Overland Stage

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Stage Coaches, Ben Holladay, Stage Stations.

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About This Site

Overland Coach, photo by Geoff Dobson

The Overland Stage, while much written about, lasted only about ten years. As discussed later, much more important to Wyoming were local stage lines which before the coming of railroads provided transportation to the various parts of the Territory. Stage service to Wyoming started in the late 1850's. The first effort was by the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company. Service, however, was discontinued with the Mormon War. Another effort was made by Hockaday & Legget, who went broke before service could be started. Thereafter, in June 1858, William Russell commenced service using new Concord coaches to, among other places, Fort Laramie, under the name of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company. Deeply in debt, in October 1859, he brought in as partners Alexander Majors and William Waddell. Employees were required to take an oath:

"I, do hereby solemnly swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am in the employ of Russell, Majors & Waddell, that I will under no circumstances use profane language; that I will drink no intoxicating liquors of any kind; that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as will win the confidence and esteem of my employers, so help me God ."

The company continued its losses and gave a deed of trust (mortgage) to Ben Holladay (1819-1887), who foreclosed upon the line in March 1862. For Holladay, the line was a gold mine. At the beginning of the Civil War, the principal route to the West Coast was the famed Butterfield Mail Route which ran from St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco, California by way of El Paso and and Tucson. Although the Butterfield stage took twenty-five days to make the trip, it had the advantage of not having to cross the Rockies during the winter. Unfortunately, the route was primarily through Confederate territory. At the beginning of the war, many of the Butterfield stage station and coaches were seized by the Confederate government. Thus, Holladay had a monopoly on mail destined to and from California until completion of the telegraph line and the railroad.

Ben Holladay

Operation of the line was very much cash intensive, with the necessity of having stage stations every 10 to 15 miles, station attendants, drivers, conductors, smithies, cartwrights, mules, horses, and equipment. Just provisioning the empire was a task almost beyond imagination. Great wagon trains carrying feed, victuals, supplies, and equipment were used to provision each division. Holladay had made his original fortune in freighting goods into Salt Lake City where he had earned the trust of Brigham Young and, thus, had a ready market. With the advent of the Civil War, professional soldiers were withdrawn from the West and replaced by volunteers. The result was an upsurgence of Indians depredations, necessitating the rerouting of the stage line from along the old Oregon Trail to a new route generally following the Southern Cherokee Trail. Nevertheless, government subsidies for carrying the mail initially made the line very profitable. On seven routes in the West he received from the government during his first four-year period $1,896,028. He also had a silent interest in a second contract in which the government paid some $1,000,000 a year. These sums were in addition to anything he received from carrying passengers.

Holladay with the stage line became the "King of Stage Lines" with mansions in Oregon, Washington, D.C., and on the Hudson River in New York. The purpose of the mansion in Washington was to enable Holladay to lobby Congress as to the subsidies. Later he ventured into steam navigation and attempted the construction of a railroad and lost most of his fortune.

Granger Stage Station, 1860's

Some questions have been raised as to the date of consruction of the above stage station. Various revisions to the building were made over the years. Note, as an example, the change in the chimneys in the 1974 photo lower on the page. The renovations have led to incongruities, such as use of wire nails on some of the interior trim, which some have questioned. Nevertheless, as noted below, William Henry Jackson visited the station in 1932 and recalled spending time at the Granger Station as a bullwhacker in 1866.

In 1862, Ben Holladay moved stage and mail service from the Oregon Trail to the Overland Trail in the general vicinity of the Cherokee Trail. the increased traffic required that the station at the confluence of Ham's Fork and Black's Fork be upgraded and, accordingly, a new station, pictured above was constructed about four miles from the old one. In 1866 the line was sold to Wells Fargo and Company but was closed down in 1869 with the opening of the railroad.

Eugene Ware, who served in the military in Nebraska and what was to become Wyoming, described in his memoir, The Indian War of 1864, the stage operation:

The stage stations were about ten miles apart, sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less, according to the location of the ranches. Stores of shelled corn, for the use of the stage horses, were kept at principal stations along the line of the route. Intermediate stations between these principal stations were called "swing stations," where the horses were changed. For instance, the horses of a stage going up were taken off at a swing station, and fed; they might be there an hour or six hours; they might be put upon another stage in the same direction, or upon a stage returning. It was the policy of the stage company to make the business as profitable as possible, so it did not run its coaches until each coach had a good load, and they were most generally crowded with persons both on the inside and on top. Sometimes a stage would be almost loaded with women. From time to time stage company wagons went by loaded with shelled corn for distribution as needed at the swing stations. All of the coaches carried Government mail in greater or less quantities. Occasionally when the mail accumulated, a covered wagon loaded with mail went along with the coaches. These coaches were billed to go a hundred miles a day going west; sometimes they went faster. Coming east the down-grade of a few feet per mile enabled them to make better time. They went night and day, and a jollier lot of people could scarcely be found anywhere than the parties in these coaches.

The coaches were all built alike, upon a standard pattern called the "Concord Coach," with heavy leather springs, and they drove from four to six horses according to their load. The drivers sat up in the box, proud as brigadier-generals, and they were as tough, hardy and brave a lot of people as could be found anywhere. As a rule they were courteous to the passengers, and careful of their horses. They made runs of about a hundred miles and back. I got acquainted with many of them, and a more fearless and companionable lot of men I never met. There seemed to be an idea among them that while on the box they should not drink liquor, but when they got off they had stories to tell, and generally indulged freely. They gathered up mail from the ranches, and trains, and travelers along the road, and saw that it reached its destination. They had but very few perquisites, but among others was the getting furs, principally beaver-skins, and selling them to passengers. Most of them had beaver-skin overcoats with large turned-up collars. We soon understood the benefits of these collars, and the officers of our post put large beaver collars on their overcoats, and the men of the company fitted themselves out with tanned wolfskin collars, which were equally as good. Wolves were so numerous that there was quite an industry in shooting or poisoning them, and tanning their skins for the pilgrim trade.

The accomodations at the various stage stations maintained by the line received mixed reviews. The British adventurer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) on his 1860 stage trip across the west, reported of the original Green River station:

"The station had the indescribable scent of a Hindu village, which appears to be the result from burning of bois de vache and a few cows which were so lively it was impossible to milk them. We supped comfortably on salmon, trout, buffalo-berry jelly and ‘Valley Tan’ whiskey."

Sir Richard Burton August 21, 1860 6:30 PM.

[Writer's note: bois de vache, cow chips. Sir Richard in his 1862 The City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California, recounted his journey and noted that meat cooked over chips did not require pepper. But Sir Richard was not the only one to make that observation. Warren Angus Ferris, a trapper for the American Fur Company, in his ROCKY MOUNTAINS, A Diary of Wanderings on the sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado, from February, 1830, to November, 1835, observed:

Since leaving the Loup Fork we have seen very little timber, and latterly none at all. We, however, hitherto found plenty of driftwood along the banks of the river, but to-day, the nineteenth, there is not a stick of any description to be seen, and as the only resource, we are compelled to use as a substitute for fuel, the dried excrement of buffalo, of which, fortunately, the prairie furnishes an abundant supply. I do not, by any means, take it upon myself to defend the position, but certainly some of the veterans of the party affirm that our cooking exhibits a decided improvement, which they attribute to this cause, and to no other. That our steaks are particularly savoury I can bear witness.

Of "Valley Tan," a vile distillate of wheat and potatoes, George Lathrop, later a driver on the Cheyenne-Blackhills Stage, thought it "was made of horned toads and Rocky Mountain rattlesnakes." He noted in his 1915 Memoirs, after it got to working on him, he felt that he "could whip all the Sioux Indians on the plains or any of the bull-whackers who had been in the habit of talking back to me. I want to tell you that Valley Tan was the forty-rod stuff." Horace Greeley described local whiskey:

And such liquor! True, I have not tasted it; but the smell I could not escape; and I am sure a more wholesome potable might be compounded of spirits of turpentine, aqua fortis, and steeped tobacco. Its look alone would condemn it—soapy, ropy, turbid, it is within bounds to say that every pint of it contains as much deadly poison as a gallon of pure whisky. And yet fully half the earnings of the working men (not including the Mormons, of whom I have yet seen little) of this whole region are fooled away on this abominable witch-broth and its foster-brother tobacco, for which they pay $1 to 2 50 per pound ! The log-tavern-keeper at Weber, of whom our mail-boys bought their next supply of "rot," apologetically observed, " There a'n't nothing bad about this whisky; the only fault is, it isn't good." I back that last assertion with my whole heart. An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co., New York, 1860.]

Overland Trail ruts, north of Baggs, photo by Geoff Dobson, 2003

Sir Richard had previously explored parts of Africa and visited Mecca. Edward Wright in his 1906 The Life of Sir Richard Burton, Everett and Co., London, noted the purpose of Sir Richard's trek:

It was natural that, after seeing the Mecca of the Mohammedans, Burton should turn to the Mecca of the Mormons, for he was always attracted by the centres of the various faiths, moreover he wished to learn the truth about a city and a religion that had previously been described only by the biassed. One writer, for instance-- a lady--had vilified Mormonism because "some rude men in Salt Lake City had walked over a bridge before her." It was scarcely the most propitious moment to start on such a journey. The country was torn with intestine contentions. The United States Government were fighting the Indians, and the Mormons were busy stalking one another with revolvers. Trifles of this kind, however, did not weigh with Burton. After an uneventful voyage across the Atlantic, and a conventional journey overland, he arrived at St. Joseph, popularly St. Jo, on the Missouri. Here he clothed himself like a backwoodsman, taking care, however, to put among this luggage a silk hat and a frock coat in order to make an impression among the saints.

In Salt Lake City, Sir Richard secured an audience with Brigham Young and offered to convert to Mormonism. Wright wrote, "Young replied, with a smile, 'I think you've done that sort of thing once before, Captain.' So Burton was unable to add Mormonism to his five or six other religions."

Granger Station on Old U.S. 30, approx. 1974.

Sir Richard gave a far less complementary review of the orignial station at Ham's Fork:

The station was kept by an Irishman and Scotsman "David Lewis". It was a disgrace. The squalor and filth were worse almost than the two -- Cold Springs and Rock Creek -- which had called our horrors, and which had always seemed to be the ne plus ultra of Western discomfort. The shanty was made of dry stone piled up against a dwarf cliff to save backwall and ignored doors and windows. The flies -- unequivocal sign of unclean living! -- darkened the table and covered every thing put upon it; the furniture, which mainly consisted of the defferent parts of wagons, was broken, and all in disorder; the walls were impure, the floor filthy. The reason was at once apparent. Two Irish women, sisters, were married to br. Dawvid, and the house was full of "childer," the nosiest and most rampageous of their kind. I could hardly look upon the scene without disgust. * * * * Moreover, I could not but notice that, though the house contained two wives, it boasted only of one cubile, and had only one cubiculum. Such things would excite no surprise in London or Naples, or even in many of the country parts of Europe; but here, where ground is worthless, where building material is abundant, and where a few hours of daily labor would have made the house look at least respectable, I could not wonder at it. My first impulse was to attribute the evil, uncharitably enough, to Mormonism; to renew, in fact, the stock-complaint of nineteen centuries' standing --

"Foecunda culpae secula nuptias
Primum inquinavere, et genus et domus."

[Writer's note, Loosely translated: A fruitful marriage gives birth to a dirty home.]

Ruins of Point of Rocks Station

Samuel Clemens in Roughing It described the accommodations and napery furnished to passengers of the stage line:

The station buildings were long, low huts, made of sundried, mud-colored bricks, laid up without mortar (adobes, the Spaniards call these bricks, and Americans shorten it to 'dobies). The roofs, which had no slant to them worth speaking of, were thatched and then sodded or covered with a thick layer of earth, and from this sprung a pretty rank growth of weeds and grass. It was the first time we had ever seen a man's front yard on top of his house. The building consisted of barns, stable-room for twelve or fifteen horses, and a hut for an eating-room for passengers. This latter had bunks in it for the station-keeper and a hostler or two. You could rest your elbow on its eaves, and you had to bend in order to get in at the door. In place of a window there was a square hole about large enough for a man to crawl through, but this had no glass in it. There was no flooring, but the ground was packed hard. There was no stove, but the fire-place served all needful purposes.

Fireplace, Point of Rocks Station, photo by Geoff Dobson

Clemens continues:

There were no shelves, no cupboards, no closets. In a corner stood an open sack of flour, and nestling against its base were a couple of black and venerable tin coffee-pots, a tin teapot, a little bag of salt, and a side of bacon.

By the door of the station-keeper's den, outside, was a tin wash-basin, on the ground. Near it was a pail of water and a piece of yellow bar soap, and from the eaves hung a hoary blue woolen shirt, significantly -- but this latter was the station-keeper's private towel, and only two persons in all the party might venture to use it -- the stage-driver and the conductor. The latter would not, from a sense of decency; the former would not, because did not choose to encourage the advances of a station-keeper. We had towels -- in the valise; they might as well have been in Sodom and Gomorrah. We (and the conductor) used our handkerchiefs, and the driver his pantaloons and sleeves. By the door, inside, was fastened a small old-fashioned looking-glass frame, with two little fragments of the original mirror lodged down in one corner of it. This arrangement afforded a pleasant double-barreled portrait of you when you looked into it, with one half of your head set up a couple of inches above the other half. From the glass frame hung the half of a comb by a string -- but if I had to describe that patriarch or die, I believe I would order some sample coffins.

Nor were the furnishings of the stations any better. Clemens describes the furnture:

The furniture of the hut was neither gorgeous nor much in the way. The rocking-chairs and sofas were not present, and never had been, but they were represented by two three-legged stools, a pine-board bench four feet long, and two empty candle-boxes. The table was a greasy board on stilts, and the table-cloth and napkins had not come--and they were not looking for them, either. A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup, were at each man's place, and the driver had a queens-ware saucer that had seen better days. Of course this duke sat at the head of the table. There was one isolated piece of table furniture that bore about it a touching air of grandeur in misfortune. This was the caster. It was German silver, and crippled and rusty, but it was so preposterously out of place there that it was suggestive of a tattered exiled king among barbarians, and the majesty of its native position compelled respect even in its degradation.

There was only one cruet left, and that was a stopperless, fly-specked, broken-necked thing, with two inches of vinegar in it, and a dozen preserved flies with their heels up and looking sorry they had invested there.

Next Page: The Overland Stage continued.