By Karl Reiner
In these times of calls for undefined smaller government and resistance to rescinding tax cuts, many Americans forget the role played by government-private sector partnerships in developing the nation’s economy. In a country plagued by growing income inequality and aging infrastructure, the lessons from the past should not be ignored.
Over 150 years ago, there was a terrific need to improve communications between the eastern states and California. To remedy the problem, the federal government awarded a $600,000 per year contract to the Butterfield Overland Mail Company in September 1857. The contract was for six years.
The Butterfield Company was responsible for moving mail twice a week between St. Louis, Memphis and San Francisco. Each trip had to be completed in 25 days. Service was to begin by September 1858. While the contract amount seems small by today’s standards, the dollar of the era had a purchasing power equal to approximately $22 in modern currency.
The company spent over a million dollars getting the route ready. Although existing roads were used whenever possible, bridges had to be built, ferry service lined up, creek banks cut down, mountain passes cleared and roads graded. Purchases included 250 Concord stagecoaches, supply wagons, 1,800 horses and mules and about 3,000 tons of hay and grain. Over 800 employees were hired as superintendents, road and station crews, drivers and guards.
It was a major achievement in logistical planning. The 2,800 mile route was divided into nine divisions, each containing a number of relay stations. Stations were built about 20 miles apart, close enough together so horses and mules would not be worn out. At each station, living quarters, stables, corrals and storage facilities were constructed. Supplies of hay, grain, firewood, spare teams and water were moved in.
Two or three men were employed at a station. They provided accommodations for stagecoach crews, animal care, blacksmith service and harness repair. Each stagecoach driver was responsible for a 60 mile route that he drove in both directions. The armed conductor riding with him was in charge of passengers and mail.
The eastern terminals were at St. Louis and Memphis, the routes joining at Ft. Smith, Arkansas. From St. Louis, the trip to Tipton, Missouri 160 miles to the west was by rail. At Tipton, everything transferred to stagecoach. Stages departed Tipton and San Francisco on Mondays and Thursdays carrying passengers, freight and up to 12,000 letters.
Depending on the terrain, stagecoaches were pulled by four or six horse teams. They ran night and day at an average speed of 5 mph, covering 120 miles per day. From Ft. Smith, the route ran down across Texas to El Paso, on to La Mesilla in the New Mexico Territory, then up to Tucson and over to Ft. Yuma. From Yuma, it ran to Los Angeles (population 6,000) and up to San Francisco.
The passenger fare for the full trip west was $200. Shorter distances could be traveled at 15 cents per mile. It was rough travel, with two quick stops per day for meals. Passengers were advised to bring a pair of blankets, revolver, knife and overcoat. If the stage got stuck, passengers helped push.
The first Butterfield mail stage departed Tipton in September 1858. It passed through Tucson on October 2, arriving in San Francisco on October 10. The run was made in 23 days and 23.5 hours. The east bound stage arrived in Tipton after a run of 24 days and 18.5 hours. As crews grew proficient, a 21 day record was set between Tipton and San Francisco.
The stagecoaches passed through Arizona twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays. They entered Arizona from La Mesilla at Stein’s pass. There were 18-20 relay stations spread across what later became the state of Arizona. The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 forced the closing of the route, costing Tucson its mail service.
In the 1930s and 40s, Marjorie Reed travelled the Butterfield mail route making sketches which she later turned into an extensive series of paintings. A noted artist, her work is displayed in many museums. Reed’s celebrated stagecoach paintings are also a reminder that government support helped make things happen in the West.