Great Days Of The Overland Stage

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The route was a semicircular one which the northern press derisively dubbed the oxbow, and most of the eastern papers predicted that the venture would be a total failure. There was no doubt that Postmaster General Brown’s sympathies were bound up in the South. His choice of the southern route, although touching both North and South in its semicircular trail, was aimed particularly at the latter region. It did have certain advantages over more northerly routes: grass and water were available for the livestock, the trail was passable any day in the year, and at this period there was no trouble anticipated from the southwestern Indian tribes. Four other overland mail routes were in operation by the beginning of 1859, but the Butterfield coaches were the only ones never halted by weather or mountain passes.

At first John Butterfield’s company carried letter mail exclusively, but newspapers and small packages were transported later. A strict rule by the stockholders prevented shipments of gold or silver, thus practically eliminating holdups by highwaymen, and on only one occasion was there any interference by the Indians. From the outset, passenger service was available; but few people took advantage of the opportunity until the coaches had been in operation for several months. Twenty-five days of constant jolting over washboard roads, mudholes, deserts, and swollen streams were not likely to be anticipated pleasantly by even the most experienced traveler, and the available food was something to curdle a goat’s stomach. From St. Louis to San Francisco the throughfare was $200. Local or wayfare was ten cents per mile for the distance traveled. Passengers were allowed forty pounds of luggage—the same, incidentally, as that allowed by modern airline companies. But food, such as it was, came out of the traveler’s own pocketbook.

There were crude stations approximately twenty miles apart along the 2,800-mile route, each outpost being under the charge of an agent who, with four or five helpers, cared for the stock, changed relays, and prepared meals for the dusty passengers, drivers, and conductors. A New York Herald reporter, Waterman L. Ormsby, accompanied the first westbound coach for its entire journey and facetiously remarked that “the fare could hardly be compared to that of the Astor House in New York.” Generally it consisted of bacon, beans, bread, onions, and what passed tor coffee: but milk, butter, and vegetables could sometimes be had toward each end of the line. In addition, some writers referred to a strange and mysterious concoction known as slumgullion. Mark Twain described this drink as “a pretense of tea, but there was too much sand and old bacon rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”

An ancient tale still makes the rounds describing a New York dude who took the Overland stage through Texas in 1858. At a particular station he found the food less than appetizing, consisting of stale sourdough biscuits and rancid bacon, floating in its own grease. Timidly the traveler pushed back his plate as he cast a glance at the burly proprietor, the corners of his mouth revealing what his tongue dared not utter. “All right, dammit,” growled the short-tempered host, “help yourself to the mustard.”

After the contract was awarded, the Butterfield Company had a tremendous task ahead of it. The route had to be surveyed, roads built or improved, grades leveled, ferries and bridges constructed, wells dug, and the stations erected. Butterfield personally inspected much of the route, while 1,800 horses and mules were purchased and distributed over the trail, test runs made, a regular schedule planned, and forage and food deposited at the various stations. Orders were placed for 250 regular coaches, special mail wagons, water wagons, harness sets, and accessories.

These preliminary expenses alone amounted to nearly a million dollars, and one thousand or more employees were hired before the start of the first mail. They included divisional superintendents, conductors, drivers, station keepers, blacksmiths, veterinarians, wheelwrights, mechanics, helpers, and herders.

Two types of coaches were used, the Concord coach made at Concord, New Hampshire, and the “celerity” wagon manufactured at Troy, New York. The former, a regular full-bodied coach, weighed 3,000 pounds, had a capacity of about two tons, cost approximately $1,400, and could accommodate six to nine passengers inside and an unlimited number on top. These stages were made of the finest white ash, oak, elm, and prime basswood grown in New England forests. Fashioned by the famous Abbott-Downing Company, makers of horse-drawn carriages and buggies for more than a century, the light, elegant, and durable vehicles revolutionized western travel. Along with the Colt revolver, another New England export to the frontier, the stage so permeated the Old West that no horse opera is complete without it.