Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

Riding Shotgun on the Turnpike

Recently, I overheard a brief snippet of conversation where several young people were discussing who’d get to ride in the front or the back of the car. One of them said they were claiming shotgun or riding shotgun, and hopped in the front passenger seat.

I wondered if the person really knew what it meant besides riding beside the driver. Riding in the front passenger seat is generally safe these days, if the driver isn’t texting his passengers, but there was a time that riding shotgun was a very precarious chore indeed.

In the old west, and everywhere else that stagecoaches provided long distance transportation, a driver sat atop the coach to control the horsepower. Frequently, besides the passengers, these coaches would transport valuables such as bullion, cash and occasionally the driver’s lunch.

In fact the old west was much younger than any part of olde Europe. Here coach transport of the Royal Mail (and sometimes the Royal male) began operating in Britain in the seventeen-hundreds.

Long before there was CHiPS or any other effective highway patrol (apart from the Highwaymen themselves) these vehicles were frequently robbed. To counter that menace, armed guards rode along when valuables were being shipped. Passengers were not considered valuables.

These guards, called Express Messengers or shotgun messengers, either rode on the rear of the coach, or along side the driver, and although the practice continued until stagecoaches were gone, it seems the term riding shotgun was unknown until it was used in the movies around 1919. Later on it morphed into today’s meaning of riding beside the passenger. Only most recently did it sometimes mean the person riding shotgun had one.

Movies about the old west, or more correctly, the imagined old “Hollywood” west, managed a number of inaccuracies and outright goofs. I remember watching in astonishment one Saturday at the movies, as Black Bart, Billy the Kid, or whomever, climbed up on the stage coach and ordered the driver to leave quickly with these magic words… Step on it! STEP ON WHAT???

Since we’ve just been discussing the stagecoach, I think it’s safe to assume we all know what a stagecoach is. The problem comes with finding out what the stage part of stagecoach means. Was it a traveling theatre? Nope! There are dozens of definitions unrelated to shipping or travel, but the one that seems to fit is “the degree of advancement on a journey” or how far to the next pub?

Turnpike: Sometimes the stagecoach would get to travel on an actual road. Problem was, if it was worth using, you probably had to pay to use it. And they were serious about collecting their fee in those days, not like fare evaders of today’s transit system. The term, turnpike, evolved from the gate they placed across access roads. They were made up of very long pike poles, or mastadon shish-kabob skewers, with very sharp spikey points that would do great damage to your horse if you tried to crash the barrier. The row of pikes or bars, viciously sharpened at one end, were attached to horizontal members secured to an upright pole or axle, that could be rotated to open or close the gate.

The name subsequently attached itself to any tolled road ubiquitous across Europe and in parts of the US.

And those sharp spikey gates? They’re a still around euphemistically, although we call them toll gates. News Flash: they’re getting set to put them back on all our roads and bridges around the Lower Mainland, and maybe SkyTrain stations too. Although if the fare gates don’t work out, I advocate for the long spikey poles to discourage fare evasion. Remember, for whom the Transit tolls? It tolls for thee! Hand over your Compass Card and face the wall! That’s my piercing thought for the week.