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Why do we have roads named Old Stage and South Stage?

The roads really were stage routes, but back in the early 1860s, they didn't have names, and for the coaches that traveled over them, it wasn't a smooth ride.

"It was nothing but brush in them days," remembered stagecoach driver, Fred Tice, in a late 1920s interview. "There weren't much road to it at all."

Tice, who had started driving before he was 17, was one of those strong young Southern Oregon men who could steer 24 pounding hooves of a six-horse team with just the flick of his finger.

Using the slightest twist or tug on any of six reins, or "ribbons" as they were called, a talented driver had complete control. He knew precisely how to hold his horses on the steep downward slopes of the Siskiyous and the exact moment to let them run free.

The whip he carried was usually made of hickory or oak and was nearly as long as he was tall. Attached to its end was an 8- to 10-foot leather whiplash. A driver used the whip like an orchestra conductor's baton, cracking, snapping and twirling the leather in the air, creating unique sounds that told the horses exactly what the maestro wanted them to do.

It never touched the animal's back. If he whipped a horse, a driver lost his job.

They were called "Knights of the Whip," and like pro athletes of our day, they were heroes, envied and admired by every small boy in every small town.

Quick and resourceful as they were, these knights relied on an accurate eye, one with the ability to judge whether their coach would miss an outcropping of rocks on a narrow mountain road or be smashed in a fall from a precarious cliff.

Their stagecoaches were following the route of the "pack trains," that were made up of 70 or 80 mules, each loaded with hundreds of pounds of fancy things and the necessities that made life bearable in a rugged mining town.

The mules had followed the Indian trails, worn down for nearly a thousand years by American Indian travelers.

Snaking north over the Siskiyou Mountains and turning west along the Rogue River, the trail gradually widened as the packers, trappers and prospectors traveled back and forth between the California gold fields and the Willamette Valley.

In 1853, Congress allocated $20,000 for a military road running from today's Phoenix to Myrtle Creek. With help from the Oregon Territorial Legislature, this barely adequate stagecoach road was ready by 1860.

In preparation for regular mail and passenger service, the California Stage Co. began stocking the line with horses and coaches. Representatives passed through Jacksonville from the south on Aug. 26, 1860, and the whole town turned out before church services to witness the historic event.

On Sept. 15 at exactly 6 a.m., one coach left Portland and another left Sacramento. The second-longest daily stagecoach run in the United States had begun — 710 miles for $50 and six days of travel.

A road is a road and doesn't need a name until it needs maintenance and becomes government property. As far as the stage company was concerned, the road was just one long stage road. That part of the road south of Jacksonville was no different from the part traveling north, and because both sections were built at the same time, neither was older than the other.

When people living along the road got tired of doing their own repairs, they turned to government for help.

"In 1867, the county accepted a public petition and legally took over the southern portion of the stage road, and agreed to maintain it as a county road," said Mary Anne Wales, records clerk for Jackson County Roads.

"Old Stage Road probably was made a county road at about the same time," she said.

The county called the southern portion "South Stage Road" and likely just kept the northern portion as "Stage Road." Once the stagecoaches had disappeared for a few years, local residents probably added the "Old" to the road's name.

Over the years, portions of the original roads have disappeared and other sections have been realigned, but the location of what remains is still very close to the original.

Though the stagecoach was at the cutting edge of technology for its time and passengers thought it a marvelous traveling experience, a trip by stage was a painful, bumpy, dusty ordeal.

If you sat with the driver on the "high box" you could only doze briefly during the night for fear that a jolt might throw you overboard. Inside, passenger heads banged against walls and dust snuck under the curtains. The leather springs were supposed to make the ride gentle, but were more likely to feel like a ship adrift in a turbulent sea.

Even with all of its drawbacks, it was the best way to travel, at least until 1887, when the railroad between Oregon and California was finally complete.

The day before the last spike in the rails was driven in Ashland, the glory days of the stagecoach ended. By then most of the drivers had found other jobs and slowly over the next few years, one by one they would all fade away.

Late in the 1920s, one of the last of the surviving drivers, that "white-haired pioneer stagecoach driver," Fred Tice, got a taste of the latest technology. Treated to his first and last airplane flight, he flew along the route of the old stage road and recounted his experience in a late 1920s interview.

"I've watched the old road changing through the years, but I never thought I'd ever see it look like this," he said.

He looked up and studied the clouds for a moment.

"I don't think I ever want to go down," he said. "Not unless they brought back my old six-horse team and my stage coach. If they did that, I'd be ready to go all over again."

Historic South Stage Road