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Friday marked 165 years since the first two stage coaches took off as part of the first government mail service between the eastern and western United States. The groundbreaking development not only transformed the way people communicated but also played a pivotal role in shaping the future of the American West. And, like many integral inventions, it was born of necessity.
The mid-19th century was full of expansion and innovation in the U.S. Settlers pushed westward in search of opportunity, and the need for efficient communication across the vast continent became increasingly evident. This is when the first transcontinental mail service to San Francisco was born.
In the 1850s, the Western frontier was a world apart from the busy cities on the East Coast. The California Gold Rush had drawn thousands to the Pacific Coast, and the need for reliable mail service to connect the growing city of San Francisco with the rest of the nation was apparent. Prior to the establishment of a transcontinental mail service, the journey from the East Coast to the West Coast often took numerous months by sea or overland routes.
The quest to bridge the growing country prompted innovators to explore new solutions. One of the most iconic attempts was the creation of the Pony Express in April 1860. The legendary relay mail service covered over 1,900 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Riders on horseback wound through treacherous terrain, harsh weather conditions and hostile territories to deliver mail in a record-setting 10 days.
While the Pony Express got quite a bit of attention and remains a famous part of American history, the business did not last very long.
According to the History Channel, prior to the Pony Express, Congress passed an act for an overland mail delivery service. The act was a challenge for companies to create reliable mail transportation twice a week between San Francisco and St. Louis in less than 25 days.
Before this, the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line connected the regions but the line took more than 50 days, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
It was businessman and financier John Butterfield and his Overland Mail Co. that rose to the occasion and were awarded a $600,000 yearly subsidy to operate the service.
A prominent board of directors including Butterfield and Wells Fargo presided over improvements to Overland’s 2,800-mile route and built rest stations every 10-15 miles. The renovations cost $1 million at the time, which would be about $35 million today. They also hired more than 800 employees.
Once construction was completed, custom stage coaches pulled by horses carried the mail as well as nine passengers across the country to and from San Francisco.
But the trip certainly was not easy.
The route ran 2,800 miles and went through Texas, New Mexico, Fort Yuma, near present-day Yuma, Arizona, and Southern California so as to avoid winter storms. But even without the winter weather, the trip was brutal.
There was nowhere to stay overnight, according to CA National Parks, and rest stops were really only meant to change stagecoach teams. Passengers had to pay $200 for the entire trip and were only allowed to carry bags up to 25 pounds as well as a canteen and two blankets.
Waterman L. Ormsby, a New York Herald reporter, took a dim view of the journey.
“Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it,” Ormsby said when he arrived in San Francisco.
The Overland Mail Co. operated the route from its opening on Sept. 15, 1858, to May 10, 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad changed everything. Overland beat out the Pony Express in terms of longevity; the latter was only in operation for little more than a year.
The U.S. government canceled the Overland Mail Co. contract the same day the railroad opened.
FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!
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