By Edward A. Smyk, Passaic County Historian
Reprinted from Historic County, September 2003
In the spring of 1857, a handsome-looking poster made its sudden appearance on the streets of Paterson. Embellished with woodcut illustrations of a horse-drawn stagecoach and a smoke-belching locomotive, the poster was designed to elicit widespread interest in the May 1 inauguration of the Paterson and Deckertown (now Sussex) State Line. Today, the mere mention of a stagecoach brings back images of a mode of transportation that once reigned supreme in the Wild West. Yet in the 1860s, the stagecoach was an alternative way for New York and local residents to reach the sparsely settled Northern Highlands region.
The Paterson and Deckertown stage got off to an auspicious start and operated every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Agent John P. Brown advertised “Good coaches, fine horses, and careful drivers,” and it was no exaggeration in that day to have the best men at the reins. The approximately 40-mile trip from Paterson to Deckertown was a bumpy ride along the old Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike. Many passengers must have suffered indigestion or worse from the unpleasant bounce of the stage as it made its way along dusty, rutted roads.
Individuals who wanted to make the trip left Paterson about 10 a.m. Nearly four hours later, they reached Brown’s Hotel in West Milford. Others continued the voyage west, arrived at Deckertown, as noted on the poster, “the same evening.”
An untold number of North Jersey residents considered a trip from the Highlands to Paterson something equivalent to a trip across the continent.
J. Percy Crayon, a schoolteacher and local historian, retained a vivid recollection of what it was like for his family to make “a business trip over the old stage line.” Writing in the Pequannock Valley Argus of July 27, 1889, Crayon recalled what his father told him about the Deckertown stage. According to Crayon, the trip was discussed for “at least three months before the departure, and it extended to the neighbors, who would frequently drop in and talk the matter over for many weeks before.” Crayon said, “anxiety increased,” as the day for leaving came near and additional neighbors offered suggestions. When Crayon’s father finally arrived in Paterson, he “felt like a cat in a strange garret” when away from home overnight. The city exerted a strange influence on him. J. Percy’s father admitted he “couldn’t get a wink to sleep” due to “noise, the bustle and the excitement of being in the town of Paterson.” Upon returning home the next evening, neighbors again knocked on his farmstead door, eager to know about the “wonderful things” he had seen and heard. Crayon related that a trip to the Silk City was a subject “talked over for the next three months.”
Eventually, the Paterson and Deckertown stage was rendered obsolete by the much faster, and more comfortable railroad. Exactly 12 years after the stage rumbled out of Paterson on its inaugural run, a meeting was convened at Brown’s Hotel in Newfoundland. Plans were formulated to extend the New Jersey Western Railroad. The stagecoach as a regular, scheduled means of transportation would fade into history.
The Paterson and Deckertown stage was a forgotten memory to most until May 1, 1957, when the centennial of its first trip was appropriately commemorated. The West Milford (now North Jersey Highlands) Historical Society, the Post Office Department and the Greater Paterson Chamber of Commerce sponsored a colorful re-enactment of the stagecoach run. It was a cloudless, sun-drenched day as 300 people watched the red-and-yellow coach arrive at the Paterson Post Office. Postmaster Frank W. Murphy swore in William A. Miller of Andover, the coach driver, and John Shrieks of Lodi as authorized mail carriers. Placed in their custody were more than 3,000 pieces of mail. Shrieks acted as a guard and carried a shotgun to deter “ambushers.”
In addition to the driver and his gun-toting companion, the coach carried four passengers. Among them was Elizabeth Bowles, the granddaughter of stage line founder John P. Brown. Drawn by four palominos, the glistening coach advanced to Market Street for a two-day run along roads that had vastly improved since 1857. Stops were planned in Pompton Lakes, Riverdale, Bloomingdale, Butler, Newfoundland, Oak Ridge, Stockholm, Franklin and the final destination Sussex.
With its silver-maned horses and appropriately costumed occupants, the rugged coach created a mild sensation as it passed from town-to-town, especially among school children. When the stage reached West Milford, a large crowd of men and women, many wearing the 19th-century dress, voiced their approval. State and local police acted as escorts for the stage. Passengers and crew spent the night at the famed Idylease Inn on Union Valley Road. According to one news account, they were treated to “an old-fashioned ham dinner and square dancing party.” Early the next morning, the stage rumbled off to Sussex.
The last re-enactment of the Paterson and Deckertown stage occurred during the nation’s bicentennial observance in 1976. While the stage line ceased to exist more than a century ago, its memory is clearly endowed with a durable resilience.