Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: On the Stage Coach Trail

The House house

The announcement in the October 21, 181, edition of the Belvidere Standard brought good news in one respect to a new industry, and signaled the death of another. The headline read, “Chicago and Galena Railroad, The Cars Running to Marengo.” The article reported that after three years of construction the railroad now extended sixty-five miles from Chicago to Marengo. The introduction of this new mode of transportation changed the way people travelled, and how goods were moved from the source of production to markets. Previous to the railroad the preferred mode of transportation for travel was the stage coach. The presence of the Chicago and Galena Railroad didn’t immediately eliminate the stage coach industry because not all towns were connected to each other by train. For example, travelers between Marengo and Woodstock were still served by a stage line operated by Alvin Judd.

For some years prior to the arrival of the railroad the Frink & Walker stage coach company of Chicago serviced a stage coach line that went through Coral and Marengo. This line operated between Chicago and Galena. According to the McHenry County Conservation District website the stage coach line ran along the same route as that of modern day Route 20 with some deviation that put the stage trail through Coral Woods.

Important to the stage coach system were the many taverns and inns that dotted the stage coach trails. These accommodations weren’t luxurious at all – especially in the very early days when the buildings were built of logs. Rooms were cramped, and it wasn’t unheard of for guests to sleep on the floor dormitory style, or multiple strangers in a single bed. During this era the Marengo area had three locations that have been identified as stage coach stops by various sources.

Coming from the east the first known stage coach stop that a traveler would have encountered was in the tiny village of Coral; more specifically Coral Crossing as referred to in the McHenry County Conservation District website. Procter Smith, who came to Coral from New York in 1836, operated a tavern out of a log cabin. According to the History of McHenry County (1885) the tavern was located where in 1885 Mr. Tuttle resided. An 1872 Plat map of Coral Township placed the Tuttle property at the southeast corner of Route 20 and Coral Rd. Additional information on Smith’s tavern is scarce.

Continuing eastbound from Coral the next known stage stop was in the vicinity of the modern day address of 150 E. Grant Highway (northwest corner of Route 20 and Taylor St.). The structure at that location was a two story house which at that time was owned by Charles House, and referred to by locals as the “House House.” During its existence the building served as home to many businesses. It was finally torn down in 1949 to make room for a new business, and at that time its age was estimated to be well over 100 years old.

The next known stage coach stop was across the street from the “House House” at the southeast corner of Route 20, and South State Street. The log structure at that location was built by Calvin Spencer in 1835. The building was constructed of logs and it was sixteen feet square. Spencer found himself sharing his private home with strangers who were travelling through the area. Spencer realized that there was a demand for lodging, and the following spring he built a hotel consisting of two log buildings. One was 18 ft. by 26 ft., and the second was 18 ft. by 18 ft.

The buildings were set apart far enough to be connected by a kitchen. In 1838 Spencer connected yet another building to his hotel. This new structure was 16 ft. by 16 ft., and framed of wood instead of constructed with logs. Spencer sold his hotel off in 1842, and moved on to other business enterprises. The History of McHenry County (1885) mentions one other log cabin operated as a hotel by David Hammar in the vicinity. At the time of this writing little else is known about this business.

As people changed their preferred mode of travel from the stage coach to the railroad the inns and taverns located further away from the railroad tracks slowly disappeared, or their owners adapted by changing their occupations. One example provided is the following reminiscence in the March 21, 1935, issue of the Marengo Republican News; “’Deke’ Metcalf went ‘way back’ into history recently to get over a point where displacement of one enterprise saw the operator of the abolished business take up the march to the modern business. Barto Gardner drove the stage coach between Chicago and Freeport. The C. & N.W. railway line displaced the coach, but when the first passenger train on the run passed through Marengo, Gardner was aboard as conductor.”