a modern day Stagecoach Driver I have often wondered what it must
have been like to drive the stage lines of the old west. This
curiosity moved me to research these hardy modes of transportation
used during the mid to late 1800’s and to discover their origin
and some of their illustrious and dangerous past.
Two wheelwrights named J.
S. Abbot and Lewis Downing perfected the first Concord Stagecoach
in 1826. Their New Hampshire wagon factory became the place where
Abbot and Downing would manufacture their Concord Stagecoaches
along with over 40 other types of wagons and carriages. Of the
Concord, Mark Twain once stated, "The Concord Stagecoach was like
a cradle on wheels." And rightly so.
The Abbot Downing Company
employed thorough braces and a suspension system made of 3 inch
leather straps under the coach which gave the ride a swinging
motion instead of the jolting up and down of spring suspension.
As for the outward appearance the undercarriage was typically
painted bright yellow with the coach color being the purchaser's
choice. The typical exterior colors used were scarlet red or green.
The window in the door was glazed while the side windows were
not. Canvas or leather curtains hung above each window and could
be rolled down during bad weather. They had plush interiors that
usually consisted of three upholstered bench seats that allowed
up to twelve passengers to ride inside. There were also times
when it was possible for passengers to ride on top of the coach
as well. Between the years of 1827 through 1899 the companies
of Abbot and Downing and Sons produced over three thousand Concord
Other coaches such as the
Celerity wagons also known as mud wagons, passenger wagons and
mail wagons were used in the west for short hauls, branch routes
or mountainous roads. These wagons could carry from four to twelve
people depending on how they were made. Box styled with open sides,
the celerity wagons were lighter in weight than the Concord Stagecoaches.
The wagons generally cost less than half of what a true Concord
coach would run. Abbot and Downing also made most of these Celerity
On March 3, 1857, Congress
authorized the Postmaster General of the United States, to seek
bids for an overland stagecoach service to carry passengers and
mail between the Missouri river and San Francisco, California.
Nine overland stage owners had entered bids for the U.S. Mail
contract. On September 15, 1857, John Butterfield Sr., won a $600,000
contract to deliver the St. Louis mail to San Francisco in 25
days. His company was known as The Butterfield Overland Stage
Originally all of the overland
stage owners had submitted routes with relay stations and frontier
forts that were north of Albuquerque, New Mexico territory. The
southern Postmaster General soon mandated that the new line be
required to go through Ft. Smith, Arkansas then proceed south
to El Paso, Texas, onward to Ft. Yuma, California and then north
to San Francisco. It was to be called the "Ox Bow Route"; it added
an additional 600 miles to the original bid.
John Butterfield Sr. immediately
began the preparations. He hired crews to prepare stations along
the estimated 2,600-mile route and water storage tanks to be constructed
and installed every 30 miles along the route. Although Butterfield
had never been west of Buffalo, New York, he decided to carry
the mail himself on the first leg of the initial journey. On September
16, 1858, John Butterfield Sr., wearing a yellow linen duster,
a flat brimmed hat, and his pants tucked into his high top boots,
left the St. Louis Post Office with 2 bags of mail and one passenger,
Waterman L. Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald Newspaper.
John Butterfield Sr. rode only as far as Fort Smith, but Mr. Ormsby
rode the entire 2,812-mile route through deserts, mountains and
bands of hostile Indians, all the way to San Francisco, arriving
24 days after leaving St. Louis.
The Overland Mail continued
to make two trips a week for 2 1/2 years. The western fare one
way was $200, with most of the stages arriving at their final
destination 22 days later. While it prospered, The Butterfield
Overland Stage Company employed more than 800 people and had 139
relay stations, 1800 head of stock and 250 Concord Stagecoaches.
In 1865 Butterfield, partially
funded by Wells Fargo, was chosen to run the route from Missouri
to Denver. This was in direct competition with Holladay Overland
& Express Company owned and operated by Ben Holladay. Mr. Holladay
was known throughout the industry as the Stagecoach King for his
vast stagecoach empire. It was no coincidence that almost immediately
Butterfield Overland ran into Indian problems. The truth was though
that these Indians were not Native American but some of Ben Holladay's
hired men dressed in Indian attire. Even though they burned the
coaches and robbed the passengers, the victims were never killed
or scalped. By January of 1866, Butterfield was in grave financial
difficulties and was reorganized with David Butterfield becoming
general manager and David Bray becoming President of the Butterfield
Overland Dispatch. In March of 1866, the Stagecoach King, Ben
Holladay, forced Butterfield to sell out to him. The company came
to be known as Holladay Overland and Express Company. Less than
a year later on November 1, 1866, Ben Holladay sold his stagecoach
company to Wells Fargo for $1,800,000.
Wells Fargo was the brainchild
of two directors of the American Express Company, Henry Wells
and William Fargo. Wells Fargo started in California on March
18, 1852 and was a subsidiary of the American Express Company.
Wells Fargo rented space from other Overland Stagecoach lines,
as they did not operate their own Overland Stagecoaches yet. Soon
Wells Fargo acquired Pioneer Overland Stage Lines as well as Holladay
Overland & Express Company and soon had over 180 depots throughout
On May 10, 1869, in Promontory,
Utah, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Wells Fargo
would be changed beyond their expectations. A lawyer and entrepreneur
by the name of Lloyd Trevis who had invested heavily with the
Central Pacific Railroad, would become a very familiar name to
the "Big Four". Leland Stevens, Collis P. Huntington, Charles
Croker and Mark Hopkins, represent the conception of the railroad
enterprises and its successful venture ending in Promontory. Lloyd
Trevis convinced Charles Croker that there was a fortune to be
made in hauling gold on the Central Pacific Railroad. He soon
convinced him to create the express firm Pacific Union Express
and to give its sole ownership of the contract to carry mail and
gold on the Central Pacific Railroad. The express business grew
fierce between Wells Fargo and Pacific Union Express. Soon Wells
Fargo found itself out in the cold. In order for Wells Fargo to
obtain the right to haul express on the railroad, they had to
pay Lloyd Trevis five million dollars for the Pacific Union Express,
a company whose only existence was on paper.
Wells Fargo stocks quickly
fell from $100 to $13 a share drawing little attention from all
but Lloyd Trevis. Slowly he bought up Wells Fargo stocks and by
October 1869, he was in control of Wells Fargo and Company. By
1870, Lloyd Trevis had moved the headquarters of Wells Fargo and
Company from New York to San Francisco. Wells Fargo will forever
be remembered for the Overland Stage Line with the large red Concord
Stagecoaches so familiar to us all.
In 1861, war broke out between
the Union and Confederate States. This forced the federal government
to close the southern Ox Bow trail. At the conclusion of the war,
stage lines were very slow in their attempt to reorganize. Then,
almost overnight, the mining frontiers started to expand. This
opened the door for hundreds of small stagecoach lines to attempt
service to the new districts. The competition was fierce. The
owners of the stage lines battled for mail and express contracts
required to service these new frontier towns.
Looking back, the stagecoach
era seems exciting and romantic. Visions of a stagecoaches swaying
and being pulled by six horses at a dead run being chased by outlaws
or Indians quite naturally appeals to one’s imagination. In reality
a stagecoach trip was extremely slow, very uncomfortable and quite
boring. The average speed was about 5 miles an hour. Often the
trips were very hot or cold. The dust and mud was intolerable,
depending upon the season. It was very exhausting and only the
most seasoned traveler could sleep. There were very few hotels
along the routes and travelers sometimes had a choice between
sleeping in corrals or in the street. The way stations along the
routes were often crude structures made of either lumber or adobe.
Stage Stops were traditionally famous for bad food. The usual
menu consisted of jerky or salt pork, stale bread, bad coffee,
and beans... always beans.
Today, after a long hard
day of driving the stages of Tombstone around our historical town,
I hesitate before complaining of the adversities I face, like
the heat, the crowds, the automobiles and motorcycles that sometimes
make my job quite demanding. I now reflect back to what it was
like back then and instead of frowning and whining, I chuckle
to myself and tip my hat to those early day pioneers of transportation.