The Old Federal Road began as a mail route long before the Pony Express was created. The glorified horse path was, in some places, nothing more than ruts deep enough to turn a wagon on its side – and they often did. Those mail carriers and travelers brave enough to use the old road were up against many dangers, including the possibility of encountering unhappy Creek Indians.
The road conditions were subject to the weather, and travelers often found themselves stuck in flooded creeks and swampy areas. The road became so bad at times that the mail coaches weren’t able to run, and letters had to be carried through on horseback. Even then, the mail carriers sometimes would have to walk their horses through the worst areas.
Due to the dangers and difficulties they expected to encounter on the trips, travelers were, during the worst part of the season, better off hiring a private coach at great cost. The private coaches were first-come, first-served, and most of them were nothing more than broken down horse-drawn wagons. The drivers were experienced, and while the passengers might wonder if they’d survive the trips, the drivers were used to the conditions. They were described as calm and philosophical, as they kept going through creeks and swamps where on occassion water was high enough to soak the passengers.
An 1835 journal entry taken from The Very Worst Road by Jeffrey C. Benton stated, “What rendered it really amusing was, that we were constantly obliged to draw up our limbs on the seat, for the water was at least eight inches deep in the bottom of the carriage and went splashing about in the most extraordinary manner. I cast a look now and then at my companion who looked woe-be-gone, and was constantly exclaiming, ‘Mais quel pays! A-t-on jamais vu de pareils Chemins?’”
This meant, “What a country! Have we ever seen such paths?”
The Federal Road was upgraded in 1805 when the Creek Indians gave the U. S. government permission to cross their lands. The road was widened, and bridges and ferries were added to include tolls given to the Creeks as compensation. The improvements made it a more efficient way for settlers, mail coaches, the military, merchants, travelers and troupes of entertainers to make their journeys to the South.
One such entertainer was future circus entrepreneur, Phineas Taylor Barnum, otherwise known as P. T. Barnum. When Barnum was younger, he was known for his variety troupe, Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater. The most famous performers of that show were Gen. Tom Thumb and the Feejee Mermaid. Barnum brought his traveling exhibits to Montgomery in 1837 by way of the Federal Road.
The road, during the time Barnum traveled it, had become quite dangerous for new reasons. A week before his crossing, a mail coach had been attacked, the passengers were killed and the coach was burned. The driver, left for dead, survived to tell the story.
Barnum described the trip in his autobiography The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum. He wrote, “None of us felt ashamed to acknowledge that we dreaded to incur the risk, except Vivalla. He was probably the greatest coward among us, but like most of that class, he swaggered and strutted about, laughing at us for our fears.”
Barnum and his troupe later played a nasty trick on Vivalla, who was a juggler with the troupe, which resulted in his change of attitude.
For more information about the Old Federal Road, be sure to attend Mystery and Mayhem on the Old Federal Road with Raven Christopher on Oct. 20 at the Elmore County Museum.