CHAPTER IX. THE STAGE ROUTE TO THE PACIFIC.
The excitement caused in 1858 by the alleged discovery of gold in the vicinity of Pike's Peak created a fever among the people of the United States, and there was a mighty exodus from everywhere east of the Missouri, similar to that to the Alaskan regions to-day.
The Missouri River was at that time the western terminal of the few railroads then in existence, and there was very little probability that they would make farther progress toward the setting sun. The individual who had determined to start for the new, but delusive, western mountainous El Dorado, must perforce make his wearisome journey by slowly plodding ox-teams, pack-mules, or the lumbering stage-coach. Such means of travel had just been inaugurated by Mr. W. H. Russell (then the senior partner of the firm of Russell, Majors, Waddell) and a Mr. John S. Jones of Missouri, who conceived the idea of putting on a line of coaches between the Missouri River and Denver - the latter place a mere mushroom hamlet, just struggling into existence, and whose future as yet no man could predict with any degree of certainty.
It was a bold undertaking, for they had to purchase all their equipage on credit, giving their notes payable in three months. One thousand large Kentucky mules were bought, and a sufficient number of coaches to supply the proposed route with a daily line each way.
There was already a semi-monthly line operated by Messrs. Hockaday and Liggett, running from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City. This line was poorly appointed. It consisted of a limited number of light, cheap vehicles, with but few animals to draw them. The same team was used for hundreds of miles, as no stations had been established on the long route. The teams were turned out to graze, and were obliged to stop often for that purpose. It sometimes required twenty-one days to make the trip from St. Joseph to Salt Lake.
Under the new regime of Russell Jones, the coaches made their daily trips in six days to Denver, travelling about one hundred miles every twenty-four hours. The first stage arrived in Denver on the 17th of May, 1859, and its advent was regarded as a great success by those who knew nothing of the immense expense attending the enterprise. When the ninety-day notes given in payment for the outfit of the new route became due, the money was not forthcoming, and it became necessary for the wealthy firm of Russell, Majors, Waddell to meet the outstanding obligations of the delinquent Russell Jones. To save the credit of their senior partner the firm had to pay the debts of the defunct concern, and take possession of all the mules, coaches, and other belongings of the stage-line to secure themselves for the amount they had advanced in establishing the Denver route.
In a few months the firm bought out the semi-monthly line of Hockaday and Liggett, believing that by uniting the two companies the business might be brought up to a paying standard, at least meet the expenses if nothing more.
As soon as Russell, Majors, Waddell took hold of the line, the time between St. Joseph and Salt Lake, a distance of twelve hundred miles, was reduced to ten days. The coach ran daily both ways, and stations were established at distances varying from ten to fifteen miles along the whole route.
The original trail ran up the valley of the Smoky Hill, or the Smoky Hill Fork of the Republican, but was shortly after changed to the valley of the Platte, and starting from St. Joseph, went on to Fort Kearney, thence following the river to Julesburg, where it crossed the stream. From there to Fort Laramie, to Fort Bridger, thence to Salt Lake, through Camp Floyd, Ruby Valley, Carson City, Placerville, and Folsom to Sacramento.
The old-line coach was a grand swinging and swaying vehicle, an imposing cradle on wheels, and hung on thoroughbraces instead of springs. It was drawn by six handsome horses or mules, which were changed every ten miles on the average; and they fairly flew over the level road. Baggage was limited to twenty-five pounds, which, with the care of the passengers, mail, and express, was in charge of the conductor, who was the legitimate captain of the strange craft in its long journey across the continent. He sat beside the driver on the box, and both of them used to sleep in their places thirty or forty minutes at a time, while spinning along on good roads at the rate of eight or ten miles an hour.
Over each two hundred and fifty miles of road an agent was installed, and was invested with great authority. His geographical jurisdiction was known as a "division," and his duty consisted in purchasing horses, mules, harness, and the food for both men and animals. He distributed these things at the different stage-stations when, according to his judgment, they needed them. He also had charge of the erection of all buildings and the water-supply, usually wells. He also paid the station-keepers, hostlers, drivers, and blacksmiths, and he engaged and discharged whomsoever he pleased; in fact, he was a great man in his division, and generally a man of more than average intelligence.
The conductor's tour of duty was about the same length as the agent's, or about two hundred and fifty miles. He sat with the driver, and often, when necessary, rode that great distance all night and all day without other rest or sleep than that he could obtain while in his seat on top of the flying coach. Drivers went back over the same route - over exactly the same length of road, and naturally became so familiar with it that the darkest night had no terrors for them.