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[34] 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,[35] but was shortly after changed to the valley of the Platte, and starting from St. Joseph,[36] 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.[37]

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.

The distance from St. Joseph to Sacramento by the stage-coach route was nearly nineteen hundred miles. The trip was often made in fifteen days, but the time specified by the mail contracts, and required by the government schedule, was limited to nineteen days. This was to give ample allowance for possible winter storms and snows, or other causes of detention.

The stage company had everything in their charge under the most rigid discipline, and the system was as nearly perfect as possible.

The enterprise, financially, was a losing one for the great firm which organized and operated it, the entire expense exceeding the receipts by many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Messrs. Russell, Majors, Waddell, however, continued its operation until March, 1862, when the whole concern was transferred to Ben Holliday.[38]

When Holliday took charge, the United States mail was given to it and immediately the line became a paying institution. The government expended, in quarterly payments, eight hundred thousand dollars a year for transporting the mails from the Missouri River to San Francisco.

It was very fortunate for the government and the people generally that the stage-line was organized at the time it was, and kept in such perfect condition on the Middle Route, as it was called, when the Civil War commenced, for it would have been impossible to transport mails on the Southern Route, previously patronized by the government. This route ran from San Francisco via Los Angeles, El Paso, and Fort Smith to St. Louis, and the Confederate government would not have allowed it to run through that portion of their country during the war.

During the war there was a vast amount of business, both in mail, express, and passengers, as it was the only practicable line between California and the great states east of the Missouri River.

Under the indefatigable Ben Holliday his stage-coaches penetrated every considerable mining camp in the mountains, and as the government would not, or could not, establish post-offices at these remote points, the stage company became their own postmasters. They conveyed letters in their own official envelopes, first placing thereon a United States stamp. Twenty-five cents was charged for every letter, consequently the revenue from this source was enormous.

Occasionally on the remote plains, or in the fastnesses of the mountains, the proprietor of a little store, where he kept a heterogeneous assortment of such goods as were required by the hardy miners, would constitute himself the postmaster. Of course he charged exorbitant rates for the transmission of the mail to the nearest regular station. It is recorded of one of these self-appointed officials that, although he transported the mail but once a month, he still charged twenty-five cents for each letter. He used an empty barrel for the reception of mail. He cut a hole in the top, and posted above it the following suggestive warning, to all who sent letters from his place: "This is the Post-Office. Shove a quarter through the hole with your letter. We have no use for stamps as I carry the mail."

The business of the old line coach increased with startling rapidity. It aggregated an enormous sum every year. For carrying the mails alone over the whole route, the government paid twelve hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

The drivers of the Overland coaches received from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and their keep. Their wages were graduated by their ability and length of service. Such large salaries were paid because of the great risk run by the brave men, for their duty was a continuously hazardous one.

All classes of men were to be found among these drivers, from the graduate of Yale and Harvard to the desperado deep-dyed in his villainy. The latter sometimes enlisted in the work for the sole purpose of robbery. The stage with its valuable load of riches and the wealth of its passengers excited his cupidity.

It is told in the annals of those troublous times on the Old Trail, how once, in July, 1865, a coach loaded with seven passengers and an immense amount of gold bullion and other treasure was sacrificed to these robbers. The passengers were all frontier men, well used to the contingencies of that trying era; they were also aware of the strong probability of the coach being attacked before it reached its destination, and were prepared to repel any premeditated attempt of that character. All were fully armed, principally with double-barrelled guns loaded with twenty-six buckshot, a formidable charge with which to plug a man. They were determined that their hard-earned wealth should not be taken from them without a struggle. They watched in turns for the first demonstration of the road agents, having made up their minds to get the first crack at the thieves.

The driver was known as Frank Williams, and the man who occupied the post of honour, sitting at his right on the box, was one of the would-be robbers. On arriving at a very lonely spot on the trail, this individual on top cried out that the robbers were upon them, and a hurried shot was fired from the outside. At the same moment the men inside discharged their pieces. A regular volley was then shot at the passengers from an ambush alongside the trail, four fell dead, another was severely wounded in three places, and one saved his life by lying perfectly still and feigning death as the thieves emerged from the brush to fire a second time. One of the other passengers was mortally wounded and the other escaped uninjured by secreting himself in the brush which fringed the trail.

It seems that the driver had purposely engaged in the service of the company for just such an opportunity as this, and he deliberately drove his coach into this sequestered spot where the robbers were to attack it by appointment. It is alleged that he received his share of the spoils, and then left the service incontinently. His ill-gotten wealth, however, did him very little good; for he was tracked to Denver, and hanged with that sudden promptness for which "Judge Lynch's Court" is noted, a court that brooks no delay in the execution of its decisions, and from which there is no appeal.

Over seventy thousand dollars was the harvest of this raid, but none of the robbers were ever caught excepting the driver, upon whom, as stated, a well-merited punishment was inflicted.

During the Civil War his route passed through the Sioux country, a tribe that was at war with the whites, and as there were not enough troops to protect the line, it was changed from South Pass to Bridger's Pass on the Bitter Creek route, or as it was then known, "The Cherokee Trail."

The mail-line was often attacked by Indians, who killed the employees and passengers, robbed and burnt the stations, and stole the stock.

Early in the year 1862 the Indians made continuous raids on the coaches and stations between Fort Laramie and the South Pass. In April of that year a terrible battle occurred between the mail-stage and the Indians on the Sweetwater River near Split Rock, or Devil's Creek. The white party consisted of nine men with two coaches loaded with mail. They were in charge of Lem Flowers, the division agent, and Jimmie Brown, the conductor. The Indians began the attack at early dawn and the white men were so harassed that they were compelled to run the two coaches alongside of each other, pile the mail-sacks between the wheels, and throw sand over them for breastworks. From this barricade they fought the savages the whole day, but they lost all the stock, and six of the men were wounded. Several Indians were killed during the fight, and when night came on they withdrew. Under cover of the darkness the men took the front wheels of the running-gear of the coaches, put the wounded upon them, and, drawing it themselves, made their escape to the station of the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater River.

One of the employees who passed over the route shortly after the fight and visited the scene of the battle in company with the notorious Slade, who was then division agent, says: "The coaches were still standing as they were placed by the party in the fight, completely riddled with bullets and arrows. Every vestige of leather straps and cushions was stripped off, the mail-sacks cut open, their contents thrown out, and the sacks themselves carried off. Valuable letters, drafts, and bills for large amounts were scattered all over the ground. This mail was gathered up by the employees, put in gunny sacks, hauled to Julesburg, and from there forwarded to the Post-Office Department at Washington."

Another memorable raid was made by the savages on the old line mail-route on Sunday, the 7th of August, 1864. It was a simultaneous attack on that portion of the line extending over two hundred miles from Julesburg eastwardly to Liberty Farm, at the head of the Little Blue River. The mail-coaches, the stations, travelling freight caravans, ranches, and parties putting up hay were alike attacked. Forty people were killed, many ranches and trains burned, much stock and other property stolen and destroyed in that eventful raid.

At last the raids of the savages along the North Platte had become so frequent, and the duty so hazardous, that it was almost impossible for the Overland Stage Company to find drivers, although the highest wages were offered. At this juncture W. F. Cody decided to turn stage-driver and his services were gladly accepted.

While driving a stage between Split Rock and Three Crossings, he was set upon by a band of several hundred Sioux. Lieutenant Flowers, assistant division agent, sat on the box beside Cody, and there were half a dozen passengers well armed inside. Cody gave the reins to Flowers, applied the whip, and the passengers defended the stage in a running fight. Arrows fell around and struck the stage like hail, wounding the horses and dealing destruction generally, for two of the passengers were killed and Flowers badly wounded. Cody seized the whip from the wounded officer, applied it savagely, shouting defiance, and drove on to Three Crossings, thus saving the stage.

The only period when the long route up the Platte Valley enjoyed an immunity from the continuous trouble with the savages, before the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, was when General Albert Sidney Johnston's army, in 1857, had been mobilized for the impending Mormon war. More than five thousand regular soldiers, with its large commissary trains and their complement of teamsters, all well armed, together with batteries of artillery, in passing through the country so intimidated the Indians, who had never before seen such an array of their enemies, that they remained at a respectful distance from the trail.

In the spring of 1865 the Indians seemed more determined than ever to wage a relentless war along the line of the Overland Stage.

A regular army officer in his journal says: -

        During the time when we were guarding Ben Holliday's stage-coaches, and when attacks on them were of frequent occurrence, I had an adventure which I think is worth relating.

        I was out at one of the lower ranches, and the Indians were very troublesome. Our guards were nearly all sick or wounded, and the coaches had to go out insufficiently protected.

        One evening the coach was late, and, as to be behind time was a sure sign that something was wrong, we all felt very uneasy. The drivers made it a rule to get from one station to another on time, and if they did not arrive, parties were immediately started out to the next ranch, ten miles below, to see what the matter was, the stations being eight, ten, and twelve miles apart.

        On the particular evening in question I had got tired of waiting, and gone over to the stable-keeper to see if we had not better take the change horses, go down the road, and try if we could not find the coach. It was due at the station at eight-thirty in the evening, and it was now ten, so I was confident it had been attacked or broken down. While we were talking, the sentinel on the outpost, whose business it was to look out for the stage and give notice of its approach, signalled that the coach was coming. We all ran down the road to meet it, and soon saw it coming slowly along with three horses instead of four, and the driver driving very slowly, as if he were going to a funeral, or hauling wounded.

        When we came up to the coach we learned that he was indeed both conveying a corpse and wounded. On the arrival of the party at the ranch, Captain Hancock, who was a passenger, related to me all that had happened, and I repeat the story as it fell from his lips.

        "We were," said the captain, "driving along smartly in the bottom, about four miles below, when, just as we crossed a little ravine, some twenty Indians jumped out of the long grass and fired on us. The first volley killed Mr. Cinnamon, a telegraph operator, who was a passenger, on his way from Plum Creek to some point up the river. He was riding on the box with the driver when he received the fatal shot, and the driver caught his body just as it was falling forward off the coach on the rear horses. He put Cinnamon's corpse in the front boot among the mail bags, where it now is.

        "The first fire had also killed our nigh wheeler, and, as the coach was going pretty fast at the time, the horse was dragged a considerable distance, and his hind leg becoming fast between the spokes of the fore wheel, his body was drawn up against the bed of the coach and all further progress completely blocked.

        "The driver took it very coolly, first swearing fearfully at the Indians, toward whom he cracked his whip repeatedly, as if flaying their naked backs, and then, having vented his spleen, he quietly descended from his box and stripped the harness off the dead horse.

        "Meanwhile the Indians had been circling around us, firing into the coach every few minutes, and I had got under the wagon with my clerks, the better to be protected and to fire at the Indians, who could be seen best from the ground as they moved against the horizon.

        "The driver tried in vain to extricate the leg of the dead horse from the wheel, but it was firmly wedged in, and after uniting my strength to his, I found it necessary to take my knife and amputate the leg at the knee-joint. The body was at length removed, and mounting the box, the driver bid us get in, and we were off once more. One of the clerks had been severely wounded, and, as his wound was quite painful, we had to drive very slowly; so we were late in getting in."

        While the captain was talking, the driver came to the door to say the coach was waiting, for on the Plains stages stop not for accidents or dead men. I bade my friend good-night, hoping he would not again be interrupted on his journey by the redskins, and, the driver cracking his whip, the four fresh bays bounded forward at a gallop, and soon carried the coach out of sight of the valley.

        Next day we buried poor Cinnamon, and sent the wounded man to McPherson, where he could have medical attendance, and we were pleased to learn he speedily recovered.

        I rode down to where the coach had been attacked, and saw the dead horse and the ravine from which the Indians had sprung. The fight had evidently been a sharp one, and I could see by the trail that the savages had followed the coach nearly to the ranch, and then struck across toward the Republican, never stopping, in all probability, until they reached it, ninety miles distant.

An idea may be formed of the immense proportions to which the old mail-line service had grown, when in November, 1866, Ben Holliday sold out his interest to Wells, Fargo, Company. The main line and its branches were transferred for one million five hundred thousand dollars in cash, and three hundred thousand dollars in the stock of the Express Company. This vast sum only covered the animals, rolling stock, stations, etc., but in addition to this, the Express Company was to pay the full value of the grain, hay, and provisions on hand at the time of the transfer, and this amounted to nearly six hundred thousand dollars.

The old line of mail-service continued until its usefulness was gradually usurped by the completion of the Union and Central Pacific railroads. The coaches started daily from the eastern and western terminals of the rapidly approaching iron trail, the gap between them lessening until on the day of driving the last spike with the junction of the rails the old stage-line through the Platte Valley had vanished forever.