A history of America’s transportation, Part 3

Overland carriers—precious metals mean trouble

Wooden gold sluice in California between 1890 and 1915.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

Gold as a commodity revolutionized transportation from west to east in the United States. With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, there was also a mad rush to transport the precious metal from California to the east coast. Not long afterward, the Colorado gold and silver rushes, known as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush and the Comstock Lode in Nevada, took place and it became “Whoa Nellie, bar the door!”
All bets were off. As minerals and money began to be transferred back and forth across the country, a better means of transporting the valuables became a necessity.
As the means of transporting the gold and silver to the east were being considered and created, there was an increasing desire on the part of adventurers, con-artists, farmers, cattlemen, storekeepers, lawyers and ministers to create new communities across the lonesome plains of Middle America to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Contrary to Wild West lore, there was more respect for law enforcement than is portrayed on the silver screen and television.
Gunslingers, who took the law into their own hands, were treated more harshly than they are today. Quick trials and executions were commonplace. The likes of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd or Bonnie and Clyde are products of the 20th, not the 18th or 19th centuries.
Nonetheless, highway robbery was a budding new industry once gold began to cross the country. Opportunists, who were willing to place their lives on a get-rich-quick scheme, were as common as dirt. Highwaymen had no local law enforcement to bring them to justice—unless they made the mistake of plying their trade inside the town itself.

Growth and the high cost of survival
Folks who took to the prairie seeking their fortunes in the gold and silver mines of the west, soon learned that there were few city amenities and high prices for the necessities of survival. Only the most hardy survived. Many returned to their eastern havens and forgot about the get-rich schemes. Towns that sprang up along the trails often disappeared as quickly as they came into existence.
Who—the question was—would provide safe transportation for both passengers and goods?
Wells Fargo, originally Wells & Co., came into existence due to the discovery of precious metals in the west. Henry Wells, a man from conservative Connecticut, and New Yorker William Fargo, attacked a highly competitive industry, the express business. There was a need, and dozens of entrepreneurs sought to cash in on it.
John Butterfield of Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company, Wells, and Fargo came together in 1850 to form a new company called American Express Company.
Fearful that the competitor, Adams Express Company, would dominate the west, the two men ignored advice from their board of directors and took on an uncertain enterprise. It was sort of a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” attitude that drove them into their ventures. Win, lose or draw, they were empowered with the determination of iron.
Because California had no regulations governing the banking and express industries, they had carte blanche power to do anything they wanted. They did everything in the book to be the biggest and the best.
From the get-go, they were into the banking and express services. The company offered and provided every imaginable service a banking and transport company could offer including: general forwarding and commissions, the buying and selling of gold dust, bullion and coin, and freight and passenger services between New York and California. Express and banking offices popped up across the country. In order to maintain control of their services, they often farmed out some duties to lesser known companies to keep them from competing against Wells Fargo.

Financial Collapse and Recovery
The California banking system collapsed in 1855,due to over speculation, bringing panic and confusion into the economy. As a result, Wells Fargo, along with all the other cross-country express companies, closed their doors. Shortly thereafter, they replenished their coffers and reopened. Although they lost close to a third of their wealth, they rallied behind what was left and began anew to regain their position. In the process, Wells Fargo took over Butterfield Overland Mail, and became mentor, so to speak, to the Pony Express. By 1866, Wells Fargo was king of the road with all major stage lines operating under Wells, Fargo & Co.
When Congress failed to pass the annual post office appropriation bill, Wells Fargo sought a way to be the only transporter of the country’s mail. When the Pony Express collapsed due to financial mismanagement, Wells Fargo convinced Congress that it was the only safe and legitimate company to handle cross-country mail. Consequently, a company owned and operated by Wells Fargo, Overland Mail Company, was awarded a million dollar contract to transport the daily mail across a specified route between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. A sub-contractor operated the mail lines from Salt Lake City to St. Joseph, Missouri.

It is still a Horse and Buggy Operation
Stagecoaches drawn by horses continued to be the method of long distance transportation. Stagecoaches were equipped to transport gold dust, important papers and nine paying passengers. An overcrowded coach was known, at times, to carry passengers on top of the coach. This did not serve them well in rain storms, but on they went.
Conditions of travel were horrendous. They suffered crowded conditions, dust storms, heat, cold and a chance of being relieved of their traveling wealth and baggage by highwaymen.
It was not unusual, when speed was of the essence, for Wells Fargo to send a rider on horseback to deliver important documents because they were faster. For the most part, they had less trouble with outlaws because they had no passengers to encumber their journey.
Overland expresses nudged out ocean-going mail carriers to California. However, the iron horse was just around the corner. In the early 1860’s, railroad transportation was making inroads east of the Mississippi. It would be only a matter of time until the monsters of steel and steam would drive stage-coach transportation into the boonies to provide spur transportation from isolated areas where they became a shuttle service to the main rail lines that would soon operate as a ribbon of rails from coast to coast, but that’s a subject for the next episode of America’s Transportation History. Until then, just sayin’…


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