The famous Southern Overland Mail Route, better known as the Butterfield Stage in romantic Wild West movies, actually operated its twice-weekly mail and passenger service for less than three years from September 15, 1858 until March 1, 1861. Two trails from the east started from St. Louis and from Memphis, Tennessee. When the trails met at Fort Smith, Arkansas, they joined and continued west. The line swooped south through Texas in what was called the “Ox Bow” to avoid the snows and mountain passes of the central regions of the country. The stages crossed the Red River into Texas on Colbert’s Ferry near present Denison and then headed west for the 740-mile, eight-day trip to Franklin (present El Paso). The stages ran night and day averaging speeds of five to twelve miles per hour. Primitive stations offering water and a change of horses lay about every twenty miles along the flat, desert-like trail and were spaced between stops at Fort Belknap, Fort Phantom Hill, and Fort Chadbourne. The route crossed the Pecos River, skirted the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, and reached the dividing point between the route’s east and west divisions at present day El Paso.
Passengers who did not want to make the grueling trip straight through could lay over, get some rest, and take a later stage. However, if the next few stages were full, a traveler might be marooned for up to a month. Almost everyone agreed the food was awful. Waterman Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald, was the only passenger that made the entire distance on that first trip from St. Louis. He sent dispatches along the way to his paper describing the journey. He wrote, “…the fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts. It consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh the latter tough enough. Milk, butter, vegetables were only met with towards the two ends of the trip.” He described another meal of shortcake, coffee, dried beef and raw onions. He said that often there were not enough plates or tin cups to serve the passengers. Mail delivery took top priority, which often resulted in mailbags being crammed into the coach with the passengers. On the stretch from Fort Belknap in Texas to Tucson, Arizona, the handsome Concord-made coaches weighing more than two tons were replaced by lighter-weight “celerity” or mud wagons and the team of four to six horses stepped aside for mule power that proved to be a lot less attractive to Indians. The mud wagons had light frames that made it easier to maneuver the deep sands and mud. The roofs were made of thick duck or canvass and the open sides allowed the free flow of air as well as dust and rain.
Until Congress authorized the U.S. postmaster general to offer a contract to deliver mail from St. Louis to San Francisco, all mail bound for the West Coast had to be shipped through the Gulf of Mexico, freighted across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific and shipped up the coast to California. John W. Butterfield and his associates won the U.S. government contract in September 1857 to haul mail and passengers across the southern part of the country to California. It took a year to assemble the necessary equipment—a huge investment in 250 Concord Stagecoaches, 1,200 horses, and 600 mules. They dug cisterns or water wells and built corrals at 139 relay stations and hired 800 employees, including drivers, conductors, station keepers, blacksmiths, and wranglers. The government contract called for the Butterfield Overland Stage Company to receive $600,000 a year, plus the money it earned on passenger fares and the receipts for mail. Postage cost ten cents per half-ounce and passengers paid $200 for the one-way 2,795-mile trip. The coaches departed each Monday and Thursday morning in the east from near St. Louis and in the west from San Francisco for the 25-day journey.
At the conclusion of that first trip west, Waterman Ormsby, the New York Herald correspondent wrote: “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like, I’ve just had 24 days of it.”
Despite passengers complaints of discomfort, the Concord coaches, unlike other conveyances that rode on steel springs, were suspended on “thorough braces,” leather straps fashioned for each coach from over a dozen oxen hides that were cured to be as tough as steel. In 1861, when Mark Twain’s brother Orion Clemens was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, Twain accompanied him on the trip west and wrote of the journey in Roughing It. Twain describes their stagecoach as “a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description—an imposing cradle on wheels.”
Continued debt and competition from the Pony Express that proved mail could be delivered cross-country in ten days forced Butterfield out of the Overland Stage Company. Wells Fargo took over the operation and in anticipation of the Civil War, the southern Ox Bow route through Texas made its last run on March 21, 1861. With the start of the Civil War on April 12, Wells Fargo moved all the equipment north and continued the operation as the Central Overland Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California.
On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Congressional legislation authorizing the study of the designation of the Butterfield Overland Trail National Historic Trail.