James Reeside: Stage Coach Colonel

James Reeside, an early government mail contractor, worked the system

Searights Tollhouse

The Searight tollhouse, located near Uniontown, Pa., on the National Road once served by stagecoach operators like James Reeside, is a typical example of an early tollhouse. Built in 1835, it is preserved as a historic attraction.

Photo Courtesy Sam Moore

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George Escol Sellers mentions a Mr. Reeside, the proprietor of the stage line who was present during the harrowing trip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. James Reeside, often referred to as “Colonel” (although I found no record of military service other than as a teamster during the War of 1812), was one of the bigger stagecoach operators on the old National Road (now U.S. Route 40).

Reeside was awarded a U.S. government contract to haul mail from Philadelphia to Wheeling, W. Va., upon completion of the National Road between those two cities in 1818. Initially he sub-contracted with shorter stage lines along the way, but eventually established a through line of his own, a line that one of his competitors scornfully predicted “Would not last until the June bugs come.” When it finally did, it became known as “The June Bug Line.”

Reeside is said to have owned more than 1,000 horses and employed some 400 men, causing some folks to call him the “Land Admiral,” presumably in addition to “Colonel.” The early “coach wagons” were rough riding and uncomfortable, and at some point Reeside adopted the stylish and relatively comfortable Concord-style coaches made in Troy, N.Y. All Reeside’s coaches were painted bright red, and he even took to wearing a red vest and cravat to match his coaches.

Reeside was not universally loved, however. During the Lincoln-Douglas-Calhoun Debates of 1839, Lincoln took President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General, William Barry, to task. Lincoln maintained that Barry was determined to throw mail contracts into the hands of his friends, even though by law the contracts were to be awarded to the lowest bidder. He accomplished this by having his chosen ones bid ridiculously low, and after they had received the contract he would rewrite it to add “some slight additional duty.” Then, as Lincoln said, he would “double, triple and often quadruple what honest and fair bidders had proposed to take it at.”

Lincoln cited the following example: “The contract for carrying the mail upon a certain route had expired, and of course was to be let again. The old contractor offered to take it for $300 a year, the mail to be transported thereon three times a week, or for $600, transported daily. One James Reeside bid $40 for three times a week, or $99 (for) daily (delivery), and of course received the contract. On the examination of the (Congressional) committee, it was discovered that Reeside had received for the service on this route, which he had contracted to render for less than $100, the enormous sum of $1,999! This is but a single case.”

Later the government sued Reeside for almost $33,000 overpayment, but he claimed something in law called “setoff,” which I don’t understand, and that instead of having been overpaid he was owed almost $190,000. A jury found for Reeside and said the government did owe him. The treasury was never authorized to pay, however, and Mr. Reeside died unpaid in September 1842. In 1848, his widow sued the U.S. government for the money but lost. Later, she petitioned Congress for the sum but it’s unclear whether or not it was awarded.

Read about the hardships of traveling by coach in Early Travel Around the Country Proved Difficult.