Tales of the Overland Stage

Overland Stage

Overland Stage

Written by William Daugherty, for the Reno Evening Gazette in 1891

[Editor’s note: In 1891, William Daugherty wrote a series of articles about the Overland Stage in the Reno Evening Gazette]

Overland Memories – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, February 25, 1891

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.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach

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.”

Stagecoach Robbery by Phil Lear

Stagecoach Robbery by Phil Lear

An Amateur Detective – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, April 23, 1891

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.

Freighter on the Plains

Freighter on the Plains

Persistent 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.

Celebrated Whips – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, June 3, 1891

Stagecoach Driver

Stagecoach Driver

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.

Scoundrel

Curly Dan – A Crack Whip On the Overland Stage – Among the old pioneer stage drivers over the Sierras was Curly Dan, a handsome and popular fellow, who was noted for his business-like methods and pleasant manner. He was a Chesterfield in politeness and as gallant towards the ladies as a knight of old. He was a favorite with them, but it was remarked that Dan never became well enough acquainted to get married. He always remained on good terms with all of them, but it was noticed, that after a brief acquaintance, they invariably treated him as if they had agreed to simply “be a sister to him.” The secret of this finally leaked out — Dan snored. At every home station Dan had to be provided for, with a bed in a remote part of the house, and if that wasn’t far enough away, then they put him in the barn. Even there, the horses always had a tired and dejected look in the morning for no animal, whether man or beast could sleep within the sound of Dan’s calliope. It was simply an unearthly combination of moans, snorts, groans and treble whistles, mingled with choking flutters of his throttle valve, that not only annoyed, but also filled one with distressing fear. But Dan was   a crack whip and soon rose to a division agent.  Then he was sent to the front and soon took a prominent position on the Montana line, running from Salt Lake to Helena. In 1868 the stage was robbed near Naiad station of a large sum in money and gold bullion, and when it arrived at Malad, Dan was found there, and hastily organized a party which he led in pursuit of the robbers. They succeeded in overtaking and surrounding them in a canyon densely covered with underbrush. In crawling through this on his hands and knees, Dan heard a suspicious noise, and raising his head and body up to see through an opening in the brush he was confronted at a few yards distance by one of the robbers who deliberately fired point blank at him with a Henry rifle. The ball struck Dan near the center of the breast and went directly through him.

Dan fell and knew no more until rescued by his companions and removed from the brush. He was thought to be dead, and one of the rescuers said pathetically, “Dan ’11 never snore anymore.” But to the surprise of all, Dan revived, was carefully nursed and cared for by Wells, Fargo & Co., in whose employ he was at the time, and finally recovered. It was supposed by all that he would also be cured of his snoring, because of the character of the wound, but to the surprise of his old friends, he snored worse than ever. It seemed impossible, but such was the case, and Dan was regarded by his comrades as a holy terror, and he always had a room to himself. His duties, some years afterwards, brought him into Pioche late one night, when, from some cause, he could not get a bed. The keepers of the lodging houses all knew him it seemed, and in a moment of absent mind, this writer tendered him a share of his bed, then in the second story of the express and stage office. It was midnight when the office duties ended and Dan sat by the stove until the work was all finished. We went up stairs and retired, and Dan went to sleep.

Within a minute, and softly began to snore, but this was only preliminary. He soon settled down to regular work, and, to be brief, he fairly raised the roof. Efforts to awaken him were utterly futile. He had rode without stopping from Salt Lake City, 225 miles, and tired out; he was as dead as if dosed with morphine. I shook him and talked to him, but it was useless.  One might as well have talked to the Sphinx. Sleep was utterly out of the question with me, although so weary that my eyes ached. I then got mad and began to kick him, but as that had no effect I tried to roll him out of bed, but he was on the back part of it and I couldn’t turn him over.   By this time I was thoroughly exasperated, and at my wits ends for I could think of no relief and while he was sleeping as sound as a log– or a whole raft of them for that matter–I was doomed to lay awake all night and listen to that frightful menagerie of unearthly sounds. For three hours this continued and my nerves were racked so that I was trembling.  At that moment, to my great relief the fire bell rang, and jumping to my feet I viciously yelled Fire! Fire!!   At the top of my voice and grabbing my clothes ran down stairs, dressed and started on a run for the scene of the fire, up at the Pioche–Phoenix Mine, three-fourths of a mile away. I stayed until daylight, working to keep awake. When I returned Dan was still snoring. The early stages were dispatched at 6 o’clock, and, continuing until 8 o’clock, a constant racket was kept up in the office, but above it all, Dan’s snores were as regular as the beating of the surf.   At 9 o’clock the banking department of Wells, Fargo & Co. opened in the same office. The general agent appeared on the scene, and the cashier, teller and book-keeper were busy getting the vault open and moving out books and trays of coin. The noise from up stairs then attracted their attention. I was mum and unconscious of any unusual sound.

I was gloating for revenge. Dan was doing his level best; he was evidently on the home stretch and the choking groans were horrifying. The agent listened. He knew Dan and recognized the snore, and dashing down his pen, he sang out to the porter, “Go put that man out or kill him.”

Disposing of the Overland Stage – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, May 27, 1891)

A train through the woods

A train through the woods

The following account of how Wells, Fargo & Co. disposed of their Montana stage line that ran from Salt Lake City to Helena, at the time of, and before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, is told to illustrate the character of men that wreck railroads. The story is old, but in view of the fact that it is historical and marks a transition period in overland locomotion, it is retold in these columns. In the early 60’s Wells, Fargo & Co. purchased the Overland Stage line from Ben Holliday, and the company continued to run it until it was displaced by the railroad in 1869. In the summer of 1868 Wells, Fargo & Co. sent out from New York City a trusted agent to examine into the condition of their immense stage property and to recommend the most feasible plans of disposing of it as fast as its usefulness was destroyed by the advance of the railroad.

The line then extended From Wadsworth to Salt Lake City and beyond to the Platte River, with an important side line into Montana.

This last one was in no danger of being disturbed by any railroad for some years after the completion of the overland, and while it was doing an immense business then, it had also in prospect a long continuation of prosperity ahead of it. The agent from New York (a Mr. C.) was a man of great reserve and aristocratic bearing, who wielded his power in a very autocratic manner and who drove some hard bargains in disposing of the stage property west of Salt Lake City. He sold it, at some sacrifice, to different companies, who utilized it in running side lines to connect the mining towns with the railroad, and generally took in payment the amounts to come due on unexpired mail contracts.

The sales were all duly ratified by Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Board of Directors then residing in the east, and the agent’s course proved so satisfactory that he was given plenary powers to contract sales of all their different lines. He was not slow in discerning the value of the Montana line, and early in his administration laid a scheme which he intended should inure to his own benefit. He commenced by exchanging the best stock and finest coaches from other parts of their lines for the old and worn, upon this one, until it was the best equipped of any part of their large system. He did this because he had determined to possess himself of this fine piece of property, when all the other was disposed of. To do this, he found he must have a dummy to make the deal with, and as all the previous sales had been, to a great extent, made to old employees of the company, he concluded to select a well known division agent on the Montana line to co-operate with, and make the sale to, and after it was ratified by the directors, buy him out, and if required, be ready to make some plausible explanation.

But, until he got the property in this roundabout way, the utmost secrecy was required. Having evolved the plan, he took into his confidence the man he had selected, and who readily assented, for a prospective interest, to join in the scheme. The property was worth $200,000, but the agent represented to the directors that in view of the uncertainties and precarious nature, of business in the mining territories, and the fact that all the other lines were disposed of, it would be a good riddance for the company to part with this, even at a little sacrifice, and as he had found a purchaser willing to give $40,000 in cash for it, he recommended its immediate sale.

The company, did just what he expected, summoned him at once to New York for a consultation upon this last prospective sale. He left his confederate with instructions to act upon telegraphic consent, as soon as the sale was sanctioned and ratified. His confederate had no money, and expected that it would be provided by the agent„ but as the whole business was done by winks and nods, and expressions like “I understand,” and “That’s all right,” no arrangements were made for the money, the confederate supposing it would require only a stroke of the pen by the agent to settle that part of the transaction.

Stagecoach 1913

Stagecoach with a guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might have been carrying.

The agent went to New York and was so successful in his efforts, that the confederate soon received a telegram from Wells, Fargo & Co., consenting to the sale for $40,000, spot cash to be deposited at once in Wells, Fargo & Co.’s bank at Salt Lake City, and the property to be delivered by the agent as soon as he could return from New York. The confederate had to think and act quick, and hastening in to Salt Lake City he made arrangements for a temporary loan of the money, knowing as he did that the property was well worth five times the price named. He did not dare telegraph the agent for an explanation or for instruction what to do, and he acted without hesitation and soon had the money deposited in the bank.

This fact was telegraphed, and acceptance signified on the return of the trusted agent to Salt Lake City. In a few days he arrived and at once started over the line with his confederate and a partner to make a transfer of the property. This was accomplished in a few days, and they returned to Salt Lake City to deliver the bill of sale and make formal delivery of the money.

This was done with as much expedition as was possible in fear of some “slip twixt the cup and the lip,” which hastened both parties. When all was finally accomplished and it was duly published to the world that Jack Gilmer, the former division agent of the overland, and a contemporary of Slade, was the owner of the Montana line, the agent called him aside and said: “Now we will fix our little business and arrange for your interest in the line.”

Then it was that the second schemer showed his hand, and Jack Gilmer, in his peculiar nasal treble tones that were known all through the West, said: “Not much; I’m the sole owner of the Montana stage line; I bought it, and have no partner, and don’t intend to have, for I got it pretty cheap.”

The trusted agent glared at Jack in speechless surprise. Jack glared back from under his tilted hat brim and elevated his cigar to an angle of 45 degrees, and simply added “That’s what’s the matter.” The agent could do nothing, and, completely crestfallen, he returned to the East, but he never squealed, while Gilmer waxed rich from his rascality.

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