Tag Archives: United States history

Remembering History: Wells Fargo Begins Freight Service

A Butterfield Overland Mail Coach at Fort Chadbourne museum in Bronte, Texas.
Photo: Pi3.124/Wikimedi

Today with our vast networks of freeways, highways and transportation systems it is hard to remember a time when it did not exist. Outside of the major cities and the areas around them, traveling long distance was difficult and often dangerous. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the need for cross-country shipping increased. On 18 March 1852 Henry Wells and William Fargo along with several investors created a freight service called Wells Fargo & Company . At the time, sending important documents were often sent by courier rather than the U.S. Postal Service as it was faster. The second option was to use stagecoach drivers, railroad conductors or steamship crews to deliver your letters or packages. You really had to hope for the best with the second option, which was cheaper than hiring a private courier. This is where Wells Fargo fit in by having a dedicated service that would deliver documents and freight securely as paid courier for multiple customers.

While messenger services were well established on the East Coast and had penetrated the Midwest, the discovery of gold in California meant people were migrating in large numbers to seek their fortunes. This meant the need for reliable shipping from coast-to-coast was needed along with better communications between them. The telegraph had already been developed but it would take a while to set up the lines between east and west coasts. Ships took a long while to sail either around South America and up to California (or drop you off on the eastern side and you would walk to the west to catch a northbound ship, a perilous journey on its own!). Wells and Fargo wanted to set up a system of messengers that would convey freight to the Pacific Coast. The approached the American Express Company but they did not think it would be profitable. So Wells and Fargo established Wells Fargo & Co on their own with investors.

The first shipment was in July 1852 by shipping freight from the East Coast to mining camps in Northern California. Using contracted stagecoach companies, they were able to establish a service that was known for its fast delivery of freight, important documents, and other valuables. Wells Fargo also served as a bank providing loans, bank notes, and buying gold dust from miners. In 1857 Wells Fargo formed the Overland Mail Company that became knows as the Butterfield Line. This provided regular mail and passenger service along many routes during this time. During this time of boom and busts, they became a standard that people could rely on. They also had a premium service that would deliver and pick up mail or packages. By 1866 they had become the largest stagecoach company around. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, they used it to ship freight to locations where the company would receive the shipment and transport it to the destination. By 1910, it had established a large shipping network that stretched from large cities on the East Coast to farm towns in the Midwest, to ranches and mines in Texas and California, and up into the Pacific Northwest where lumber camps were. It was a huge network and showed how valuable such companies were to the growth of the United States.

The bank would split away from the freight business in 1905 and be headquartered in San Francisco. Although the bank’s offices were destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, it was able to recover as its vaults were untouched. Wells Fargo Company Express was nationalized with other shipping companies during World War I into American Railway Express. An overseas armored car service with the Wells Fargo name would operate overseas but ultimately merge with Loomis in the 1990’s.

Sources:

Brittanica.com
History.com
Wells Fargo