We have an almost mythological concept of the stagecoach in America.
The reality was a little less dramatic.
People have been carried around in coaches of one kind or another for much of recorded history. At first, only the rich and powerful could afford and appreciate the luxury of a ride on a local road. But with the passage of time and the improvement of roads, coach travel became available to people of less-than-patrician status.
In the United States, coach travel in the eastern colonies was established well before the American Revolution. The mail always had to get through; hence, government mail contracts were a major reason stagecoach lines were founded and were the basis of their early success.
In 1797, frontier surveyor Lucas Sullivant founded the village of Franklinton on the west bank of the Scioto River near where it meets the Olentangy River. There were no stagecoaches in those days.
In 1805, a man named Adam Hosac took a contract to deliver the mail on horseback from the state capital in Chillicothe to Franklinton and points nearby. We don't know a lot about Hosac, but we can presume he was a frugal sort of fellow. He hired 13-year-old Andrew McElvain to make the trip to Chillicothe and back.
Many years later, Col. Andrew McElvain remembered, "There was not a house but William Brown's on Big Run, and but a cabin at Westfall and Deer Creek to Chillicothe. It was a rather lonesome ride for a boy ... "
This world of frontier solitude began to change rapidly in 1812. That year, as the United States went to war with Great Britain, Ohio established Columbus, its new capital city on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto." The area was known locally as Wolf's Ridge, and only wolves, forest and a 40-foot mound made by Native Americans inhabited it.
Soon, several dozen people arrived and, anticipating the capital city's growth, began to build inns, taverns and other places of amusement.
It did not work out as they had hoped. Franklinton across the river was more populated and more established. Armies camped there during the War of 1812 and the new town of Columbus was ignored by many.
In 1814, Philip Zinn came to Columbus. He had arrived in Ohio in 1803 from York, Pennsylvania, and made a career out of delivering mail and cargo across the state. According to a later account, Zinn "started the first coach or hack that plied regularly through the capital. The direction of travel then was north and south, and Mr. Zinn's conveyance carried the wayfarer from Chillicothe along the Scioto and Whetstone (Olentangy) to Delaware."
Zinn's new business of carrying people and cargo was successful, and success breeds competition. In short order, a number of new stage lines came into being to seek Zinn's trade and market.
None were more successful than William Neil. Neil came to Columbus from Kentucky via a short stay in Urbana. Arriving in Columbus, he stayed at the farm of Joseph Vance, 3 miles north of the city. When Vance died in 1828, Neil acquired the farm and made it his home. It would eventually become the campus of Ohio State University.
Neil's genius was to acquire small stage companies and merge them into larger organizations. Over the next 30 years of mergers and ruthless competition, Neil built one of the largest stagecoach companies in America. By the late 1840s, it was common knowledge that if you boarded a coach in Wheeling to go anywhere north of the Ohio River, William Neil probably owned at least part of that coach.
He was called the "Old Stage King," and he used that reputation to hold and expand his empire. While Neil was away with his coaches, his wife, Hannah, raised their expanding family and oversaw the operation of a tavern across from the Statehouse that later became the first of what would eventually be three Neil House hotels.
In addition, Hannah Neil was active in local charities and was instrumental in founding what would become the Hannah Neil Mission and Home for the Friendless.
Hannah Neil died in 1868 and her husband followed her in 1870. The Neils were a memorable success story, starting with next to nothing and ending with prosperity in the heart of America.
Why does no one ever hear of the stagecoach lines of William Neil, as the roads of the west are opened by Wells Fargo and the Overland Stage in most books, plays and movies made about that period?
In 1853, well before the Civil War, Neil sold his stagecoaches to new companies in Iowa and invested his profits in railroads. He was either remarkably astute or remarkably lucky.
Perhaps he was both.
William and Hannah Neil are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek Community News.