- Historic Sites
Great Days Of The Overland Stage
Opening the mail route to California, the Butterfield coaches flew across the rugged, wild Southwest in twenty-five exhausting days
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
The Abbott-Downing coaches made for the Butterfield Company were painted in bright colors, usually red, green, or canary yellow. The wheels were heavy, with broad iron tires that would not sink in soft sand, and set wide enough apart—five feet two inches—to keep the coach from tipping. The body, reinforced with iron, was swung on leather straps or thorough braces stitched three and one-half inches wide. The cab rocked back and forth as the coach bowled forward, the thorough braces serving as shock absorbers. The more elegant Concord coaches were used only at each end of the route, but on the rougher sections of the road, from Fort Smith to Los Angeles, passengers and mail were shifted to carriages, or the specially built celerity wagons.
These were much like the regular coaches in appearance except for smaller wheels and a frame top structure covered with heavy duck. Also, they had three seats inside which could be adjusted to form a bed where passengers could sleep in relays. Heavy leather or duck curtains protected the occupants from rain and cold. The interiors of both types were lined with russet leather, with cushions of the same material. Illumination was furnished by wire-pattern candle lamps.
Eventually, nearly 200 stations were erected along the route, some at a minimum of nine miles and others at a maximum of sixty miles. The stations were built of log, adobe, or stone, depending upon the locality. Four or five well-armed men tenanted each station, but in Indian country the personnel might be increased to as many as eight or ten, since the isolated outposts tempted raiding bands of Indians and Mexicans. In 1858 three of the four men at work on Dragoon station in Apache country were hacked to death by Mexicans. The only survivor, whose arm had been cut off by an ax, endured four awful days, during which he was attacked by buzzards and wolves, before help arrived. Because of the constant danger, Texas and Arizona stations were fort-like stone and adobe structures, similar to the inns built in Mexico by the Spanish. Eleven-foot walls formed a rectangular corral, and small rooms were attached to the interior of the stockade. The single entrance was wide enough to admit a coach and team.
Ormsby wrote that the employees without exception were courteous, civil, and attentive. A few years later Mark Twain took the Central Overland stage to Carson City, Nevada. His observation of the drivers, conductors, and station keepers, most of whom had worked for Butterfield on the southern route before it was shifted north, was anything but flattering. The driver he acidly described as a contemptible, swaggering bully, “the only one they bowed down to and worshipped”; the station agent, a profane cutthroat, was wanted by half a dozen vigilante committees. And the district agent or superintendent, who supervised the various stations along his 25O-mile division, differed from his subordinates in that he was quicker on the draw: “It was not absolutely necessary that he be a gentleman, and occasionally he wasn’t.”
The conductor’s beat was the same as that of the divisional agent, and frequently he rode the fearful distance night and day without rest or sleep. He had absolute charge of the mail, express matters, passengers, and stagecoach until he delivered them to the next conductor and got his receipt.
The vehicles were pulled by four to six horses or mules and rolled day and night except for brief stops for meals and a change of relays. Their speed varied from four miles in rough country to spurts of twelve miles per hour over level stretches of prairies or down long straight slopes. The drivers were proud of the time they made, and Ormsby wrote feelingly of “the heavy mail wagon whizzing and whirling over the jagged rock … in comparative darkness.” Inside, “to feel oneself bouncing—now on the hard seat, now against the roof, and now against the side … was no joke.” Each driver drove a sixty-mile run, stopped for a few hours’ rest before taking the next opposite-bound coach back over the same stretch of road.
Except for the meal stops twice each day, the coaches lingered only ten minutes at each station to obtain a fresh relay of horses or mules and to pick up and discharge mail sacks. The conductor sounded a bugle two or three miles from the station, announcing the coach’s arrival, so that everything was in readiness for a quick change. In 24 hours the stage covered approximately 120 miles, and after the first three or four days the passengers became inured to the discomfort of the hard seat, jolting road, and insufferable dust—catching a few winks of sleep when they could.
There is a record of only one attack by Indians which halted the mail along the southern route. It happened at Apache Pass, or Puerto del Dado, Arizona, early in February, 1861. At nearby Fort Buchanan, the commander had received word that Apaches had raided a beef contractor’s cattle and had also abducted a young boy. Lieutenant George Bascom and sixty men of the 7th Infantry were sent in pursuit, and in the Dragoon Mountains met Chief Cochise of the Chiricahua tribe, who insisted his tribe did not have the boy. Apparently Bascom did not believe the Chief, and there was a brief fracas in which one Indian was killed and four taken prisoner.