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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cobb and Co

In 1853 a small group of American immigrants, namely Freeman Cobb, John Murray Pack, John B Lamber and James Swanton saw there was an urgent need to establish a transport service to the Victorian goldfields so they started a company called the American Telegraph Line of Coaches. The company grew, pioneering new transport routes, delivering mail, gold and passengers in outback areas of Australia and later changed the name to Cobb and Co.

In the early days, they imported their own horses, coaches and many of its drivers from America but soon found reliable Australian coachmen to take their place. Although originally designed in America, the coaches were adapted for Australian conditions. The American Concord coaches were suspended on leather straps instead of metal springs which provided a more comfortable ride for passengers. Tightening or loosening the straps by means of a turnbuckle would affect the quality of the ride.

Leather springs

After only three years, Cobb and Co sold the company to Thomas Davies and five years later it changed hands again, a consortium headed by James Rutherford and William Whitney paid 23,000 pounds for it. Both these men were the driving force responsible for the company's outstanding success. American James Rutherford suffered from manic depression but it didn't seem to affect his business skills. When they moved from Victoria to Bathurst in New South Wales, business took off and they earned a reputation for being able to keep to schedules in the fastest possible time. They had changing stations 20 to 25 kilometres apart where fresh horses were waiting, ready to go. The coaches averaged 10 to 12 kilometres per hour even over the longest stretches. No competitor could come close and they had branches throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. Its coaches travelled 28,000 miles per week and 6000 horses were harnessed every day.

The reputation of Cobb and Co was forged by all its employees but in particular the remarkable skill of the coachmen. The driver was in complete control and his word was law. Where rivers were deep, passengers were ferried across while the horses swam, if the hill was too steep, passengers had to get out and walk to spare the horses, if coaches got bogged, passengers were left behind while the coachman dashed to the next town with the mail and any goods that were promised, then he would send back help.

These superb horsemen were determined to keep to schedule at a cracking pace - in extreme heat and bitter cold they crossed flooded rivers and desert plains, climbed steep mountain ranges, confronted bushrangers and overcame all obstacles in their way. The last Cobb and Co horse-drawn coach service ran in August 1924, the automobile putting an end to the adventure, excitement and discomfort of coach travel.

Freeman Cobb only spent 3 years and 1 month in Australia. He returned to America and married his cousin and they had two children. He lost money in some banking investments and found employment as Manager of the express company Adams & Co in Boston for a few years. In 1864 he became a senator for Barnstaple County in the Massachusetts State Legislature.

In 1871 he moved his family to South Africa and ran Cobb and Co coaches to the diamond mines. The firm failed in 1874 but he managed to acquire some plant from the liquidator and he ran the line himself for over two years. When his health began to fail, on the 15 February 1878 his estate was surrendered as insolvent. Three months later he died at his home in South Africa. He was 48 years old.