From Horses to Horseless


Includes excerpts from, "Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County, Illinois", 1930

From its beginning until the year 1854 when the railroads came, Macon county struggled with the transportation problem.

Life in those days meant going without things, unless they could be raised on one's own ground. Money was scarce, and markets were so far away as to make it difficult to deliver anything one might produce to sell. For years people fretted because of the barriers with which they were surrounded.

The only hope seemed to be transportation by water. For years the talk went about making the Sangamon a navigable river. The legislature had once declared the Sangamon a navigable river but that didn't make it one. One time a steamboat did get as far as Springfield, but it had a great deal of difficulty in turning around there.

When experiments were made to send flatboats down the river from there, people lined the banks of the river to watch the boats, and to go to the rescue if help seemed necessary.

One time in 1845 a flatboat was built and went down the river in charge of Captain William Rea. The next year the firm of Peddecord, Armstrong and Prather undertook to send five boats with hogs and corn to New Orleans. The boats made the trip as far as Long Point, south of Niantic, without much trouble, but had to stop there for the winter, awaiting high water in the spring to finish the journey.

When spring came three of the boats were outfitted and started on the trip south. One stopped at Natchez, and the other two went on to New Orleans. John Hanks, J.Y. Braden and Hosea Armstrong captained these boats at the start. At Beardstown, however, Armstrong turned his command over to Moses Spencer.

At the time these boats had left Henry Prather had gone up and down the river making speeches, in which he urged the people to help remove obstructions from the river, so boats could get through. The people responded well. For days they worked.

While the trip made by these boats was successful in a way, the difficulties had been too great to make the project a profitable one. It was little consolation to spend so much effort and time and work and make no profit from them. It seemed as if the difficulties in way of navigating the Sangamon successfully were too much to be overcome, and people gave up the idea.

All schemes for railroads had failed. Now it seemed that water connection with the outside world had to be given up. Macon county residents feared that they would always be isolated.

Naturally with no railroads or water routes, highway travel increased. Everything brought from outside was hauled in. Emigrants were passing through in large numbers to the west. But roads remained just as bad as they were before. Though they increased in number, they did not improve in quality. There was no system of maintaining or improving the highways.

Establishment of stage lines helped a little, but the stages did not become popular because of the difficulty in plowing through mud. Too often the passengers had to help pry the coach out of the mire.


Macon county had "filling stations" years ago, but they were for man and beast, rather than the automobile. They were the stage stands, where the stage made regular stops to change horses, to eat, and, if stop were made at night, to secure lodging for passengers, drivers and horses.

Weather conditions had some effect of the stops made at the stage stands. If the weather were fair, roads good, and change of horses made occasionally at stands along the way, one could make the trip to Springfield in one day. If roads were bad, it took two or more days to get through. Sometimes a "box on two wheels" was substituted for the heavy stage, in bad weather.

The stage driver was a man of privileges. He was given the entire road when he made his appearance. That was even required by law. To the small boy the stage driver was a hero; a man who could tell wonderful tales of the things he had seen in his travels! Every lad tried to imitate that peculiar swing and crack of the whip which only the stage driver could muster. It was something worth while to be on hand when the stage rolled in, pulled by its four perspiring steeds, over which the driver flourished his long whip.

The stage usually had seats for six people. Passengers were not always as enthusiastic about the stage as the small boys were. Often they had to walk a good part of their way. Paying their fare and then walking, or helping to pull the coach out of mud, wasn't anything funny to them. No wonder they looked forward to the time when a better means of transporation would be provided. Stage owners didn't profit much and often lost money. Changes in ownership became frequent.

Leonard Ashton, who ran a stage between Decatur and Springfield used to brag that his stage was "never more than a week behind schedule, even in the worst weather. He probably meant it as a joke, but his statement was not far from the truth. In wet weather stages were delayed for days. It wsa impossible to keep a schedule.

Among the stage stands near Decatur was one built by Christopher Miller on the north side of what is now Route 10, about four miles west of Decatur. The house, made of logs, was built broadside to the road. There were two rooms on the ground floor, with double chimney between, and a fireplace in each. Above was the loft. Guests for the night in the loft often woke up in the morning in the winter time to find themselves under a neat little snow drift.

Miller had come to Macon county from Grayson county, Ky., in 1829. His grandson, Abraham Miller, in after years often used to tell how it was one of the treats of his boyhood days to go to Grandpa's when the stage was due.

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