The first stagecoach in Essex County, drawn by four horses, was established in 1774 and connected Newburyport with Boston via Salem and Ipswich. By the early 1800’s, up to seventeen stagecoaches and four post chaises passed through town each day, most of them full to overflowing.
The stagecoach era ended abruptly when the Salem tunnel opened, and two days later on December 20, 1839, a train from Boston made its first passage through Ipswich. It arrived about 9 o’clock on a Friday morning with 50 passengers, taking only 34 minutes from Salem. Townspeople were delighted, but the opening of the railroad and the end of stagecoach travel led to the decline of Ipswich as one of the most important towns of Massachusetts, and removal of its courts.
End of the stagecoach era
The fascinating history of stage and railroad travel from the Standard History of Essex County was written in 1878 by Cyrus Mason Tracy. I condensed several pages into the narrative below:
The stage coach was in its day as great an advance upon the prevailing modes of transit as the railroad car was in later time. It thoroughly revolutionized all extended travel and gave an aspect never before observed to all the world of outdoor civilization. It was gazed at by boys on the highways and women at the windows. Its approach announced by the jingling of a bell suspended from the neck of one of the leaders was the occasion for the shout of “THE STAGE THE STAGE” and a general halting from labor and a gazing at the wonder.
In 1818 the Eastern Stage Company was incorporated and it met with all success, turning profits yearly for its investors. The premier stagecoaches were manufactured by the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord NH, founded in 1816 by Lewis Downing. In 1828 he teamed up with with twenty-two year old J. Stephens Abbot of Salem, Massachusetts, who assisted in the manufacture of the “Concord Stage Coach.”
While this was going on the air was beginning to tremble in the shadowy and unknown distance with the roar and screech of the railroad train and its unearthly whistle sounds of doom. The iron horse soon came riding into Essex County, as those old fashioned stage worthies must have thought, like a very fiend in armor. All their glory began to wane and their prosperity to melt away before their eyes The impatient spirit of a growing people refused longer to be satisfied with any arrangement that could be made for their transportation by animal muscle.The Eastern Stage Company faced the invasion bravely and tried every expedient to prevent being thrown from their feet but without effect. The official existence ended June 26, 1838.
The Eastern Railroad from Boston to Salem opened for travel two months later on August 27, 1838. A new era of travel dawned at once on the wondering eyes of the shore people of Essex County. The cars took eleven hundred the first day with no fatigue to anybody, kept it up day after day and in about a month ran it up to sixteen hundred while crowds of curious spectators gathered near the depot at each arrival and departure.
So began the Eastern Railroad, the giant that stretched forth its arm and laid literally a hand of iron upon the bosom of Essex County. On December 18, 1839 the cars ran through the Salem Tunnel and to Ipswich. The town was delighted but the opening of this road led the way to the removal of the courts from Ipswich. It had long been one of the three shire towns of the county and reluctantly yielded this prestige.
By the next summer the Eastern Railroad had its cars running to Newburyport and on November 9, 1840 it leaped the Merrimack and made its entry into New Hampshire in triumph, fifty four miles from the Massachusetts capitol.
The document establishing the Newburyport Railroad lists initial subscribers and the number of shares owned. It refers to two acts: One establishing the Georgetown Branch Railway Company, and another establishing the Newburyport Railway Company, both in 1846.