By William Daugherty, for the Reno Evening Gazette in 1891
During the fall and winter of 1868, the great rush of travel to the White Pine silver mines occurred. As the Overland Stage was then running through Austin, Nevada, 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 the stages 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, California, was delayed sometimes for weeks and finally sent forward by slow freight teams. It kept rolling in by the overland fast freight wagons from the west, 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. 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 watchdog announced an arrival.
This became very fatiguing to the office force, and extra help was asked for from the San Francisco office. Still, 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. Still, 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. They 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 deprived them of 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. Smallpox broke out in White Pine in the midst of it all, 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 mailbag 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 toe-jam easily worked on the imagination in the travelers’ socks.
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.
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