The Butterfield Overland Mail Company ran a stage line of 2,800 miles in 1858 that could deliver mail from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco in 25 days,with twice a week departures. The responsibility and priority of the Butterfield line was mail delivery but adventurous passengers were accepted.
Night and day the stage rolled on at a pace from 5 to 12 miles an hour, across the vast Great Plains, jagged mountain passes, searing deserts, and quicksand rivers. The coach stopped only to change horses or let passengers gulp down a cup of coffee with their beans, bad bacon and hard biscuits. The passengers rode three abreast, with baggage on their laps and mail pouches beneath their feet. They traveled relentlessly and suffered from continual heat and choking dust in the summer and intense unrelenting cold or snow in the winter. Mark Twain, in typical wit, recounts such a stagecoach ride in Roughing It.
As bone jarring and formidable as the journey may have been, it was still the best and quickest way to not only California but all other developing areas in the west. Some advice offered to help the less experienced traveler was first published in the Omaha Herald newspaper, on October 3, 1877: “Keep in mind that a stagecoach trip in many instances could be a long journey, not necessarily to the next town down the line….. Don’t grease your hair, because travel is dusty. Don’t imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort, and some hardship….Don’t discuss politics or religion. Don’t point out where murders have been committed especially if there are any women passengers…….Procure your stimulants before starting, as “ranch” (Stage Depot) whiskey is not “nectar”!…..In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence. Don’t growl at the food received at the station: stage companies generally provide the best they can get…..In cold weather, don’t ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes, or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling. he won’t request it unless absolutely necessary.”
Travel by stage coach across the country was not only uncomfortable but also carried the danger of a robbery or attack by Indians. Passengers for long overland travel were given recommendations of items to be taken along. A San Diego newspaper suggested “one Sharps rifle and 100 rounds, a Colt [revolver] and two pounds of lead, a knife, a pair of thick wool pants, a half dozen pairs of thick socks, six undershirts, three overshirts, a wide-awake hat, a cheap sack coat, an overcoat, one pair of blankets in summer and two in winter, gauntlets, needles, pins, a sponge, hair brush, comb, soap, two pairs of thick drawers, and three or four towels.”
Along the stage routes, stations were established every 10 or 12 miles. At a “swing” station the Station Master would run out, undo the harness straps and buckle in a fresh team of horses in about 10 minutes time and the stage would again be on its way. The larger stations, called “home stations,” generally ran by a couple or family , were usually situated about 50 miles apart and provided meager meals and overnight lodging to passengers.
The passengers rode three abreast, squeezed into back and middle rows, both facing forward, and into a forward row, facing rearward. The facing passengers in the forward and middle rows had to ride with their knees dovetailed. Overland stage coaches in some areas traveled for a continuous twenty-two days, stopped only for short breaks, meals, and to change horses. Raphael Pumpelly, who traveled on Butterfield’s line west to Tucson, said, ” The fatigue of uninterrupted traveling by day and night in a crowded coach, and in the most uncomfortable positions, was beginning to tell seriously upon all the passengers, and was producing in me a condition bordering on insanity.” With such close quarters it was necessary for the Wells Fargo stage line to post some rules.
* Abstience from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
* If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
* Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
* Don’t snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passengers shoulder for a pillow, he or she may not understand and friction may result.
* Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
* Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
* In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
* Forbidden stagecoach topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
* Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.
H.D Barrows a San Francisco newspaper corespondent reflected at the end of his journey: ” To many people, doubtless, who think more of their ease than they do of robust physical health, a stage ride of a thousand or two thousand miles, may seem a very formidable undertaking. But for those who had a liking for adventure, and a desire to see something of the world, a long ride of two or three weeks, practically in the open air, not in hot, stuffy cars, possesses a wonderful charm, especially in remembrance...”
The Stage Stop photographs in this post were taken July 2013, South Park City, Fairplay, Colorado. Click any image to enlarge for better resolution.
Happy Trails, Dohn