Friday, September 16th, 2016

An Overland Stage Trip

The Overland Mail was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1857, to convey mail between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, California. The U. S. Postal Service contract to transport the mail was awarded to John W. Butterfield. The mail contract subsidized the creation of a stage coach line, permitting the Butterfield Company to ferry passengers, along with the mail, for a reasonable fare.

The first stage of the Butterfield Overland Mail left St. Louis on September 16, 1858. The planned transit time was 25 days, although once operation began, it was found that the trip could usually be made in just over 23 days. Stages left twice a week for the opposite end of the 2,800 mile route. The Overland Stage service to San Francisco ceased June 30, 1861, put out of operation by the start of the Civil War.

The following is a personal account of a trip on the Overland Stage that began July 21, 1860, at Madison, Arkansas and ended August 11 at San Francisco. The author, who doesn’t identify himself, published his account on September 27, 1860.

“A Trip Overland”

“Having recently returned by the overland stage from a visit to the Atlantic States, and in compliance with a request and a promise, I will notice a few points of interest to some, at least, of the readers of the Democrat….”

“[On July 19, I] bought two through tickets or seats in the overland stage, for which I paid three hundred and fifty dollars, with the privilege of carrying 50 pounds baggage to each passenger – but I had the good luck to bring a few extra pounds without charge….”

On July 21, the writer boarded the Overland stage at Madison, Arkansas.

“Some time elapsed in getting the passengers all seated and their baggage and trinkets well secured on the stage – which was a three seat Concord wagon. The usual call, ‘All aboard!’ was given, and off we started, with ten passengers – only two of whom were booked through.”

“My introduction to overland staging was not pleasant; the night was uncomfortably warm, stage crowded, very dark, no lamps, and a green Dutchman that had never been on the road but once before, for a driver. Before we reached the five-mile house, we were thrown into confusion by having our stag capsized; fortunately no one was hurt. It was so dark that the passengers were compelled to pilot the craft through the heavy timber for several miles by carrying a light ahead. I began to think that Jordan was a hard road to travel, indeed. But soon the moon rose, and we made good time; the rest of the night passed pleasantly.”

“The morning of the 22nd found us running along at a lively pace, and in the forenoon we passed the little villages of Seaborn, Switzer and Clarendon; the latter on the left bank of White river. Passed the river, and followed up the west bank till we struck Grand Prairie – Crossed Grand Prairie, and passed the thriving little town of Brownville, late in the evening. We made poor headway during the night – landed on the left bank of the Arkansas, opposite Little Rock, at 1 a.m. on the 23rd. Here we were compelled to stay until daylight, as the ferryman refused to ferry us over at that hour. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, the balance of the night. Some of the passengers stretched themselves out on the dry sand and were soon in the arms of “Morphy,” at the mercy of myriads of mosquitoes. The seats in the stage were generously left to the comfort of the lady passengers….”

“Our number now comprised six passengers, the diver and a conductor. The day passed off pleasantly, after repeated halts and changes, considering the extreme heat and dust endured. Late in the evening we passed Lewisburg, a small town on the left bank of the Arkansas river. Traveled up the river all night, and crossed at daylight on the 24th at Dardanelles. Nothing of interest to note. Passed Charleston in the evening – arrived at Fort Smith at 2 a.m., on the 25th, after a drive of four nights and three days, and seventeen changes of drivers and horses. Met two overland stages going East, between Madison and Fort Smith. I put up at the City Hotel; a miserable shift to bear the name of a first-class hotel, and to receive the patronage it does. Here I remained until the 27th, waiting for the mail which left St. Louis on the 23rd….”

“The morning of the 26th, my time was employed in preparing little necessaries of the long journey; and soon after the arrival of the stage with the St. Louis mail, all was ready, and out we rolled, with three passengers, one way passenger, conductor and driver. At 11 a.m., we crossed the little river Porto, the boundary between Arkansas and Indian Territory. The first fifteen miles after we crossed the Porto was dense forest of timber and thick cane brakes, with an occasional field of corn – the best of any I saw on the whole route. Before we got off the fertile bottoms of the two rivers, Porto and Arkansas, we had a good share of what one of our passengers called “corduroy roads,” not at all agreeable to one opposed to being jolted….”

“July 27th – We passed Mountain station this morning at sunrise – traveled over some rough road; extremely hot; crossed two high bridges, call Boggy Bridge and Muddy Boggy; passed Boddy depot late in the evening – a small village of some dozen or fifteen houses, neatly put up, with a respectable brick church. This town is in the Chickesaw Nation and is surrounded by a rich and productive country.”

“We crossed Red river at daylight on the morning of the 28th, and took breakfast at Sherman, Texas, a promising little town, surrounded by a beautiful and fertile country. Here we changed stages again, and rolled off at a lively pace, with a new conductor and only three passengers. We had a new driver at every change of horses – which ranged from ten to twenty-eight miles apart. Passed Whitestown in the forenoon, and Gainesville in the afternoon. This is the county seat of Cook county, and is a flourishing town. Road very rough all night; passed Locksboro, at daylight on the 29th – a town of some importance – able to boast one newspaper called the White Man. Arrived at Fort Belknap at 1 p.m. Here we changed stages and conductors again. Our number increased to six in this change, but the road was fine and we made good time after crossing the Brazos; a wide channel, but bone dry at this season of the year. Crossed the Clear Fork of the Brazos, which had some water in its channel; traveled at a lively rate all night, over a beautiful plain, by a bright moonlight.”

“July 30th – made good time; level country, water scarce; one drive of thirty-five miles through a mountain pass – arrived at Fort Chadman at 4 p.m. Changed stages and conductors again – crossed the Colorado river late in the evening (no water in the channel), and the Concha at 10 p.m. – a bold stream but narrow. The road continues good, and water scarce. Passed two companies of U. S. troops early on the morning of the 31st. Water very brackish and scarce. We made one drive of 28 miles today, between stations, and another of 40 miles. Passed through Castle Mountain canyon late in the afternoon; quite a romantic spot, surrounded by some beautiful mountain scenery. Crossed the river Pecos at 10 p.m. – another deep but narrow stream. We passed Camp Stockton at daylight on the morning of August 1st – a beautiful site. The buildings are all made of adobe brick. Another forty-mile drive today – some pretty mountains scenery in the distance; through Davis Pass, and arrived at Fort Davis at 6 p.m. Changed stages again, and were soon on the move, making good time over a fine road.”

“August 2nd – road continues good today, and water scarce; barren mountains on each side of the road all day. One drive of forty-two miles between stations today. Passed Ten-mile canyon, and landed at Camp Fargo at sundown. The distance between Camp Fargo and Eagle Springs is 42 miles, and has been traveled over twice in one day by the same team. The day I came through, the same team went East from Camp Fargo to Eagle Springs in the forenoon, and returned with our stage in the afternoon. This almost incredible feat was performed by five little mules. Camp Fargo is situated on the left bank of the Rio Grande. Here we had heavy sand to contend with. Passed Fort Quitman at 10 p.m.”

“Continued up the left bank of the river, through an old Mexican settlement to Franklin, on the opposite river from El Paso in Mexico. Here we changed stages again – dropped one of our passengers, and picked up one through passenger and two way passengers. Leaving with six passengers and a new conductor we continued up the river to Fort Fillmore, and crossed the Rio Grande at Mesilla at 12 o’clock at night. This town is in the Gadsden purchase, and built after the Mexican fashion, all of adobe brick.”

“We had a good day on the 4th. Changed stages again at Cook’s station – crossed Membres river at 3 p.m., within 25 miles of the new Piatto gold mines, situated near the head waters of the Gila and Membres rivers. Here I was shown about five dollars of placer gold, with some small specimens of quartz – the proceeds of five days panning – a very fine specimen of fine gold, round and heavy. One of our fellow passengers stopped at Membres station, to purchase of a Mexican, an animal of the dog species, claimed to be a native of Arizona. It is a prodigy – a nondescript. The gentleman’s object was to bring it to California and exhibit it. If the half we were told is to be believed, it will eclipse anything belonging to the animal kingdom that has ever been exhibited on the Pacific. We arrived at Doubtful Pass at 4 a.m. on the 5th, and at Apache Pass at sunrise – changed stages again. Crossed San Pedro river in the evening; heavy thunder showers all the afternoon.”

“Arrived at Tucson Arizona at 2 a.m. on the 6th. This is an old Mexican City of some importance. Changed stages again at Tucson, and got a new conductor. Crossed the 80 mile desert in the morning. Struck the Gila river at Pimo Station in the evening. Changed stages again – passed through the Pimo Reservation late in the afternoon. Crossed the 40 mile desert during the night, and reached the Gila Bend at sunrise on the 7th. Road continues down the left bank of the Gila – very rough and dusty. Crossed Texas Hill at night; arrived at Gila City at 10 a.m. on the 8th – a small adobe town, inhabited by Indians and Mexicans.”

“Passed Arizona City in the afternoon, and crossed the Rio Colorado river below Fort Yuma at 4 p.m. Changed stages again at the crossing, traveled down the river for fifteen miles through heavy sand, and continued all night, and all day of 9th and the forenoon of the 10th, on the great desert of the Rio Colorado. Deep sandy road, and water scarce. Passed through Devil’s canyon, and arrived at San Phillippi at 2 p.m., and changed stages at Oak Grove station, late in the evening.”

“We crossed St. Anna river on the morning of the 11th; traveled down a beautiful valley, well improved; passed through the thriving little town of El Monte and landed at Los Angeles at 2 p.m. Here we hitched onto a twelve-passenger Concord wagon, and our number increased to twelve passengers; with a new conductor and driver. Passed over Fremont’s Pass, and through San Francisco canyon during the night. Some very rough road and beautiful mountain scenery. Passed Fort Tejon, and through the canyon of the same name, in the forenoon of the 12th. Passed Tulare Plains in sight of Tulare Lake, to the left of the road and crossed Kern river late in the evening.”

“We arrived in Visalia City at 9 a.m., on the 13th; There we changed off our wagon for a genuine coach and took on five more passengers. Crossed King’s river at 12 p.m.; passed Fresno City and reached San Joaquin river at dark. We had some rough mountain road during the night; passed Mountain View early on the 11th; through the town of Gilroy, the valley of the same name, and arrived at San Jose at 2 p.m. Took on two more passengers, making nineteen in all. Passed through Santa Clara and landed at San Francisco at 9 p.m., in good health, and not much the worse for wear, after the long and fatiguing journey – nor yet sorry that it was ended.”

“It cannot, by any means be called a pleasant ride, to be rocked and jolted for twenty-three consecutive days and night; but I prefer the overland stage to the steamer, for several reasons. It is undoubtedly the safest route, and the chances for health are better. One is free from the terror of fire and flood, constantly felt on the ocean steamer, and the horror of sea-sickness, so much dreaded and suffered.”

“In the whole distance between Fort Smith and Los Angeles, I did not see a sick man among the passengers or those in the employ of the company, numbering over two thousand. For a good portion of the route the fare is rather hard for one accustomed to good living. We paid 50 cents a meal on the first part of the road, and once on the Rio Grande paid 75 cents. After we left Tucson, we paid 75 cents and as high as $1, through to Los Angeles; and 75 cents each meal from there to San Francisco. A man can go through, and live reasonably well on $30, by taking a few pounds of crackers, cakes and etc. for an occasional lunch.”

“The Eastern end of the route is supplied with American horses, and on the plains of Texas they drive Mexican or mustang horses; and between Fort Belknap and Camp Fargo, on the Rio Grande, they drive Mexican mules nearly all the way – five in the team – three abreast in front. From Tucson through this way, California horses are used, and five or six on one stage where the road is heavy.”

“It is hardly credible how fast they travel where the road is good; fourteen miles an hour is frequently made; 35 miles is often made in 4 1/4 hours. The distances between stations range respectively from 10 to 42 miles. In Arkansas, and on the Eastern end of the road, the drivers change at every station; but West of the Rio Grande, they drive from 80 to 125 miles. Much credit is due to the conductors and drivers on the whole route, for their sobriety, courtesy, and attention to the passengers.”

“I like the overland travel, and were I going to the Atlantic States this Fall, or any other time, I would prefer it to any other route.”

Source: The Plumas Argus (Quincy, CA), September 27, 1860

See also:
Picacho — Forgotten Butterfield Stage Stop
Picacho Cemetery
Picacho — A Brief History
Picacho Peak
Rough and Ready — Butterfield Stage Stop
Trip to Mason’s Ranch


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