Railroad History / Those Amazing Railway Post Office Cars

There was a time when sending a letter by air was a big thing. In fact, to send your letter by airplane meant the purchase of a special airmail stamp with higher postage. This was the era when mail generally traveled by train. There were several reasons for this. Obviously the railroad could carry much more mail bags than an airplane. This was the era of the Railway Post Office Car. The history of trains has a lot to do with the U.S. Mail.

Railroad Post Office Mail Bag Pickup

The earlier aircraft were not reliable enough the the mails. Schedules were either non existent or irregular. Secondly, during the latter 1800’s and the early 1900’s, railroad history tells us that trains went almost everywhere. Railroad routes were massive. All size towns and cities were connected by railroads and train mail services. Many of the rail tracks you see today used by freight trains while on a road vacation were once used by passenger trains. Most of those passenger trains had post office cars attached.

At one time trains had what was called an “RPO”, meaning railroad post office. These were official U.S. Post Offices that were on rolling train cars. Historically, the very first bag of mail carried on a United States train was reportedly in 1831. This may have been much earlier than most people would think. In the U.S., the official Railway Post Office began in 1862, midway during the American Civil War, using converted train baggage cars. The first route ran in Missouri. This particular route was short lived and the first permanent railway post office was established in 1864. These first RPO’s were not originally designed as rolling post offices. The first designs used simple furniture and desks. Later, the designs would resemble small post office’s. This included sorting tables and individual boxes lined on the walls.

 

RPO Car Door and Hook Pole

The Railroad Post Office system kept growing and by the 1880’s the majority of passenger trains included these special cars. One reason this system worked so efficiently was that the train could both drop off mail bags and pick a bag up without stopping. This meant that even the smallest of towns, without a formal train depot, could exchange mail because of the post office car. You may have seen the apparatus used in picking up mail while in motion. Essentially it was a pole that had a mail bag attached at the top and bottom. The moving train would simply pass by and a special steel arm would extend from the mail car and snatch up the bag. As soon as the waiting bag was picked up and swung into the rail car the bag waiting to be dropped off would be shoved out the door. A bit of coordination was required to successfully operate the post office car but the system worked well. The idea was both ingenious and very simple at the same time and worked on trains that could be traveling past a town at maybe 70 MPH. Most of these railroad post office cars also had exterior slots which meant people could manually deposit mail into it when the train was stopped at a station. It served in a way as a portable mail box. Mail that was deposited like this received an official RPO postmark.

RPO interior mail slots

Mail sorting would be done by the postal workers as the train was moving and prepare bags to be dropped off. Eventually, the United States Post office put forth a floor plan design that would be used in all post office cars. The standardization would help with efficiency since mail clerks could be assigned to different cars. Having all cars designed the same meant that a clerk would be accustomed to the routine and work more efficiently. Less chance of sorting errors as well. The standardization began in 1885. As far as the outside of the post office cars appeared during the latter 1880’s, railroad history tells us that all cars were painted a standard color, mostly white with a darker trim. Beginning in 1890 the railroad post office cars were painted in a color scheme that would match the particular railroad it was operating on. The pictures of the Great Northern Railway post office car in this article is an example of that.

The peak year for the railway post office system is though to be about 1930. During that year nearly 10,000 trains were employed to pick up and deliver mail to just about any town or city in the U.S., large and small. There were dedicated mail trains. The dedicated mail train could transport huge volumes of mail. Post office cars were virtually seen on every passenger train. Alternatives such as airmail and trucking were really not a factor during that time. Even highways like Route 66 were fairly new during that period. It would take advances in highway construction, especially the Interstates, that would eventually change things.

Railroad history and the vintage post office rail cars are now preserved at several museums around the United States. Some of these historic post office rail cars are on permanent display. One is the Galesburg Railroad Museum located in Galesburg Illinois. The RPO car displayed there was built in 1924 and taken out of service in 1960. The car is about 70 feet in length and about 14 feet high. Another RPO car is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento California. The RPO car on display there is the old Great Northern Railway #42. The post office rail car was built in 1950 by the American Car and Foundry. It was made to be placed directly behind the locomotive. RPO cars were owned by the railway, but leased to the Postal Service and were staffed by postal employees. Another railway post office car is on display at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association in Campo California. This RPO car is the old Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroads #74. This rail car was built by the Pullman Car & Mfg. Corp. in 1927. It has six barred windows and two sliding doors on each side, and is equipped with electric lighting & screened fans. After restoration the car took its inaugural run to Tecate, Mexico on November 23, 2002. The Houston Railroad Museum in Houston Texas has on display an Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Baggage-Railway Post Office Car # 3401 built in 1938 by the Budd Co. This particular car saw service on many routes including the Chicago to Houston Texas Chief. The 3401 is one of the earliest streamlined RPO cars built for any railroad.

Two related railroad articles you should find interesting are the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe and dining cars and the Central Pacific Railroad.

Great Northern Railway Railroad Post Office Car interior

Slowly but surely the railroad post office cars were phased out. The decline began in 1948. During that year RPO’s were operating over some 161,000 route miles of track in North America. This was down from the peak of over 200,000 route miles. In 1942, the Post Office department were beginning to use highway vehicle to transport mail. The original intention was to have the highway trucks augment the service from the RPO’s but by the 1950’s and 60’s it was evident that the highway vehicles would go on to replace the railway service. The final blow came in 1967 when the Post Office Department canceled all of it’s railroad contracts and elected to transport first-class mail by either aircraft or highway trucks.

An interesting side note is that when the railroad post office contracts were canceled, a good deal of passenger train service would also be canceled not long afterward. The railroads lost a tremendous amount of revenue when the Post Office Department pulled out. Revenue from mail contracts were critical to the transportation industry in general. When you look back at the early stagecoach lines during the days of the old west, their existence and operating revenue was derived from mail contracts. Passenger revenue was a secondary source of money. Mail contracts supplied a continual revenue stream that couldn’t be duplicated from passenger only service. The famous Butterfield Overland Stage Line and others were possible only because they won mail contracts from the U.S. government. The business model of a mail contract and passenger revenue seemed to be the winning combination Today, the private railroads carry freight and they appear to be making good profits in so doing. Passenger service in the U.S. is provided by Amtrak, a government run railroad. It is very doubtful that a private concern could or would want to establish passenger rail service in the U.S. because of the staggering costs alone and the unpredictability of passenger demand. It’s a great thing that these vintage railroad post office cars have been preserved and restored so that future generations can learn about this most unique time in American railroading.

 

Building the Transcontinental Telegraph Lines / Westward Expansion America

When you research western history, one of the most significant events that helped the United States solidify itself was the creation of a transcontinental telegraph system. In fact, the telegraph system was the sole reason the Pony Express had such a short existence. The Pony Express ended at about the same moment that the last telegraph wires were joined together. It wasn’t even a surprise. Everyone well knew that the telegraph system to California would be completed more sooner than later. Pony Express riders would pass work crews stringing the lines.

Building of the Telegraph Lines

Pony Express rider passing telegraph line work crew

Very similar to how the transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, the telegraph lines built to transmit the Morse code translation, would be constructed from both ends simultaneously.

At the start of the Pony Express in 1860, lines from the east reached St. Joseph Missouri. From the west they reached Placerville California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A Pony Express rider carrying a mochila with telegrams heading west from St. Joseph would drop them off in Placerville where they would then be telegraphed to San Francisco. St. Joseph Missouri would be the terminus for telegrams to be sent further east.

As you might expect, building the telegraph lines between Missouri and California was not the easiest job in the world. It all began in earnest with the passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act by Congress in 1860. So why was 1860 a pivotal year for communications?

The Telegraph and the Civil War

The public domain map below shows the route of the first Transcontinental Telegraph line. The lines used to send and translate Morse code to text would change America’s communication systems forever.

The year 1860 marked the beginnings of the American Civil War. California became a state in 1850, at a time when the California Gold Rush was in full swing. The United States was spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a lot of frontier in between. The federal government needed some way to communicate rapidly with it’s far flung state of California.

To demonstrate the problem, a letter sent from Washington D.C. to San Francisco California in 1860, prior to the Pony Express, had two options to be delivered. In the 1850’s, the method was by Pacific Mail ship from San Francisco to Panama, then through the Panamanian jungles to another ship on it’s east coast, then on to Washington D.C. or New York. This was a journey of perhaps two months. If the ship happened to be using the Cape Horn route, it would take longer.

he second method came into being in 1858. This was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line which ran from Missouri to California via the southwest. The Butterfield route via El Paso and San Diego was scheduled to take about twenty-five days covering it’s 2,795 mile distance. Not fast, but a marked improvement over the steamer mail service. What was fast was the Pony Express system which made the Missouri to California trek through the middle of the country in ten days. In fact, prior to the telegraph, this was considered lightning speed.

Pony Express Postmark

Several other telegraph bills were passed by Congress, and one of those appropriated $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the building and maintenance of a telegraph line between the Atlantic and Pacific States.

The mergers and consolidations that would be the history of the later railroads, were similar to what was being set up to construct the transcontinental telegraph. The various California telegraph companies would merge together to build the line from California to Salt Lake City. The Western Union, who was awarded the contract, would build from Salt Lake City eastward. The California companies did formally  meet and agree on their consolidation. The new California telegraph company was named the Overland Telegraph Company with capital of $1,250,000. They would complete a telegraph line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Building the telegraph lines between Omaha Nebraska and California presented a host of problems. Materials were put together in the latter part of 1860. Major problems in supplying the construction crews were overcome but there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the Midwest plains and the deserts of the western portions.

The Civil War made heavy demands on both labor and supplies. Add to this the task of completing the line over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. Materials for the western section were shipped around the Cape Horn to San Francisco, a similar route as taken by many prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier.

In addition to the geographic difficulties, there was always some threat of Indian attack. The Indians were a bit perplexed as to what exactly was going on. Watching work crews stringing wire from pole to pole raised there curiosity. It was reported that many Indians thought that the wire represented some sort of mystical powers not really understanding the concept of electricity flowing over wires. As a side note, there was an effort made prior to the construction of the line to try to explain to the Indians what was about to occur and why.

Western Union Telegraph Key, circa 1900

Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders, one to work on the line from the West , the other from the East. On October 18, 1861, the workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co. reached Salt lake City. This completed the eastern section of the line out of Omaha. The western section was shorter in mileage but the terrain was quite different. The western section of the telegraph was finally completed on October 24, 1861. This date marked the time that the Pony Express system was considered obsolete.

An historic event took place immediately upon completion of the line. Using the key telegraph system in Morse code, a message was telegraphed to President Abraham Lincoln from the president of the Overland telegraph Company which officially read, “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” Truly, this was a major milestone in communication and unified the country as never before. The Morse code sound traveled across the country at virtually the speed of light.

Here are links to two other articles you should find interesting regarding the westward expansion in America. The Pony Express Trail in California and the story of the Central Pacific Railroad, a part of the first transcontinental railroad.

On our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy the article on The Great Train Robbery and the Union Pacific Posse.

Visit the Locust Grove Museum

There’s an interesting historic site tied in with the transcontinental telegraph system. Locust Grove is a villa in the Italianate style designed in 1850 for artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse by architect Alexander Jackson Davis. None of the original furnishings survive from the Morse family’s years at Locust Grove. Of special interest however is that the Museum Pavilion is the home of a permanent exhibit that explores Samuel Morse’s two careers, first as an artist and later as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code.

William and Martha Young brought a new vision to Locust Grove after acquiring the estate from Morse’s heirs in 1895.  According to the Locust Grove Museum, In 1975 Annette Innis Young, the last member of the Young family to live at Locust Grove, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve the estate for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”  Her bequest included more than 125 acres of gardens and grounds. The Locust Grove Estate is located at 2683 South Road, Poughkeepsie, NY .

(Western Union telegraph key photo is from author’s private collection. Other images shown are in the public domain)

 

 

What it Was Like to Travel on the Butterfield Overland Stage Route

It’s not easy to find the site of an old Butterfield Stage station these days. The Butterfield stagecoach stations simply disappeared over the years but there is one remaining site located in southern California on the historic Butterfield trail.

butterfield oak grove stationThis is the Oak Grove Butterfield Stage Station located in Warner Springs California, about 50 miles east of Oceanside and 125 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and has the distinction of being the only surviving station on the old Butterfield Overland Mail route. During the Civil War the station was used as a Union outpost to help protect the route eastward towards Fort Yuma. Visiting this restored Butterfield station brings back thoughts about what it would have been like riding a stagecoach over the remote southwest. It certainly would have been an adventure and one with a lot of risks. The following descriptions may give you a sense of what a journey of this kind in the late 1850’s might have entailed.

A few years bbutterfield stage route mapefore the start of the Civil War in the year 1858 a key U.S. Mail contract was given out. It was the year that saw the emergence of the Butterfield Overland Stage route from St’ Louis Missouri to San Francisco California. This was a key historic event in the history of the United States as well as the history of overland transportation in general. At the time it was also considered the shortest route to California and it’s booming and growing towns, especially to the north around San Francisco and the Sierra Nevada gold fields. California had gained statehood in 1850 and with the booming port of San Francisco growing and the gold seekers still pouring into the state, it was apparent that communication and transportation had to be improved.

overland mail stampSimilar to other new means of transportation, the start was typically with a government mail contract. With the California Gold Rush in progress and with the state itself joining the Union in 1850, communication with the west coast was more important than ever. Remember, this was an era before the transcontinental railroad and before the telegraph lines to California. As an example, in the 1850’s it generally took about 45 days for a letter to make it’s way from San Francisco to New York. The route for that letter would have been a steamer from San Francisco to Panama and then through the jungles of Panama to another steamer on the eastern side of the Isthmus. Quite a journey.

The Butterfield Stage route from St Louis would shorten the time somewhat. What is generally described as a twenty-five day trek from St’ Louis to San Francisco was along what was called the southern route. The route went through Arkansas, Texas, present day New Mexico and Arizona into the San Diego area and the northward to San Francisco. To say the journey was adventuresome would be an understatement. All research on the subject I have done pretty much points to the mail itself as being the top priority. After all, the government mail contract was the financial seed to begin the stage line in the first place. Carrying passengers along the route was important but somehow secondary. The Butterfield Overland Stage Line began operation in 1858. The first westbound stage made it to Springfield September 17, 1858, some three hours ahead of schedule. The first eastbound stage arrived in Springfield on October 22, 1858 That stage was carrying five passengers, along with mail, freight, and express parcels. Below is a picture of the Fort Stockton Texas barracks from the 1800’s. Fort Stockton was directly on the Butterfield Stage route in southwest Texas.

fort stockton texasThere are interesting stories about the people who rode the Butterfield Stage route and their observations are enlightening. Many of these journey’s were anything but boring. In fact, the Butterfield Stage Line ran through Arizona during the long Apache Wars. Many of it’s stages were attacked near the Dragoon Mountains not far north of Tombstone Arizona where Cochise had his stronghold. Riding through Arizona in the 1860’s and 1870’s would be anything but boring. The first question you might ask is: What should I bring along? A reporter for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin who rode the route in 1858 was quoted in his article “All the traveler needed to render himself comfortable is a pair of blankets, a revolver or knife (just as he fancies), an overcoat, some wine to mix with the water (which is not of the sweeetest quality) and three or four dollars worth of provisions”. he went on to say that “Arms are not furnished the passengers by the Company”.

Another journalist by the name Waterman L. Ormsby rode with the first Butterfield Stage heading west on September 16, 1858. Ormsby, a 23-year-old reporter for the New York Herald on this historic first run. Ormsby reported that mules were used to pull the stage coaches over the frontier portions of the route because, to Indians, the mules were considered less valuable than horses as property. Ormsby goes on to say that one team of mules had been trained to come to feed at the sound of a large gong. The stage driver, or sometimes referred to as a “whip”, planned to use the gong to call the mules back in case the Indians managed to steal them. Ormsby described that it took about 30 minutes to harness each mule and he was quoted as saying… “By the time a mule was caught and harnessed, often nearly choked to death, he was almost always nearly tired out before his work had commenced.”

If you thought the seating arrangement inside the Concord coach was a benefit, here is what it looked like. Passengers rode three abreast. There were two back rows facing forward and a front row facing backwards. Your luggage would sometimes be on your lap and U.S. Mail would likely be under your seat. This arrangement might make your seat on today’s jetliner seem pretty roomy. The stagecoach ran day and night with only short stops at stations for what most described as fairly poor food.

Also, realize that a passenger essentially had about three times to bathe while on the Butterfield route. While there were plenty of Butterfield stations not many of them had the necessary facilities. Sleeping was another challenge. passengers slept in the Concord coach while it was on it’s bumpy ride. It’s been reported that it took most passengers about a week to become accustomed to sleeping while traveling. Sleep during the first week was near impossible but after getting a bit acclimated to the ride things got a lot better. Here is a description of the sleeping situation as described by an English passenger on the eastbound Butterfield route in 1860. The passenger was quoted describing the posture necessary to sleep in a moving stagecoach … “sometimes slinging our feet by loops from the top of the wagon, or letting them hang over the sides between the wheels . . . and not seldom nodding for hours together in attitudes grotesque and diverse.”

If you find your self on a southern California vacation and you’re staying at Los Angeles hotels or hotels in San Diego and have a rental car, a stop at the famous Oak Grove Butterfield Stage station makes for a fun and historic addition to your travel itinerary.

How the Sharps Rifle Helped Get the Mail Through from San Antonio to El Paso

The end of the Mexican American War in 1848 meant a lot of things to a lot of people. To be sure, there were Americans residing in places such as El Paso Texas and Santa Fe New Mexico during the war. When the war ended and the territory we now know of as the state of New Mexico changed hands, the government and civilians in and around that region had their work cut out for them.

This was a time before stagecoaches. It was before the telegraph and it certainly was a time before the railroads ventured to the southwest. If this new southwest territory won as a result of the Mexican American War was to grow it needed a way to communicate. It needed a mail system. Easier said than done because in 1848 there was no distinct trail through the barren Texas southwest particularly from San Antonio (previously called Bexar) to El Paso. The two trails from east to west across the western frontier were the central overland trail which consisted of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the California Trail. The other was the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe. A trail from the southern U.S. to New Mexico wasn’t established before the end of the Mexican American War.

El Paso was a very important town because it was there where a road could travel all the way from south Texas to New Mexico and beyond to the Pacific Ocean ports. This was recognized early on and a few survey parties headed west out of both San Antonia and Austin Texas to try to map a suitable route. The route was needed for both military purposes as well as commercial. The route from Santa Fe south to El Paso had been used extensively by both the Spaniards and Mexicans for centuries. This was the route from Santa Fe in Nuevo Mexico down to Mexico City in New Spain. What hadn’t been mapped and used was a route west out of San Antonio across the desert to El Paso. At the end of the Mexican American War, San Antonio was the largest settlement in Texas.

Two routes were eventually found. One was out of Austin heading generally in a western direction and another out of San Antonio that went west/northwest and hugged the east bank of the Rio Grande as it approached El Paso. The two major obstacles of course were the desolation of the region (meaning little water) and the Indians. This was the land of the Comanches and was called Comancheria. To the far west were the Apaches and their Apacheria. Both tribes were nomadic and warlike. Both tribes regularly raided over the border into Mexico for decades and were long an obstacle to both the Spaniards and Mexicans. The route that was eventually chosen for the main way to El Paso was neither of the first two. The route chosen headed directly west out of San Antonio and then took a northwest direction after nearing the Rio Grande.

Henry Skillman Accepts the Challenge

As you no doubt have read in history books, transportation methods and routes were initially subsidized by the federal government. The subsidization came in the form of mail contracts. Throughout history, steamboats, stagecoaches, railroads and in some cases airlines all got their start with a U.S. mail contract. The first wagons to El Paso also relied on Uncle Sam to at least cover their overhead. It’s an interesting question as to why the federal government relied on outside contractors to find a way to deliver the mail. Possibly the government thought it was cheaper. The routes were surveyed with government aid during late 1848 and during 1849 but the independent contractor was the one who really forged the trail. The government did make provisions for outposts along the Rio Grande area which would afford some measure of protection. The reality however was that the outposts established were too sparse to provide any real protection. That would be left to civilian armed guards. The only real alternative to to a stage line to send messages along the route was by single horseback rider who was fast enough to outrun the Comanches. This was tried and there were some losses due to Indian attack.

The first official contract for mail delivery out of San Antonio was awarded to Henry Skillman. Born in Kentucky and having arrived in Texas in 1846, Skillman spent time as an army scout during the Mexican American War. He was a noted rugged frontiersman usually dressed with revolvers and Bowie knives. If there was anyone who could figure out a way to carry the mail 600 miles west through Comancheria it probably was Henry Skillman. The story told is that Skillman had the ability to read Indian intentions before the fact. In other words, he knew the right time to fight and the right time not to. His judgment on the Texas frontier was legendary.

The Post Office department gave Skillman a contract that paid $12,500 per year. The route would run from Santa Fe to El Paso and then east to San Antonio. The contract was to begin on November 1, 1851 and expire on June 30, 1854. The news was received with a lot of fanfare. The newspapers were quite positive on the development but pointed out the great risks involved. The first trip for Skillman was a success even though there was a skirmish with a party of Comanches. Skillman reportedly purchased some wagons while in Santa Fe but the history on this is a bit sketchy.

There was a stage line operating since 1847 between Houston and San Antonio and he may have bought some wagons from them. It’s also unclear if some of the purchases were for passenger service or only for freight. Nevertheless, Henry Skillman got his line up and running with the help of other rugged frontiersmen he was acquainted with. The Indian problem however was always front and center. In fact, with the opening of his service between Santa Fe and El Paso, the Apaches in that area of New Mexico Territory started giving him trouble. To be sure, there were losses incurred such as mules being shot and stolen. A good mule in those days was said to cost about $150. Not a small sum for a new shoestring outfit. Carrying the mail on the San Antonio to El Paso route was a challenge.

Henry Skillman Discovers the Sharps Rifle

On one of Skillman’s trips back to Washington to try to get additional funds (because of the losses from Indian attacks) he met a representative of the Sharps Rifle manufacturing Company. Henry was somewhat familiar with the rifle having seen it with some of the surveying teams sent out west in 1848 and 1849. He was impressed with the weapon because of it’s high accuracy and rapid firing. The Sharps Rifles also were considered excellent long range rifles. Skillman made the decision to purchase ten of these rifles which were from an early lot of new .52 caliber percussion breechloader models designed for the army. In the midst of battle, breechloaders worked much better than old muzzleloaders.

The models Skillman purchased were called “1851 Carbines” and about 1,800 of them were manufactured. This was a solid “boxlock” carbine with a walnut stock. The Sharps Rifle combined high accuracy with a potent .52 caliber punch. One of the best long range rifles developed. On a technical note, all of the Sharps .52 caliber breechloaders made over the ten years prior to the Civil War were referred to as “slant breeched” meaning that the breechblock was slightly at an angle to the barrel. The Civil War version of the Sharps was a “straight breech” and perpendicular to the barrel. The war model was easily converted to shoot metallic cartridges that were developed not long after the Civil War. The purchase of the ten rifles made a lot of sense to Skillman. He believed that these weapons just might give his drivers and guards and himself the advantage they needed over the Indians. He was right and proved it shortly after he returned to Texas.

The story written is that he knocked a warrior off his horse at some 300 yards. The story actually started at a distance of about 200 yards and kept getting longer with each telling. Regardless, the new Sharps breechloader got the attention of the hostiles. Prior to that episode the Indians had a pretty good idea of a pistol and rifle’s range and when they started to get picked off at unheard of distances they chose their attacks much more carefully. In fact, often they retreated. When fighting against Indian attacks in wide open expanses, distance meant everything. Most of Skillman’s guards accompanying the wagons were former Texas Rangers and virtually all of them were known to carry the Sharps carbines.

As an indication of how high in regard Henry Skillman placed his Sharps carbine rifle, he wrote a letter to the Sharps Company praising the effectiveness of the weapon. He told them that it was superior to any other rifle he was acquainted with and that he put the ten weapons he purchased from them to use as soon as he arrived back in Texas. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was so delighted to hear this from Skillman that they published his letter in their sales catalog. This could have been one of the earliest commercial weapon endorsement by any frontiersman. It’s believed that Henry wrote this letter at a friends home in southern New Mexico shortly after what could have been a nearby Apache attack on his wagons.

This was in an area a good distance south of Albuquerque around Dona Ana where the topography placed mountains on both sides of the trail and made it an ideal place for Apache attacks. To fire off a letter from his friends settlement upon arrival tells quite a lot about what Skillman thought of his new rifles. From all that I have read and researched on the subject it is apparent that the Sharps rifle contained the Indian threat and the regular service of mail between San Antonio and Santa Fe was accomplished.

A few historical notes about the Sharps rifles. It’s alleged that many of the Sharps Rifle breechloaders were shipped to anti-slavery factions in Kansas during the 1850’s. After the Civil War there was a large surplus of military style Sharps which made their way to the buffalo hunters although special sport models were also being developed. It was in great part to the accuracy and distance of the Sharps breechloaders, and to the dismay of the Native Americans, that the buffalo herds were decimated in a relatively very short period of time.

Henry Skillman, the Butterfield Overland Mail and the Civil War

Skillman ran his stage, mail and freight lines successfully through the early 1850’s although there was some competition from easterners who managed to get in through their Washington connections. The competition didn’t last long and eventually he was partnered up with a man named George Giddings and they overcame the weak competition from the easterners. Some accounts I’ve read refer to Giddings and Skillman as being partners and others contend that Skillman yielded his mail contract to Giddings in 1854 and drove for him. It appears that Skillman did indeed have difficulty finding the resources to establish passenger facilities along the route which was being pushed hard by the federal government. This could have caused him to transfer the contract to Giddings since Giddings had the funds. Many times you find conflicting details when researching stories this old.

Later in the decade Henry Skillman is remembered as the driver of the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage, which arrived in El Paso on September 30, 1858. The Butterfield line also started with a mail contract between St. Louis and San Francisco via El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. While the mail contract was always the bread and butter of any new operation, the line also carried passengers. The Butterfield line was short lived since during the Civil War the Confederates controlled much of the southern routes and the Union had to then send their California bound mail over the central route which pretty much followed the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.

Texas aligned itself with the Confederacy during the war and Skillman worked espionage for the Confederates between old El Paso del Norte and San Antonio. Unfortunately for Henry Skillman, his actions during the Civil War cost him his life. He was tracked down in April 1864, at Spencer’s Ranch, near Presidio by a detachment from the First California Cavalry and shot down.

As I mentioned, Henry Skillman’s activities during the 1850’s have been historically under reported but nevertheless are very interesting. Between Skillman’s frontier knowledge and bravery and the accuracy of the new Sharps Rifles, the mail made it through the south Texas Indian country. The Sharps Rifle is today a very popular collectors gun.

You can research this subject in much greater detail by reading “Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules..The San Antonio-El Paso Mail 1851-1881” by author Wayne R. Austerman. This is a very good read and explains in depth both the Indian and political obstacles of running the southern mail and stage route.

One of the best historic sites that tell the story of early southwest Texas and the dangers of getting the mail and passengers through that part of the country is the Fort Stockton Museum in Fort Stockton Texas. The displays and artifacts in this museum are fascinating. Among the exhibits is a Sharps 1874 Sporting Rifle which was a constant companion of those trying to guard the stage and freight route. The link above will give you much more information about the museum and how to plan your trip there along with some very interesting photos of rare frontier exhibits. Another must stop in Fort Stockton is the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum which is located only a few blocks west of the fort. Some interesting photos on this site as well.