Tag Archives: Butterfield Overland Mail Route

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.


Wells Fargo

Transcontinental Mail Service Began 100 Years Ago Today

A Butterfield Overland Mail Coach at Fort Chadbourne museum in Bronte, Texas. Photo: Pi3.124(Wikipedia)
A Butterfield Overland Mail Coach at Fort Chadbourne museum in Bronte, Texas.
Photo: Pi3.124(Wikipedia)

On 15 September 1858 transcontinental mail service between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, CA began when the Overland Mail Company sent out its first stages. Under contract with the U.S. Postal Department, it would transport mail twice a week between those two points in 25 days. It avoided the slow ocean voyage and promised quicker transport of mail between east and west. Although subsidized by a $600,000 by the federal government, Overland Mail Company would spend over a million dollars establishing way stations (10-20 mile intervals) and improving the 2,800 mile route.

Custom-built stages driven by teams of horses soon were racing across the open spaces of the West. They carried more than mail with passengers willing to spend 25 days in carriage that was hardly comfortable. Way stations along the way provided some comfort but pricey. And if you got off the stage at a way station, there was a possibility the stage might take off with out you. In that case you were stranded until the next one arrived but if it was full it might be a while for the next one as well. Aside from the dust that was ever present, there were no comforts and the coach ran night and day. Toilets were few and far between (as were places to wash off the dust). Then there were other problems as well. Coaches were targets for robbers and even the occasional Indian attack making it sometimes a risky proposition. Add to it that some stage drivers were not always sober making the ride more uncomfortable. Some of the routes connected states like Alabama to California through Texas.

In 1860 Overland Mail was taken over by Wells Fargo that operated the Pony Express mail service and other operations. With the Civil War looming, the Overland would be forced to change its route by an Act of Congress. Its contract with the government would end in March 1861. During the war, many of the West and Southwest and stations would be become targets of either the Union or Confederacy to prevent their use by the other side. Wells Fargo would resume stagecoach transcontinental service but it would end on 10 May 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Local stagecoach service though would continue on (to ferry people, cargo, and mail away from trains) until the advent of the automobile. Today there is an effort underway to preserve the transcontinental route as a heritage trail.

1.This Day in History (History.com)
2. Butterfield Overland Mail Route (website about the mail route)