In a scene early in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who has come back as an old man to the town of his youth, Shinbone, somewhere in the West, enters a shed and sees an old stagecoach, cobwebbed and up on blocks. The railroad has come to town now and stages are obsolete. It was perhaps the very coach he first came to Shinbone in, all those years ago, the one held up and robbed by the outlaw Liberty Valance, and he looks at it with nostalgic regret. Of course, it was too clearly a reference to another John Ford Western, also from a time long ago.
Europeans may think of stagecoaches as an essentially eighteenth-century mode of transport but they were an integral part of the late nineteenth-century Western movie and Western myth. In the Old West there were four ways of getting around – apart from the obvious walking, which was what most people did: travel by boat, mount up, take the stage or, later, ride the cars. And as travel is so vital to the stories – for example, the lone stranger coming in to town, righting wrongs and then leaving again – horses, stages and trains are bound to loom large in the tales.
Ship of fools
The ‘ship of fools’ plot dated back much further that the 1965 Stanley Kramer film of that name. Putting very different characters together in a confined space (it might be a railroad car, a lifeboat or even a stagecoach) and letting them interact is as old as literature. In the case of stagecoaches we might think of Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif (1880), in which during the Franco-Prussian War ten residents of Rouen, including two nuns, a bourgeois shop-owning couple, a wealthy factory owner and a Count and his wife, as well as a prostitute, travel by stage to Le Havre. It is a tale of hypocrisy and snobbery.
If it sounds a mite familiar, that might be because Ernest Haycox used it as a model for his 1937 Saturday Evening Post short story Stage to Lordsburg, and it was that tale that served as the basis (though much altered) for John Ford when he made his famous Western Stagecoach, released by United Artists in 1939.
Stagecoach is, of course, the Western stagecoach movie. A drunken doctor, a crooked banker, a Southern gambler, an Army officer’s wife, a whiskey drummer, the Ringo Kid just out of the pen and of course the prostitute Dallas are all aboard a coach which is attacked by Geronimo’s Apaches.
The picture as remade twice. The 1966 one was OK, I guess, directed by Gordon Douglas, though Ann-Margret as Dallas and Alex Cord as Ringo weren’t up to the task. In 1986 CBS screened a ‘country singer’ version with Kris Kristofferson (aged 50) as the Ringo Kid and Willie Nelson as Doc Holliday (what Doc Holliday was doing aboard it’s better not to ask). It was pretty bad, I’m afraid.
But Stagecoach wasn’t the only Western movie that featured the conveyance. Far from it. In fact just off the top of my head I can think of dozens, such as Stage to Thunder Rock, Stagecoach to Denver, Stagecoach to Fury, Stagecoach Days, Stagecoach Driver, Convict Stage, Last Stagecoach West, and so on, ad pretty well infinitum. The first one that I know of was The Old Stagecoach in 1912, so stagecoach Westerns went right back.
And then there were all the Westerns without stage or stagecoach in the title necessarily but still about them, such as Westbound, Riding Shotgun, Dakota Incident, Hombre, and many, many more. We have grown entirely used to stagecoaches with no side so that the camera can peer in and show us the passengers, which stage hands rock the coach in the studio to simulate the rolling movement.
On TV we got the ABC series Stagecoach West in 1960, about two partners and the young son of one of them running a stage line. Every imaginable event happens to them (and quite a few things you wouldn’t guess) during the show. Running a stage line was evidently an exciting business.
And how many stages have you seen held up? It would be impossible to count. In fact it might be quicker to count the Westerns where that doesn’t happen.
Stand and deliver!
Were stage robberies really that common? Marshall Trimble, “Arizona’s official historian” and vice president of the Wild West History Association, writing in True West magazine, says, “My home state, Arizona, had 129 stage robberies between 1875 and 1903, with the worst cases occurring in the area around Tombstone and the Black Canyon Stage Line, from Phoenix to Prescott, which roughly follows Interstate 17 today. Of the roughly 200 stage robbers, 80 have been identified—79 men and one woman.” He adds, “Wells Fargo stages were robbed nearly 350 times between 1870 and 1884. In California alone, the express company was the victim of 74 stage robberies, as reported by Wells Fargo detective John N. Thacker. The last holdup of a horse-drawn stage out West took place near Jarbidge, Nevada, on December 5, 1916.” So yes, I reckon we’d have to say robberies were not rare.
One of the most successful stage robbers was Black Bart, who operated in northern California and southern Oregon in the 1870s and 80s, with considerable success. In 1849 Charles Boles, with his brothers, joined the California gold rush. Charles fought in the Civil War on the Union side and became a sergeant within a year, but was badly wounded at Vicksburg. In 1867, he went prospecting for gold in Idaho and Montana. In a surviving letter to his wife back in Illinois from August 1871, he told her of an unpleasant encounter with some Wells, Fargo & Company agents and vowed to exact revenge. His wife never heard from him again, and in time she presumed he had died. But he had not. In fact he is thought to have robbed Wells, Fargo stagecoaches at least 28 times between 1875 and 1883. He left poems at some of the robbery sites, taunting his pursuers and calling himself Black Bart. He worked on foot and never fired a gun during his whole career (he brandished a shotgun, but never used it). He was polite and well-spoken. He wore a long duster and over his head a flour sack with eyeholes cut out. A short man, he wore a bowler hat beneath the hood, making him seem taller. He was eventually tracked down by good detective work on behalf of Walls, Fargo man James B Hume, but he was only charged with his last robbery, sentenced to six years but released after four because of good behavior. On his release in 1888, he simply vanished, and no one knows where and when he died.
Dan Duryea was a very fictional version in Black Bart (1948), and the outlaw appeared twice on TV, both in 1954, in Stories of the Century (Arthur Space), when of course it was detective Matt Clark who caught him in the end, just as he caught every other outlaw in the West, and also in an episode of Death Valley Days (Don Beddoe).
In the West the stage comes into its own
Back East and in the Midwest, the days of the stagecoach were already numbered by the 1850s, as canals, for freight, and then the fast-growing network of railroads rendered them obsolete. But west of the Mississippi it was a different story. There were no such replacements for many years, and in the classic ‘Western’ period, which we normally reckon to be in the three decades or so after the end of the Civil War, stages were an essential, and often only practicable means of transport.
Stage lines, i.e. companies offering regular services west of the Missouri, started in the late 1840s. The first stagecoach to arrive in California was in 1850. Gradually, all over the West, a network of waystations was established which held stock as replacement teams, Morgans being the most favored for their sturdiness.
Many lines carried the US mail – which made robberies a federal offence. For example, in 1851 the firm of Hall & Crandall was awarded a four-year contract to carry the US mail three times a week between San Francisco and San Jose, and the compensation was a healthy $6000 a year. This enabled the line to reduce the passenger fare to $16, then to $10, and undercut all competition. Other stage lines provided a private mail service, for example to the mining camps.
Benjamin Holladay (1819 to 1887) was one the extraordinary figures of the old West. He created a transportation empire and he is known in history as the “Stagecoach King”. Holladay moved to California in 1852 where he was to operate 2,670 miles (4,300 km) of stage lines. In 1861 he won a postal contract for mail service to Salt Lake City, Utah, and established the Overland Stage Route along the Overland Trail to avoid confrontations with American Indians on the northern Oregon Trail and Pony Express routes.
In 1862 he acquired the short-lived Pony Express from Russell, Majors and Waddell. Between the Overland Trail and six other routes, Holladay received government subsidies totaling nearly $6 million over a four-year period, and became an enormously wealthy man (though he would eventually lose most of his fortune in the crash of 1873). He saw the way the wind was blowing and sold out to Wells, Fargo in 1866 for $1.5m, moving north to Oregon to build railroads. There he became the model for such wicked railroad barons in Westerns as Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). People who knew him described him as “illiterate, coarse, boastful, false, and cunning” and “wholly destitute of fixed principles of honesty, morality, or common decency”.
James E Birch
There were so many small stage lines set up in California that consolidation was inevitable. For example, in 1853 many different companies merged into the California Stage Company, put together by James E Birch, another California stagecoach magnate (though less unscrupulous) and this combined five-sixths of all stage lines in the state. In the absence of federal or state construction of roads, the company built and improved more than fifteen hundred miles of routes. By 1856 the company was operating 28 daily departures over nearly 2000 miles of road, and owned 1500 horses and 205 Concords and mudwagons.
Birch had greater ambitions. Like Holladay, he wanted to set up a transcontinental stage line. He was well-connected in Washington DC and lobbied hard. Finally, early in 1857, he was awarded the contract for overland service on the “Southern Route” and he set up the San Antonio–San Diego Mail Line. This involved a twice-a-month service in four-mule coaches, scheduled to leave San Antonio and San Diego on the ninth and the 24th of each month, with 30 days allowed for each trip. Water holes were mapped out at 30-mile (48 km) intervals, though many were unmanned and actual waystations could be separated by as much as 100 miles (160 km). The line was popularly known as the Jackass Mail, and it is this that features in Fox’s excellent 1951 Western Rawhide, with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, in which one of the stations is besieged by bandits wanting to rob the stage. It was also the subject of an earlier comedy Western with Wallace Beery, Jackass Mail (1942).
Birch died in the fall of ’57 and his lie did not survive long. Only about 40 trips were ever made over the entire route before the service was curtailed. Starting in September of 1858 it was the Butterfield line that took over.
John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company had two eastern termini, St Louis and Memphis. By pure coincidence, the Postmaster General who awarded the contract was a Tennessee senator from Memphis, Aaron V Brown. The route, known as the Oxbow Route because of its long curving path through the southwest, was 600 miles (970 km) longer than the Central Overland Trail, but had the advantage of being snow free. There were 139 waystations at the start but these gradually increased with the addition of thirty-six more for a total of 175. The company also built bridges.
Butterfield himself already had 37 years of experience driving for and running stage lines, and he was clearly an extremely competent and visionary manager.
In October 1858 President James Buchanan wrote to Butterfield, congratulating him. “It is a glorious triumph for civilization and the Union. Settlements will soon follow the course of the road, and the East and West will be bound together by a chain of living Americans, which can never be broken.”
Contrary to what was shown in movies, no one on a Butterfield stage was ever killed by outlaws or Indians (though some died in accidents). This was because Butterfield’s instructions were clear: “No money, jewelry, bank notes, or valuables of any nature, will be allowed to be carried under any circumstances whatever.” There was, accordingly, no shotgun guard. However, John M Farwell, a passenger in 1859, wrote, “After leaving this station [Arizona’s San Pedro River Stage Station], the conductor asked ‘how many of us were armed’, and requested that those who had arms should have them ready for use, as we now were in the Apache country. Guns and pistols were produced, and we rode all night with them in our hands.”
Butterfield’s ‘celerity wagons’ were partly designed by himself. Sixty-six were employed on the route. For the 25-day trip, the stages did not stop for the passengers to sleep. They had to nod off aboard.
The Civil War put an end to the southern route. The last Overland mail bag left St Louis, Missouri, March 18, 1861 and arrived in San Francisco on April 13, 1861.
Elmore Leonard stories featured Butterfield stages, as we see in the first 3:10 to Yuma (1957), in which Butterfield was played by Robert Ernhardt. The 2007 remake was more of a railroad story and Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) became a railroad man, ‘Grayson Butterfield.’ It’s also a Butterfield stage in the more recent The Hateful Eight (2015) but this isn’t very authentic because it’s set up in Wyoming. In any case, in reality the coaches never featured Butterfield’s name; Overland Mail Company was painted on the sides.
Two of the directors of the Overland Mail Company had been fellow-New York staters Henry Wells and William G Fargo. They were the Overland Mail’s bankers and primary lenders. Back in 1845 they had founded the Western Express, linking Buffalo with Detroit, rapidly then Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. In 1850 Wells went into partnership with John Butterfield and they founded the American Express Company. When Wells retired in 1866 Fargo took over as president of American Express, which he remained until his death in 1881.
In 1861 Butterfield’s operation was in financial difficulties and he fell out with Wells and Fargo, and resigned. Wells, Fargo & Company reorganized the Overland Mail. Now that the southern route was no longer practicable, coaches branded Wells, Fargo & Co. took the central route, from Nebraska to California via Denver and Salt Lake City. From Denver, coaches served the mining towns of the Rockies, and from Salt Lake City they carried mail and passengers to Montana and Idaho. Wells Fargo coaches are perhaps the quintessential Western stages, and there are countless Westerns featuring them. They certainly grew, opening many new routes in the 1860s. The ‘grand consolidation’ of 1866 occurred when Wells, Fargo reorganized the ownership and operation of the entire overland mail route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and many stagecoach lines in the western states.
Paramount’s big picture Wells Fargo (1937) with Joel McCrea and Frances Dee (Mrs McCrea) describes the building of the Wells Fargo empire in ‘manifest destiny’ nation-building terms.
NBC’s Tales of Wells Fargo was one of my favorite shows as a boy. The Left-Handed Gun wasn’t Billy the Kid for me but Jim Hardie (he was always Jim Hardie, never Dale Robertson, even when he appeared in other Westerns). I thought he was really cool, and I imitated his flip of a wave for years. Wells Fargo detective extraordinaire, Hardie solved every crime, and local marshals and sheriffs, even US marshals, bowed to his authority. Hardie was based on real-life Fred J Dodge (1854 to 1938), cattleman, Tombstone lawman (and friend of Wyatt Earp) and detective. He worked as undercover agent for Wells, Fargo in California, Nevada and Arizona. He helped track the Dalton and Doolin gangs. His diaries describe dozens of his cases, including stage robberies, t
Concords and mudwagons
Although many Western movies which feature stagecoaches use a fine Concord, the emblematic stage, the vast majority of coaches (such as those used on the Jackass Mail) were in fact ruder mudwagons. More like wagons than coaches, and in fact often used for transporting freight, mudwagons had open sides, maybe with canvas flaps, which gave passengers little protection from the dirt of the road. Mudwagon wheels and their iron tires were as much as fifty per cent wider than those of conventional stagecoaches. Many such wagons had rigid steel ‘springs’ or were even not sprung at all, and they offered a bone-jarring ride. But they were cheap, sturdy (which was vital on the rough roads of the time) and ubiquitous.
The 1820s produced a revolution in stagecoach design, when the Abbot, Downing Company in Concord, New Hampshire made a coach which used long leather straps called thoroughbraces under the body which made the ride far smoother and more comfortable (though it also produced a swinging motion which made some passengers seasick). These coaches weighed more than two thousand pounds and were very expensive, and could cost between $1200 and $1500, a great sum in 1840s values, so Abbot, Downing also sold a lighter, cheaper affair, called the Overland Wagon, similar to a mudwagon but better sprung, with thoroughbraces, and this sold for $500.
Driving the stage
It took skill to drive a Concord, especially a six-up (that is, pulled by a team of six horses, the ‘wheelers’ nearest the coach, the ‘swing team’ in the middle and the ‘leads’). Not everyone could do it. On vacation a few years ago in Colorado, I paid a visit to the Mancos Valley Stage Line, a fascinating experience, and driver Eric Bartels let me ride up on the box and explained the art.
In his interesting book Stagecoach West (University of Nebraska Press, 1967) Ralph Moody describes the manual dexterity need to handle a six-up. He says it was similar to that of a concert pianist. I don’t know about that but it was certainly a highly skilled affair. “Each rein was manipulated by ‘climbing’ it – gathering it in by alternately drawing with the finger on each side of it – and by separating the fingers just enough to let it slip out the desired amount.” Moody adds, “Try to climb one between the third and little fingers of your left hand while holding another stationary between the third and middle fingers and at the same time letting still another slip an exact distance between the middle and fore fingers.”
Then there’s the brake to be managed, which was operated by the right foot (these vehicles were right-hand-drive, in the English fashion) and the whip. Drivers were often called ‘whips’. Many drivers were inordinately proud of their whipping skills, placing the scourge with complete precision just over the horse’s back but not actually touching it. In The Silver Whip (1953) the eponymous expensive lash is presented to young stage driver Robert Wagner by his role-model Dale Robertson.
Mr. Bartels also had a sack of little pebbles which he would throw at the rump of any recalcitrant member of the team.
The driver sat high on the box because height gave more purchase on the brake and also allowed all-round vision. But of course it also exposed the reinsman to the worst of the weather.
Drivers were aristocrats of the road and well paid. In addition to $300 a month salary, typically, they also received $1 of the passenger fare, 25¢ per letter carried and 1% of money, as well as free drinks and cigars at each stop.
One of the most skilled and remarkable of the old drivers was Charley Parkhurst, also known as One-Eyed Charley (after losing the use of one eye because of a kick from a horse) or Six-Horse Charley, for the skill in handling a six-up team, who worked as a stable hand in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and early developed a talent as a driver for handling horses. Aged about 30, Charley moved out West at the time of the gold rush, and became one of the most noted stage drivers in California. It was a dangerous occupation but Charley was one of the toughest drivers there was. As the railroads drove the stage lines out of business and age began to take its toll, Charley retired, and eventually died, aged about 65, in 1879, when it was discovered finally that Charley was in fact a woman, Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. No one ever knew until then. Charley had always signed letters and documents simply CD Parkhurst.
The number of Western character actors who could manage a stage like that was also limited. Andy Devine was one, which is how he got the job as Buck in Stagecoach (though much of the ‘driving’ is faked in the studio, not all is) and you can also see him deftly handle the reins as the rascally Ozark in When the Daltons Rode the year after.
We learn a lot about long rides in these coaches from Mark Twain. In 1861, Samuel Clemens’s brother Orion was appointed secretary to James W Nye, Governor of Nevada Territory, and Sam, 25, accompanied him as the secretary’s secretary. From St Joseph, in those pre-transcontinental railroad days, they took a stage West. Sam’s book Roughing It, recounting the voyage, is an absolute delight.
He tells us with enthusiasm (his capitals) that “at 5 P.M. we crossed the Platte itself and landed at Fort Kearney, fifty-six hours out from St Joe – THREE HUNDRED MILES!”
I calculate therefore that they moved at an average of 5.3 mph. Only a few years later, the train would take passengers roughly four times as fast, at 19.1 mph. By the way, fares averaged 50¢ a mile, so the stage fare from St Joseph to Carson City, Nevada was a hundred and fifty dollars – a monstrous sum at the time.
Sam and his brother are thrilled to see the Pony Express rider gallop past their stage and we are told that the series of young horsemen carried letters from St Joe to Sacramento, nineteen hundred miles, in eight days, or 235 miles a day (by way of comparison, a wagon train would do approximately 100 miles a week).
The six-up stage, “of the most sumptuous description”, almost certainly a Concord (before they changed to a mudwagon further down the trail) is described in detail. Twain says, interestingly, that it was the shotgun guard, whom he called the ‘conductor’, who was the princely commander of the vessel; the driver came next in the hierarchy but the conductor was regarded by all with reverence and awe, and his word was law.
Twain wasn’t the only one writing about stage trips. European and Eastern tourists and journalists glamorized the journeys. Few of them failed to include danger of one kind or another, with their coaches hurtling down mountain trails with precipitous falls inches away, hold-ups, attacks by Indians and so on. There were also highly imaginative paintings and illustrations (some, such as those by Frederic Remington or Charlie Russell very fine).
And the dime novelist embraced the stagecoaches with gusto, each one more lurid than the last. Calamity Jane featured heavily with the Deadwood Stage (the Concord which was bought by Buffalo Bill, ridden in by the crowned heads of Europe, viewed by thousands, and became of so great historic value that it was placed in the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, DC for preservation – though today the coach is at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, a truly great museum). If you believed the thrilling tales, no stage ever rolled at anything less than an all-out gallop and every single one was attacked on each run. Western movies have also been guilty of, er, over-dramatization.
The twilight of the stage
But eventually time and technical progress caught up with the West and, as had happened back East, the stage lines were gradually driven out of business by the railroads. In Dodge City (1939) we see a race to Dodge between a stagecoach and a train. The stage is driven by an old-timer, to represent ‘the olden days’, while the train carries General Dodge and symbolizes modern times. The train wins. There’s a hint of nostalgic regret that the stage loses, but it’s accepted as inevitable. The general declares, “Gentlemen, that’s a symbol of America’s future.”
The eastward-moving CPR met up with the westward track-laying UPR at promontory Point in Utah in in May, 1869, and the continent was spanned. Journeys were now faster, cheaper and more comfortable. Why would anyone take a stage?
Of course it didn’t all stop overnight. Even as the railroad network expanded, linking ever smaller towns, there were still remote outposts that could only be served by road. Horse-drawn stages were still operating in the new century in some areas of the West.
Still, the days of the stagecoach were numbered. Not for us, though, not for Western fans. For us the stage keeps rolling along.
Oh! The Deadwood Stage is a-rollin’ on over the plains,
With the curtains flappin’ and the driver slappin’ the reins.
Beautiful sky! A wonderful day!
Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away!