Running stagecoaches at night in 1858

Help Support Amtrak Unlimited Discussion Forum:

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
On a trip to Texas a few years back, I got to see the ruins of one of the "stations" of the Butterfield Overland Mail, an early stagecoach service that connected St. Louis and San Francisco between 1858 and 1861. The trip was scheduled to take 600 hours (about 25 days), which should be considered when one complains when the California Zephyr's 40-odd hour run is 8 hours late. :) The stations were spaced every 30 miles or so to allow the company to swap out drivers and horses/mules. I had always thought that at night time the stages stayed in the station and let the passengers get some sleep. But that's not the case. When I read the wikipedia article about this service, it was pointed out that the coaches went right through and people slept on board. Having sat in a reconstructed stagecoach cabin at the museum in the Well Fargo Bank in San Francisco, I salute anybody would actually make this trip. The article wasn't clear, but they must have provided food at the station stops while they were changing horses. I suspect that the passengers would have been tickled pink if they were served Amtrak's flex dining, given what I've read about the usual 19th century trail diet.

The one thing I don't understand is how they were able to reliably operate stagecoaches at night. The coaches didn't have headlights, and the roads weren't paved and probably weren't even well-graded macadamized gravel. Rolling along in a stagecoach at full speed in the dark on an unpaved road without headlights being pulled by unbroken wild mustangs seems to me to be the perfect prelude to the NTSB investigation of a major stagecoach crash, except, of course, the NTSB didn't exist in 1858. I certainly wouldn't have been able to sleep very well. And this is without considering the possibility of attacks from the Apaches and other native groups who were understandably annoyed at these interlopers from the east rolling through their territory. Apparently, the stagecoach employees were not armed; fortunately (I guess) most of the passengers were.

Anyway, after reading about what it was like to travel overland to the west coast back in the day, I'm never going to complain about being crammed into a middle seat for a 6-hour flight or a late Amtrak trip where the Flex dining food runs out. :) And I want to find this publication, which was an account by a newspaper reporter who was on the first trip:

Waterman L. Ormsby, The Butterfield Overland Mail, Only Through Passenger on the First Westbound Stage, Edited by Lyle H. Wright and Johnson M. Bynum, The Huntington Library, San Marino California, 1991,
 

John Santos

Service Attendant
Joined
Jun 24, 2018
Messages
187
I'm sure they did NOT travel at full speed at night. Probably a slow walk most of the time. I also seriously doubt they were pulled by unbroken wild mustangs. I don't know much about horses, but I suspect training a horse to work in a team requires considerably more time and effort than to teach one to tolerate a rider on its back.
 

Qapla

Conductor
Joined
Jul 15, 2019
Messages
1,965
Location
Gator Country Florida
Yes, for the team to pull a stagecoach it had to be trained - not wild mustangs.

As far as traveling at night - no need for headlights since horses can see at night. I'm sure they went at a speed the horses were comfortable with. Not to mention that, most of the time, horses were not driven hard - a horse can only go "at speed" for a short duration. They operate best at a walk or trot and can do that speed for many hours at a time. They eat and sleep standing up so they do not need to "rest their legs". They can also eat while walking.

Since the trails were "cleared" the horses would be able to stay in the tracks with their night vision (Horses have excellent night vision, and on a night lit by a partial moon or by bright stars alone, normally sighted horses can see as well as you do in full daylight.) and they can even keep going while the driver sleeps.

Now, as for the comfort of sleeping in a stagecoach - yeah, that would be "interesting" ... especially if the coach was full.
 

Willbridge

50+ Year Amtrak Rider
AU Supporter
Joined
Mar 30, 2019
Messages
1,055
Location
Denver
When I worked for ODOT I had a stack pass for the State of Oregon Library and found that they had the reservation book for the Oregon & California Stage. Originally it ran Portland<>Sacramento for transcontinental connections in the latter city. As the O&C railway was constructed it became a "bridge" operation between the rail extensions.

There was a lot of government and military travel on it, as well as "Mrs. ________ " wives of men who had made enough to pay for first class travel. Here are some one-way fares from Portland in the 1860's and the 1906 rail fare for comparison:
  • to Oregon City = $2 -- 0.25
  • to Salem = $7 -- 1.65
  • to Albany = $10 -- 3.15
  • to Corvallis = $12 -- 2.60
  • to Roseburg = $26 -- 6.00
  • to Jacksonville/Medford= $35 -- 10.25
  • children rode free
  • 150 pounds of excess baggage cost$18
They had steamboat competition between Portland and Salem, but the big struggle was against the small market. In the first days logged in 1862 there were many times when the driver was the only person on the stage. When traffic in 1863 was high, agent B. G. Whitehouse sold eleven tickets on Sunday, October 25: 2 for Salem, 2 for Albany, 3 for Corvallis, 1 for Eugene, 1 for Roseburg, 1 for Jacksonville (today Medford), and 1 for over the Siskiyou mountains to Sacramento.

The service was often disrupted by weather. In December 1867 the stage was chartered for skating parties on Couch's Lake (now an industrial area). On December 22 the connecting steamboat from Vancouver, Washington couldn't make it through the ice in the rivers. (Important for mail and military riders from Fort Vancouver.)

Mr. Whitehouse sold the last ticket from Portland on October 5, 1871. From then till December 17, 1887 the stages ran "bus bridge" service between the slowly advancing railheads.

While the Oregon & California stage offered connections with the transcontinental stage at Sacramento, the preferred link with the East was via the coordinated steamboat/stage service of the Oregon Steam Navigation company with transcontinental connections in Wyoming (basically the Amtrak Pioneer route).

For a fanciful version of the days between 1860 and 1880, Jimmy Stewart takes care of business in:

Bend of the River

Newsreel shows Oregon steamboats
 
Last edited:

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
I'm sure they did NOT travel at full speed at night. Probably a slow walk most of the time. I also seriously doubt they were pulled by unbroken wild mustangs. I don't know much about horses, but I suspect training a horse to work in a team requires considerably more time and effort than to teach one to tolerate a rider on its back.
The wikipedia article cites a news account of the time that stated they used untrained horses:

John M. Farwell, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, “Letter from our Overland Correspondent,” Tuesday, November 16, 1858
 

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
Yes, for the team to pull a stagecoach it had to be trained - not wild mustangs.

As far as traveling at night - no need for headlights since horses can see at night. I'm sure they went at a speed the horses were comfortable with. Not to mention that, most of the time, horses were not driven hard - a horse can only go "at speed" for a short duration. They operate best at a walk or trot and can do that speed for many hours at a time. They eat and sleep standing up so they do not need to "rest their legs". They can also eat while walking.

Since the trails were "cleared" the horses would be able to stay in the tracks with their night vision (Horses have excellent night vision, and on a night lit by a partial moon or by bright stars alone, normally sighted horses can see as well as you do in full daylight.) and they can even keep going while the driver sleeps.

Now, as for the comfort of sleeping in a stagecoach - yeah, that would be "interesting" ... especially if the coach was full.
While the horses might have been able to see the trail perfectly well, you might need a little more fine-tuned guidance to prevent the coach from hitting ruts, bumps, rocks, potholes, etc. Even if the horses were just going at a trot, which was likely, riding on the rough surface would sure be bad for passenger comfort, not to mention that those coaches sure looked top-heavy. I wonder how often they flipped.
 

Qapla

Conductor
Joined
Jul 15, 2019
Messages
1,965
Location
Gator Country Florida
The Wikipedia article cites a news account of the time that stated they used untrained horses:
Since I was not there in 1858 I cannot say for a certanty ... however, having been around horses most of my live I can say that, unless trained in some way, you will not get a team of horses to pull together if they have not had some training. Now, the pulling team may not have been "saddle broken" and therefore not trained to carry a rider on horseback - which could seem "untrained" to an observer who was only familiar with horses used by saddle riders.

Of course, we know how completely accurate Wikipedia is and surely an "Overland Correspondent" would never enhance his prose to make a story more interesting/exciting ...
 

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
Here's a page from the California Department of Parks and Recreation with more historical references.

Stagecoach History: Stage Lines to California
Road Hazards (ca.gov)

As far as the horses, It's possible that while under normal conditions, no sane person would use untrained draft animals, when Butterfield was setting up his company, it wasn't like there were a lot of trained draft horses and mules available in the wide open spaces between Tipton, MO and Los Angeles. And it seemed like this company needed to have lots and lots of horses on hand, as they were exchanged every 30 miles or so, needed to be rested and such, not to mention keeping "protect" horses at the various stations and having to replace horses stolen by Indian raids, etc. Thus, it's not unreasonable that the company might be forced to purchase draft animals of lesser quality.

Moving Experience by Stage (ca.gov)

The ride was not the smoothest in the world, and motion sickness was a constant companion. They also had 3 rows of 3 across seating with about 15 inches of width per passenger. The center row of seats was just a bench with no seatbacks. Oh yeah, this would be a delightful 25 day trip! Of course the service was run mainly to deliver the mail, and, indeed, the mail took precedence over the passengers, so you might be sharing your minimal personal space with sacks of mail.

Home and Swing Stations (ca.gov)

Most of the stations were more like pit stops. I'm not sure what you had to do if you needed to go to the bathroom between stations. Somehow I don't think they stopped the stage to let you go into the bushes. :) As mentioned, the food would have made an Amtrak Flex dinner look like gourmet fare.

Chicory coffee sweetened with molasses or brown sugar, hot biscuits, fried pork floating in grease, and corn bread were described in one account. At a way station in West Texas in 1858, Waterman L. Ormsby breakfasted on jerked beef cooked on buffalo chips, along with raw onions, slightly wormy crackers, and a bit of bacon.
In fact, given the traveling conditions, I'm not sure why anybody in his or her right mind would want to take this trip. :)
 

anumberone

Engineer
AU Supporter
Joined
Aug 8, 2015
Messages
2,827
Location
Los Angeles
Or walking like so many of our ancestors did that couldn't afford a Horse or a Wagon!
Between feed and lodging, a horse and the fact that if there’s a way to get hurt they will find it is not a long haul solution for the average traveler.
 

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
Or walking like so many of our ancestors did that couldn't afford a Horse or a Wagon!
In fact, under some conditions, like soft sand or excessive grades, the passengers id have to get out and walk (and sometimes help push the coach.)

Actually, I did that on a tour through the Sinai in 1972. We were riding a truck with passenger seats fitted out in the back, but there were no roads at the time to St. Catherine's, only sand tracks, and out truck wasn't 4WD. So whenever we hit a soft patch, we all had to get out and start pushing.
 

MARC Rider

Engineer
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
3,365
Location
Baltimore. MD
Well, it might have been a better option for some than riding horseback for all those days exposed to whatever weather conditions you ran into.
Actually, that's what they ended up doing. It was called the Pony Express, and by using the shorter central route and not bothering with coaches, they ended up being able to deliver mail in 10 days instead of 25. They were only in business for a little while until they strung up a trans-continental telegraph, which could send messages a lot faster than that.
 

George Harris

Engineer
Joined
Apr 6, 2006
Messages
5,085
Location
now in California
Saddle broken and wagon hauling trained are two completely different things. When I was small my maternal grandfather had a tractor but still no truck so he had three mules. All were farm broke in that they could pull a plow, rake, etc. farm equipment and the wagon. I remember watching him hitch the mules to the wagon. Let's see you computer geeks do that before disparaging the intelligence of farmers. Get the mules to stand where you need them to be, pull the harness straps off their hooks on the wall and buckle and tie it all together in just barely daylight. One of these mules was saddle broke, and sometimes they would saddle him up for us as small kids to ride. I was told that if it were tried with the other two they would not stand to have the saddle put on, and would buck us off if we tried to ride. There are multiple stories here, but let's just say that a mule's reputation for stubbornness was well deserved. Why mules in farm work not horses? Because they had more endurance and would truly work.. You just had to learn their peculiarities both as a breed and as an individual animal. As to plentiful horses and mules: In 1900 there were more horses and mules in the USA than people. Otherwise, people would neither eat nor travel much.

Pre railroad you usually only traveled when you had to and even after there were plenty of places railroads did not go. Stagecoaches were transportation for the rich. Everyone else took shank's mare. (That means walked.) Some people had saddle horses, but that was considered a luxury item if you did not need the animal for other reasons, and having your own enclosed coach was a sign of true wealth. If you farmed and could spare the animals temporarily for travel, then you could ride. You would hitch your team to the wagon if you needed to go to town or to church or visit someone. If by yourself and could haul all you wanted to carry in saddlebags, then you would ride your horse if you had one or saddlebroke mule.
 

Willbridge

50+ Year Amtrak Rider
AU Supporter
Joined
Mar 30, 2019
Messages
1,055
Location
Denver
You wouldn't have needed to do that. Just sail to Colon, in Panama, then take the Panama Railroad (this is post-1855) to Panama City, and then another steamer up the west coast to California.
...other than the exposure to malaria...
 
Top