 1795–1910 and was the noontime stop between Sandwich and Falmouth, then an all-day trip as the horses plodded barely above walking speed.
From the graceful, rolling lawn to the broad, painted floorboards and detailed wainscoting inside, nearly everything in the home recalls the days of taverns and stagecoaches. The comfortable “common room” in the middle of the house still serves as hub to all the smaller connecting rooms.
A front parlor was once reserved for formal occasions, “such as visits from the minister,” says Dimmick. Among Dimmick’s prized possessions is the tavern’s 1795 wooden sign painted with an American eagle and 15 stars and stripes. “Tennessee had just entered the Union at that time,” he explains. Although the family’s first tavern house burned down and was rebuilt in 1876, a photo of the
building still hangs in the parlor and includes the original barn, which remains on the property.
Glimpses of history are everywhere, from the wavy glass of the 19th-century windowpanes to the Chinese chestnut trees, offshoots of his grandfather’s original tree, blooming in front of the barn, where 200 years ago, stagecoach horses were stabled and changed.
Dimmick believes his relatives, like most Cape Codders of prior centuries, farmed, fished, sailed, and cobbled together a living by multiple means, including tavern keeping. A back bedroom housed boarders, including the teacher from Cataumet’s one-room schoolhouse. In fact, both Dimmick’s grandfather and great grandfather married the schoolteachers who boarded there.
Everything changed for the stagecoach with the advent of the Cape Cod Railroad in 1848. By the time the tracks extended all the way to Provincetown in 1873, trains were nudging the slow moving stagecoach into the history books, which, according to at least one newspaper editor, is where it belonged. John Crocker, the then-editor of the Provincetown Advocate, heralded the first train to town, writing: “We have long felt our isolation.” He was elated that the train had finally “brought low the hills of sand.”
Taverns located close to the new train depot, like Dimmick’s, survived the transition to rail travel. Dimmick’s grandfather, who inherited the establishment, insisted on calling it a tearoom. “He was a staunch Methodist,” says Dimmick, “even though receipts show they served Madeira wine.” Former taverns dot the Cape’s landscape from the Old King’s Highway to the Upper Cape, including The Old Yarmouth Inn in Yarmouthport, Liberty Hall in South Dennis, and Newcomb Tavern in Sandwich.
Although the stagecoaches did not endure, some enterprising stagecoach owners adapted to the changing landscape and prospered. William Ellis Boyden who had run the Plymouth/Sandwich stagecoach operation for 26 years, repurposed his company to transport goods and mail by stagecoach between the train stations and post offices. The determined entrepreneur, whose beautiful home still stands on Sandwich’s Main Street, also built a block of shops, a casino, and a large stable to house all the old stagecoaches.
With the demise of the stagecoach, Keith Car Works capitalized on Gold Rush fever and the opening of the American West, making heavy-duty covered wagons, shovels, and picks. They would later produce boxcars, becoming the Cape’s largest employer during World War I when, at their peak, they shipped 40,000 freight cars to France. (Perhaps it was prophetic that the last iteration of Keith Car Works was as coffin manufacturer before the rising waters of the new Cape Cod Canal literally put the former factory underwater.)
Standing in the Dimmicks’ 200-year-old barn meticulously restored by craftsman and builder Ben Haywood, the sweet smelling barn with its cedar roof, hay hooks, and perfectly joined floorboards recalls a pastoral era. The prevailing southwest breeze blows through the wide doors, as it did when originally constructed to aid in separating the chaff from the wheat. Dimmick points to the six new support posts and the six originals, complete with teeth marks, perhaps from stagecoach horses long gone.
Dimmick and his wife, Freddie, have put permanent conservation restrictions on their five-acre field through the Bourne Conservation Trust. They have also protected their 15 acres of woods as “current use” conservation land for the whole community.
“You have one opportunity to decide what your property will look like 150 years from now,” Dimmick says. “… it’s not about the monetary value; it’s about saving things for people to enjoy.”
It is also about preserving memories tied to a simpler time, when a trip two towns over meant a long day of travel—but no traffic.
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