Most know that U.S. 50 through Nevada parallels portions of the historic Pony Express trail (and the old Lincoln Highway), but less well known is the fact that the route also parallels what was known as the Overland Mail and Stage Line.
Fortunately, a few reminders of this equally important transportation link — which operated from about 1861 to 1869 — have survived the passing of time, including the ruins of several stone corrals and some foundations.
Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Overland Stage served as the nation’s primary commercial cross-country transportation system. While it wasn’t cheap to go from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco — more than $200 a passenger — the journey attracted plenty of takers, including a young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
In “Roughing It,” Twain, who seems to have enjoyed the experience, describes his carriage as “a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description — an imposing cradle on wheels.
“We sat on the back seat inside. About all of the rest of the coach was full of mailbags — for we had three days’ delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof.”
The Overland Stage was developed parallel to the Pony Express Route, which had also begun operating in 1861. While the two shared some stations, the stage line constructed additional facilities between Pony Express stations because its heavier stages required more frequent changes in horses.
In 1862 or 1863, the Overland revised the western portion of the trip across Nevada, requiring the construction of new stations. These changes came just as the Pony Express was discontinued and the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
Despite its hefty prices, the Overland was not a financial success. Money woes plagued the stage line during most of its existence, even after it became part of the Wells Fargo and Company in 1866.
Additionally, the line wasn’t particularly efficient. Attacks by tribes angry about the intrusion of the stages on their lands interfered with regular service and resulted in considerable delays and loss of mail and other cargo (not to mention a few lives).
According to one history book, mail actually had a better chance of getting delivered to San Francisco by boat than via the stage.
Weather also proved a serious problem, with the stage line resorting to sleighs to get over the Sierra range in the winter months.
Of course, the stage line was always perceived as a temporary measure while the West awaited the coming of the Iron Horse. For a time, the two worked in tandem; mail was carried part of the way via train, then transported by stage between the not-quite-connected railroad.
But on May 10, 1869, the last rail was driven at Promontory Point, Utah, and the stage line quietly disappeared.
Today, among the best and most accessible places to find the remains of the Overland’s system of stations are at Rock Creek (near Cold Springs on U.S. 50, halfway between Fallon and Austin) and at New Pass (25 miles west of Austin).
The Rock Creek site, located adjacent to the highway and designated by an historical marker, dates to about 1862. Stagecoach drivers could find fresh horses, crude accommodations, a blacksmith shop and wagon repair services here.
The site, surrounded by a high fence, is little more than stone rubble, stacked higher at the corners, in a vaguely rectangular pattern. If you look closely, you can still make out door passages and places for windows.
About a half-mile north are more stone walls, also surrounded by a fence, which are all that remains of a telegraph repeater and maintenance station. This facility, also built in the early 1860s, was part of the Overland Telegraph-Pacific Telegraph Co.’s transcontinental line, built in 1861 between Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento. This structure was abandoned in August 1869.
About a mile and half east of the Rock Creek site is the location of the Cold Springs Pony Express Station. These substantial rock ruins, which can only be reached on foot, are considered to be among the best-preserved Pony Express ruins in Nevada.
At New Pass, you can find slightly more substantial rock walls, also protected by a wire fence. Apparently, the roof of this native stone structure, now long gone, consisted of bundles of stacked willow twigs.
The historic marker notes that a nearby spring proved inadequate for the station’s use, so water was brought in from a ranch a mile away. This site also once included a small hotel and store, which served local miners.
Other Overland Stage buildings still intact include a crude, wooden Ruby Valley Pony Express cabin, which was moved to the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko in 1976; the restored Bucklands Station building at Fort Churchill State Park; the International Hotel in Austin; and Friday’s Station (now a private home) at South Lake Tahoe.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.