Prior to September 1858 there had never been an overland mail route from St. Louis, Missouri, or Memphis, Tennessee, to anywhere in California. Mail going in either direction had to do so by steamship all the way around Cape Horn at the very tip of South America. That journey took about six weeks.
Gold strikes in California during 1848 and 1849 had created the California gold Rush, and the West coast was booming. Lack of communication between the East and the West was a problem that had to be fixed.
A transcontinental mail and passenger route was authorized by an act of congress in 1857. On September 16 of that same year, John Butterfield and his associates signed a 6-year contract with the postmaster general. It provided for semiweekly mail service in both directions between St. Louis/Memphis and San Francisco. According to the contract, the first mail sacks had to leave the three cities within one year, then continue doing so twice each week. Opponents claimed it could not be done.
John Butterfield was president of American Express. His business partners were Henry Wells and William Fargo. They owned Wells Fargo which at that time was primarily involved in the banking business and financed Butterfield's overland mail venture.
John Butterfield put it all together. At 8 a.m. on September 16, 1858, exactly one year to the day from the signing of the contract, he personally picked up the first mailbag in St. Louis, took it to Tipton, Missouri, using the Pacific Railroad, then rode as a passenger on the stage from Tipton to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with his son in the driver's box.
The mail from Memphis was placed onboard a steamship to Little Rock, Arkansas, then placed on another stage that would meet the Tipton stage in Fort Smith. The Memphis mail was loaded onto the Tipton stage, and the journey resumed. For the next two and a half years, mail and westbound passengers left St. Louis and Memphis on Mondays and Thursdays.
In San Francisco, another stage left on the 15th of September bound for the end of track in Tipton. That routine would also be repeated on Mondays and Thursdays every week for two and a half years.
The stages ran day and night at an average speed of approximately 5 mph. Teams were changed at relay stations that were placed an average of 16 miles apart. Per the contract, they had to complete the 2,700-mile journey in less than 25 days. The first stage that originated in Tipton arrived in San Francisco within 24 days.
By the time it arrived in San Francisco, the Tipton stage had passed six eastbound stages with mail for St. Louis and Memphis. In turn, each of those eastbound stages passed six westbound stages by the time they reached Tipton. As required by contract, Butterfield was delivering mail twice each week in both directions.
John Butterfield was the man in charge of American Express, but he had borrowed heavily from Wells Fargo. For example, it cost $1 million just to get the route ready. The contract paid $600,000 each year. After two years of pumping money into American Express, Wells Fargo booted Butterfield out and formed the Wells Fargo Stage company. Wells Fargo eventually became the largest and most successful stagecoach company in the country. It held that distinction until the completion of continental railroads replaced stagecoach routes. Once that happened, stagecoaches were only used between outlying communities and rail stations.
The first stage with the first transcontinental mailbag left Tipton with only one passenger that would complete the journey to San Francisco. He was Waterman Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald. Thanks to his series of stories, that historic journey was documented. His travel logs about that first trip are the most commonly referenced when studying the overland mail route.
Ormsby logged the first stage leaving Tipton at shortly past 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 16. A record of the miles covered was kept using a viameter attached to one of the wheels of the coach. The coach ran all night long and arrived in Springfield, Missouri, at 3:15 p.m. on Friday. It had traveled 128 miles in less than 24 hours.
One hundred and forty nine years after the arrival of that first stage, Lone Writer and Happy Jack stood at the point where Springfield mail had been loaded. They read the message on the historic marker mounted into the wall of a building at 222 n. Central Park ave. at that time, the stage stop was Smith's Tavern on Boonville Road. The original building is long gone.
The coach used by Butterfield to reach Springfield was built by concord and looked very much like the ones used in modern western movies. For some reason, he did not believe it could handle the treacherous roads beyond Springfield. The concord was left behind, and a more rugged coach was hitched to the team. It had a canvas top with a body mounted with straps rather than springs. That design provided a smoother ride as the body swayed back and forth. The inside had three rows of seats. The middle row folded down in both directions forming a bed all the way across. Depending on the size of the passengers, up to 10 people could sleep side by side and end to end.
Lone Writer would make the journey a lot more comfortably. Jeep had provided a diesel-powered Grand Cherokee with all the comforts of home. With a fuel range of up to 500 miles per tank, very little time was spent thinking about the next gas station. The Cherokee was also equipped with a navigation system that came in handy during the paved portions of the journey.
The stagecoach also had very few restrictions to its route. It simply took the path of least resistance between two points. For that reason, it is not possible to follow the exact route at all times. Some sections travel through private property. Some sections have completely overgrown in trees and brush and cannot even be positively identified as the original route. But most of the trail can be followed within visual distance of the original route. The majority of the route is traveled on paved backcountry roads, some of which are only one lane wide. It is the perfect road for anyone who enjoys cross-country travel and historic trails that were used to settle our country during its adolescent years.
Lone Writer and Happy Jack left Springfield on roads that had been paved over the top of the original Butterfield Route. Some of those roads carry the Butterfield name and others carry the Wire Road name. Butterfield had used much of the existing Wire Road to establish his route across Missouri and Arkansas.
Ted Roller has spent many years tracing the Butterfield Route. He is closely involved with the Barry County Museum in Cassville, Missouri, (www.barrycomuseum.org) and has numerous artifacts on display. Ted is hoping to get more people involved in getting the Butterfield Route a national designation and would love to hear from those who would like to join the effort. Ted took the shotgun seat in the Grand Cherokee and shared many dozens of stories about the Butterfield route while pointing the way from one landmark to another.
Ashmore Station, 17.4 miles from Springfield: The first relay station after Springfield was called Ashmore. A historic marker designates its location, but nothing else remains. The stage only stopped long enough to hitch a fresh team to the coach.
The historic marker for Couch Station, 16.4 miles from Smith Station, is in the trees on the right side of the road. The station was in the valley behind the trees, but nothing is left of it. Once again, the stage only stopped long enough to hitch a fresh team. According to Ormsby, it took them seven hours to reach this point from Springfield.
The stage reached Cassville, 5.8 miles from Couch Station, but stopped only long enough to pick up mail. A historic marker on the courthouse square points out that it was the last town in Missouri before crossing into Arkansas. The Barry County Museum is located at the edge of town on Highway 76.
There is no historic marker for Harbin's Relay Station, 10.2 miles from Cassville, because its location has not been positively identified. This intersection is used as a reference point for the general location. Harbin's was the last relay station before crossing into Arkansas.
The stage crossed into Arkansas, 5.9 miles from the reference point for Harbin's Station. Maps for the entire Butterfield Route in Arkansas are available from Heritage Trail Partners (www.heritagetrailpartners.com). This organization has traced and documented the route across northwestern Arkansas. For the past four years, they have sponsored a stagecoach ride through portions of the original trail on the anniversary of the original trip. September 2008 will be the 150th anniversary for Butterfield stage, and a special celebration is planned by several towns along the route. They are also working with Ted Roller to combine a stagecoach trip covering parts of both states. Check the aforementioned website for the latest information.
Pea Ridge Military National Park, 12.6 miles from the reference point for Harbin's Station, is in the path of the original Butterfield Route. The stage traveled through this National Park and passed Elkhorn Tavern during the night. Some of the original trail is grown over, but other parts have been restored. Elkhorn Tavern was not a relay station but was a popular stop for other travelers. A replica of the original building has been built and is open to visitors.
Callahan's Station in Rogers, 9.9 miles from Pea Ride Park, was the first major stop within Arkansas. The exact location of that station is still being debated. A historic marker can be found near the corner of Walnut and 1st. The first stage arrived about 7 a.m. on September 18.
Fitzgerald's Station 9.3 miles from Callahan's Station, was not mentioned in Ormsby's travel log but was mentioned in documents from other travelers. The original barn still stands on private property beside the road. A historic marker has been placed at the edge of the property.
The stage arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 11.2 miles from Fitzgerald's Station, before noon on September 18. A short time was spent to pick up mail and change teams before moving out of town. A historic marker has been placed beside the Washington county courthouse on the northeast corner of center and college.
The Parks Station, 13.3 miles from Fayetteville, was located near the present-day town of Hogeye. It was briefly mentioned by Ormsby as a point where the team of horses was replaced by a team of mules to get the wagons over the mountains ahead. Lone Writer did not find the exact location of the station.
The Brodie Station, 18.6 miles from Parks Station, was located just south of Lee creek. Happy Jack found a re-ally nice campsite and the foundations of some old buildings beside the creek that may have been the station. As funds become available, the Heritage Trail Partners will no doubt pinpoint the exact location with historic markers. Ormsby describes the ride from Parks to Brodie as the roughest ride since leaving Tipton. The team of mules was replaced by a team of horses at Brodie.
A Historic marker in Van Buren, 21.9 miles from Brodie, marks the location where the stage was placed on a ferry and floated across the Arkansas River. The marker is at the intersection of Main and 3rd.
The Fort Smith National Historic Site, 8.1 miles from van Buren, is the location where the stage was put on a ferry and taken across the river and into Oklahoma.
Nightfall had surrounded Lone Writer and Happy Jack by the time they arrived at Fort Smith. It was time to find a motel with rooms to spare. The continued journey along the Butterfield Overland Trail to San, Francisco would have to wait for another day. But that's another story.
Larry E. Heck has been writing backcountry adventure stories since 1985. Some of the newer e-book products in the Campfire Tales series can be found at www.lone-writer.com. The site also contains Campfire Tales written decades ago. If you have an idea for a historic backcountry trail that you think Larry should consider, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 349-9937.