The Stage Coach to Old Stanford (Stagecoach Series Part II)

Thursday, March 26, 2020
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When Bess entered the dimly lit dining room at the Stanford Hotel, she felt strange and alone. Photo courtesy of Montana Historical Society/ Wall of Basin Trading Post in Stanford

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It was a wintry December morning when Bess got on the stagecoach in Great Falls.

She was headed to Old Stanford because she had been called to be a teacher for Nora, the daughter of Perry and Ella Westfall. The Westfalls were close neighbors of William and Vaitleen Skelton who were the first settlers on Running Wolf.

Bess had completed one year of study at St. Vincent Academy in Helena where she passed the state examinations, and was awarded a teaching certificate.

‘The term “stage” originally referred to the distance between stations as each coach traveled the route in “stages.”’ says one article on stagecoaches. One of those stages or distances for Bess and her fellow travelers was the distance from Belt to Cora Creek, The driver changed horses in both places. The travelers were also served a good hot dinner at one of these stops. Wherever good meals were served, the stop was known as a home station.

Stagecoaches had their own etiquette the travelers were required to abide by. For most of the distance Bess travelled with 6 or 7 men who treated her with kindness and courtesy. Generally men were not allowed to drink liquor, swear, or smoke whenever women were present. Also, if a passenger wanted to sleep he or she was not allowed to rest on someone else, but had to sit straight up. And there were other rules to abide by as well.

One thing stages probably were known for was the little legroom.

It is likely that all the travelers were traveling in a Concord Stage Coach since that was the most common type of coach for passenger travel. These stagecoaches used straps to hold up the passenger compartment. This meant that the coach swayed from side to side not like those that used springs causing the passengers to be jostled up and down.

By and large stagecoach travel was not easy because they traveled over pitted roads, in all kinds of weather, and there was the risk of Indian attack and being held up by bandits. It does not seem that there was any risk of Indian attack for stagecoaches traveling the Great Falls to Lewistown route in those days.

The stage coach traveling from Great Falls to Old Stanford had in the early days to pass through terrain that concealed hold -up men The stage was at times robbed. At one point the stage route was changed to another location that avoided these concealed places.

The stage Bess and her other travelers were on was not held up as far as I know. It arrived late at night and the only lights to greet them were the lights of the seven saloons and the mercantile. The stage pulled up to the Stanford hotel and the passengers went in for supper. The dining room was rather a darkened room and at this point the seventeen-year-old Bess who was feeling rather strange and lonely was having second thoughts about staying in Old Stanford. She entertained thoughts of perhaps continuing on to Lewistown and then traveling back to Great Falls where her family lived. But an older woman, the proprietor’s wife, Mrs. Andy Matthews, befriended her and persuaded her to stay.

Bess stayed in Old Stanford and before long married Amby Cheney. Her full name is Elizabeth McGiffin Cheney. This would be her home for the next 70 years and it is here that she was known by the nickname “Bess”.

References: Most of my material has been drawn from Truman McGiffin Cheney’s book So Long Cowboys of the Open Range [Roberta Carkeek Cheney, Editor] which is available in the Stanford Public Library in Stanford, Montana. It is also available on Amazon. Truman was one of the eight children of Amby and Elizabeth Cheney. Other material was obtained from an article Stagecoaches of the American West at https://www.legendsofamerica.com/stagecoach/. I found this very helpful to know about stage coach etiquette, stage stations, etc.

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