Thursday, March 25, 2010

Broadway: A Millionaires’ Playground

The New York City Coaching Club's road coach "Pioneer" stopping to change horses in Hastings on the way to the Ardlsey Country Club, ca. 1900. (This photograph is a detail of the photograph further down the page. Click either one to examine it more closely in Flickr.)

The Historical Society has a fabulous collection of personal reminiscences from Hastings residents. Buried in the notes of those who were children at the turn of the century are several references to a coach and a barn “owned by Vanderbilt”.

Albert Shaw Jr. wrote that, as a child, he used to go down in his pony cart to Broadway near Washington Avenue “where the coach-horses were changed when Vanderbilt drove up every day from New York City to the Ardsley Country Club.”

In the 1920s, village President Alfred F. Kneen remembered that there was a barn a little to the north of Washington Avenue, across from or at the foot of Olinda Avenue, that was owned by “Vanderbilt” and where the “Tallyho” changed horses.

Memories of those days were so dim that, by the time they were written down, some people thought the coach that came through Hastings had belonged to the Astors rather than to the Vanderbilts. Everyone agreed, though, that going to see the horses changed was a tremendously thrilling event. A little research tells us why, and lets us in on a very odd corner of American history: the late 19th century sport of coaching.

Ardsley Country Club's own four-in-hand coach, the "Tally-Ho", on Broadway on its way through Hastings to the Brunswick Hotel in the city. Road coaches could seat 12 on the outside of the coach -- only the occasional lady's maid sat inside.

It was the English nobility who first turned coach driving into a sport. In the middle of the 19th century stagecoaches as public transportation were rendered obsolete by the railroads. But riding along an open country road in a brightly painted rig filled with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen still had an appeal. There were also some gentlemen who loved the challenges of coach driving—picking and training the properly balanced four-horse teams, and controlling the teams during the drive.

In 1875, two wealthy anglophiles, Colonel William Jay and Colonel DeLancey Astor Kane, helped to found New York City’s Coaching Club. Col. Kane’s own yellow road coach, imported from England and called the “Tally-ho”, made such an impression on the public that, from that moment on, all road coaches were referred to as “tallyhos.” Frank Leslie’s Magazine referred to coaching as “the sport of millionaires,” and the costs associated with it were very high—members of the Coaching Club owned both the coach itself and several changes of horses (Alfred G. Vanderbilt had 71 trotters), as well as employing grooms and trainers, and renting stables along the coaching routes where the horses would be changed—like the barn in Hastings.

The Coaching Club indulged in pleasant outings to one another’s country homes and in annual parades around Central Park—and also in what was called “public coaching.” In his 1967 article for American Heritage Magazine, Frank Kintrea defined the term: “Briefly, public coaching meant simply this: a gentleman or group of gentlemen, of sufficient wealth and ample leisure, would undertake to drive a coach on a regular schedule over a specified route, carrying passengers who had paid a fare. Anyone, theoretically, could reserve a seat on such a coach, and by paying fifty cents or a dollar extra, he could ride on the box beside the coachman, who might be DeLancey Astor Kane or Reginald Rives or even, if he were lucky, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. It may be too much to expect to fathom why Messrs. Kane, Rives, and Vanderbilt should have derived pleasure from such employment, but it is indisputable that they did.”

In theory, as Kintrea says, anyone could buy a ticket, and it only cost a few dollars. But one had to buy it at the swank New York hotel from which the coach departed. Most often, the passengers were friends and relatives of the driver or wealthy out-of-town visitors.

This is the photograph that the first detail was taken from -- here you can see the stable on the left with the sign that reads "Pioneer Coach Stable", the flock of boys running out to get a good look at the coach and its occupants (according to an 1899 article, this was one of the most amusing features of the ride for the passengers), and the cop keeping order from the sidelines. We are on Broadway, looking south, and Washington Avenue is on the right, just beyond the picket fence. In the foreground is the wheel of an automobile.

The coach that ran through Hastings was the “Pioneer” on its route from the Holland House hotel on Madison Square to the Ardsley Country Club. The run was 26 miles, and since it was thought to be best to change horses every four or five miles, Hastings was only one of five or six stops. The steep stretch from Yonkers to Hastings was thought to be the hardest on the horses, which may explain why they were changed in Hastings. At each of these stops there would be a new set of horses and possibly an extra groom to help with the change. The drive was timed for two and a half hours each way with a three hour stopover for lunch at the country club before returning to New York City. At its fastest, the coach reached speeds of almost 12 miles an hour.

The “Pioneer” did not belong to an individual, but was sponsored by the Coaching Club as a whole. Two of the most common drivers were Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Reginald W. Rives. Alfred Vanderbilt was the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Rives became a millionaire after inheriting the estate of his father, who claimed descent from English kings. During the years 1898 to 1907, Vanderbilt, Rives, or one of the other members of the Coaching Club drove the route every day but Saturday for eight weeks beginning the Monday after Easter. But already in 1903 coaching enthusiasts could see the writing on the wall. “The witchery inseparable from handling four good horses is but little appreciated by the youth of the day, who seem to prefer the ‘honk’ of the hooting automobile to the ringing music of a ‘yard of tin’ [coach horn],” said one fan.

In 1907, having lost $6,000 on public coaching the previous year, the Coaching Club withdrew from this activity. That fall, Alfred Vanderbilt, one of public coaching’s greatest enthusiasts, drove his own coach, the “Venture,” along the old route to Ardsley, but that was to be public coaching’s last season in the United States.

Diagram of the "Pioneer" from a 1904 article in the magazine Outing, written by Reginald Rives. On the bottom he shows how the names of the places through which the coach will pass is written on the sides of the coach -- Hastings appears on the right, under Dobbs Ferry.

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  1. This article is fascinating reading. Research into a purchase I made last year, lead me to these pages and they have given me a lot of background to Mr Vanderbilt and his coaching exploits. The items I purchased are two albums of photographs - one each for 1912 and 1913. They feature photographs of Mr Vanderbilt and his coach Venture, which was driven from London to Brighton, England. I believe Mr Vanderbilt began these drives in 1908 and by 1912 he was piloting the coach every day, 'during the season', whenever that was. I know it wasn't a long season and have an idea it may have been in the autumn (Fall). They are little treasures.
    September, 2010
    Sussex, England

  2. Greetings from the colonies! Sounds like you have a great album there. If you ever scan a couple of images, we'd love to see them! You can track us down through our web page linked to the About Us page on this blog.

  3. Great article. I believe that you have had enough information. If you could contribute it to us it would be much appreciated.

  4. Thank you for keeping us updated. I really enjoy it and find all of the information very useful.

  5. Hi, Does anybody know what happened to colonel william jays coach perseverance and was it imported from england.

  6. I must say this article was a great read. Thank you for the rich history lesson.