Tales of the Overland Stage

Rocky Mountain stage driving, Frederic Remington, 1904

Jim Jams – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, May 28, 1891

“Talking about the Jim-jams,” said an old timer, “the horrors and hallucinations are different with different people. Some of the cases I’ve seen were laughable and instead of awakening pity and compassion for the sufferer, caused the observer to rather envy the victim for the visions of extraordinary joy that his actions and mutterings indicated were present in his disordered fancies.

Now there was a celebrated stage driver on the old Pioneer line running from Hangtown to Carson and Virginia City. His drive ended at Carson, and when he had ’em real bad, the company would let him lay off at Carson until he got over ’em and was all right again. Well, do you know he never suffered any from the attacks, because the spasms didn’t act on him like with some. When the spells came on him, he’d just begin to laugh and point out the window of his room, and nobody but the doctor could get him to say a word or tell what he was laughing at. So the boys would hustle around and bring the doctor, who’d give him something to quiet his nerves, and sit and talk with him and then he’d tell.

Sometimes he saw all out doors filled with the forms and faces of most beautiful women that he’d describe as being just like angles; but when he laughed the hardest then the vision was that of a big field covered all over with pumpkin pies. Singular fancy wasn’t it? It seemed he liked pumpkin pies better than any other kind, and his thoughts would run on pie when rum got the best of him.,’ At this point a charitable friend asked the old- timer to take something, and moving up to the bar, he removed a quid, took three fingers straight, and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, said: “Still I always felt kind o’ sorry for poor old Hank.”

A Lone Highwayman – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, February 27, 1891.

Highway Men

“Throw up your hands,” were the words that greeted a horseman as he turned a sharp curve on the upper grade leading into Austin, in the Spring of 1865. “Hand out your purse” was the next command, and he handed it out to the lone highwayman who had him covered with a villainous looking revolver. The highwayman was not masked, was perfectly cool and seemed in no hurry. Opening the purse, which contained a fair supply of bills, he took out one dollar, and handing the purse and its contents back to the traveler, said “Move on.” The traveler did so without delay and wondered if that was the man who kept the toll-gate. A few minutes’ ride took him into Austin and after stabling his horse he went into Marioni’s Rotisserie and ordered his breakfast. While waiting for it and reading the paper, he was aware of someone taking a seat opposite to him, and when breakfast was served he laid aside the paper and began eating.

Looking up, his surprise was quite pronounced, to discover in his view, the lone highwayman, just commencing his breakfast also. Neither one spoke, and each one leisurely finished his breakfast, and stepped to the counter about the same time to settle. The highwayman laid down in payment the same dollar that he had extracted from the other’s purse on the grade. The meal was seventy-five cents, and for the change he took a cigar, lit it and stepped out on the sidewalk.

The traveler, surprised at his coolness, accosted him and said “Excuse me, but haven’t we met before, this morning?” And the highwayman answered, “Yes, we have.” Still more surprised at his coolness, the traveler said, “Well, will you please explain the liberty you took with me?” “Certainly,” was the reply, “I am broke, and can’t get work, and d—-d if I’ll beg.” The explanation seemed sincere, and at least was so convincing, that the traveler opened his purse again, gave him $5, and said “Take that to eat on, and when it’s gone, if you have not found work, come to me and get more.” He took it with polite thanks, hunted work, secured it, and in time became a substantial citizen of Austin, and afterwards, the man he robbed never divulged the name of the daring highwayman, and the old residents there would acknowledge that the trait displayed was characteristic of the man, if his name was given.

A Perilous Ride – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, March 28, 1891.

An old-timer drummer was seated in the bar room late last night at a downtown hotel waiting for the midnight train to return to San Francisco. He had attended to the trade that calls him here once in three months, and having nothing to do but kill time, was entertaining a friend with talks of the road. “It is easier traveling now,” he said, “than it was twenty years ago, but trade isn’t as good now, and it is harder work to make a showing.” Then he drifted into a comparison of the present with the past methods of locomotion, and said that in the earlier days, just after the opening of the overland railroad, there was a great deal of staging required, and during one season he traveled over 3,500 miles by stage in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and California, and over 7,000 miles by rail and steamer, and the further he traveled the more timid he became over stagecoach travel.

This, he explained, was not owing to any natural timidity inert within himself, but was due principally to the disappearance from the road of the crack whips that handled the ribbons during the times of the Pioneer and Overland lines, and the substitution of a cheap class of sheep herders on the short lines that sprung up as lateral feeders to the railroads. The old drivers had left a reputation and a romantic glamour clinging to their names that inspired their successors to the belief that a reckless swagger was all that was necessary for them to assume to add their names to the list of distinguished knights of the whip. But that couldn’t be. The old stock were the product of natural genius, and the high wages secured by the best resulted in the survival of the fittest, and placing in prominent position of such experts as Curly Bill, Dan Robbins, Ned Hudson, Si Hawley, Charles Levitt, Tom Stevens, Johnny Burnett, John Wilson, Billy Hodge, Baldy Green, Hank Monk, George Richmond, Con Denise, George Clinton, Vic, Dave Red, Smith Grey, Charlie Livermore, Billy Vosburg, and others further east. When the conditions changed and the companies could no longer pay $300 per month, the old stock drifted into the livery business or sought other fields, leaving behind them the tradition of departed glory. “And so,” said the drummer, “in the years from ’72 to ’75, I frequently rode over drives that nothing could tempt me to take again.

One of the most perilous that I now recall,” said he, “was in making the trip over the Greenhorn Mountains on the road from Caliente to Havilah in Kern County, California. There were seven of us passengers, six on the inside and one with the driver, on a thoroughbrace mud wagon that was just wide enough to hold two on a seat, and in fact, it seemed to be a very narrow tracked wagon for the side hill and neglected grade, when driven with the utmost care. But, in the hands of the drunken Texas cowboy who held the ribbons, it seemed as ready to upset as a bicycle. The driver was a man of large frame and of such great muscular strength that he was a terror dreaded by all the employees of the line, and domineered over them like a tyrant.

California Stage Road on Santa Catalina Island, by the Detroit Publishing Company, 1899.

Of course, we passengers didn’t know this, and after supper, about 8 o’clock in the evening, at the Summit station, we rode away smoking our cigars in the best of humor, and unaware that the driver had been drinking while we were eating.

As we began descending the mountain the quarter moon was at times obscured by drifting clouds that produced a play of weird shadows among the wide branching oaks that covered the hillsides, and at times, in the dim light, it seemed to us that the stage was dangerously near the outer edge of the grade. As we were all old travelers this did not create any alarm until, with a startling ‘ki-yi’ from the driver, he started the team in a rapid run down the grade in a narrow and dangerous place. The stage rolled heavily to one side and raised on two wheels only, when I swung myself outside, clinging to the bows, and my weight held it an instant poised in the air. It was just long enough to disclose to me that the team was beyond control and going at increasing speed to sure destruction. I acted quickly to give the others a chance, and holding my breath, I leaped into the air and down the hillside in a moment of darkness from the obscured moon. I fell heavily on my neck and shoulders with my arms folded and head forward, and turning one somersault after another rolled down the steep embankment of loose soil until stopped by an uprooted oak. I sustained no damage except a shock, and a collection of lose soil in my face and clothing, and as soon as I could rise and shake myself up I followed on down the grade to the wreck. One passenger suffered a broken leg and arm; others were badly scratched and painfully bruised; the driver was dead.

A Pony Express Episode – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, February 14, 1891

Pony Express Rider

Pony Express Rider

The Messiah craze through which the west has just passed revives memories of the early Indian depredations in Nevada, when from the Sierras to the Wasatch, the only inhabitants were at the stations of the Pony Express Company. The stations were usually occupied by a hostler only, whose duties were light as they were lonesome, but demanded prompt attention, as they were required to have the pony ready for the passing rider to mount without delay as soon as he rode up, regardless of the hour, day or night. Over the lonely stretch from Ruby Valley to Reese River, was a station known as Grubb’s Wells that was reached coming west, at midnight.

On one occasion, the pony rider, a lithe and agile fellow named Reese Hawley, afterwards known as a crack whip on the Overland Stage Line, rode up and found the place in silence and darkness.

He had given the usual piercing “ki-yi” before reaching the station and expected the fresh horse to be in waiting, but there was no sign of life when he reached the door.

Supposing the hostler to be asleep, he dismounted, leaving the tired and foaming horse within arms reach, and opening the door, struck a match and before the flickering flame shot up, he made a step and stumbled over the dead body of the hostler. Hastily rising and realizing the danger from the Indians who must be near, he stepped outside to mount his horse and found him gone. He at once struck out with caution and in his moccasin feet stealthily escaped in the darkness, and as rapidly as he could, made his way through the hours of darkness towards Jacobs’ Wells in the Reese River Valley, which he succeeded in reaching the next day in safety. A search and relief party from there returned the next day to Grubb’s Wells and found the dead body of the hostler scalped, and the horses stolen.

They had taken the rider’s horse during the moment he was in the house, and how he escaped was a miracle, but undoubtedly was owing to his knowledge of the Indians ‘ habits and his caution in retreating.

Stage Station, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866

Rushing To White Pine – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, August 8, 1891.

During the fall and winter of 1868 occurred the great rush of travel to the White Pine silver mines. As the Overland Stage was then running through Austin, the principal travel from the west passed through that point. It was too great for one daily line to accommodate, and soon a couple of competitors to the overland were started. Even then, passage was engaged for two weeks in advance and seats in thestages sold for $80-$100. Every livery outfit in town was pressed into service to carry passengers, making the long drive of 125 miles as best they could, without change of horses and on very scant feed.

Wells-Fargo’s Express accumulated in the Austin office, in quantities of many tons, until with the baggage of delayed travelers, it was difficult to transact business in the quarters occupied. The express matter, billed at 40 cents a pound freight from San Francisco, was delayed sometimes for weeks and finally sent forward by slow freight teams. From the west, it kept rolling in by the overland fast freight wagons, but such facilities ceased at Austin, and hence the blockade continued until the Central Pacific Railroad advanced its line to Elko.

For a period of over three months, this immense rush of travel and freight continued, and the employees of Wells, Fargo & Co. were taxed to nature’s limit to endure the labor thrust upon them. Those in the office were disturbed at all hours of the night by the arrival and departure of stages and fast freights, and, unable to tell when they would be called on, they took their sleep as they could, usually removing only boots and coats and reclining on cots to be ready to spring up whenever the watch dog announced an arrival.

This became very fatiguing to the office force and extra help was asked for from the San Francisco office, but the reply was that it could not last long, that their own force was equally as hard worked, and that all would have to endure it until the trade was determined to be permanent. Hence the poor overworked clerks and porters, encouraged by the agent, G.H.W. Crockett, a veteran in the service, and as gritty a worker as Wells-Fargo ever had, taxed their endurance to the utmost limits to perform their tasks. As the weeks rolled on, it became very trying, but the intense excitement attendant upon the travel and handling of baggage and silver bullion, and the fortunes being made by lucky prospectors was a constant stimulus to exertion, and perhaps enabled them to endure the physical strain consequent upon overwork and loss of sleep.

The stages returning from White Pine usually came loaded with passengers and bullion and would arrive at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and catch the office employees just dozing to sleep from other arrivals occurring every two hours in the night.

A big fire was always burning in the office stove outside the counter and the passengers just arrived, unable to get beds in the hotels and lodging houses, for they were all crowded, would huddle around that stove and with their blankets and wraps, camp there until breakfast time.

This annoyed the clerks and porters, who could not leave the express unguarded, and thus deprived them of any more sleep for the night. The night porter rebelled, saying he could not stand it. It was an impossibility during such times to get another one. Everyone that was footloose was making his way to White Pine. It was White Pine or bust, and work by the wayside be d–d. In the midst of it all, the smallpox broke out in White Pine, and as soon as the news reached Austin the head clerk saw a way out of the vexatious loss of morning sleep.The stage from White Pine arrived with a big load of passengers fleeing from the scare.

It was 3:30 o’clock a.m., with the thermometer 24 degrees below zero; the horses were white with frost; the driver was so benumbed he could render but little aid to the porter in unloading; the passengers with their blankets trooped into the office, huddled around the stove, pulled off their gloves and furs and boots, and were toasting their toes in royal content, when the porter got the last mail bag into the office and said: “Gentlemen, we have to close up now and you will have to go to the hotels.” A passenger who knew the fallacy of hunting lodgings with the condition of things then existing, replied in a grouty manner: “This is a good enough hotel for me until daylight, and d—d if I’ll move.” The others all looked acquiescent and merely moved into more comfortable positions preparatory to taking a snooze. The porter gave the clerk — who was distributing the letters — a puzzled and forlorn look, while he rattled the key in the door uneasily.

By this time the hot fire began to tell on the frozen wraps — they were thawing out; the steam arising was fragrant with any but a pleasant odor. A misty cloud was rising to the ceiling, when the clerk, as though just reminded of something, said to the porter: “Frank, the smell you told me of today must come from those smallpox blankets in that pile of baggage in the corner. You must have them moved out today. Don’t forget it.” Lightning couldn’t have moved that crowd any quicker. They grabbed their boots and blankets, rushed like sheep to the door, shoved the porter to one side and fell over each other to get out, while the only audible remark heard was, “Christ, how it smells.” The porter had only strength enough left to lock the door, and then he fell to the floor and rolled with laughter. There was no smallpox about the office, but the imagination was easily worked on by the toe-jam in the travelers’ socks.

The Stage Held Up – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, September 8, 1891.

Stagecoach Robbery

Stagecoach Robbery re-creation

The stage, well loaded with passengers and heavily weighted down with express matter and mail bags, rolled out of Hamilton at 3 o’clock in the afternoon of November 20, 1871, bound for Pioche. As this was a daily occurrence, it was nothing unusual in itself, for the mining excitement was at the highest. Raymond & Ely stock was selling at $125 per share, that a short time before was only $7. Many holders had suddenly become rich, and this stimulated the wildcat operations of the camp to such an extent that Pioche was filled with high salaried superintendents and secretaries, fighters and miners, and all indicated a thriving and becoming mining camp.

Money was plenty and high priced jewelry ornamented the shirt fronts and vests of the mining officials. The stages that transported the bullion out of camp, also carried in coin and valuables by express and were consequently considered legitimate prizes by the road agents that often held them up.

On the day above named, the express box was observed to be heavier than usual, and although the agent and driver tried to conceal its weight when stowing it away in the front boot, passengers quietly remarked that the boys would make a good haul if they went for it. The stage rolled along through Eberhardt Canyon and on over the dusty road during the afternoon and reached the supper station without any interruption. It continued on during the evening and until after midnight, with the usual halts at stations for a change of horses and the usual exchange of small talk between driver and hostlers. One of the passengers was Jot Travis, who was one of the owners of the line, which, at that time, was earning money rapidly. Another passenger was a new agent for the express and stage departments at Pioche. About midnight a station was reached and the usual change of horses made, after which it rolled on its way, and soon the passengers were all asleep. Half an hour afterward they were awakened by the stopping and sudden starting up of thestage. Travis, more alert than the others, awoke first, and reaching to unbutton a curtain, said to the express agent, “What was that,” and got a sleepy reply “O! nothing; guess we just left a station.”

“No, said Travis, “we passed that two miles back. I heard something said about the box. I believe we’ve been robbed,” and he was making haste to throw open the curtain when the express agent held him back, saying: “Go slow. If we have been robbed you had better not poke your head out just now.”

“That’s so,” said Travis, “but I think we ought to stop and find out.”

He was again cautioned to wait a minute, for the stage was now bowling along as fast as six panting horses could haul it and it was very evident something unusual had occurred. Travis was impetuous and intrepid and called out to the driver, “Pat! what’s the matter?” and the reply came back in husky, muffled tones, “The boys took the box.”

“What’s that?” said Travis; “What did they say?” and the driver answered in the same subdued and hoarse whisper, “They took the box and told me to drive on, and said their guns carried 250 yards, and I’m not out of range yet;” and with a sharp flourish of silk, he urged on the panting horses.

Travis was furious. He insisted on getting out right there and pursuing the road agents at once; but when admonished that it would be hazardous with only revolvers and on foot to make an attack on the well mounted robbers, armed with Winchesters, he subsided, but with some profanity over the fate that compelled him to. That night, the stage rolled in to Pioche minus the treasure box and $1,700 in coin and jewelry. The Sheriff, John Kane, took the trail, stimulated by a big reward, but the robbers were never caught, although they were believed to have been in Pioche three days afterwards gambling on their ill-gotten gains.

A Weary Walk – Article in the Reno Evening Gazette, May 19, 1891

Among the pioneers in the stage business in this State, and in fact on this coast, was Frank Cluggage who was well known to the early traveling public and noted for his quiet, unobtrusive ways, and his thorough financial stability. In fact, reports were that Frank became rich in early life and was never known to make a losing, hence his financial standing gave him a prestige that secured for him a choice of good, reliable employees and thus contributed to his continued success. He was, however, equally well known for his parsimonious habits, and this lead him into the practice of economical ways that, at times, caused him some personal inconvenience.

On one occasion, desiring to save time in passing over his mail route from Columbus in Esmeralda County to San Antonio in Nye County, which was only tri-weekly, he concluded to go on the hurricane deck of a mule on one of the off days. He set out from Columbus in the early morning with no other companion than his long-eared transport and made excellent time during the first part of the journey. It was then a lonesome route, as it is yet, and he met no travelers on the way. Hence, he smoked his cigar and talked to the mule for company and thought he had established kindly relations with the brute of cunning light heels. In fact, the mule seemed to enjoy Frank’s talk and jogged along in a docile and becoming manner without exhibiting “any tricks that are vain,” and Frank permitted his confidence to get the better of his mature judgment.

The road passes over stretches of dreary alkali deserts, with watering places far apart and no habitation within sight or reach. When Frank had accomplished most of the distance, but was yet about 25 miles from San Antonio, he reached the last watering place. It was a shallow well in the midst of the desert and without a well rope. This had caused travelers to cut a sloping path down to the water, and the stage company kept a bucket there for watering the stock. When Frank reached it at noon he was thirsty and so was the mule. He dismounted and, as there was nothing to hitch the mule to, he left it standing at the head of the incline and descending, he first quenched his own thirst and then brought up a bucketful.

For the mule, who was very dry and eagerly drank it all in very short order. Frank got a second bucket, which disappeared as quickly as the first, and then went for a third one. When he reached the surface he stumbled; this scared the mule — Tom was his name — and with a snort off he started on the road to San Antonio.

Frank dropped the bucket and started after him and began calling in gentle tone, “who-a Tom, who-a.” But Tom wasn’t to be flattered, and with an eye on Frank he jogged along just out of reach — regulating his gait to suit Frank’s movements, whether fast or slow, but always just out of reach. The afternoon was hot and Frank was soon perspiring as if in a Turkish bath, while the mule, relieved of his burden, was provokingly cool. Frank tried strategy, but it didn’t succeed — the mule seemed endowed with human intelligence and brute cunning. Frank talked kindly, “who-a Tom who-a now, who-a,” but Tom kept out of reach. At last, Frank’s patience was exhausted, and with a good deal of feeling he said, “d–n your pelt, if I ever get hold of you I’ll break your neck.”  But Tom didn’t hearken, he simply kept out of reach, and for the entire twenty-five miles, he kept ahead of Frank for just a few yards, and just after nightfall pricked up his ears and started off on a brisk trot for the station that he scented in the distance, and soon left Frank out of sight, alone on the desert and feeling his way in the dark. The station keeper caught the mule and came back on a search for the rider. He soon found Frank, but he was so mad that he wouldn’t tell how far he had walked, and this saved the mule. And Frank never told of his desert tramp with a mule in the lead until many years after.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, update August, 2015.

About the Author: Written by William Daugherty, for the Reno Evening Gazette in 1891. The Reno Evening Gazette was first published on October 12, 1876, and continued for the next 107 years. In 1977, it was merged with the Nevada State Journal, and continues to exist today as the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Also See:

Pioneers on the Nevada Frontier (Reno Evening Gazette)

Nevada Mining Tales (Reno Evening Gazette)

Pioche Land Jumpers and the Death of Jack Harris (Reno Evening Gazette)

Violence on the Nevada Frontier (Reno Evening Gazette)

Historical Accounts of American History

Nevada Legends


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