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Story of the Pony Express, The


Chapter VIII

Early Overland Mail Routes

In the history of overland transportation in America, the Pony Express is but one in a series of many enterprises. As emphasized at the beginning of this book, its importance lay in its opportuneness; in the fact that it appeared at the psychological moment, and fitted into the course of events at a critical period, prior to the completion of the telegraph; and when some form of rapid transit between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast was absolutely needed. To give adequate setting to this story, a brief account of the leading overland routes, of which the Pony Express was but one, seems proper.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, three great thoroughfares had been established from the Missouri, westward across the continent. These were the Santa Fe, the Salt Lake, and the Oregon trails. All had important branches and lesser stems, and all are today followed by important railroads--a splendid testimonial to the ability of the pioneer pathfinders in selecting the best routes.

Of these trails, that leading to Santa Fe was the oldest, having been fully established before 1824. The Salt Lake and Oregon routes date some twenty years later, coming into existence in the decade between 1840 and 1850. It is incidentally with the Salt Lake trail that the story of the Pony Express mainly deals.

The Mormon settlement of Utah in 1847-48, followed almost immediately by the discovery of gold in California, led to the first mail route[34] across the country, west of the Missouri. This was known as the "Great Salt Lake Mail," and the first contract for transporting it was let July 1, 1850, to Samuel H. Woodson of Independence, Missouri. By terms of this agreement, Woodson was to haul the mail monthly from Independence on the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, twelve hundred miles, and return. Woodson later arranged with some Utah citizens to carry a mail between Salt Lake City and Fort Laramie, the service connecting with the Independence mail at the former place. This supplementary line was put into operation August 1, 1851.

In the early fifties, while the California gold craze was still on, a monthly route was laid out between Sacramento and Salt Lake City[35]. This service was irregular and unreliable; and since the growing population of California demanded a direct overland route, a four year monthly contract was granted to W. F. McGraw, a resident of Maryland. His subsidy from Congress was $13,500.00 a year. In those days it often took a month to get mail from Independence to Salt Lake City, and about six weeks for the entire trip. Although McGraw charged $180.00 fare for each passenger to Salt Lake City, and $300.00 to California, he failed, in 1856. The unexpired contract was then let to the Mormon firm of Kimball & Co., and they kept the route in operation until the Mormon troubles of 1857 when the Government abrogated the agreement.

In the summer of 1857, General Albert Sidney Johnston, later of Civil War fame, was sent out with a Federal army of five thousand men to invade Utah. After a rather fruitless campaign, Johnston wintered at Fort Bridger, in what is southwestern Wyoming, not far from the Utah line. During this interval, army supplies were hauled from Fort Leavenworth with only a few way stations for changing teams. This improvised line, carrying mail occasionally, which went over the old Mormon trail via South Pass, and Forts Kearney, Laramie, and Bridger, was for many months the only service available for this entire region.

The next contract for getting mail into Utah was let in 1858 to John M. Hockaday of Missouri. Johnston's army was then advancing from winter quarters at Bridger toward the valley of Great Salt Lake, and the Government wanted mail oftener then once a month. In consideration of $190,000.00 annually which was to be paid in monthly installments, Hockaday agreed to put on a weekly mail. This route, which ran from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City, was later combined with a line that had been running from Salt Lake to Sacramento, thus making a continuous weekly route to and from California. For the combined route the Government paid $320,000.00 annually. Its actual yearly receipts were $5,142.03.

The discovery of gold in the vicinity of Denver in the summer of 1858 caused another wild excitement and a great rush which led to the establishment in the summer of 1859 of the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express, from the Missouri to Denver. As then traveled, this route was six hundred and eighty-seven miles in length. The line as operated by Russell, Majors, and Waddell, and that same year they took over Hockaday's business. As has already been stated, the new firm of Pony Express fame--called the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Co.--consolidated the old California line, which had been run in two sections, East and West, with the Denver line. In addition to the Pony Express it carried on a big passenger and freighting business to and from Denver and California.

Turning now to the lines that were placed in commission farther South. The first overland stage between Santa Fe and Independence was started in May, 1849. This was also a monthly service, and by 1850 it was fully equipped with the famous Concord coaches, which vehicles were soon to be used on every overland route in the West. Within five years, this route, which was eight hundred fifty miles in length and followed the Santa Fe trail, now the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, had attained great importance. The Government finally awarded it a yearly subsidy of $10,990.00, but as the trail had little or no military protection except at Fort Union, New Mexico, and for hundreds of miles was exposed to the attacks of prairie Indians, the contractors complained because of heavy losses and sought relief of the Post Office and War Departments. Finally they were released from their old contract and granted a new one paying $25,000.00 annually, but even then they fell behind $5,000.00 per year.

By special act passed August 3, 1854, Congress laid out a monthly mail route from Neosho, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with an annual subsidy of $17,000.00. Since the Mexican War this region had come to be of great commercial and military importance. A little later, in March 1855, the route was changed by the Government to run monthly from Independence and Kansas City, Missouri, to Stockton, California, via Albuquerque, and the contractors were awarded a yearly bonus of $80,000.00 This line was also a financial failure.

The early overland routes were granted large subsidies and the privilege of charging high rates for passengers and freight. To the casual observer it may seem strange that practically all these lines operated at a disastrous loss. It should be noted however, that they covered an immense territory, many portions of which were occupied by hostile Indians. It is no easy task to move military forces and supplies thousands of miles through a wilderness. Furthermore, the Indians were elusive and hard to find when sought by a considerable force. They usually managed to attack when and where they were least expected. Consequently, if protection were secured at all, it usually fell to the lot of the stage companies to police their own lines, which was expensive business. Often they waged, single-handed, Indian campaigns of considerable importance, and the frontiersmen whom they could assemble for such duty were sometimes more effective than the soldiers who were unfamiliar with the problems of Indian warfare.

Added to these difficulties were those incident to severe weather, deep snow, and dangerous streams, since regular highways and bridges were almost unknown in the regions traversed. Not to mention the handicap and expense which all these natural obstacles entailed, business on many lines was light, and revenues low.

News from Washington about the creation of the new territory of Utah--in September 1850--was not received in Salt Lake City until January 1851. The report reached Utah by messenger from California, having come around the continent by way of the Isthmus of Panama. The winters of 1851-52, and 1852-53 were frightfully severe and such expensive delays were not uncommon. The November mail of 1856 was compelled to winter in the mountains.

In the winter of 1856-57 no steady service could be maintained between Salt Lake City and Missouri on account of bad weather. Finally, after a long delay, the postmaster at Salt Lake City contracted with the local firm of Little, Hanks, and Co., to get a special mail to and from Independence. This was accomplished, but the ordeal required seventy-eight days, during which men and animals suffered terribly from cold and hunger. The firm received $1,500.00 for its trouble. The Salt Lake route returned to the Government a yearly income of only $5,000.00.

The route from Independence to Stockton, which cost Uncle Sam $80,000.00 a year, collected in nine months only $1,255.00 in postal revenues, whereupon it was abolished July 1st, 1859.

By the close of 1859 there were at least six different mail routes across the continent from the Missouri to the Pacific Coast. They were costing the Government a total of $2,184,696.00 and returning $339,747.34. The most expensive of these lines was the New York and New Orleans Steamship Company route, which ran semi-monthly from New York to San Francisco via Panama. This service cost $738,250.00 annually and brought in $229,979.69. While the steamship people did not have the frontier dangers to confront them, they were operating over a roundabout course, several thousand miles in extent, and the volume of their postal business was simply inadequate to meet the expense of maintaining their business[36].

The steamer schedule was about four weeks in either direction, and the rapidly increasing population of California soon demanded, in the early fifties, a faster and more frequent service. Agitation to that end was thus started, and during the last days of Pierce's administration, in March 1857, the "Overland Mail" bill was passed by Congress and signed by the President. This act provided that the Postmaster-General should advertise for bids until June 30 following: "for the conveyance of the entire letter mail from such point on the Mississippi River as the contractors may select to San Francisco, Cal., for six years, at a cost not exceeding $300,000 per annum for semi-monthly, $450,000 for weekly, or $600,000 for semi-weekly service to be performed semi-monthly, weekly, or semi-weekly at the option of the Postmaster-General." The specifications also stipulated a twenty-five day schedule, good coaches, and four-horse teams.

Bids were opened July 1, 1857. Nine were submitted, and most of them proposed starting from St. Louis, thence going overland in a southwesterly direction usually via Albuquerque. Only one bid proposed the more northerly Central route via Independence, Fort Laramie, and Salt Lake. The Postoffice Department was opposed to this trail, and its attitude had been confirmed by the troubles of winter travel in the past. In fact this route had been a failure for six consecutive winters, due to the deep snows of the high mountains which it crossed.

On July 2, 1857, the Postmaster General announced the acceptance of bid No. "12,587" which stipulated a forked route from St. Louis, Missouri and from Memphis, Tennessee, the lines converging at Little Rock, Arkansas. Thence the course was by way of Preston, Texas; or as nearly as might be found advisable, to the best point in crossing the Rio Grande above El Paso, and not far from Fort Filmore; thence along the new road then being opened and constructed by the Secretary of the Interior to Fort Yuma, California; thence through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging to San Francisco. On September is following, a six year contract was let for this route. The successful firm at once became known as the "Butterfield Overland Mail Company." Among the firm members were John Butterfield, Wm. B. Dinsmore, D. N. Barney, Wm. G. Fargo and Hamilton Spencer. The extreme length of the route agreed upon from St. Louis to San Francisco was two thousand seven hundred and twenty-nine miles; the most southern point was six hundred miles south of South Pass on the old Salt Lake route. Because of the out-of-the-way southern course followed, two and one half days more than necessary were nominally-required in making the journey. Yet the postal authorities believed that this would be more than offset by the southerly course being to a great extent free from winter snows.

On September 15, 1858, after elaborate preparations, the overland mails started from San Francisco and St. Louis on the twenty-five day schedule--which was three days less than that of the water route. The postage rate was ten cents for each half ounce; the passenger fare was one hundred dollars in gold. The first trip was made in twenty-four days, and in each of the terminal cities big celebrations were held in honor of the event. And yet today, four splendid lines of railway cover this distance in about three days!

These stages--to use the west-bound route as an illustration--traveled in an elliptical course through Springfield, Missouri, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Van Buren, Arkansas, where the Memphis mail was received. Continuing in a southwesterly course, they passed through Indian Territory and the Choctaw Indian reserve--now Oklahoma--crossed the Red River at Calvert's Ferry, then on through Sherman, Fort Chadbourne and Fort Belknap, Texas, through Guadaloupe Pass to El Paso; thence up the Rio Grande River through the Mesilla Valley, and into western New Mexico--now Arizona to Tucson. Then the journey led up the Gila River to Arizona City, across the Mojave desert in Southern California and finally through the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco.

Today a traveler could cover nearly the same route, leaving St. Louis over the Frisco Railroad, transferring to the Texas Pacific at Fort Worth, and taking the Southern Pacific at El Paso for the remainder of the trip.

As has been shown, the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861 made it necessary for the Federal Government to transfer this big and important route further north to get it beyond the latitude of the Confederacy. Hence the Southern route was formally abandoned[37] on March 12, 1861, and the equipment removed to the Central or Salt Lake trail where a daily service was inaugurated. About three months was necessary to move all the outfits and in July 1861, the first daily overland mail--running six times a week--was started between St. Joseph and Placerville, California, 1,920 miles by the way of Forts Kearney, Bridger, and Salt Lake City.

The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad had been built into St. Joseph and was doing business by February 1859. For some time that city enjoyed the honor of being the eastern stage terminal; but within a year the railroad was extended to Atchison, about twenty miles down the stream. The latter place is situated on a bend of the river fourteen miles west of St. Joseph, and so the terminal honors soon passed to Atchison since its westerly location shortened the haul.

In transferring the Butterfield line from the Southern to the Central route, it was merged with the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company which already included the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company, under the leadership of General Bela M. Hughes. This line was known to the Government as the Central Overland California Route. As soon as the transfer was completed, through California stages were started on an eighteen day schedule a full week less time than had been required by the Butterfield route, and ten days less than that of the Panama steamers. This was the most famous of all the stage routes, and except for three interruptions, due to Indian outbreaks in 1862, 1864, and 1865, it did business continuously for several years.

Within a few months came another change of proprietorship, the route passing on a mortgage foreclosure into the hands of Benjamin Holladay, a famous stage line promoter, late in 1861. Early the following year Holladay reorganized the management under the name of the Overland Stage Line. This seems to have been what today is technically known as a holding company; for until the expiration of the old Butterfield contract in 1863[38], he allowed the business east of Salt Lake City to be carried on by the old C. O. C. & P. P. Co.; west of Salt Lake, the new Overland Line allowed, or sublet the through traffic to a vigorous subsidiary, the Pioneer Stage Line[39].

Holladay was fortunate in securing a new mail contract for the Central route which he now controlled. For supplying a six day letter mail service from the Missouri to Placerville together with a way mail to and from Denver and Salt Lake City, he was paid $1,000,000 a year for the three years beginning July 1, 1861. At the expiration of this period he was to get $840,000.

In the meantime gold was discovered in Idaho and Montana, and Holladay, encouraged by his big subsidy from the Government, put stage lines into Virginia City, Montana, and Boise City, Idaho.

In 1866 the Butterfield Overland Despatch, an express and fast freight line, was started above the Smoky Hill route from Topeka and Leavenworth across Kansas to Denver. Within a short time this organization, mainly because of the heavy expense caused by Indian depredations, and was consolidated with the Holladay Company. Just prior to this transfer, Mr. Holladay received from the Colorado Territorial legislature a charter for the "Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company," which was the full and formal name of the new concern. This corporation now owned and controlled stage lines aggregating thirty-three hundred miles. It brought the service up to the highest point of efficiency and used only the best animals and vehicles it was possible to obtain.

In addition to his federal mail bonus, Holladay had the following rates for passenger traffic in force:

In 1863, from Atchison to Denver $75.00
In 1863, from Atchison to Salt Lake City $150.00
In 1863, from Atchison to Placerville $225.00

In 1865, on account of the rise of gold and the depreciation of currency, these rates were increased; the fare from the Missouri River to Denver was changed to $175.00; to Salt Lake $350.00. The California rate varied from $400.00 to $500.00. A year later the fare to Virginia City, Montana, was fixed at $350.00 and the rate to Salt Lake City reduced to $225.00.

These high rates and Indian dangers did not seem to check the desire on the part of the public to make the overland trip. Stages were almost always crowded, and it was usually necessary for one to apply for reservations several days in advance.

Late in the year 1866, Holladay's entire properties[40] were purchased by Wells Fargo and Co. This was a new concern, recently chartered by Colorado, which had been quietly gaining power. Within a short time it had exclusive control of practically all the stage, express, and freighting business in the West and this business it held.

Meanwhile the overland stage and freight lines were rapidly shortening on account of the building of the Pacific railroads, and the terminals of the through routes became merely the temporary ends of the fast growing railway lines. By the early autumn of 1866, the Kansas Pacific had reached Junction City, Kansas, and the Union Pacific was at Fort Kearney, Nebraska. The golden era of the overland stage business was from 1858 to 1866. After that, the old through routes were but fragments "between the tracks" of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific roads which were building East and West toward each other.

Wells Fargo & Co., however, clung to these fragments until the lines met on May 10th, 1869, and a continuous transcontinental railroad was completed. Then they turned their attention to organizing mountain stage and express lines in the railroadless regions of the West,--some of which still exist. And they also turned their energies to the railway express business, in which capacity this great firm, the last of the old stage companies, is now known the world over.

[34] Authority for Early Mail Routes is Root and Connelley's Overland Stage to California.

[35] The reader will keep in mind that during the early days of California history, practically all communication between that locality and the East was carried on by steamship from New York via Panama.

[36] In June, 1860, Congress got into trouble with this company over postal compensations. The steamship company, it appears, thought its remuneration too low and it further protested that the diversion of mail traffic, due to the daily Overland Stage Line and the Pony Express would reduce its revenues still further. Congress finally adjourned without effecting a settlement, and the mail, which was far too heavy for the overland facilities to handle at that time, was piling up by the ton awaiting shipment. Matters were getting serious when Cornelius Vanderbilt came to the Government's relief and agreed to furnish steamer service until Congress assembled in March, 1861, provided the Federal authorities would assure him "a fair and adequate compensation." This agreement was effected and the affair settled as agreed. At the expiration of the period, the war and the growing importance of the overland route made steamship service by way of the Isthmus quite obsolete.

[37] The contractors are said to have been awarded $50,000 by the Government for their trouble in haying the agreement broken.

[38] See page 153. Holladay secured possession of the outfits of the C. O. C. & P. P. Exp. Co., between the Missouri and Salt Lake City.

[39] The Pioneer Line which had recently come into power and prominence had gained possession of the equipment west of Salt Lake. This line was owned by Louis and Charles McLane. Louis McLane afterward became President of the Wells Fargo Express Co.

[40] Holladay is said to have received one million five hundred thousand dollars cash, and three hundred thousand dollars in express company stock for his interests. Besides these amounts which covered only the animals, rolling stock, stations, and incidental equipment, Wells Fargo and Co. had to pay full market value for all grain, hay and provisions along the line, amounting to nearly six hundred thousand dollars more.