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Column: Better than walking, but stagecoach business was still risky

by Mark McLaughlin

The 1859 discovery of the Comstock lode sharply increased the demand for transportation and freighting between California and Western Nevada. With a civil war looming on the horizon, it was also a time of great anxiety among the miners and general public in the region. There was strong public and political pressure to improve overland travel and communication between California and the East. With so much money at stake it’s no surprise that entrepreneurial men were ready to grab some of it, both honestly and otherwise. Those who intended to obtain their income legally organized a stagecoach company. Excluding the short-lived Pacific Stage Co. started in 1859 by the skiing mailman John Snowshoe Thompson and a partner, there were two main stagelines providing service between Placerville, Calif., and Virginia City. The California Stage Co. operated over Henness Pass, north of Truckee, and the Pioneer Stage Co., via Johnson’s Pass just south of Lake Tahoe.

The Pioneer Stage was started by J.B. Crandall in 1857 and ran three times a week from Placerville to Carson City. In Genoa it connected to the Chorpenning stage line to Salt Lake City. The Pioneer Stage Co. was soon sold to Wells Fargo & Co. and became a link in the Overland Mail route running from the Missouri River to Sacramento in 1858. In addition to passengers, the stagecoach companies carried the U.S. mail and express deliveries, which meant they had to sign government contracts specifying the required time of the run and the departure times. These lucrative U.S. postal contracts made stagecoaching one of the first transportation industries to receive federal financial aid. An analysis of the contracts indicates that the average speed for the coaches was between three and five miles an hour, slower in bad weather. On a short run over a good road, a seasoned driver could average nine miles per hour.

The journey over the Sierra, however, was a long slow haul that involved day and night travel. The scheduled time from Virginia City to Sacramento was initially 24 hours, later reduced to 18. The fastest time on record for this route occurred on June 20, 1864, when three successful, time-pressed businessmen chartered a special coach with frequent horse replacement and accomplished the trip in just 12 hours and 23 minutes.

In 1862, a total of 13,505 people rode a stage over Johnson’s Pass, which at $30 a fare amounted to more than $400,000. The profitable business continued to boom. In 1863, the Pioneer Stage Co. alone transported 11,103 people to Nevada, and 8,430 from Nevada to the Golden State. The Pioneer Stage Co. employed 53 men as drivers and hostlers in 1864, with a dozen fancy coaches on the road and 600 horses in their stables.

The Western stagecoach business had developed as an improvement over other forms of land transport. It was safer and less tiring than walking or riding a horse or mule, and provided the companionship of several persons or groups. There were inherent risks in this method of travel, however. There was intense rivalry between stagecoach drivers for whom “slowness and indecision were more hateful than positive vices; to be behind time was an offense which could scarcely be palliated and the universal watchword was hurry. The same excitable spirit which blew up steamboats on the Mississippi [racing paddlewheelers], overturned coaches on the edge of mountain precipices; yet the victims bore these incidental casualties without a murmur.”

The stages were well built to handle the rough terrain, but sometimes the carriage bounced around so wildly that the passengers ended up in a pile on the floor. Passenger safety relied on the gloved-hands of the grizzled “whip” holding the reins and accidents often occurred when exuberance got the better of his judgment. On July 22, 1863, the Henness Pass staged rolled down a steep hill into the Truckee River with 15 passengers on board, nine inside and six outside. A few managed to jump to safety, but most were injured and one man was killed. No one blamed the driver. One month later a stage traveling the Johnson Pass route toppled over an embankment but was miraculously caught in the spreading arms of a large pine tree. While the bruised passengers stared 1,000 feet into the deep canyon below and waited for rescue, they could only congratulate themselves on their good fortune to have survived and never gave the coachman a word of criticism. Occasionally, Sierra wildlife joined in the excitement as in May 1864 when a large grizzly bear charged across the road in front of a team of horses pulling a stagecoach. Terrorized, the lead-steeds reared up, breaking the harnesses and scattering the startled passengers in every direction.

Stage robbery was also a constant danger in the days before law and order arrived in the West. Masked bandits employed many strategies to ambush a stagecoach. Road agents usually lay flat on the ground or hid behind trees or boulders while they waited in the shadows. When the stage approached, the desperadoes donned empty flour sacks with holes cut for eyes, and jumped out with guns drawn. If the driver failed to stop at their command, a bullet to the lead horse ended the argument. Passengers meekly faced a line of shotguns while one of the more adept robbers thoroughly searched their persons for money, watches and jewelry. “Gentlemen Jack” Davis was the slickest of all the local highway robbers. During one hold up, Davis spread Buffalo robes on the ground and served champagne and hors d’oeuvres to the passengers while his men blew up the moneybox. One saloon owner saved his watch and money by passing his whiskey bottle around among the thieves.

Not all road agents were so convivial. In 1872 the stage running between Carson City and Steamboat was stopped by three masked men who ordered the driver to pass out the Wells Fargo security chest. The “Territorial Enterprise” published the particulars: “The men were armed with revolvers and made no attempt to molest the passengers, eight in number, but when one or two of them put their heads out of the window they were ordered to take them in or they would have them blown off.” Stagecoach robbers were never unnecessarily cruel and the passenger’s lives were not in danger as long as they cooperated. In the “era of good stealing” the Wells Fargo moneybox was considered fair game by anyone criminally inclined. On the night of June 30, 1864, two coaches were held up simultaneously at Bullion Bend, just east of Placerville. Confederate guerrillas who were trying to raise money to help support the Confederate Army executed this rare tandem robbery. The rebel bandits made off with a substantial haul of money, jewelry, and the Wells Fargo treasure chest for their impassioned cause. But by then, men with a badge were taming the West. James B. Hume, Wells & Fargo’s first and greatest chief of detectives and one of the West’s greatest lawmen, tracked the gang all over California before arresting most them in San Jose.

n Mark McLaughlin’s books, “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe,” are available through the Carson Valley Historical Society. He can be reached at mark@micmacmedia.com