Oh, it really wasn't much of a highway. You needed rose-colored glasses to call it a road. That's not to say some people didn't romanticize it. But if you ask me, it took a lot of chutzpah to romanticize 2,757 and one-half miles of dust, mud, rock, desert sand, quicksand, sand hills and clay so sunburnt that John Henry couldn't stick a pick into it.
That was your Overland Mail Company all right, great-granddaddy of transcontinental stage routes. And perhaps of every information system since.
No place for "white pants and kid gloves," it was known by most folks as the Butterfield stage, and it provided isolated Westerners with what we yearned for more than gold -- news. News about loved ones, politics, wars, business, the North, the South, births, deaths, marriages, the theatre, fashions, in-laws, Europe, the health of the Czar, the price of rhubarb in Rhode Island, anything.
This constant cry for news finally got Congress to agree to a westerly mail route. John Butterfield, William B. Dinsmore, William G. Fargo (of Wells, Fargo & Co.) won the $600,000 contract for twice a week service between St. Louis/Memphis and San Francisco. Each run had to be made in 25 days. That was sure better than waiting anywhere from six months to a year for word to get around the Horn. Even the journey via the Isthmus of Panama was still too slow for most of us.
Naturally, there was a catch. Butterfield had to begin regular service by September 16, 1858 -- just 12 months after signing the contract!
Waterman L. Ormsby, first passenger to make the stage trip, put it this way: "Considering that the contract was signed but just a year before the route went into operation; that an exploring party had to be sent over the road to lay out the details of the line, consuming nearly eight months' time; that during this time over 100 wagons had to be built, nearly 1,500 horses and mules bought and stationed, corrals and station houses built, men employed and all these appurtenances disposed along the route the work appears to me to be superhuman."
So grab your hat and duster and ride the original route that brash John Butterfield laid out. Maybe later I can tell you how Wells Fargo incorporated the Butterfield Overland Mail into the grandest of all stage lines.
From St. Louis, you headed 160 miles due west to Tipton, Missouri, on the single-track Pacific Railroad. Then you transferred to stagecoach. Cynics said you could hardly tell the difference. Whether they were referring to the road being smooth or the rails being rough, nobody knew. I'll bet you a shave and a haircut it wasn't the former.
The stage route swung south through the Ozarks to Fort Smith. Then it began a great ox-bow a curve through Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and deep into Texas, ostensibly to avoid all kinds of obstacles, seen and unseen. (Knowing John Butterfield, he just might have wanted to boast that he ran the longest stage route in the world.)
Every 18 miles or so, once as long as 113 miles, you came to a station built of logs or adobe, with a crude corral for horses and mules. The wranglers hitched up a fresh team, and the stage took off again. It ran night and day, averaging just under five miles an hour, 12 miles an hour tops, with no rest for the wicked or the righteous. Twice a day, you stopped for a gulp of coffee, beef jerky and biscuits. The Omaha Herald once spelled out hints for surviving aboard the stagecoach
. Smart passengers learned 'em by rote.
Each leg of the trip had its own brand of misery. The Ozarks were jagged and rocky while the Arkansas River was cursed with quicksand. But I assure you that monotony was your worst enemy on the great Llano Estacado of Texas. Mile after mile the stage groaned across dwindling grassland without trees, shrubs or human habitation until you reached the Rio Grande.
And you still had 600 brutal miles from El Paso to Ft. Yuma on the Colorado River before you got to California. The names on the map -- Soldier's Farewell, Doubtful Pass and Murderer's Grave -- made you wonder if you'd ever survive those vast plains, craggy peaks, mountain passes strewn with boulders, and merciless deserts.
Beyond Fort Yuma, the landscape was littered with cattle too weak to keep pace with the emigrant trains. So they were simply abandoned. But as you neared Los Angeles Country, the scene changed to prosperous ranches, surrounded by live willow fences and prolific orchards. Los Angeles, said Orsmby, was a "thrifty and business-like town" of 6,000, surrounded by vineyards "covering many acres and producing luscious grapes."
Once through the dangerous Grapevine Canyon, you headed up the great Central Valley to Visalia where the stage got an "anvil salute" -- a gunpowder blast between two heavy anvils. And racing down Pacheco Pass, you got a lesson in stage driving. Wrote Ormsby, "I expected to see him put down the brakes with all his might but he merely rested his foot on them, saying, 'It's best to keep the wheels rolling, or they'll slide.'"
Just 23 days and 23-1/2 hours after leaving St. Louis, the Butterfield stage entered San Francisco, a full day ahead of schedule. "Soon we struck the pavements, and with a whip, crack, and bound, shot through the streets to our destination, to the great consternation of everything in the way and the no little surprise of everybody."
Remember what I told you about romanticizing? Well, Ormsby concluded that "the vast fertile lands, the romantic passes, the large streams, even the luxuriance of animal and vegetable life on the deserts, will attract the attention of the intelligent and give to the route a varied interest which a sea voyage does not and cannot possess."
By the way, Ormsby took the steamer back East.
You'll find the complete story in The Butterfield Overland Mail by Waterman L. Ormsby, Only Through Passenger on the First Westbound Stage. Published by The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
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