The Last Stage Coach

In 1950 American photojournalist Jack Birns crossed the Swiss Alps to document one of the last stagecoach services in Europe, running between towns along the Simplon Pass. He had first encountered this survival from an earlier age of transportation six months earlier while photographing a journey on the Orient Express.

Stagecoaches served a vital function for the remote Alpine towns carrying passengers, mail, and supplies as similar coaches had done for centuries. Birns’s report was published in LIFE magazine in 1951. Shortly thereafter the service was discontinued, the horse-drawn coaches replaced by motor-buses.

Photographs in the series capture the scenic, often perilous, journey over mountains, through villages, towns and cities, but they also capture the lives of the coachmen and their passengers.

The journey begins at Brig in Switzerland. Coaches would depart from there at 7:20 each morning and were due to arrive at Iselle in Italy by 6 o’clock in the evening. Passengers paid 7 Swiss francs and 40 centimes for passage, about two U.S. dollars in 1951, or twenty dollars today.

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At certain points along the route sleighs were used instead of coaches to cross otherwise impassible snow. Pictured below: coachman Anton Bruchi (center) hands over the mail to sleigh driver Johann Zenklusen.

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The road over the Simplon Pass was constructed by Napoleon’s engineer Nicolas Céard between 1801 and 1805. One of the four short tunnels built at the time has an arched extension for use when heavy snow interferes with travel along the main road.

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Napoleon’s memory looms large on the Simplon Pass. Pictured below: Coach driver Edouard Theiler and a barmaid pose with a milk cup used by the Emperor at a hotel in Gstein-Gabi and the coin which he used to pay for it. Theiler had been driving coaches for thirty years when Birns met him.

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Hospitality in the towns along the route was rustic and simple but no doubt much appreciated by passengers and coachmen alike.

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End of the line: the coach crosses the Italian border and Theiler enjoys a well-deserved drink at a café in Iselle.

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