The Bell Inn
& The Old Stagecoach Days in Dorchester NB
The Bell Inn is one of the oldest and most interesting buildings in New Brunswick. According to an oral tradition, it began in the late 1600s as the fortified post of New England freebooters illegally trading with the Acadians and Mi'kmaq. However, the first documentary evidence of a stone house dates from 1821 when it was sold to a James Carter, who is identified as art innkeeper in the deed of sale. Over the next four decades it passed into a number of hands, often at decreasing prices. Under the management of Coates Kinnear, George Kinnear and Ambrose Hicks, it doubled as a private dwelling and small country Inn struggling in competition with the larger and better appointed Dorchester Hotel across the square, owned by the Hickman family.
In 1851, Ambrose Hicks sold the “Bell' to Albert J Smithy a brilliant Dorchester lawyer and politician best known for his opposition to Confederation. In 1858, Smith resold it at a handsome profit to William Hickman, soon to become one of Dorchester's leading shipbuilders. After extensive renovations, Hickman ran it as an Inn in conjunction with his recently acquired stagecoach line between Amherst and Moncton, itself part of a longer line running between Halifax and Saint John.
Until the Intercolonial Railroad ended his stagecoach business in 1872, Hickman's coaches carried passengers and mail three times a week between Amherst and Moncton, passing through Dorchester in the middle of the night on the way up to Moncton, and in the middle of the day on the way back to Amherst. When the passenger load was light, a small two-horse coach was used. When it was heavier, as it was every fortnight when the English steamer arrived in Halifax, a large four-horse coach, suspended on huge leather springs, rolled and tossed its way over the rough and rutted Westmorland Great Road, as the highway was called in those days. It was during these years, 1858-72, that the “Bell' saw service as a stagecoach inn, probably the only one in Dorchester at that time. Horses were changed, mails were picked up and delivered, passengers were refreshed (perhaps with a brief 'wetting of the whistle' in the bar room), and meals and accommodations were offered to those staying on in Dorchester. On windy nights, guests were serenaded by the creaking and groaning of a large flat bell suspended over the front door that gave the Inn its name.
Text: W. Eugene Goodrich
Illustrations: K.V. Johansen & Bob Dunfield
Other Stagecoach Lines and Inns in Dorchester
The 'Bell' was not the first stagecoach Inn in Dorchester, nor was Hickman’s the first stagecoach line. The stagecoach era began here in 1835 when McBeath Brothers started a line between Dorchester and Chatham via the Old Shediac Road, which branches off Hwy 106 just beyond Memramcook. The following year the Saint John Stage Coach Company began a weekly service between Saint John and Amherst via the Westmorland Great Road, which, at this end of it, was essentially the same as Hwy 106. With a change of horses about every 18-20 miles, its small two-horse coach traversed at about 5-6 mph and took two full days to cover the 148 miles, stopping for the first night at Holstead's Inn in Petitcodiac. During the winter season (October to May) it stopped the first night in Sussex and the second night in Dorchester, where Amherst-bound passengers stayed at Hickman’s Inn (Dorchester Hotel), owned at that time by John Hickman, the father of William. Hickman's 'Dorchester' remained the stopping place for the Saint John Stage Coach Company until the latter was forced out of business about 1845.
In 1838 a rival line calling itself the Harvey Eastern Royal Mail Stage introduced larger, more comfortable four-horse Concord coaches built in Concord, New Hampshire. By changing horses about every 12 miles, they could be driven at a steady trot of nearly 9 mph and reach Amherst from Saint John in about 22 hours. After an arduous journey which started at 6 am, weary travelers arrived in Dorchester about 10 pm where they were welcomed by Mr. Andrew Weldon (“an authority on people and things hereabouts”, according to one guest) at his newly built Weldon Hotel, just across the street front the 'Bell.’ (When the hotel business in Dorchester declined with the coming of the railroad, Weldon moved to Shediac, and the building became a general store under the name of Payzant & Cards. Still standing, it also belongs to the Westmorland Historical Society). Weldon was for a time part owner of the Harvey line, which continued to patronize his establishment as long as it ran through Dorchester.
The Saint John Stage Coach Company, after changing its name to Victoria Coach in honour of the newly crowned Queen Victoria, tried to match the competition by similarly investing in expensive Concord coaches, as well as enough horses to offer same-day service from Saint John to Dorchester. (It ceased running to Amherst at this point). Both lines raised the ante by running twice, and sometimes thrice, weekly, but there simply wasn't enough passenger business to sustain the two of them. When the owners of the Harvey line proved more successful in winning the all-important mail contracts, and the New Brunswick government cut off subsidies to all stagecoach companies during a nasty economic downturn, the Victoria Coach was at a severe disadvantage. By 1845 it appears to have gone out of business.
But the Harvey Eastern Royal Mail Stage did not enjoy its monopoly for long. About 1848, King Brothers, who also ran stagecoach lines in Nova Scotia, won a mail contract from the New Brunswick government, and soon there was another stagecoach rivalry on the Westmorland Great Road. Evidence is lacking as to how it played out, but both lines seem to have struggled along until the late 1850s, when else rapid building of the European and North American Railroad linking Saint John to Shediac (completed in 1860) forced the longer stagecoach lines out of business. By about 1858, when Hickman acquired the Amherst-Moncton route, King's Coaches was confined to the Moncton-Sussex stretch, while the owner of the Harvey line had retired from the stagecoach business to open a tannery in Saint John. Given its rivalry with the Harvey, it seems likely that King’s Coaches patronized Hickman's 'Dorchester' as their stopping place in Dorchester.
As you enjoy your meal in this historic setting, let your imagination wander back to a time when the long blast of the driver's horn, the pungent smell of sweating horses and the excited barking of the local dogs announced the arrival of a stagecoach at the 'Dorchester’ the 'Weldon’ or the ‘Bell' - where weary travelers enjoyed a late night repast by candlelight, raised shouts of laughter for a well told story or perhaps simply listened quietly as old men drank their rum, smoked their pipes, and settled the affairs of the world.
To learn more about Dorchester's colourful past, please visit Keillor House Museum where, among many other things, the story of one calf the shiretown's prominent early families is told. And don't miss the St. James Textile Museum where attractive displays of tools and textiles evoke the domestic arts of a bygone era.
Text: W. Eugene Goodrich