Taking The Stage–Coach, That Is

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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.

Yeah. Right.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Stagecoaches were open air affairs where passengers were crammed together onto barely padded benchDeadwood 1889 photo by John Grabiles, 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: Ft Smith Butterfield Stagecoachhttp://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.

DeadwoodCoach SD 1889- photo by John GrabilBlack 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 Yellowstone CoachConcord 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.legendsofameCelerity Wagon butterfield_overland_mail_vehicle_illustrated_newspaper_1858rica.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.

Tracy G.

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26 thoughts on “Taking The Stage–Coach, That Is”

  1. Great post, Tracy. As motion sick as I can get, I doubt I’d have made a good stagecoach traveler LOL. I have ridden in one at Knotts Berry Farm (I imagine it was fairly authentic) and was so worried about the horses. I can only imagine how miserable it was for the ones pulling the real coaches LOL. We visited a little Wells Fargo museum in Old Sacramento and it was interesting.

    One of my favorite places ever is Cold Spring Tavern inland from Santa Barbara CA. It’s a preserved 1850’s stagecoach stop where the drivers would pull in so the passengers could have a meal, and change horses. We love to go there for lunch. The ambience is terrific…and the chili burger delish-ous. Thanks for the wonderful information! oxoxoxoxoxoxo

  2. Tracy,
    Wonderful post. And Tanya, I love Cold Spring Tavern, too. Speaking of Santa Barbara, you can still see stagecoach ruts along the old stagecoach trail. I followed them on foot once, researching a book. Leaving Santa Barbara,the stage would run along the beach at low tide on its way to Los Angeles. It wasn’t the rough ride passengers dreaded, it was getting caught in high tide. Thanks again, Tracy!

  3. Tracy- I live in Springfield, MO and growing up my Dad would always drive down onto the square and point out the Butterfield Stage office to me. To this day, it is still there, although it is a coffee shop now. We also hiked out through the tree’s just outside of town and found several area’s where the stage went through. Hit the area with metal detectors although we never found anything. LOVE the history of the Butterfield Stage! I can remember as a child where one of the old “stage stops” still had a dilapidated building standing on it. Very close to where my Grandpa lives. Never found anything exciting tromping around down in there, but always tried hard!

  4. Hi, Tracy. The stagecoach is a perfect example of how I romanticise the West. Kind of like wearing dresses and all those petticoasts. Looks so romantic in the movies, but must have been miserable for those who actually endured it. Especially during the heat of a Texas summer.

    It was fun seeing Fort Phantom Hill mentioned in the Butterfield route you quoted. I live in Abilene which sprung up along the T&P Railroad line after Fort Phantom was abandoned. The ruins of the fort are still there. Maybe one day they will get around to restoring it.

    Thanks for the great information!

  5. Tracy, Loved your post. Like Stephanie, I’m from Missouri. I rode in a stagecoach(although I assume it was a replica)years and years ago down at Silver Dollar City, and I saw one in a museum in Nebraska. The actual coach was much smaller and less well padded than the replica!

    We were blessed to have a father who gave us great experiences and a mother whose imagination made it come alive for us. One trip across Kansas in 105 degree summertime resulted in my dad never owning another car without air conditioning. LOL I can only imagine the discomfort those early stage riders endured. I would have thought a trip on horseback would have been preferable (if you could afford a horse) due to fresher air and less crowding.

  6. Wonderful post!

    I’ve seen some stagecoaches in museums but have never ridden in one. It looks very uncomfortable, I can’t imagine the ruts, dust, heat..

    Love that movie with John Wayne, “Stagecoach”, great film!

  7. Hi Tracy, great post! I have never road in a stagecoach or have seen one! I would love to though! I will have to put it on my bucket list to. I love to old west and have been so hooked on the western romances for the past year! That is all I want to read anymore! I read other books because I am running out of the western romances. I wish more author would write them.

  8. Tracy,

    I love this post. Even though I have never rode in a stagecoach I want to. Thanks for all the links I will definitely check them out

    I am so glad you done this post. I have learned alot

    Walk in harmony,

  9. Happy Friday all!! I’m traveling today, but wanted to hop in and say hi.
    Stephanie and Judy, since I live in Missouri, too, we’ll have to compare notes about historical sites.
    I’ll stop in again as soon as I find another hotspot. 🙂 For now, have a great weekend!

  10. HI Tracy!

    Loved the post and loved the pictures and info. Great post. I have seen the old stage coaches and have ridden in one, too, just to get th feel of it and that sort of thing. It was not the most comfortable ride, to say the least, but very informative. 🙂

  11. We took a trip out west near Phoenix and went to some western towns and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the town but we did get to ride in a stage coach. I guess it’s all what you get use to but I don’t think I would care to go any distance in one lol.

  12. Great post. Especially listing all the companies. I’ve never been in a stagecoach but have read enough to realize it just wasn’t much fun.

  13. Tracy,

    Never ridden in a stage coach, but have seen one
    at Knott’s Berry Farm and another in a museum
    display. I’m with Tanya, would never have handled
    riding in one!

    Pat Cochran

  14. Hi Tracy, Excellent post! I’ve never ridden in a stagecoach, but I’ve seen the real deal at the Smithsonian.

    The John Wayne movie is interesting history, not for the Old West but for the year it was made, 1939. I saw it in a history class at UCLA called something like, “Understanding America Through Film.”

  15. What a thorough explanation of the stage coach. This is another reason I am happy to be living when I am. And Stagecoach is one of my two favorite John Wayne movies. The other is The Angel and the Bad Man where John Wayne meets his match in a lovely Quakeress.

  16. We have friends that took a stagecoach ride in Colorado, but we’ve not been able to get back out there to do it. I believe you ride out, take a break, have a picnic lunch, and ride back. Have seen many in museums around the country, most recently in Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. They have the largest collection of wagons of all types I’ve seen.
    I haven’t ridden in a stagecoach, but the next best (worst) thing in modern times. In the Philippines, they have a jeepny – a jeep with an elongated bed, bench seats on opposite side in the back, and sometimes a bench seat in the middle. They cram in as many people as they can, along with chickens, baskets of fish and whatever else they have. On rainy days, the curtains are down and it gets interesting, especially when the old woman next to you is smoking a hand rolled cigar the size of a hotdog and bun. In the rural areas, they also have kalesa. It is an open horse drawn cart, usually 2 wheeled and 1 horse. They go up rough dirt roads and sway quite a bit. After a trip in one you are generally dusty. I can remember getting off them, brushing my skirt or dress and having a cloud of dust puffing out. needless to say, everything else is coated. When it is hot and humid, you get little trickles of mud when you perspire. Had to be a lot like a stagecoach ride, just not as long.
    Makes you appreciate air conditioning and a nice comfortable car.

  17. I am doing some research on the stage coach route and stations that was around grand junction, colorado. So far not to much luck. From what I can tell it followed the Colorado or Grand River as it approached Grand Junction from the east. Can you help me with any resources?

  18. I haven’t done any research on the Colorado routes. The Gold Belt Scenic & Historic Byway goes through that area, but I don’t know how close. Try contacting the Colorado Historic Museum in Denver. They may be able to point you in the right direction. Good luck.

  19. Am researching stagecoach operations from the Austin, Texas area heading/returning from points through the hill country, up towards Llano, Texas. I’m guessing the routes paralleled the Colorado River (now Lake Travis) then crossed the Pedernales River. Any ‘petticoats & pistols’ out there that can help me? I’m a part-time archivist for the City of Lakeway (TX). Thanks. PS Nice work!


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