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Tales of the Overland Stage

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By William Daugherty in 1891

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Overland StageOverland Tales:

 

Overland Memories

An Amateur Detective

Celebrated Whips

Curly Dan - A Crack Whip On the Overland Stage

Disposing of the Overland Stage

Jim Jams

A Lone Highwayman

A Perilous Ride

A Pony Express Episode

Rushing To White Pine

The Stage Held Up

A Weary Walk

 

 

Overland Memories

 

The closing days of the great Overland Stage line, inaugurated by Ben Holladay,  were in many respects, the most prosperous and interesting in its history. The line was purchased from him by Wells, Fargo & Co. in 1867 under the impression that it was, on account of the mail subsidy, a paying concern. But, the new purchasers soon found a different state of affairs existing, and instead of dividends, the assessments that loomed up soon effected their stock, and within a year, it was quoted in the New York stock boards at 37 cents on a par value of 100. The subsidy paid by the government of $3,000,000 a year was more than absorbed by the heavy expenses of operating the line, and added to this, was the fact that the Pacific railroads were being pushed to completion, and soon, the rolling stock of the stage company would be valueless.

 

The history of its final windup will not be repeated here, but the fact was well known to the pioneers, that had it not been for some shrewd manipulation whereby Wells, Fargo & Co.. secured a twenty years lease over the lines of the Central Pacific Railroad the company would have passed out of existence. As was stated at the opening of this sketch the last days of the overland were its greatest.

 

Travel increased from various causes, and Harry Mountfort, the Sacramento agent, had the pleasure of seeing many way bills with a full passenger list booked in San Francisco and started from Sacramento by him for the long trip to Omaha. The McLane management of the line was liberal in the extreme; high salaries were the rule, and the most accomplished agents and skillful drivers were employed, and $300 a month as a salary secured crack whips whose names are as familiar to the pioneers as are the statesmen of the present day. It is not the intention to here make personal mention of the many popular names associated with the memories of those prosperous days of the great Overland Stage times, as this introduction is only preliminary to the fact of the great popularity of the line, which also enjoyed the confidence of the public to an extent that gave it the well deserved reputation of old reliability. In illustration of this the writer recalls an incident that occurred during the fall of 1868, when the rush to White Pine began, and caused rival lines to enter the field from Austin eastward. For some time Wells, Fargo & Co. made no effort to secure the trade and continued running on the old overland road that ran north of the district where the travel was headed for. But as it increased the company diverted from the old route and ran direct to the mecca.

 

That was attracting the surplus population of the Pacific coast. This was an irresistible result, for the stampede to White Pine was considered the greatest silver excitement known in modern times while it lasted, and the trade was well worth enjoying.

 

 

 

The road from Austin led by the present town of Eureka and across the Diamond Mountains, and along this part of it, the grade was not then completed. The stages were always loaded heavily on top with express freight, and it was usual for passengers to walk a great part of the way up Diamond Mountain, for the loads were too heavy for the teams. As this was the custom with the rival lines on the same road, no one ever objected, for people were eager to make speed. On one occasion however, Wells, Fargo & Co.'s coach contained a grouty old passenger who refused to get out and walk on the ride up the mountain. The driver, told him all right, but if he would ride he must take the chances, and proceeded slowly up the hill. The other passengers were all ahead climbing the hill and creating an appetite for the coming breakfast, when a crash was heard.

 

Then, the stage was seen to slowly roll over on its side, caused by the shelving grade and top heavy load. The passengers hastened back to help the driver, and were busied at once in extricating the passenger who was imprisoned in the wreck and moaning in great distress. He was finally released and offers of friendly assistance were numerous. An examination disclosed the fact that no bones were broken, but he seemed in great mental distress, and to relieve him, the passengers assured him he was all right. He was told to brace up, and the bottle was pressed upon him as he composed himself for a final shaking together, he disclosed the cause of his mental perturbation, by explaining, that the agent assured him when he bought his ticket "that this line never upset." 

 

Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, February 25, 1891

 

 

An Amateur Detective - A group of old-timers were talking over the late robbery, when one of them related how he had been a detective, before the Pinkertons had established a reputation on this coast, and how he had lead a case to a successful conclusion without any knowledge of what he was doing or what it was leading to until years afterward. The story, as told in his own words and duly authenticated, was as follows: In the town of Hamilton, in 1869, Wells, Fargo & Co. moved their office from the old building adjoining Red Frank Wheeler's to the new brick built by J.R. Withington at a cost of $60,000. In moving their safes, the agent, George Crandall, concluded to have the combinations changed, and employed an expert to do the work. It was done in the old office at night and the safe was moved the following day. When opened, a sack containing $3,500, belonging to John Gray, the former agent of the company, was found to be missing.

 

So was the expert who had changed the combination. All in the office were thunderstruck, as they had stood by and witnessed the entire operation, and how the sack could have been taken was a mystery. But, suspicion pointed too strongly to that one person and his absence was corroborative proof. Three stage and fast freight lines were running from there to Elko, and at once, the wires were set to clicking with instructions to arrest the party if found. He was caught there on the arrival of the stage the next morning, but he didn't have the money and simply denied it and declared his innocence. However, he was taken back, examined and committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury. He proved to be a celebrated cracksman, but the most puzzling part of the matter was that he had no baggage, no confederates, exhibited no uneasiness, and as the old saying goes, he simply "sawed wood and said nothing." The money could not be found.

 

Stage Robbery

Re-enactment of a stage robbery.

Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.

 

Freight LinePersistent efforts were made to get him to confess, but he simply denied all knowledge. Nearly a month elapsed, when one of the other stage lines discovered a satchel in their Elko office that when examined was found to be empty. It was unclaimed baggage, but the proprietor suspected Tom ----, a former employee, of a little crookedness. At this juncture of affairs I was in Elko on a visit, when one of the proprietors said to me, without any further explanation, "Dick, I must go to Sacramento tonight, keep an eye on Tom. If he starts away on any train you go along with him and tell him to return. He will do so if you catch him going, but if you watch him and keep close to him he will not go. When the express comes in from Virginia tomorrow morning if he gets a letter and finds you watching him he will go to my office and leave a check for a large sum of money. Follow my instructions and it will be all right." He left and I did as he told me, keeping close around Tom all the time and saying nothing yet wondering a great deal what it all meant. I was present when the express arrived on the next morning, with an eye on Tom. He received a letter, put it in his pocket, and with a furtive glance walked out the door. I followed with an indifferent look. The train was just moving out past us.

 

Tom looked uneasily at it, and then at me. The train was out of reach in a few seconds. Then, Tom turned with decision and asked me to accompany him to the stage office. I did so and he laid down a check and asked the agent to give him a receipt. It was soon written, though the agent knew not what it meant any more than I did. Tom took the receipt and walked off without a word of explanation and without an inquiry from us. A few days later, the cracksman was discharged from the Hamilton jail, and the case remained a mystery to me for many years. A year ago, I met John Gray in the Palace Hotel in Reno and he told me that he recovered his money by giving an indemnifying bond to the stage proprietors, but he never knew where his money came from. I knew. The cracksman had taken passage on one stage line and sent his satchel by the other to Elko in another name. Tom got the sack after it had lain some time uncalled for, and sent the money to Virginia City. When he was casually asked if he could remember when it came to Elko he got scared, confessed, returned it and was forgiven, but was promptly discharged. The cracksman would never admit anything, but he skipped very quickly when he was turned loose.  

 

Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, April 23 , 1891

 

Celebrated Whips - The old pioneer stage drivers were nearly all possessed of some marked characteristic that distinguished each from the other, so that they could almost be recognized in the dark. Some would rarely ever speak; others would talk a little to be social,  or for the same reason, listen attentively to a stale joke that was dinned in their ears everyday by smart alecks traveling at other people's expense; while some were full of Joe Miller jokes, which they would repeat daily "just to see some sucker bite." All had pride in their calling, petted their "stock" and would beat the opposition, even though they had to "pound 'em on the back" to make time.

 

Among the crack whips, Billy Blackmore was noted for his devotion to duty; his foot was always on the brake, with stock always in hand and whip ready to touch a leader. Billy was so attentive while on duty that his nightmares were a repetition of his run, and when asleep his dreams were always of the dangerous places on the down grades. At such times, he would pull himself up by the blankets and press the foot board off the bed, muttering "Whoa, there! whoa!" believing all the time he was bearing down on the brake. He was a terror to the landlords, who finally adopted the plan of building bedsteads that he couldn't kick down.

 

Baldy Green was noted for his ill luck in being selected by the road agents, or highwaymen, for robbery. In Six-mile Canyon he was stopped so often that the stage company concluded he was either in with the gang, or else a hoodoo, and they transferred him to the Austin drive. That broke his heart and he left the road and went to hauling freight in Pioche.

 

Tom Reilley Was a wag and always "joshing." He had a ready joke for every one, even when wakened out of his sleep. On one occasion, when his drive ended on the new road from Eureka to Palisade, at midnight, at a station consisting only of a corral, when the stock was cared for, Reilley laid down and was soon sleeping. Waking at the hostler's movements, Reilley yawned and said "Tim, for God's sake put up the bars' or we'll both take cold." His favorite expression of approval or condemnation was "He's a lizard," and his meaning of its application was the manner in which he said it and squinted his eyes. His eyes were weak and always half closed. Coming out of the hotel at Palisade one noon time from dinner, he stopped to look at two Italians lying asleep on the front stoop. One of them, made restless by the flies, raised his foot and gave a little kick, at which Reilley said to his comrade, "It's alive Billy, I saw it move."

 

Vic Koensin was noted for his earnest expressions uttered in a deep guttural of broken German. He possessed great powers of endurance, and during the muddy roads of the spring break-up in the Reese River valley, he was frequently out on the box twenty hours in his drive from East Gate to Austin. It was a daily drive, and Baldy Green said he walked around the rest of the day for exercise.

 

Dave Red was noted for his thin, cadaverous look, and ghastly smile when the bottle was passed, at which he would say "Here's a go," and after taking a swig, pull up on the lines and start the team on a spin to the next raise. We rode with him once to Idaho , and in crossing the Owyhee River went over the ferry ahead of him, leaving a bottle concealed in our baggage. An hour afterwards, the stage got across and Dave -- well he had found the bottle. We dropped it under the wheel to save his neck, and when we reached the end of his drive at Jordan Creek, he was sober as a deacon, and merely said "Take care of yourself Billy till I see you again." Poor Dave, he was found dead and boiled to pieces, a year or so afterward in a hot spring at Keosin's Station, midway between Austin and Battle Mountain.

 

Jim Miller was known by his striking dress. In stature over six feet tall, his clothing gave him a look as grotesque as a clown. But, his clothes always fit him and were made to order under his special directions. In winter, he wore a long blanket overcoat and pants, with the wide stripes arranged for cuffs and collars and high water marks. The buttons were big silver dollars, and across his bright red vest was a silver watch chain with links like a trace chain, which went clear around his neck and weighed four pounds. It was further weighted down with silver horses. The watch was a monster one and had cases so thick that he could run his coach over them without endangering the works. Of course, he wore a white beaver hat of the finest make -- all the drivers did that in those days -- and as a further mark of oddity, he wore very high-heeled boots with soles an inch and a half thick. When he would arrive at Austin with his fast freight wagon from Virginia City , he attracted as much attention as the camel train that was then used in freighting. And, he enjoyed the notoriety better than Barnum ever did "The biggest show on earth."

 

Uncle John Gibbons was the hero of the Sazerac Lying Club, and to him is attributed the proposition to graft grapevines onto the sagebrush, and thus turn Nevada into a vast vineyard.

 

Reese Hawley was noted for his daring bravery as a Pony Express rider. After it was succeeded by the Overland Stage , he pulled the reins over a team in and out of Austin, until he secured a moderate nest egg, and then resigned and retired to an Iowa farm, and was noted as one among the few of the old boys that saved a competence for his old age.

 

 

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