We’ve all seen movies where at least one scene has a stagecoach with passengers traveling across the plains. The scene, no matter how harsh, didn’t truly portray the hardships of cross-country stage travel.
On September 15, 1858 the first transcontinental mail service started between St. Louis and San Francisco. The stage company providing the service was the Overland Mail Company, headed by John Butterfield. The government was providing a yearly subsidy of $600,000, providing the mail could be delivered in 25 days. Butterfield had his stages scheduled to make it in 24 days.
Butterfield spent over a million dollars improving the 2,800-mile route. He built special Concord coaches that would hold nine passengers as well as the mail. And he built way stations at 10 to 15-mile intervals.
For the nine passengers, the 24-day trip wasn’t a fun one. And Native Americans and robbers were the least of their worries. Actually, rude, drunk stage drivers caused more problems than Indians. When the stage was full, as it normally was, the passengers were packed in like sardines. The only protection from heat and cold were curtains that dropped over the open windows. The dust was unbearable. Unlike the movies, the stages seldom spent the night at way stations. And way station food and lodging, not included in the price of the trip, was expensive. A passenger could spend the night at a way station, and continue on the next stage, providing there was available space. Oh yes, the opportunity for a bath didn’t exist. One can only imagine what the smell of nine people in a tight space was like after a week or so.
But in May of 1869, just 11 years after that first stage left St. Louis, the transcontinental railroad was completed, and started passenger service. The government canceled the Overland Mail Company’s contract, and passengers were no longer covered in dust. Now it was soot from coal.