Times Past

Stagecoaches offered a fast but painful ride in the 1850s

The Butterfield Overland Mail Co. celerity wagon transferring mail to more comfortable local stages. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 23, 1858.
The Butterfield Overland Mail Co. celerity wagon transferring mail to more comfortable local stages. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 23, 1858.

The fastest route to the eastern United States began with a ride to San Juan Bautista in 1858.

Riding the merged Butterfield Overland Mail Co. and Wells Fargo stages between San Francisco and the railhead at Tipton, Mo., was a challenge to your backbone. But the 1858 stage line established the San Joaquin Valley as the “fast” route through California, rather than our beautiful but rugged Central Coast.

But speed did not equate comfort.

“The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver. Even if you have a tendency to seasickness when riding backwards — you’ll get over it and will get less jolts and jostling,” the Omaha Herald advised its readers as late as 1877.

But these coaches were a vast improvement over those used in California about 20 years earlier.

Most of the regional service stagecoaches were manufactured in Concord, N.H., along the classic “Concord Coach” lines. They had padded leather seats, a thorough braced suspension to buffer the bumps of the harsh, unpaved roads and an improved braking system.

These stagecoaches were luxurious compared to the 100 wagons built for service on the Butterfield Overland route in 1857 by James Goold’s factory in Albany, N.Y.

The light-framed, duck canvas-covered “celerity wagons” weren’t made with any consideration for passenger comfort. These wagons were built primarily to carry bags of mail subsidized by the U.S. Post Office.

Without that subsidy, the first transcontinental overland mail service could not have started.

In March 1858, Congress authorized Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown to contract with a private firm to carry the mail twice a week between the Mississippi River and San Francisco. This would bring mail between the East Coast and West Coast with much greater frequency than the twice monthly Pacific Mail Steamship Co.’s delivery.

John Butterfield, a tycoon with interests in canal boats, plank roads, banks, telegraphs, Great Lakes steamers and stage lines, was a friend and supporter of President James Buchanan.

He competed with delivery mogul Henry Wells for the contract. Ultimately, the two made a deal, creating the Overland Mail Co., with Wells Fargo running the operation in the West.

Early on, it was decided to route the stage southerly from San Francisco into Los Angeles to Yuma, Ariz., following approximately what is now Interstate 8 to points east.

The company did not want to deal with the numerous stream crossings and mountainous terrain of the Central Coast, so the stage went from San Francisco to San Juan Bautista, crossing the San Joaquin River at Firebaugh’s Ferry and then on to Visalia and the Tehachapi Pass, Los Angeles, Temecula, Yuma and finally, by way of Fort Smith, Ark., and northeast to the railroad head at Tipton, Mo., west of St. Louis.

The service began Sept. 15, 1858.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the southern route became impassible.

The Butterfield route’s short life established the San Joaquin Valley as the “fast” route through California, changing teams of horses and drivers “Pony Express” style. It meant there were no overnight stops for the weary passengers.

On June 14, 1860, the English author and noted Quaker, William Talleck, left San Francisco, returning to Europe from Australia.

He feared that he “might not be able to endure a continuous ride of hours, with no other intermission than a stoppage of about 40 minutes twice a day, and a walk, from time to time, over the more difficult ground, or up and down stiff hills and mountain passes, and with only such repose at night as could be obtained whilst in a sitting posture and closely wedged in by fellow-travelers and tightly filled mailbags.”

By the time he crossed the Tehachapis, Talleck had acquired a technique for survival: “By means of a blanket each, in addition to an overcoat, we managed to settle down warmly and closely together for a jolting but sound slumber … there was scarcely room for any jerking about separately in our places, but we were kept steady and compact, only shaking ‘in one piece’ with the vehicle itself.”

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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