A pathway to freedom via the stage coach

Published 5:30 pm Monday, July 12, 2021

Over the past few months, I have taken a break from doing so much research on local history and started watching westerns from the late 1950’s early 60’s. My mom loved westerns and she’d watch every show she could find on television and at the movies. She loved shows like Wagon Train, Tales of Wells Fargo, Bat Masterson, Raw Hide and Gunsmoke to name a few.

I would have much rather watched cartoons as a child but with only one TV in the house, I’d watch whatever was on.  I learned to like the westerns that featured stage coaches in them. I loved seeing how people traveled through the rugged western territories in them.

I even liked to listen to the older folks in town talk about them.  As a child I found it hard to believe Washington had stage coaches.

Mr. Toby was one of our neighbors and every bit of 90 years old when I was a kid.  He mentioned once that his great-grandfather had helped to drive a stage coach in Washington.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but during my research of local history, I now find his story credible.  This weekend at a Living History event at Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, I shared how Washington had a stage coach line as early as 1818 and how enslaved people sought to escape on them.  Some of our visitors were really surprised to learn a town this small would have a stage coach line.

The December 30th 1818 edition of the Weekly Raleigh Register newspaper had an ad that announced a new line for the North Carolina Stage Line schedule.

It stated “the subscriber has the pleasure of informing the public that he, (D. King) in conjunction with Capt. William Scott of Raleigh, had established a new line of stage coaches from this place (Raleigh,) to run through in two days, twice a week that would depart Mr. Lewis Leroy’s hotel, every Tuesday and Saturday at 6:00 A.M. Leroy’s hotel, the Lafayette was on Washington’s Main Street. The stage coach would arrive in Raleigh via Tarboro on Sundays and Wednesdays by 7:00 P.M.”

There was also a stage line going to New Bern and Plymouth from Washington and arriving in conjunction with the Edenton and Plymouth Steam Boat Line’s schedule.

By the early 1850’s, there were other stage coach lines, one that Washington merchant Henry Wiswall, owner of the Wiswall Hotel, would sell tickets for the Rocky Mount to Washington route.

The Washington Gazette newspaper, January 27, 1887 mentions a stage coach road that passed along Bonner Street carrying mail.

The Daily Delta newspaper dated May 17, 1859 reported that the North Eastern Mail by stage coach via Washington NC would arrive Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday between 7 and 8 p.m. from New Bern.

As far as enslaved people trying to get their freedom on stage coaches, there are oral stories that said some attempted to escape that way. Stage coach drivers as well as ship captains and railroad conductors were warned against helping or harboring enslaved people on such vessels according to a runaway slave ad placed in Washington’s North State Whig Newspaper on January 18, 1838.  It appears a stage coach could have provided a ride to freedom to those willing to try to escape this way.