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When The Coachman Was A Millionare

March 2024
17min read

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.

The annual report for the 1906 season of the New York-to-Ardsley run of the public coach Pioneer, operated by the Coaching Club of New York, was both dismal and disconcerting. It showed a net deficit of $6,845.98, and while this was a slight improvement over the previous year (when the deficit had soared to $7,309.01), the seemingly inexplicable downward trend of passenger traffic had continued unabated. The amount derived from the sale of seats had declined to an all-time low of $1,863.

Coming at a time when storm signals for the panic of 1907 were already flying, the appearance of figures in red on a balance sheet was profoundly disturbing to the fiscally sensitive gentlemen who served on the club’s executive committee. After hearing the report of the public-coach committee on February 7, 1907, they requested a more detailed report for consideration by the entire membership at a special meeting to be held on February 16. Ominously for the future of public coaching, it was to be held at the Metropolitan Club in New York, where J.P. Morgan the Elder had decreed the fate of so many faltering industrial enterprises over brandy and cigars.

Although there are many still living who can recall the Coaching Club’s annual spring parade in Central Park, when it was the grand finale of the New York social season, coaching itself is now remembered chiefly in terms of a vague association with old English prints of jolly tavern scenes. Public coaching, as it was called when it was a flourishing anachronism in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, is, on the other hand, now quite forgotten. It was one of those curious but artificial customs that suddenly drop into oblivion. Fortunately its story is inseparably linked with the history of the Coaching Club of New York and has been preserved in the club’s annals. They furnish a droll and flickering insight into the lives of that very small group of Americans, born and bred to wealth and leisure, whose influence on the nation’s social and economic life was so disproportionate to their numbers.

The Coaching Club was founded in 1875 by nine gentlemen who sought to emulate the revival in England of coaching as a sport, rather than as the somewhat disagreeable but sole means of getting from one place to another which it had been before there were railroads. The leading spirits were Colonel William Jay and Colonel DeLancey Astor Kane, two gentlemen of independent means and socially impeccable antecedents, who had been regaling their fellow members of the Knickerbocker Club with tales of their exploits in the mother country. Colonel Jay had driven in England with such noted whips as the Duke of Beaufort and the Marquis of Blandford, and his enthusiasm was so great that he bought and shipped to the United States the coach that the Marquis had driven as a public conveyance between London and Dorking. Colonel Kane had been the first American to put a public coach on the road in Great Britain, and when he brought his yellow road coach Tally-ho to New York in 1876, he became the pioneer of public coaching in this country by making a regularly scheduled run between the Hotel Brunswick on Madison Square and Arcularius’ Hotel at Pelham Bridge in Westchester. The Tally-ho and its distinguished driver made such an impression on the general public that forever after all coaches-and-four have joyfully been called “tallyhos” by the unknowing.

In the original rides of the club, its stated purpose was simply “to encourage four-in-hand driving in America.” The use of vehicles drawn by four horses was, of course, no novelty, either as a form of sumptuous display or as a practical means of transportation. Until the 1840s, when the extensive development of inland waterways and the rapid growth of railroads finally made them unprofitable, stagecoaches carrying mail and passengers had long been a feature of American life, and they remained so in the West until much later. But their use had never been developed on a scale comparable to that in England, where the roads and highways were far superior and where there was an abundance of snug, well-run inns and taverns to solace a tired traveller at the end of a hard day’s run. In the heyday of coach travel in England, people set their clocks by the sound of the mail-coach horn, and the lore of stagecoaching was a tradition that became permanently imbedded in English literature.

In New York, soon after the Civil War, it became fashionable to drive four-in-hands to the races at Jerome Park or wherever one could see and be seen by the right people, and there were coaching clubs in the older cities along the Atlantic seaboard both before and after the formation of the Coaching Club. In time, even Brooklyn had a club which, typically enough, staged an annual carnival in Prospect Park. But these were all rather slapdash and informal and not at all what the gentlemen who formed the Coaching Club had in mind. Their objective was to establish standards of excellence in style and technique comparable to those they had observed abroad, and thus to encourage the development of coaching as a sport in America.

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.

Briefly, public coaching meant simply this: a gentleman or a group of gentlemen, of sufficient wealth and ample leisure, would undertake to drive a coach on a regular schedule over a specified route, carrying passengers who had paid a fare. Anyone, theoretically at least, could reserve a seat on such a coach, and by paying fifty cents or a dollar extra, he could ride on the box beside the coachman, who might be DeLancey Astor Kane or Reginald Rives or even, if he were very lucky, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. It may be too much to expect to fathom why the Messrs. Kane, Rives, and Vanderbilt should have derived pleasure from such employment, but it is indisputable that they did. Were they, perhaps, classic examples of those punctilious gentlemen, blessed with the dignity and self-importance arising from the possession of wealth, whose conspicuous leisure was expressed in what Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class termed “acts of substantial futility"? Perhaps. But no theory can account for the twinkle in Reg Rives’s eyes as he posed for a picture, whip in hand and in full coaching regalia, nor even for his humble boast that “It was my good fortune, from the fact that I was not in business, to get a good deal more driving than my fellow committee men.” And it certainly does not account for Alfred Vanderbilt’s devotion to public coaching, which was unalloyed by any conceivable motives of social or pecuniary advantage. Mr. Vanderbilt was young and handsome, charming and unassuming, and yet he devoted a good part of his short life to driving coaches for hire. It may be wiser to accept such men and their zeal for public coaching in the simple terms they themselves would have used and understood.

In 1900, a year after Professor Veblen’s now famous work appeared, Fairman Rogers, a member of the club since 1876, published A Manual of Coaching, the definitive work on the subject in America. Mr. Rogers’ magnum opus, a labor of love brimming with erudite details painstakingly gathered over many years, would undoubtedly have been classified as a prime example of “substantial futility” by Professor Veblen. It is unlikely, however, that Mr. Rogers, or any of his fellow members for that matter, had ever heard of Professor Veblen; if they had, they would not have been impressed in the slightest. Writing in a bland, matter-of-fact style that somehow manages to convey an air of almost pontifical condescension, Mr. Rogers explained the lure of public coaching as a sport for gentlemen of his class:

Driving a coach on the road between fixed points, according to a regular time-table, with changes of horses, in imitation of old-fashioned business coaching, has a great fascination for the coaching man, and with good reason. It bears much the same relation to taking an afternoon drive at one’s leisure that playing an instrument in an orchestra bears to practising solos at home. … A coachman never detects how little he knows until he undertakes to drive a fast road-coach. … In an afternoon drive in the park, if the reins are not quite right, if one horse pulls, if any one of many inaccuracies troubles the coachman, he can stop, try experiments, and re-arrange matters, and as he has no time to keep, he is not afraid of losing any; but on a fast road-coach it is very different; it is usually all that the teams can do to get over their ground in the time allotted; there is no opportunity to slow down in order to cool a fretful leader; if he will gallop, he has to gallop, or else to be handled with such skill as to bring him down to a trot without materially diminishing the pace; for minutes are precious. … Horses have to be shifted from one stage to another to make the best use of them or to counteract their peculiarities. Some horses go best in town, others in the country, a bad wheeler may make a good leader, changing sides may turn a troublesome horse into a good one, and all these matters are interesting and require judgment on the part of the coachman. …

The driving itself, however, was only one of the joys of putting a coach on the road. As Reginald Rives pointed out, in a history of the club published in 1935, the fun commenced with the purchasing of the horses. The accepted rule, for a fast coach running out and back—or “down and up” in proper coaching usage—on the same day, was that there should be a horse to each mile of road. For a run of thirty miles, for instance, broken into six stages five miles apart, thirty horses would be required so as to have six teams plus one rest horse for each team. The economics peculiar to public coaching as a simulated commercial enterprise dictated the use of new horses each year and their sale, usually at a handsome profit, at the end of the season. The profit from the sale of these meticulously trained and matched animals was a matter of great pride, and on the rare occasions when the profit was sufficient so that a dividend could be declared on the whole operation, there was great rejoicing. Thus each February the gentlemen who planned to put a coach on the road during the coming season would brave the rigors of winter in Maine, where the proper type of horse was then to be obtained, to match wits with the horse dealers who lay eagerly in wait for them. Temperatures were chilly, but spirits were warm, and driving a hard bargain or even avoiding being fleeced too badly by the down-Easters produced a glow of achievement that may have been all the more satisfying because wealth made it so unnecessary.

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.

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.

Although the sound of the horn and the jubilant cries of “tally-ho” were heard no more, the end of coaching was not to be the end of the Coaching Club. In 1925, the rules governing the eligibility of new members were amended to permit the admission of anyone “who shall exhibit to the officers of the Club satisfactory evidence that he participates actively in racing, hunting or the sport of polo.” While the qualifications for becoming a member were thus broadened somewhat, the club itself has, if that is possible, steadily become more exclusive. Though the social limelight of the spring parades and of public coaching has faded, membership in the club now confers a quiet distinction that makes it a more coveted honor than ever.

The members still meet regularly three times a year at the Knickerbocker Club (now at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-second Street), and once each spring they turn out in a body for the annual running of the Coaching Club American Oaks, ordinarily held at Belmont Park. Horse-racing may be the sport of kings, but watching it is a far cry from the glories of driving a well-matched team on the open road.

1 Mr. Vanderbilt ran public coaches on the famed Brighton Road in England from 1908 to 1914 and would undoubtedly have continued, but for the war. When he went down on the Lusitania in May, 1915, coaching lost a friend it could never replace.

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