One of my favorite John Wayne movies is Stagecoach. Do you remember the scene where, after three days in very close quarters with strangers, the passengers descend the steps, the gentlemen tipping their hats as they walk away, the ladies fanning at the unexpected heat, though they look as fresh as if they’d just left the tender ministrations of their maids.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Stagecoaches were open air affairs where passengers were crammed together onto barely padded benches, some inside, some riding the “rumble seat” on the top of the coach, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, with no privacy from those who were less careful about their personal hygiene. If it rained, oil cloths were lowered over the window frames to keep out some of the water, but that meant less ventilation. Passengers climbed out of those hot boxes with crumpled and stained clothing, sweaty and cranky, with dust in places no God-fearing person should have to abide dust.
Still, traveling by stagecoach was preferable to making the trip on horseback, or, heaven forbid, walking. And since the trains stopped halfway across the country, in places like St. Joseph, Missouri, or Memphis, Tennessee, the stagecoach picked up their passengers and took them to all points west.
Government mail contracts were the impetus and the financing for many of the stagecoach lines. And a lot of different companies ran stage lines across the west to Texas, Arizona, or California, to take advantage of those contracts. Here are a few examples.
Butterfield Overland Dispatch–two trails, a southern route, established in 1858, ran from Springfield, Missouri and Fort Smith, Arkansas, southwest across Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico to California, and was the first to carry mail; the other trail ran from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Denver, Colorado, beginning in 1865.
NOTE: John Butterfield’s company had the southern route, David Butterfield’s the Kansas/Colorado route–and the gentlemen were not related.
Visit this site if you’d like to see all the stations on the Kansas/Colorado route, as well as the approximately mileage between each: http://www.santafetrailresearch.com/research/bod-dispatch.html
Butterfield Overland Stage Company–this was probably the most famous of all stagecoach companies, certainly in Texas. Butterfield proposed the southern route because the mail could continue to run, even through the winter months.
“Butterfield’s route headed southwest from St. Louis and Memphis, crossing the Red River at Colbert’s Ferry (qv) in Grayson County and continuing across Texas for 282 miles to Fort Chadbourne via Jacksboro, Fort Belknap, and Fort Phantom Hill. The next 458 miles to El Paso swung south across a barren plain between the Concho and Pecos rivers, where water was in short supply, past Horsehead Crossing (qv) on the Pecos, up the east bank to Pope’s Camp, (qv) where it crossed the river, hugged the west bank northwestward to Delaware Spring, and then turned westward through Guadalupe Pass to Hueco Tanks and El Paso. The line continued westward through Tucson and Fort Yuma to San Diego.” http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/SS/ers1.html
Butterfield ran the stage lines until they were seized by the Confederate Army at the beginning of the Civil War. When he could no longer operate in the south, he moved his operation north and made use of the “Central Overland Route.”
Central Overland Route (aka “Central Overland Trail”, “Central Route”, “Simpson’s Route”, or the “Egan Trail”)–This trail was scouted by Howard Egan and used to move livestock between Salt Lake City and California. When the Army heard about the route, they sent an expedition to survey it for military use. It was opened to stagecoach lines and settlers in 1859. In 1860, the Pony Express made use of the trail, followed soon by the laying of lines for the Transcontinental Telegraph.
Black Hills Dead Wood Stagecoach went to–you guessed it–Deadwood, South Dakota. And William “Buffalo Bill” Cody rode shotgun and later drove for the company.
Cheyenne-Black Hills Stage and Express Line went from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Cheyenne-Black Hills line covered just over 300 miles, “…and for the most part the stations were located about 15 miles apart. The daily travel was about 100 miles and three days were necessary to make the entire trip.”
In February, 1866, Ben Holladay took over the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, renaming it Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company. Mr. Holladay sold out to Wells, Fargo in November of the same year.
There were specialized coach companies, too, like the Yellowstone Park Stage Coach Line, who had a fleet of bright yellow Concord stagecoaches as sightseeing vehicles in the park in 1886.
And that most famous of all stagecoaches? Believe it or not, Wells, Fargo and Company didn’t own their own stagecoach line until 1866, when they purchased Ben Holladay’s company. Until then, they rented space from other lines as they needed it. “By 1864, Wells Fargo, and Company were selling over two million envelopes a year for the Wells Fargo mail service and the public was using Wells Fargo green mailboxes throughout California.” http://www.linecamp.com/museums/americanwest/western_clubs/wells_fargo/wells_fargo.html
Check out this link for lots more information on these and other stage coach companies: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-stagecoachlines.html
Not all stages were the big coaches, drawn by six horses or mules. Concord made what they called a “Celerity Wagon,” a light, durable vehicle made for travelling over rough roads. But from what I read, it wasn’t any more comfortable, it just held together longer.
“The Butterfield Overland Mail transferred passengers and mail to light, durable vehicles for travel over rough roads. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 23, 1858.”
Whether a Celerity Wagon or a Concord Stage Coach, the trip west was certainly not for the faint of heart.
Have you ever seen one of the old stage coaches? Or ridden in one at a local fair or historical reenactment? I haven’t, but it’s on my bucket list.