The Last Days of the California Stagecoach

California stagecoach history is filled with colorful characters. The infamous stagecoach robber Black Bart and the famous stagecoach driver, commonly referred to as whip, Charley Parkhurst are but two. Stagecoaches transported people and cargo and appeared with the California Gold Rush and California’s statehood.

wells fargo concord stage

Concord Stagecoach model at Wells Fargo Museum

California was no different than other regions of the country. The stagecoach was replaced little by little by the expanding railroad. The iron horse offered much more speed and comfort than even the rugged and handsome Concord coach.

San Juan Bautista, the Last Great Stagecoach Hub

South of San Francisco and about 40 miles north of Monterey California is the settlement of San Juan Bautista, during Spanish times called simply San Juan. The site of Mission San Juan Bautista, the fifteenth of the twenty-one Spanish missions, and located along the El Camino Real, San Juan was a busy hub of stagecoach activity just prior to the time when the Southern Pacific Railroad began expanding further down the coast toward Los Angeles and San Diego.

An interesting fact about the old mission is that when you visit it today you’ll hear the toll of the original mission bells from the late 1700’s.

mission san juan bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista

San Juan Bautista was the site where a passenger might arrive by train and transfer to a stagecoach to continue his or her journey further south.

The busiest places in San Juan Bautista were the Plaza Hotel and the Plaza Stables directly on the town plaza. An interesting side note if you travel to San Juan Bautista is that the plaza is the only remaining Spanish plaza in California. The plaza is just where it was when the town was built by the Spaniards. Other California plazas have been long gone and paved over or plowed over. It’s a real treat to visit.

The plaza area and several of the surrounding structures are now a part of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. The 1859 hotel, built over old Spanish barracks, and the livery stable are a part of the state park.

plaza hotel san juan bautista

The Plaza Hotel

The Plaza Hotel

The Plaza Hotel in San Juan Bautista California was opened in 1859 by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Zanetta. The structure was built by the Spanish in 1814 and Zanetta turned it into a hotle in 1859.  It was opened as a one story hotel and later a second story was added. The Plaza Hotel was well known for it’s fine food and it’s list of guests came from around the world.

The Livery Stables

Up to eleven stagecoaches left San Juan Bautista each day and the livery stable was a busy place. The livery stable also served as the blacksmith shop.

You can just imagine the activity around the livery stables during the 1860’s and early 1870’s with these many teams of horses being harnessed and unharnessed daily.

Today, the tourist to San Juan Bautista can see the exhibits of old wagons and stagecoaches.

livery stable san juan bautista california

Exhibits at old San Juan Bautista Livery Stables

Bypassed By The Railroad

The fate of San Juan Bautista as a growing settlement was at the hands of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town’s fortunes were dealt a severe blow when the railroad bypassed the town beginning in 1876 and through Hollister instead, about ten miles to the east.

The Stagelines Slowly Vanish

Stagecoach travel along the California coast receded at about the same rate that the Southern Pacific completed rail lines to the south. By the year 1877 the Southern Pacific controlled about 85% of all California rail traffic. At the same time the Southern Pacific was engaged in a project to extend a transcontinental route eastward from Yuma. Competitors who also wanted to take advantage of this southern route across the country included the Texas & Pacific Railroad out of going west out of Dallas and the Santa Fe Railroad. As it turned out, the Southern Pacific prevailed.

The links below will take you to additional articles you may enjoy…

 Juan Bautista de Anza and the Founding of San Francisco

California and the Old Spanish Missions

Some excellent books regarding the famous California stagecoach routes include Stagecoaching on the California Coast: The Coastline Stage from Los Angeles to San Juan by Maury Hoag…The Golden Road: The Story of California’s Mission Trail by Felix Riesenberg…Cockeyed Charley Parkhurst: The West’s Most Unusual Stagewhip by Craig McDonald.

The Last Stagecoach Line

In 1901 the rail line was completed between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This marked the end of the California coastal stagecoach service.

plaza hotel california

View of Plaza Hotel across the San Juan Bautista plaza

Today, several communities have made the effort to commemorate the stage routes with markers. One good example of this are the signs placed between Santa Barbara and Los Olivos. This is a forty mile stretch of the old stagecoach trail. One of the remaining stagecoach stops you can visit today in this section is the Cold Springs Tavern. The address is 5995 Stagecoach Rd, Santa Barbara.

The stagecoach route north to south generally followed the El Camino Real, the old Spanish highway of which San Juan Bautista was located. Parts of U.S. Hwy 101 today still follow this path and others do not.

Another section of the old stagecoach route you can explore today is the  Old Santa Susana Stage Road located at the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park. Take a hike today and you may still be able to see the wagon ruts on the Devil’s Slide section of the trail. This area is also included on the National Register of Historic Places. The park is located in Los Angeles County where the Santa Susana Mountains join the Simi Hills.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)




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.