Cobb & Co. was the Australian equivalent of Wells Fargo, the horsedrawn stagecoach company made famous worldwide many decades later, via a myriad of American western films.
Australia’s most famous coach business was created in Victoria in 1853 by Freeman Cobb and three other Americans who had migrated to Australia. Cobb & Co commenced services in 1854, just two years after the Wells Fargo Stagecoach company in America. Cobb & Co built and ran a network of mail and passenger carrying horsedrawn coaches, based on the American Concord Coach design. This tough timber and steel coach was relatively comfortable because it rested on thick leather straps called thoroughbraces, giving a smoother ride. Apparently the Cobb & Co coaches were a slightly different shape than the American Concord coaches, and the Australian coaches had larger windows for better ventilation.
At the time of development, horsedrawn coach travel was the only form of public transport available. The Cobb & Co coach routes spread relatively rapidly northwards, through the most closely settled parts of Australia. Cobb & Co developed their coach routes in response to demand due to goldrushes in particular parts of Australia, such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Orange, and settlement of grazing land further out. Cobb & Co took over many smaller coach companies in regional areas and gained a solid reputation for reliability and efficiency. Train lines gradually spread north and west and the demand increased for public transport from residents in towns not on railway routes, to the nearest train stations – the coach routes complemented the train routes. Cobb & Co coachworks were located at Hay, Goulburn, Bathurst, Bourke and Charleville – which was the last Cobb & Co coachworks to close. The more distant regional routes were the most indispensable so they were the last to disappear.
These horsedrawn coach services were known as ‘stagecoaches’ because they travelled in stages – fresh horses were harnessed to the coach at regular Cobb & Co changing stations, located at 15-30 mile (24-48km) intervals. Regularly changing the coach horses allowed the coaches to cover long distances much faster than would otherwise have been the case. Most of the changing stations between towns have vanished however some Cobb & Co changing stations in smaller towns have been saved from dereliction or demolition, restored and retained as protected historical sites.
At Cobb & Co’s peak, coaches travelled 44,800km (28,000 miles) daily, on 11,200km (7,000 miles) of routes stretching from Normanton and Port Douglas in far north Queensland down through western and central New South Wales to southern Victoria and South Australia. 6,000 of the 30,000 Cobb & Co horses were harnessed every day.
The development of motor vehicles in the 1900s (and later, planes) eventually forced Cobb & Co out of business in the 1920s.
Sadly Cobb & Co coaches disappeared from use and the specific trades involved in the building and maintaining of horse-drawn coaches are now very rare also: body makers and carriage makers; carriage painters and trimmers; plus wheelwrights, blacksmiths and harnessmakers.
There are a number of Cobb and Co coaches in museums around Eastern Australia, ranging from small local museums to ones of national significance, such as Toowoomba’s National Carriage Collection (one of the aims of which is to foster the above-mentioned coach building and maintenance trades).
But you can’t beat actually having a ride around in a horsedrawn Cobb and Co coach – and better still, travelling through the bush at the sort of pace a Cobb and Co coach would have travelled at. And a gallop in the bush beats a short snail around town on the bitumen, amongst the cars, hands down.
Kinnon & Co have developed a business in Longreach that includes The Station Store and Cobb & Co Coach tours. The ‘Gallop Thru the Scrub’half-day tour with morning or arvo smoko involves actually galloping in a replica Cobb & Co coach and I’ve stuck it as a ‘must’ onto my own to-do list. Apparently retired ringers sometimes ride along for the fun of it as well. The overnight ‘Clancy’s on the Thomson’ trip sounds excellent too, for anyone who hasn’t spent the night in a swag under the stars, beside an inland river and gidyea campfire. And anyone who has! This is not roughing it stockcamp camping out. Instead there is a silver service camp oven dinner, a flash breccy at a genteel hour (not re-heated leftover stew at picaninny daylight) deluxe swags with wool doonas, and transportation to and from the campsite beside the Thomson River in the Cobb & Co Coach.
Cobb & Co made a massive contribution to the settlement and quality of life of regional Australians throughout the second half of the 1800s, via the speedy delivery of letters, parcels and passengers, and it’s difficult to imagine what life in rural areas would have been like without Cobb & Co.