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The Overland Stage and Telegraph Lines

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By Grace Raymond Hebard and Earl Alonzo Brininstool in 1922

 

 

As the Oregon Trail widened and became deeper in the soil of the mountains and plains, stretching its arms toward the West, the people eventually did not have the Pacific coast for their destination. Gradually, here and there, the man with his family, unyoked his oxen, unharnessed his horses, and prepared to make a home in those sections most attractive in what was named and known as "The Great American Desert." Occasional streams, on the banks of which vegetation had been courageous enough to grow, lured the home seeker. Land was free, un-surveyed and unclaimed. Even with these attractions the land called but a few of the more venturesome men, their brave wives and care-free children, who knew no danger.

 

Around these isolated families towns sprung up, sparsely inhabited, it is true, but enough to say that the firing-line of a newer civilization was now being pushed rapidly toward the setting sun. Chiefly, however, were the camps in the mining districts, for in many places not only were gold and silver yielding "pay dirt," but were found to be most profitable.

 

Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail, 1869

Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail, 1869, at Joslyn

Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska 

 

 

 

The necessity for safer and better means of transportation of supplies to these mining camps became most urgent. Sacramento, the end of the California branch of the Oregon Trail, and the center of the early gold excitement in California, for a number of years had demanded the attention of the hardy frontiersmen and risking miner, in their mad rush to California, in those days of the '49er and following years. With the advent of gold being found in those inland territories of Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Colorado, new trails or roads were put into operation.

These were not constructed by the government, but side routes from the main trails, made by the men seeking gold. Anything to add to adventure and excitement was not considered a hardship, not even the opening of a hazardous road in and through the mountains or on the trackless prairie. As a logical outcome of the constant need for food, clothing and tools, an organized movement was started to have supplies transferred from the Missouri River to the wealth-bearing mountains.

Over the Oregon Trail these supply caravans or wagon trains wended their way through the country that had been pronounced as "only fit for prairie dogs and Indians." Of course the population was more or less of a floating nature-many today, few tomorrow; the next day a ghost city, a characteristic feature of the many mushroom towns made or ruined by gold or the lack of it.

Those who came to the mountains in these earliest days of the development of the West and the making of a camp, did not go into agriculture or any other occupation that was productive of the commodities desired by them. To have things to eat and wear, tools for digging the ore, horses and mules to operate the heavy work of the mines, and food for these working animals, made the commerce of freighting an absolute necessity.

Wagon traffic was to supply not only necessities but luxuries for the West, be it on the isolated portions of the plains, or in the hidden passes in the mountains.

 

Before the establishment of the regular freight trains, individual families, on their way to the West, banded together for self-protection from the hostile Indians. Exactly as to how commerce could be extended to those who had pushed into the unoccupied lands, received not only the perplexing consideration of those who were to make the journey, but companies doing a transporting business took the matter under advisement. Our government attempted to offer a solution for this congested form of trade, the demand for supplies vastly outrunning the possibility of getting the commodities to the West.

 

Conestoga WagonIn the desire to solve the problem, the government, on the line of the Santa Fe Trail, advocated and actually introduced some eighty camels to be used as a means of transportation. These "ships of the desert," which were not climatically adapted to our country, and which frightened the horses and mules of the caravans, were finally released and allowed their freedom. The experiment in these long-necked, double-stomached, and cushion-footed animals extended as far north as Idaho and Montana. In 1865 camels were used for freighting to the mining camps, particularly from Helena, Montana, to Walla Walla, Washington. The animals were able to carry a load from eight hundred to one thousand two hundred pounds' weight. This camel train went by the way of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains and through Hell's Gate to the gold mines. These camels in the northwest were doubtless a part of the experiment carried on by our War Department in 1856 over the Gila and Santa Fe Trails. The animals, in the first instance, coming from the Levant, costing our government the sum of thirty thousand dollars for the experiment.

Finally the people of the Pacific coast demanded that the government take the necessary steps toward establishing a mail route across the mountains and the plains. When Utah was created as a territory, the people had to wait for official information of the Act of Congress, from September, 1850, to January of the following year, the informing letter going by the Panama route to California and then east back to Utah. In July, 1850, the first mail route of monthly service was established between Independence and Salt Lake, where it met an extension line going to California, a very unsatisfactory enterprise, which only continued for a short time. In 1854 the government established a mail service, also monthly, to Sacramento from the Missouri River by the southern route, via Albuquerque, New Mexico, a service that also failed to meet the demand.

It was not until the year 1858 that efficient mail service for the far West was established, when the Butterfield Southern Overland Mail route was put into operation. The mail was at first sent only semi-weekly, but soon changed to a six days in the week service, the stages not running on Sundays. This route was two thousand seven hundred and fifty-nine miles long, going by the way of El Paso, Yuma, and California, making the journey, under favorable conditions, in twenty-three to twenty-five days, carrying letters for ten cents per half ounce, a passenger fare of one hundred dollars being paid for the trip. The one great advantage of this route over other routes was that it was so far south that it avoided the snows to be found on northern trails.

 

This stage line was forty percent longer than any other of our established stage lines, an expensive affair from the mere fact of its unusual length. The road's equipment was also costly, for it contained one hundred Concord coaches, one thousand horses, five hundred mules, seven hundred and fifty men, and one hundred and fifty drivers. The Civil War coming in 1861 forced our government to change the route into a more northern territory, selecting the Overland Trail for a new road, to run from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California, the road being known at the "Central Route."

 

A mail stage was started July 11, 1861, over the Oregon Trail, simultaneously east and west, at the ends of the line, each stage making the journey in eighteen days against that of twenty-five days over the southern route, a saving of one week's time. The fare for the trip across the plains from Atchison to Placerville, in the early sixties, was six hundred dollars, which included twenty-five pounds of baggage, any excess costing one dollar a pound.

 

But the stages, lumbering at best, were too slow in their transportation of mail to the impatient, news-hungry people of California, who were demanding that a more speedy method to carry the mail must be inaugurated.

 

As a result of persistent demand, through the efforts of William H. Russell, the Pony Express was put on the Oregon Trail, which carried mail to California in ten days. The road for the Pony Express, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California, a distance of almost 2,000 miles, followed frequently the Orego and California Trails, though cut-offs were taken to avoid the Indians, or to find places where stations could be maintained near a stream of water. The horses employed were all small, and of western breed. There were 500 of them, and the riders were light of weight to match their mounts.

 

The company operating the Pony Express had two hundred station-keepers, and one hundred and ninety stations at which the eighty riders were given only two minutes in which to change horses and transfer their saddlebags of mail. The stations were from nine to fifteen miles apart, depending upon the proximity to water.

 

Stagecoach

Stagecoach.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!

 

Letters, costing five dollars a half-ounce were limited to fifteen pounds for the average rider, the weight being equally divided into two flat leather securely locked mail pouches. During the years of operation of the Pony Express, from April 23, 1860, to October 22, 1861, the mail was lost but once, when it was stolen by the Indians.

 

The best time made with this overland service by these relay riders was seven days and seventeen hours, when President Lincoln's inaugural message was whisked over the route. There is no more picturesque achievement of the plains than the operation of the Pony Express, which shortened the time for Pacific mail service, thus bringing the people of the coast many days nearer to their former homes and to the national government.

 

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