The First Running of the Stage

Waterman L. Ormsby, first through-passenger on the Overland Mail stagecoaches.
Waterman L. Ormsby, first through-passenger on the Overland Mail stagecoaches.

The Butterfield Overland Mail Co. carried its first U.S. mail westward beginning September 16, 1858, with the company president, John W. Butterfield Sr., taking custody of two mailbags at St. Louis and boarding a Pacific Railroad train for Tipton, Missouri. Accompanying Butterfield was Waterman L. Ormsby, a writer for the New York Herald and the only person to purchase a through-ticket for the first trip west.

Passengers could book through passage for $200 with tickets allowing a passenger to stop at stations enroute and reboard the next available coach. Ormsby wrote:

“We are now on the Pacific Railroad. But what’s in a name? It is a single track road and only extends about a hundred and sixty miles west of St. Louis. It has nearly a due west course, following the course of the Missouri to Jefferson City, the capital of the state. It has been six or seven years in the course of construction to this point, having, in the time when the river is full, hard competition with the steamboats.”1

John Butterfield, a son of the founder and driver of the first west-bound stage.
John Butterfield, a son of the founder and driver of the first west-bound stage.

Ormsby chronicled his nearly 24-day trip in a series of articles for the Herald, published as the newspaper was able to get mail from back along the line. At Tipton, Ormsby and Butterfield switched from the train to the stagecoach, joining five passengers bound for Fort Smith: Judge John F. Wheeler, his wife, Nancy, and two children, all of Fort Smith; and T.B. Corbin of Washington, D.C. Driving the first coach south was John W. Butterfield Jr.: “Not a cheer was raised as the coach drove off, the only adieu being, ‘Good bye, John,’ addressed to John, Jr., by one of the crowd,” wrote Ormsby.2

The coach was soon swaying through the prairies and wooded groves of central Missouri and into the darkness of night before reaching Warsaw. Ormsby couldn’t see where they were headed and wasn’t sure the driver quite knew his way either, and “the coach lamps seemed to be of little use in the dim moonlight.” Still the drivers were covering the route faster than the Butterfield Timetable had delineated, an advantage that would be needed later in the trip.

The coach was met by a large crowd at Springfield, Mo., and the salute of guns fired. The passengers made a change from their Concord coach to the type that was used through most of the rest of the trip, a sturdier coach supported by leather straps rather than iron springs and with a canvas top rather than wood. By the next morning, the coach had reached Callahan’s Station in Arkansas. Ormsby wrote, “We greased our wagon, changed horses, and got some breakfast — all in an incredibly short space of time — after which we set out for Fayetteville.”3

The Butterfield company built major stables at Fayetteville, and John Butterfield Sr. so enjoyed Fayetteville that his son Charles Butterfield was put in charge of operations at the town.4 The route between Fayetteville and Fort Smith went over the Boston Mountain range of the Ozarks, and horses were traded for mules along this broken stretch, usually at Parks’ Station:

“I had thought before we reached this point that the roads of Missouri and Arkansas could not be equalled; but here Arkansas fairly beats itself.

“I might say our road was steep, rugged, jagged, rough, and mountainous — and then wish for some more expressive words in the language. Had not Mr. Crocker provided a most extraordinary team I doubt whether we should have been able to cross in less than two days. The wiry, light, little animals tugged and pulled as if they would tear themselves to pieces, and our heavy wagon bounded along the crags as if it would be shaken in pieces every minute, and ourselves disembowelled on the spot.”5

The coach crossed the Arkansas River at Van Buren by use of a flatboat. The far side of the river was described as flats with little quicksands. Reaching downtown Fort Smith a little after 2 a.m., passengers of the coach from Tipton found the town excited because the coach from Memphis had arrived just 15 minutes earlier. Fort Smith at the time was a town of 2,500 inhabitants with two newspapers. The primary point of contact between the United States and the Indian nations, the fort itself was established in 1817, and military units were garrisoned there until 1871.

Fort Smith as it appeared in the late 1860s. The building to the left is the quartermaster's storehouse. At center is the powder magazine and to the right of it is one of the barracks.
Fort Smith as it appeared in the late 1860s. The building to the left is the quartermaster’s storehouse. At center is the powder magazine and to the right of it is one of the barracks.

Butterfield chose Fort Smith as its Division Center, where the coaches from Memphis and Tipton would be joined. Through-mail was combined, and the Butterfield coach headed southwest across the Indian Territory, Ormsby wrote, arriving at Colbert’s Ferry on Sept. 20th, but not without mishap:

“To see the heavy mail wagon whizzing and whirling over the jagged rock, through such a labyrinth, in comparative darkness, and to feel oneself bouncing — now on the hard seat, now against the roof, and now against the side of the wagon — was no joke, I assure you, though I can truthfully say that I rather liked the excitement of the thing. But it was too dangerous to be continued without accident, and soon two heavy thumps and a bound of the wagon that unseated us all, and a crashing sound, denoted that something had broken.”6

Although they couldn’t find the immediate problem in the darkness, the stage driver discovered at the next stop that the tongue of the coach had busted.

From the Red River, the route across Texas cut south to Sherman, due west toward Gainesville and southwesterly to new town of Jacksboro, which Ormsby described: “The town is in Jacks County and though but a year old contains a dozen houses and, I should judge, nearly two hundred inhabitants. It is on the edge of a large plain which, as we approached it, looked like a passive lake, so even and level was its surface.”7

The ride continued southwesterly through a string of military forts — Fort Belknap, the abandoned Fort Phantom Hill and Fort Chadbourne — with a half dozen other stations strung between them. From Fort Chadbourne, the route continued southwest and then west across the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, through Castle Gap and down to Horsehead Crossing in the Pecos River valley. Instead of crossing the Pecos, though, the Butterfield route turned north and followed the Pecos to Pope’s Wells near the New Mexico border. “We stopped just long enough to get some supper of shortcake, coffee, dried beef, and raw onions, and taking a fresh team started on a sixty mile journey to the Guadalupe mountain,” Ormsby wrote.8

The short stop proved to be of little overall help. The average speed between Fort Belknap and El Paso turned out to be less that three miles per hour, primarily because of instances in which wild mules that were supposed to pull the coach instead got loose.

Whether from the inefficiency of Mr. Nichols’ driving, or because Mr. Mather’s furious riding frightened the mules, or because the mules were wild, or that the boys had been having a jolly good time on the occasion of the arrival of the first stage, or by a special dispensation of Providence — or from a combination of all these causes — I will not pretend to say, but certainly, from some unforeseen and vexatious cause, we here suffered a detention of some hours. The mules reared, pitched, twisted, whirled, wheeled, ran, stood still, and cut up all sorts of capers.9

Past the Pinery Station and Guadalupe Peak, the route turn northwest through a canyon:

“We had hardly passed through before the sound of voices and the gleaming of a light denoted that there was a party ahead of us. The awe inspiring scenery and the impressive sunset had almost set me dreaming as I lay listlessly in the wagon; but the possibility of meeting foes, perhaps a band of murderous Indians, in this wild and lonely spot filled me for a time with fears; but I had great faith in the captain’s prowess, and felt somewhat easier when he declared it to be his opinion that the party was an American one.

“In a moment we were upon them, and, to our astonishment, found that it was the overland mail which left San Francisco on the 15th [of] September, with five through passengers, and which was now eight hours ahead of time. After exchanging congratulations and telling bits of news, both parties passed on, I availing myself of the opportunity to send to the Herald a despatch which I had nearly written for the occasion.”10

In west Texas, the route was changed at Horsehead Crossing. Instead of going north along the Pecos River, the coaches began crossing the Pecos and following a southern route that led through Forts Stockton, Davis and Quitman before rejoining the original trail at El Paso. The southern route was believed to provide better safety and more watering holes.

The one-story adobes of Mesilla, not long after the Gadsden Purchase, with the Organ Mountains on the horizon, circa 1854.
The one-story adobes of Mesilla, not long after the Gadsden Purchase, with the Organ Mountains on the horizon, circa 1854.

The Butterfield Route skirted into southern New Mexico, passing Cornudas Peak and re-entering Texas near Hueco Tanks, or “Waco Tanks” as Ormsby wrote it. Then the route made a beeline into Franklin, now known as El Paso. The stage turned north along the Rio Grande valley, crossing the river near the town of Mesilla, a place that Ormsby described disparagingly. He had expected a much larger, bustling town.

Following the established San Antonio & San Diego Mail Route, the Butterfield headed from watering hole to watering hole across the southern Arizona Territory, often using sentinel mountains as guides across the featureless land. The stations at Cooke’s Spring and Soldier’s Farewell were nothing more than one tent for the station men, Ormsby wrote. The team rode more than 40 miles from Soldier’s Farewell to the next station without water.

At the Dragoon Springs Station, Ormsby related the murders and serious injury of three Americans on the Butterfield road-construction crew, who were attacked while they slept by three Mexican workers of the road crew. One of the Americans died in the attack, two died during the next two days from their wounds, and the third was found four days after the attack, still alive but badly injured.

A wagon encampment at Maricopa Wells, circa 1857.
A wagon encampment at Maricopa Wells, circa 1857.

The stage continued through south central Arizona, where there had been a recent rain. Ormsby reported that the horses were able to get water from small pools along the roadside. The route passed the then-small village of Tucson and into Maricopa Wells, a traditional stopover for emigrant wagon trains before a 40-mile stretch without water. Ormsby wrote: “I here saw some of the largest cactus plants on the route; they tower up from twelve to fifteen feet in some of the varieties. A very excellent and sweet syrup is made from them.”11

The group made better time down through the Gila River valley, eventually reaching Fort Yuma. The route swung slightly south into present-day Mexico and then back north across the sands of southern California. A sandstorm from a few days earlier created tall dunes across portions of the road.

The desert ended when the Butterfield coach reached the meadows of the San Felipe valley and Warner Ranch. The route then ran north through the Temecula valley along the west side of Laguna Grande, now known as Lake Elsinore.12 At the northern end of the valley, the route went north along the Chino Hills, circling around them and then west into Los Angeles via Covina and El Monte to arrive at the Bella Union Hotel on Oct. 7, 1858.

With only three days to go and still behind on time since the delays in west Texas, the coach headed north through San Fernando, stopping at the mission there for a change of horses, and then continuing through the San Francisquito Canyon to Fort Tejon.

Because the ferry wasn’t operating at Kern River, the passengers crossed the river near present-day Bakersfield on a flatboat and boarded a new stagecoach waiting for them on the north bank. The route then crossed the foothills of the Sierras to Visalia and northwest to Fresno, crossing the San Joaquin River at Firebaugh’s Ferry. Andrew D. Firebaugh began operation of the ferry in 1854 and then built a toll road over Pacheco Pass to push traffic to his ferry crossing. The Butterfield Overland Mail Co. obliged, but Ormsby was not thrilled with another mountain pass:

After the Guadalupe Pass, the Boston Mountain of the Ozark range, the Pacheco, and the New Pass, I had about concluded that I had seen all the mountain passes worth seeing on the route and that none could be more difficult or dangerous. But I was destined to be disappointed and to witness one of the finest views which the entire route affords.

The distance through the pass is twelve miles, and, instead of the cañon which I expected, I found the road to lead over hills piled on hills, which, though a little lower than their neighbors, were still at quite sufficient altitude. On every side we could look off down steep and craggy ravines, some of whose bottoms could not be discerned in the distance. Our road led immediately on the brink of many a precipice, over which a balky horse or a broken axle or an inexperienced driver might send us whirling in the air in a moment. There are also many abrupt curves in the road, winding around the sides of the steep hills, on the edges of the ravines; many steep roads directly up and down the hills; and many rocks near the road, leaving just sufficient room for an experienced driver to take his team through without striking.13

North through Gilroy, San Jose and the Mission de Dolores before following Mission Street into San Francisco, the stage carried Ormsby to the Butterfield Overland Mail office at the Plaza, arriving in 23 days, 23 hours and a half:

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. Swiftly we whirled up one street and down another, and round the corners, until finally we drew up at the stage office in front of the Plaza, our driver giving a shrill blast of his horn and a flourish of triumph for the arrival of the first overland mail in San Francisco from St. Louis. But our work was not yet done. The mails must be delivered, and in a jiffy we were at the post office door, blowing the horn, howling and shouting for somebody to come and take the overland mail.14

Based on a photograph, this 1858 woodcut print from Harper's Weekly shows the first eastbound Butterfield stage about to embark from San Francisco headed to Tipton, Missouri. When first started, stages left San Francisco at 6 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Based on a photograph, this 1858 woodcut print from Harper’s Weekly shows the first eastbound Butterfield stage about to embark from San Francisco headed to Tipton, Missouri. When first started, stages left San Francisco at 6 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Ormsby, Waterman Lily. Eds. Lyle H. Wright and Josephine M. Bynum. The Butterfield Overland Mail, (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, Sixth Printing, 1968) 5.
  2. Ibid., 12.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Hendricks, Nancy L. “Butterfield Overland Express.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
  5. Ormsby. The Butterfield Overland Mail, 22.
  6. Ibid., 31.
  7. Ibid., 46.
  8. Ibid., 72.
  9. Ibid., 54.
  10. Ibid., 75-76.
  11. Ibid., 99.
  12. Mitchell, Laura. “Butterfield Stagecoaches Helped Build Local Towns,” North County Times (February 26, 2005).
  13. Ormsby. The Butterfield Overland Mail, 123.
  14. Ibid., 129.
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