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The Stagecoach

by Christine Jeffords

The stagecoach! What Western-viewer hasn't thrilled to watch it careening into town or thundering across the prairie? Howard R. Lamar in his New Encyclopedia of the American West goes so far as to say, "Of all the symbols associated with the American West, few have been as enduring or celebrated as the stagecoach." It brings JD Dunne to the town where his entire life will change; it carries Judge Orin Travis on his official rounds; it fetches visitors of every description, and even not a few residents-to-be, to Four Corners, and literally serves as the town's major lifeline to the outside world, carrying mail, magazines, and gossip of every description (freight-wagon trains probably arrive no more than once or twice a month, and the telegraph was too expensive to use except for emergencies and official business). For any Western town that wasn't served by the railroad, to have a stagecoach route passing through was literally a necessity of life, and not a few withered and died on the vine after the coach ceased to stop there.

The stagecoach as we see it in Westerns is a direct descendant of the British version, which was begun in the early 17th Century and came into flower during the 18th (the heyday of highwaymen). The first long-distance line in the United States (connecting New York City and Albany) went into service in 1785, but in the beginning the poor state of the roads mitigated against the spread of the system. British coaches, besides being weighty and cumbersome, were built with steel springs, which, if made heavy enough to cope with the potholes and other impediments of an American road, had to be so stout that they threw the passengers from their seats!

As in other instances (the Colt revolver being a major one), it was New England genius that originated a means of solving the problem. The first innovation was the "thoroughbraces," substitutions for the steel springs. These long, three-to-four-inch-wide straps, made up of four to eight thicknesses of heavy steerhide leather, were rove through stout foot-high iron or steel stanchions lifting above front and rear axles, front and back. Oriented lengthwise, they acted as both springs and shock absorbers, and the coach rocked back and forth, but not much from side to side, with a rolling motion far more pleasant than the jolting of a wagon. It was also much easier on the horses: hit a chughole or a boulder in a vehicle with springs and the effect on the team was the same as if the brake had suddenly been put on full force, but hit the same obstruction in an American stage and the body rocked forward and actually helped it over; at the beginning of its run, when the coach started into motion, the body would roll back, then forward again, helping the horses overcome the tug of inertia. And it was easy to repair: if it broke, it could be fixed by any fairly skilled person with a leather punch, a sharp knife, and a tanned cowhide, while a broken spring would require a highly trained blacksmith with his forge and special steel stock. Soon the Yankee coachmakers added a bulging, egg-shaped body to take full advantage of the improvement, lowering the vehicle's center of gravity and combining strength and durability with a relatively light construction. It would even float if a river had to be crossed.

Throughout the pioneer period, the cream of coaches came from the firm of Abbott & Downing; their Concord model, first made in 1827, weighed some 2500-3000 lb. empty, with a load capacity of up to two tons, and cost about $1000-$1050. Made in three sizes, intended to hold six, nine, or 12 passengers respectively (the first, with two seats inside, each wide enough to take three people without crowding, is the one we most commonly see on film, though in the actual West the second, at least on the transcontinental routes, was probably the likeliest encountered, its two forward-facing seats and one back- all quite close together, necessitating frequent "dovetailing" of the legs of front- and middle-seat passengers, a measure not appreciated by the ladies), it sometimes carried as many as 17, particularly in the Mother Lode country of California, where six to twelve of them were likely to perch on the roof, as contemporary illustrations show. The commonest model stood 8'6" tall from ground to roof-rail, the rear wheels being 5' across and the front ones 3'10", and left a track 5'6" wide. Each was made exclusively by hand, over about three weeks, by a team of three or four men working together. Its top, floor, and ends were fashioned of solid oak, the graceful side panels of countless layers of paper-thin basswood or light pine steamed and curved to fit stout ash frames, painstakingly laminated, dried, and coated with tough, glass-smooth varnish. The planks were hewn of clearest pine and birch, and the metal (including the axles) all steel except for the brass trimmings. The wheel hubs were of specially seasoned elm, the rims hardest hickory, and the spokes hand-hewn ash or tough oak. The brake lever was four inches wide, so the driver's foot could find it easily and use it like a third hand. A minimum of metal joinery was used, and what there was was best Norwegian iron. Eight steerhides were required for the boots and thoroughbraces of a single coach. Buyers chose the color scheme, which ordinarily involved a very fanciful combination of a deep red (sometimes yellow) background trimmed with red, gold, vermilion, black, and yellow, with floral and vine designs on the body panels, often portraits (usually of beautiful women, political figures, the American eagle, or other characters of fiction or mythology) on the doors, or perhaps scrolls and landscapes. Two great favorites were a dark green body with vermilion running gear, or (the classic) red with straw-colored. Ordinarily the name of the purchasing stage company would be lettered above the windows, U. S. Mail or U. S. M. at the tops of the doors, and sometimes the coach itself was christened, like a ship, with some resounding name such as Argosy, Western Monarch, Gen. Harrison, John Tyler, Industry, or Prairie Queen. In the East, these coaches were often very fancy indeed: silver trim, yellow running gear, body carmine, scarlet, and gold; silk plush or crimson leather seats, cushions, and padded interior walls; blue silk curtains, velvet hold straps, silver side lanterns.

A common Western variant was the celerity coach, more often called a "mud wagon." This was either a lighter, smaller, simpler version of the Concord, or, more often, a wagonette. A square-bodied, homely conveyance with a top of treated canvas stretched over wooden struts, it lacked the Concord's beautifully curved and joined panels, being enclosed only halfway up by flat panels decorated with a roving of wood strips to make it look more expensively made. Its carriage and running gear were lighter than the Concord's, but still sturdy enough for slower travel over muddy roads, and it had the same sort of thoroughbraces as the big one. When its canvas side-curtains were rolled up and fastened, it was almost completely open, which let in more dust but also admitted every available breeze--an advantage in the Southwest. Built like its big brother by Abbott & Downing, it was tough and durable, but lighter in weight, and had a lower center of gravity, making it good for mountain roads, such as those routinely servicing mining camps. The body measured from 6'10" to over 8' high, the track 5'2" (in the U.S.) or 4'8" (in Canada), and it weighed from 800 lb. (for the commonest nine-passenger model) to 1200 (for a 14-). It had two to three inside seats (no roof passengers), and baggage was stored in the single rear boot or piled inside with the passengers. It was much in favor during rainy spells: sometimes a heavy Concord got mired down, but six horses (or more often mules) could pull a mud wagon through just about anything. On occasion it was also employed in hostile Indian country, where the Concords might be too valuable to risk (road-agents would simply lift the portable valuables, but Indians were likely to set the coach afire if they took it), and in this case the front boot (for the driver's sake) and the seats were protected by sheet metal, heavy enough to stop an arrow and perhaps a bullet. These vehicles cost about 35% what the Concord did, but the later varieties became beautiful, with curved panels in the rove sides, sometimes solid sides and doors and/or permanent tops with railings, or curved dashes and elaborate leather trim.

The name "stagecoach" comes from the fact that it travelled "by stages," changing teams at intervals. In the West these intervals were marked by stations of three basic kinds. The "home stations," placed 40-100 miles apart (it varied with the line and the demands of the terrain), were under charge of a station agent, who often owned as well as ran the facility: he would take up land, erect buildings, obtain a contract with the stage company to run a home station, and thereafter do so with the help of his family, farming or (with a batch of hired hands) ranching on the side, perhaps operating a store (if he had picked a junction point where freighters and traders could visit, and where, if he had good connections with the Indians, he could pick up a nice business in buffalo robes, dressed deerskins, and "coarse" fur), and sometimes even driving stage as well. If the agent died, it was quite common for the line to arrange for the station to continue running under the supervision of his widow--a godsend for a family deprived of its breadwinner. Settlers found that running such a station eased a harsh existence and brought in extra money. In some cases the stationkeeper was the most prosperous rancher in a sparsely populated neighborhood, whose home, on account of its location, had already become a center of local activity. These stations were so called because they marked the end of a driver's run and were his "home" at each end, so there was always a drivers' room opening off the central dining hall, with up to four cots lined up against the walls. Mostly they also served meals, though occasionally the schedule would find mealtimes falling in between, and then a "meal station" would be set up. In town, the home station was likely to be the leading hotel of the place, in part because it could usually provide food as well, and in this case tickets were often sold at the registration desk. The intervening stops were called "swing stations" and were set 10-20 mi. apart, manned usually by only two or three men, mostly drifters, who would take the job for a few months, then move on: the life was lonesome, and Indians and white horse thieves a constant threat, so nobody wanted to make a career of it. In many instances these men were on the dodge from the law.

As a rule passengers didn't stop at either kind of station except to eat, but occasionally one would decide to break his journey for some reason, and to accommodate these each home station had two to six bedrooms, more or less well-furnished and clean depending upon the finances of the builder and the energy of the housekeeping staff (usually his wife and daughters). There was generally a small bar, a stock of liquor, playing cards, tobacco, blue and green goggles, staple medicines and first-aid supplies, and simple snack foods like cheese, crackers, and canned goods, though of course a station with a store could offer much greater variety. Sometimes there was a post office (patronized by the residents of the surrounding countryside), a corner ticket window, or both. Generally a hunter was employed to keep the place in meat, sometimes doubling as a relief driver at need. In hostile Indian country it was common for the home stations to be stockaded. As for the quality of the food, that varied even more broadly than the sleeping accommodations, with the stations that were operated as adjuncts to ranches or farmsteads naturally offering a better menu. In. c. 1850-70, stage and Pony Express stations in eastern Kansas and Nebraska could and did serve up meals featuring milk, butter, eggs, fresh vegetables, and soft bread, but farther west the menus routinely consisted of almost unvaried bacon, beans, potatoes, hardtack, and coffee. At later stations, hogmeat and hominy or beef and beans were the commonest meals; bacon, pork, sourdough bread, and grits were staples, perhaps augmented by game, potatoes, and dried fruit. (One story, perhaps apocryphal, recounts that the doughnut was invented at one of these stations, with the hole punched out of the middle so that a handsome and popular young Pony Express rider, sighed over by the stationkeeper's daughters, could catch and hold them on his fingers to munch on as he rode.) Regardless of how long you laid over, if you ate at the station, it was on the ticket; anywhere else, it was on you. Casual travellers could also get a meal, but they had to pay for it--fifty cents to $1.75.

Master of the coach was the driver, or "whip." A good one was hard to find: he had to be courageous and generally reliable, a master at the reins, and able to mix well with passengers, remember scores of little errands, bring the mail in on time whenever humanly possible, and handle his spirited team with skill and intelligence, driving them, usually at a goodly gallop, over roads often convulsed with curves. He was responsible for the collection of passenger tickets, the comfort and safety of his passengers, and the approximate maintenance of a fixed schedule. Many of the best drivers were drifters, perhaps spending a summer in Wyoming or Montana, a winter in California or Arizona. But they depended on their reputations for future employment, and so were usually careful to give advance notice of intent to depart, so the line could prepare a replacement. And, as long as they remained in a given service, these drifters were usually the most dependable of their kind to be had--loyal, experienced, and with a knowledge of all road conditions from snow to bog to sand and everything in between. Even if he worked for one line for many years, a driver was constantly shifting around, because he got sick and tired of one stretch of road. As in the Army, there was a system of seniority, and a driver who had it could "bump off" a more recently hired one and take over his run. Former Pony Express riders were much in demand, as they could be depended upon for courage, quick thinking, and expertise in handling horses. Most were reasonably young: 50 was old for the trade. Early drivers spent much of their pay on fine-fitting, tailor-made suits of the best materials, boots, gauntlets, and cream-white half-stiff half-slouch hats; on the transcontinental lines some also put special decorations on their harness, or "rigging"--small ivory rings, scarlet rosettes, nickel-plated trappings, Indian beaded work, Spanish silver pieces--and took it with them when they moved along the line. Every driver also had his own whip, which was dearer to him than gold in the bank; he kept the rawhide oiled and the silverwork polished, never laid it down (he coiled and hung it instead), and wouldn't lend it to his best friend; and woe unto the man who, holding it while its owner was busy elsewhere, let the tip fall and drag in the dirt. For a six-up he needed, at minimum, a 9' rawhide lash on a sturdy 4.5-5' packed stock, though 11-16' ones could also be found. Made of bullhide or oiled black rawhide, with silver ferrules or decorations on the stock, whips became so identified with their users that you could walk into a strange bar, see a whip hanging on the wall, and know what driver was present before you even laid eyes on him. Some drivers were close-mouthed, others jolly; some wore fancy buckskin, others plain homespun, while one celebrated dandy liked gaudy waistcoats and had the habit of donning a new pair of kid gloves on each run; and they answered to such varied names as "Mr. Bishop," "'Pop' Wright," and "One-Eyed Tom." In the early days, up till the Civil War, the best of them came out of New England (especially Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), where some families had been driving, father to son, for three or four generations; boys of these lines began learning reinsmanship as early as eight or nine, and took three years or more to get the hang of controlling a six-up. The driver carried his own bedding with him, tucking it into the front boot under his seat, and had the privilege of choosing which of the passengers would be allowed to sit next to him if there was no guard--the most distinguished person aboard, a pretty girl, some fellow he knew, or just someone on whom his eye had lit with approval. Young children travelling alone were entrusted to his care, and between stops his word was law. Invariably he was the envy of lowly stocktenders and stablemen, and sometimes of the section boss himself. Some drivers were women: the competent and popular Sadie J. Orchard of New Mexico drove a daily coach from Kingston to Lake Valley while her husband managed the line, broke many of its horses and mules herself, and was never held up. "Mountain Charley" Parkhurst drove for 20 years through some of the West's most dangerous territory, and wasn't discovered to have been female till her death in 1879. A good many independent stage lines were started by former drivers on the transcontinental runs, who bought coaches and other stock from their former employers after the latter were forced out of business by the completion of the railroad in 1869.

In troubled country, and, by Government regulation, on every mail coach, the armed guard, or shotgun messenger, sat on the left-hand side of the box, typically armed with a pair of handguns and a sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot; Greeners with 20" barrels were the favored type. This person, called the "conductor" in the East, might be hired by the line or by the express company. In some instances, such as on Ben Holladay's lines, he rode a longer beat than the driver did--200 miles to the latter's 50.

"Express," a term commonly heard in connection with coaching, meant simply privately-owned fast transportation, by which light or valuable freight, including letters, newspapers, parcels and packages, and gold, was sent via special messenger rather than by the inadequate postal service of the day. Such companies began to appear in the late 1830's and early '40's, Harnden's being among the first, but the service was probably typified by Wells-Fargo, organized in 1852. A few large express companies operated overland, but most were local lines whose service depended on connections with the major organizations. Offices were maintained in general stores, banks, and the like, and served as weighing-and-shipping points for miners' gold dust as well as mail. In 1862 Wells Fargo first took over the operation of overland freight, guaranteeing delivery 100% and paying the stage companies a certain amount to transport it. For the most part it stayed out of the coaching business itself, though it did operate some outfits before the Civil War, and indeed dominated the trade west of Salt Lake, but east of there could make little progress against Ben Holladay. All express companies, having to protect their shipments, maintained effective guard and security systems, and also employed private-detective agencies, like the Pinkertons, to track down bandits. In addition, Fargo had its own special agents, who acted as troubleshooters hunting down road-agents (unlike most local law they were unrestricted by jurisdictional boundaries or constitutional considerations) or as extra guards when a coach carried a valuable shipment. Occasionally they were placed by the company in lawless districts, there to operate undercover while picking up information about robbers and the like. Wells-Fargo, and probably other express companies as well, was generous to company messengers or law officers who killed, captured, or successfully fought off stage robbers, bestowing lavish silver watches or beautifully engraved rifles on them.

The stage team numbered never less than four horses, most commonly six, sometimes eight or even twelve. The animals ranged from gamy Western mustangs through Morgans (excellent under any conditions, wet or dry, steep or level, snow or thunderstorm), Cleveland Bays, and former Pony Express stock to 1500-lb. Kentucky-bred trotters. The best type ran to about 1100 lb. and was produced by crossing half-Percheron stallions on mares of good saddle stock. Within the team they were tapered in size, the wheelers (those nearest the coach) being biggest, on average about 1200 lb. each, and the leaders--the spark of the team and the pace-setters--weighing in at two-thirds that. Every color was used--bay, sorrel, black, chestnut, brindle, gray, cream, white, even roan, buckskin, or paint. All were chosen for strength, tough legs, spirit, animation, and the ability to stand hot weather and put forth sustained speed, and cost $90-$150 in a day when an average riding horse was priced at $10-$30 and even a Thoroughbred-Spanish gelding only $50. They were carefully trained, making their first runs beside veterans who knew their business almost as well as the driver did, and some made a daily 10-to-20-mile run every day for as much as 15 years. Their condition was closely tracked, and any lump, sore, limp, or other defect was cause for retirement from active service. The finest rugged, lightweight "fast hitch" stage harness was made by Hill Bros. (later J. R. Hill & Co.) of Concord, New Hampshire, and cost $120 a set, but Main & Winchester of San Francisco also produced a good type. On the road they generally went at a moderate gallop, slowing to a walk or gentle trot in hilly, curvy-roaded country, and averaging, on the firm wagon trails of the West, 5-10 MPH with the weight of the coach to hold them back (unpaved Eastern roads tended to mud and were slower); but when nearing a stop the driver would whip them up to 13 to make a good showing, for he dearly loved to put on some style. One traveller told of covering an eight-mile stretch, without a station in sight, in 30 minutes, and of spending only 72 hours on a 575-mile desert route (an average of 7.986 MPH); another described how, at relay stops, the traces were loosened, the released horses "marched unled" into the shed (to be stripped of their harness after the coach had gone on), and the fresh animals, already rigged up and waiting, moved likewise each into its accustomed space. The process of changing took no more than five to nine minutes, the new horses needing only to be hooked up. Three times a day--every four or five stops--the coach would make a 20- to 30-minute stop for meals; by custom the food was served when the driver sat down, and when he finished and was ready to move on, the passengers were finished too, whether they wanted more or not.

In order to meet the varied challenges that might arise on the road, the stage was routinely equipped with a coiled lariat in the boot, a water bag or two, a toolbox, and sometimes a medical kit. A lantern was standard, and in the jockey box an ax, shovel, and perhaps a pick-mattock. A spare wheel might be carried lashed underneath, and spades went along to scrape gumbo off the wheels. A carbine boot was strapped tight on the driver's side of the box, and if there was no guard he usually had a scattergun cached behind the seat as well: even if no express were being carried, it wasn't unknown for road-agents to take a chance on the passengers being well-heeled.

Fares were based upon mileage and seem to have averaged ten to twenty-five cents a mile, as against three to twenty on the railroad. The St.-Louis-to-San-Francisco central overland run cost $200 per person for 2072 miles--9.6525c. each--while the 1515-mile St.-Joseph-to-Carson-City run weighed in at $150, or just 9.9c. In 1859 the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express charged $100 for the trip from Leavenworth to Denver; at 505 miles, this came to 19.8c. per. In 1876, the 195 miles from Austin to Dallas could be covered for $20 (10.25c. ea.). Minneapolis to Mankato, Minnesota, a distance of 80 miles, cost $5.10 (6.375c. ea.), while from Austin (Nevada) to Salt Lake City (Utah) it was $96, a bit over a quarter per mile. (The average of these figures comes to just under 13.5c./mile.) Round-trip fares were usually a little lower: if one-way was 15-25c./mile, circuit would come to 13.25-18.5c., which was 74-88% of the full price. On many lines there was a weight limit for luggage, ranging from 20-100 lb. per person, and anyone who exceeded it (as Maude Standish, for example, probably would, with her assortment of trunks weighted down with rocks) was charged a tariff that ranged from 10c. per pound to a dollar on the transcontinental line. (However, even this was a better deal than on the early Eastern coaches, where a ticket entitled you to 100 lb. of weight, and if you weighed more you had to buy a second.) The driver was paid from $50-$150 per month, the shotgun guard $62.50-$120, depending upon the line; agents got $60 ($80 if they ran an office in town), blacksmiths $125, swing-station stocktenders $40 (usually paid quarterly to anchor them in place for a few months), and humble hostlers only $20, plus "found," or all keep.

Though a manifest of passengers and their luggage was kept for each run, the stage lines were generally quite flexible about the tickets: if a passenger for some reason proved unable to leave when he had planned to, he could hold the ticket for later use, or turn it in and get his money back; if he decided not to go back to the place he had come from, he could cash in the return half of his round-trip ticket. Although the rear seat was the most comfortable owing to the laws of gravity and inertia, and courteous male passengers routinely surrendered it to any ladies who might be aboard, the front one, with its back to the driver, was better protected from dust and weather.

Stagecoaching in summer was a dusty proposition: fine, powdery dust sifted through the coach, covering the passengers and, unless they wore tightly woven dusters, thoroughly permeated all their clothing. In winter it was a cold one, and they wrapped themselves thoroughly in shawls, overcoats, blankets, and buffalo robes, buckled buffalo-hide overshoes with the hair left on over their regular footgear, and perhaps had the attendants shove in a footstove--a metal or wood box filled with sand or ashes and live coals--or some heated large bricks or chunks of soapstone. They also passed a flask around (someone always had one). Indian attacks and road-agents were well known. Then there were steep uphill grades on which, ordinarily, the passengers got out and walked, sometimes helping to shove till the summit was reached, then to chain the wheels for the descent. Treacherously steep and rough trails caused many a stage to crash or overturn, as did wheelspokes cracking or smashing as the wheel dropped into a deep rut, runaway teams of half-broke horses, and occasionally a more than half-drunk driver. And sometimes the coach got stuck in the mud, so the passengers (or at least the men) were again expected to disembark to lighten the load, even in knee-deep muck, and often lend a push through the boggy spot. Chronic complainers, bawling babies, occasional stage-sick travellers, and the possibility of being cooped up for days with boozers, gamblers (after the first day on any of the Overland stages, there was likely to be a poker game going, day and night, gotten up by one of the many professional card men who rode the line and made a business of fleecing the passengers), shady ladies, unwashed miners, or other uncongenial trailmates ranked as inconveniences but certainly did little to make the journey pleasant. On the whole, except for short journeys, coaching was a poor substitute for roomy covered wagons. But it was fast, and didn't require camping out every night for weeks or months on end.

The first stagecoaches west of the Missouri were apparently those of S. H. L. Meek's "Telegraph Line," which began plying the Oregon country in 1846. They spread rapidly, and as early as 1849 there were short-line Hockaday stages operating out of St. Joseph, plus once-a-month service to Santa Fe. The first Missouri-to-Salt-Lake-City operation, also monthly, set out on July 1, 1850. The following year John M. Hockaday and William Liggett established a line to carry mail and express from Independence to Salt Lake in 21 days' time, connecting at the Mormon capitol with a line to the Coast. In a few years both the Salt Lake and Santa Fe stages stepped up their frequency to weekly. In April, 1854, the latter were joined by a small mail-and-passenger line of two-horse coaches that began service between San Antonio, Tex., and Santa Fe, a journey of three weeks. Three years later this "San Antonio Express" began service to Southern California via El Paso, allowing a maximum of 30 days for the trip, though Indian attacks were frequent and breakdowns common. In May, 1859, Hockaday and Liggett were bought out by Jones, Russell & Co. (one of whose partners was the Russell in Russell, Majors & Waddell), which also obtained the contract to transport the U. S. Mail from St. Joseph, via Forts Kearny and Laramie, to Salt Lake City once a week. Five months later the company was so deeply in debt (owing to the collapse of the Pike's Peak boom, which had resulted in receipts far lower than anticipated) that Majors and Waddell were forced to come to their associate's aid or else risk their own downfall. Already boasting four years' experience as long-distance freight operators, they renamed their acquisition the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express and for the first few weeks ran west from Leavenworth, Kans., to Indianola (two miles north of Topeka), along the north bank of the Kaw to Junction City, and on along the divide between the Republican and Solomon Rivers. Shortly they shifted the route to the Platte--already for 16 years the route of choice for wagon emigrants bound for Oregon and California--in search of fuel and water, and continued to operate it and deliver the mails into Salt Lake and also Denver, by way of a branch line from Julesburg, then in mid-January of 1860 changed the name again (to Central Overland, California, & Pikes Peak Express Co.), shortened the trip to 10 days, and put on a daily service. Shortly thereafter George Chorpenning's mail contract between Salt Lake and Placerville was annulled for failure to perform, and RM&W managed to obtain a new one for semimonthly delivery, thus uniting the entire central route under one master. Meanwhile, by 1859, the firm of Barlow, Sanderson & Co. was sending coaches down the Santa Fe Trail three times a week, increased to daily early in the following decade. RM&W's largest creditor, Ben Holladay, foreclosed on them in December of 1861, forced a sale of the line's assets three months later, obtained it for an additional $100,000, renamed it the Overland Stage Co., and ran the line with great efficiency and style until, foreseeing the completion of the transcontinental railroad, he sold it to Wells Fargo in November, 1866. By the end of '62 he had spread a web of short lines (much like those of California a decade earlier) anchoring in Denver to serve the mining camps appearing throughout the Rockies, and another, three times weekly, out of Salt Lake to Walla Walla via Boise City, West Bannack, and Portland, or Virginia City, Montana, via Bannack and Helena. The 1900-mile transcontinental route, which more or less followed the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Bridger, then took a more direct path via Salt Lake to Carson City, was often made in 15 days--three or four less than the official maximum.

For a time the chief competitor of the central route was the famous "Butterfield line," officially the American Express Company, formed in 1850. Persistent demands for a through mail service to the Pacific Coast--the central route was divided between two carriers, as outlined above, for a full decade--culminated in the Congressional authorization of a semiweekly one, to take no more than 25 days each way, in March, 1857. An ironclad seven-year contract to carry the through mail (local carriage remained in the hands of Hockaday & Liggett and Chorpenning, and later of RM&W) was awarded to Butterfield, and on September 15, 1858, the first coaches left from opposite ends of the route, covering the journey in three weeks by travelling day and night. The indirect route was almost 2800 miles long, but less subject to the vagaries of winter weather than the central one. It began in Fort Smith, Ark., where two mail routes (from St. Louis and Memphis respectively) converged, and travelled southwest through the Indian Territory, across the Red River, via Sherman, Tex., and Forts Belknap, Phantom Hill, and Chadbourne to Mustang Spring, over 75 miles of desert, over the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing, north along it to Delaware Creek, across, on to Guadalupe Peak, past the salt lakes to Franklin (as El Paso was then alternatively known), past Fort Fillmore to Mesilla (N. M.) and across the Rio Grande, past Cook's Peak near Deming, through Shakespeare (just below Lordsburg), on to Stern Springs (A. T.), Apache Pass (the most dangerous point on the route), Tucson, Maricopa, Yuma, and Warner's Ranch, and so to Los Angeles, over Tejon Pass, and up the interior valley along the Camino Real to San Francisco. By 1860 the line was operating twice weekly and carrying more mail than the Pacific steamers. But a large chunk of this route passed through future Confederate territory--indeed the eastern terminus was located in what was to become hostile country--and in February, 1861, even before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Texas Rangers moved in on the line, confiscating, in a series of raids all across the state, much of its equipment and most of its hay and grain. Since war was obviously imminent and communications with California had to be kept open, Congress moved the line up to the central route. All stations from Arizona to the Pecos River were ordered abandoned, and a column of coaches, livestock, and the wives and families of stationkeepers, escorted by a full company of Cavalry, set out for California, trying to keep ahead of possible pursuit by Texas troops. Thereafter Butterfield ran from Atchison, Kans., taking the same route as RM&W (which was by now mired in financial shortfalls and political scandal) and presumably paying them for the use of their already established network of support facilities. As the war dragged on and most of the soldiers along the route were transferred east, the Laramie-to-Julesburg section was abandoned due to continual Indian attacks, and until 1865 the coaches ran west through Fort Kearny, Julesburg, and Denver, thence via the old Cherokee Trail along the edge of the Rockies, by way of Fort Collins, Laporte, Virginia Dale, and on to Fort Halleck (in present-day Wyoming), Salt Lake, and San Francisco. After Appomattox they returned to their previous route, but through that summer went only as far as San Antonio owing to the Indian troubles further west. In September, since the Colorado diggings remained viable and had to be served, the Butterfield Overland Despatch began to ply the old Smoky Hill route from Atchison to Denver, a 12-day trip.

Stagecoaching also played a major role in the development of all mineral lodes, which for the most part were located in country inaccessible to railroads (only in Colorado did a web of narrow-gauge short-line feeders come into being before the close of the century). In Virginia City, Nev., the robbery of outgoing bullion coaches quickly became almost a ritual, engendered in part by an almost universal dislike for Wells Fargo's exorbitant travel and shipping rates. At some turn on a lonely road, the stage driver would be confronted with an obstacle, such as a boulder or a small tree, lying across the path, and behind it masked men armed with shotguns. Since he considered it no part of his job to fight off bandits, he would throw down the strongbox and go his way. Few tears were shed over such incidents in a community that regarded the holdup as merely a dispute between two kinds of robbers, corporate and free-lance. It was an open secret that the highwaymen had spies in the express offices who alerted them when bullion was to be shipped. One driver was held up so often he was widely suspected of being on the bandits' payroll. But these brigands were not murderers, as were those of the camp's Montana namesake, a tightly organized band which ultimately proved to be led by none other than Henry Plummer, then serving as sheriff of the Virginia City Mining District.

Robbing a stage wasn't difficult if the road-agents used the terrain to their advantage. Holdups were commonest in the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills and along the Pacific coast, for those were regions where mines were located and passengers most likely to be carrying large sums of money, but any stage with a payroll sack or a shipment of coin or currency for a local bank might be targeted. The Deadwood stage was most likely to be stopped on the run back to Cheyenne, the outlaws figuring that outbound travellers would be carrying either dust or cash. Due to Fargo's policy of payment in full of all losses, shippers of coin or bullion would sometimes tip off highwaymen when they were making up a rich load, split the take with them, and collect the indemnification as well. Rough hills, wayside brush, thick timber, or a combination helped the road agents--who plagued every line of consequence, both singly and in gangs--to surprise the stage, and concealed their escape afterward. An ideal spot was one where the trail, hampered by steep terrain, passed a tongue of timber flowing out of a draw and sweeping down toward the road. If the character of the country disallowed this, and the gang included a sharpshooter among its members, downing the near (left-side) leader would hopelessly snarl the team and halt its forward progress. Standing procedure was to appear suddenly from concealment, generally masked, before the oncoming coach and command the driver to halt and throw down the treasure box. Like later train robbers, a canny road-agent was wise not to try to ambush a stage on an open straightaway, since that was where the driver whipped the horses up and made time; a steep upgrade was preferable, or if there was none, a fairly sharp curve where the team would have to slow down. (Hard-riding pursuits across the flats, though they make good cinema, probably occurred only if the outlaws were atypically desperate.) But almost no robber ever shot a stage driver except by accident; it was almost as bad as shooting a woman or a child. In the minds of most Western men a "whip" was something special, and outlaws made it a practise to leave them alone.

Perhaps the best-known of the mining-camp lines was "the Deadwood stage," celebrated in song, story, and film--officially the Cheyenne & Black Hills, which operated daily from 1876-87. Setting out from Cheyenne, Wyo., on the Union Pacific Railroad, it travelled almost due north past Fort D. A. Russell to Fort Laramie, bent just slightly east of north along the Miles City cattle trail, and split off from it at the Cheyenne River, just east of the present Wyoming-South Dakota state line. About 35 miles further on it merged with the Sidney-Black Hills stage-and-freight road, up from Sidney, Neb. (another UP stop), and turned almost due north again for 43.5 miles, entering Lead and Deadwood just beyond. The entire route covered about 239 miles, and if the stage ran night and day could be covered in under 32 hours, barring accidents, Indians, road-agents, and bad weather. At Deadwood one could connect with a stage to Bismarck, another 217 miles, and there board the Northern Pacific Railroad, which reached the town in 1873 and provided service east to Fargo and on across Minnesota to the more settled lands--or, later, west to Medora on the Little Missouri, up the Yellowstone to Miles City, Fort Ellis, and Bozeman, where it forked, the southern branch going to Virginia City and the northern splitting again to service Helena (where it linked with the Great Northern Railroad in 1887) and Butte, then rejoining to unite, on September 8, 1883, with the NP crews building eastward from Seattle.

The Kansas City-Santa Fe Mail followed the Santa Fe wagon trail across eastern Kansas, to Fort Zarah on the first big bend of the Arkansas, to Fort Larned at the Pawnee Fork, and on upriver past the eventual site of Dodge City to Fort Lyon, just past the junction of Big Sandy Creek. 50 miles further on it left the Arkansas and plunged more or less southwest to steep Raton (Mouse) Pass, over the New Mexico territorial line, and on to Fort Union, Las Vegas, and at last Santa Fe, where connections were made for towns like Albuquerque, Mesilla, Lincoln, and El Paso, as well as for Arizona and southern California. This route was subsequently adopted by the surveyors of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, and is followed by that line to this day.

Although transcontinental stage service ended with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, the major concentration of railroad-building throughout the 19th Century focused on supplemental east-west lines--the Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe, which all linked California to the east in 1883--and a few connectors like the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas, the Kansas Pacific, the Texas & Pacific, the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba or Great Northern, the Oregon Short Line (a UP subsidiary) across southern Idaho to UP junctions at Ogden and Granger, the Oregon Railway Navigation Company, the Oregon & California (a Southern Pacific subsidiary and one of the few north-south lines), the Fremont, Elkhorn, & Missouri Valley which ultimately (in 1888) provided a direct rail connection between Lead and the eastern states, the Burlington & Missouri River to Denver, the Atlantic & Pacific (which despite its grandiose name ran only from the Southern Pacific terminal at Needles, Calif., and across northern Arizona to a junction with the AT&SF a little below Albuquerque), and the Denver & Rio Grande and its subsidiary web of often narrow-gauge short lines into the mountains. Thus most north-and-south travel of necessity continued to be by coach, as did connections between towns on the railroad and those off it, or between communities removed from any rail service; and in large sections of the country that remained the only option until the advent of the internal combustion engine and the introduction of busses in the 1920's. Probably hundreds of short- and medium-distance independent lines operated in what we think of as "the West" (that is, the country north of Mexico, south of Canada, and west of a line running along the boundaries of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and in so doing served, as Harper's Magazine declared in 1874, as "the advance guard of civilization in the far West."


Six-Horse Hitch, Janice Holt Giles. The last volume in her Cooper/Fowler Family historical-novel sequence concentrates on the Central Overland stage and is told by one of the drivers.

Stagecoach, Robert Krepps. Novelization of the Alex Cord/Ann-Margret remake of the John Wayne classic.

Overland Stage, Glen Dines. A thin juvenile book with valuable illustrations, including maps of the lines.

Horse Power Days, Ivan L. Collins. Comb-bound collection of photographs of scale-model 19th-Century vehicles, including various types of coaches.

Six Horses, Capt. William & George Hugh Banning

The Stagecoach, George Estes

Stagecoach West, Ralph Moody

Express and Stagecoach Days in California, Oscar Osburn Winther

U. S. West: The Saga of Wells Fargo, Lucius Beebe & Charles Clegg

Wells Fargo: Advancing the American Frontier, Edward Hungerford

The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869, Roscoe P. & Margaret B. Conkling

War Drums and Wagon Wheels: The Story of Russell, Majors, & Waddell, Raymond W. & Mary L. Settle


Stagecoach, either version.

Apache War Smoke, starring Gilbert Roland and Robert Horton. Set on a Southwestern home station.

Wells Fargo, starring Joel McCrea. Fictionalized story of the founding and growth of the express company.


The Overland Trail, at

America's West, at

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Comments to author Christine Jeffords

Graphics from "Desperado's Robber's Roost"