Great Days Of The Overland Stage

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After Bascom and his men went on to Apache Pass, the Indians on February 5 planned a mass attack on the station. The Butterfield mail from the east was due the next evening; but luckily it arrived two hours early, left shortly after changing teams, and reached the west end of the pass while it was still light. Here, about a mile and a half from the station, dried grass was piled in heaps across the road to form a fire ambush. The Butterfield men cleared the road, and had proceeded for another half mile when they came on what was left of an emigrant train. Amid the smoldering embers of the wagons were the mutilated bodies of the victims. Eight of them, who had not been fortunate enough to be shot, had been chained to the wagon wheels and burned alive.

By this time it was too dark to go back through the dangerous pass to inform the station about the massacre, so the stage pushed on to the west. About halfway to the next station, they met the eastbound stage and warned them of what lay ahead. Aboard were nine passengers, including a superintendent inspecting the line; the conductor, A. B. Culver, brother of the station keeper at Apache Pass; and the driver. All were armed, and they decided to risk an attack and proceed.

Entering the pass after dark, the driver whipped the mules to greater speed, and as the stage clattered down the eastern grade shots rang out from ambush. Two mules went down, and the driver was wounded, but the passengers kept up a steady fire in the direction of the shots while the superintendent and Culver cut the two mules out of the traces. With the animals that remained, they fought their way to Apache Pass Station, where they spent the night.

Knowing they were outnumbered by at least 5 to 1, the station agent, C. W. Culver, decided to make terms with the enemy. Next morning he and his helper Welch and the driver, J. F. Wallace, went out of the little fort under a flag of truce. Some distance from the station the Indians rushed them, capturing Wallace. The other two men turned and ran; Welch was shot down, but Culver, although badly wounded, made it to the station. Several days later Wallace’s body and the corpses of five prisoners from the luckless wagon train were found staked out on the plains west of the pass, half-eaten by vultures and coyotes.

After John Butterfield stepped down as president of the Overland Stage Company in 1860, the morale and discipline of the employees declined. On March 12, 1861, Congress ordered the route permanently discontinued and the service transferred to the central section of the country via South Pass and Salt Lake City. A year later Ben Holladay took over the company, selling it in 1866 to Wells, Fargo and Company. It continued in operation from the Missouri River to Sacramento, California, until completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. From then until the close of the century, overland staging was relegated to a secondary place in frontier life. Eventually even the local stage disappeared completely from the American scene, to be revived only by Hollywood and the commercial rodeo.

After being practically abandoned for a quarter of a century, the southern overland road laid out by John Butterfield soon became crisscrossed and paralleled by highways, railroads, and airlines, each profiting from the labors of those early road builders. In many places the railroad grade follows the very ruts of the old trail, and trains take on water today from wells dug by the Butterfield men. Even now the best all-weather highway from St. Louis to San Francisco approximates the thin line across prairies and mountain passes over which the Concord and Troy coaches once kicked up dust, and the best year-round air route follows the same low passes over which the Butterfield stages “flow” a century ago.