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Butterfield Overland Mail Co.

Time Schedule
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The stupendous task of opening up routes for postal communications, to keep pace with the rapidly expanding territorial growth of our young nation-through purchase and treaty, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and from Canada on the north to Mexico on the south, and now sub-divided into twenty-two great states-over the comparatively short period of fifty years, 1803 to 1853, marks one of the most inspiring chapters in our history.

The culmination of these efforts was reached when, on the morning of September 16, 1858, the first overland mail from St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco, under contract with the Overland Mail Company, of which John Butterfield was the president, began its first westward trip.

In March, 1857, by Act of Congress, such a contract had been authorized. It was fathered in the Senate by William K. Gwinn, of California, and in the House by John S. Phelps, of Missouri. Under its terms "the Postmaster General was authorized to contract for the conveyance of the entire letter mail from such point on the Mississippi River as the contractors might select, to San Francisco, in the state of California, for six years, at a cost not exceeding three hundred thousand dollars per annum for a semi-monthly, four hundred and fifty thousand for weekly, or six hundred thousand dollars for semi-weekly service, to be performed semi-monthly, weekly, or semi-weekly, at the option of the Postmaster General."

The act further provided that "the service be performed with good four horse coaches or spring wagons, suitable for the conveyance of passengers as well as the safety and security of the mails; that the contractor should have the right to pre-emption to three hundred and twenty acres of any land not then disposed of or reserved, at each point necessary for a station. and not to be nearer than ten miles from each other - provided that no mineral land should be thus pre-empted: that the service should be performed within twenty-five days for each trip ..."

Congress had left the location of the route up to the approval of the Postmaster General, and it is a long drawn out story of the clashing interests of those advocating a route starting from St. Louis or further north; those advocating a route starting from New Orleans or Memphis, and another group favoring a route to start from San Antonio to El Paso, Texas. When the bids were opened in June, 1857, the bid of John Butterfield and his associates was found to be the most acceptable.

Mr. Butterfield had submitted three bids. First, a semi-weekly route from St. Louis: second, a semi-weekly route from Memphis: and third, a semi-weekly route starting from both St. Louis and Memphis, to converge at the best point, and proceeding thence on a common line to San Francisco.

This third proposal was the one preferred by the Postmaster General, and on September 16, 1857, a contract was signed for the converging of the two routes at Little Rock, Arkansas, then via Preston, Texas, to El Paso. "and thence along the new road being opened and constructed, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, to Fort Yuma, California; thence through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging to San Francisco. California, and back, twice a week ... at six hundred thousand dollars a year, during the term of six years, commencing the 16th day of September, 1858."

After thoroughly testing out the proposed St. Louis to Little Rock route, Mr. Butterfield found it impossible for the operation of a stage line, and so notified the Postmaster General. After much discussion, Mr. Butterfield finally persuaded the Postmaster General that the most practical route from St. Louis would be west, and southward through Springfield, Missouri, thence through Fayetteville, Van Buren to Fort Smith, in Arkansas, at which latter point it would converge with the route coming from Memphis, through Des Arc, Little Rock and Dardanelle: and then proceeding over one common line, via El Paso and Fort Yuma to San Francisco.

Credit for much of the historical material used in this article must be given to Waterman L. Ormsby, special correspondent for the New York Herald, and the only through passenger on the first westbound stage, for his accurate and interesting report of the trip. It is packed with thrills for every one of the 2,6511/2 miles, the total distance from St. Louis, via El Paso, to San Francisco.

St. Louis, by the year 1858, had gained an unrivaled place among the important cities in the country as a center of distribution. The Pacific railroad, the first to lay rails west of the Mississippi River, at that time had completed and in operation one hundred and sixty miles west from St. Louis to Tipton. (Ten miles west of Tipton a stage road met the old Boonville mail road running south to Springfield).

This was advantageous to Mr. Butterfield, in that the mail could be transported by train from St. Louis, via way of Jefferson City, to Tipton and return. Thence by stage through Springfield, and on through Fayetteville, Van Buren to Fort Smith, in Arkansas.

So little confidence was expressed in the success of the enterprise, that when the mail was made up in St. Louis on the eventful morning of the departure of the first Overland Mail for San Francisco, only about a dozen letters and a few papers were entrusted to its care. Even the newspapers ignored this event, and had it not been for the presence of Waterman Ormsby, special correspondent for the New York Herald, the details connected with this important event would never have been preserved.

The morning of the inaugural trip, Thursday, September 16, 1858, found Mr. Butterfield on hand attending to last minute details. He personally escorted the two little leather mail pouches from the postoffice to the train and then accompanied them all the way to Tipton. The train pulled out at 8 o'clock and was due to arrive in Tipton at 6 o'clock that evening.

At Tipton, the Butterfield station men were on the alert with last minute details, preparatory to the start of the great race against time across the vast expanse of the West. Even the horses, it is said, seemed to sense something of the prevailing excitement. When the news arrived over the telegraph wire that the train was actually on the way with the mail, the excitement mounted. A pony express rider sprang into the saddle and dashed off to relay the information to the stations along the route all the way to Fort Smith.

A few minutes after six o'clock, with young John Butterfield on the driver's seat, a brand new coach drawn by six beautiful horses, wheeled up to the railroad station in grand style. A whistle was heard, and in a few minutes a little wood-burning locomotive appeared "belching smoke and vomiting flame" from its hugh funnelshaped smoke stack, and came "snorting and clanking," with its short train, into the station from its thirteen-mile-an-hour dash from St. Louis.

Mr. Butterfield stepped from the baggage car with the two little mail pouches slung over one arm, and rapidly walked to the waiting coach and saw them carefully placed in the forward boot. It was a thrilling moment. The horses strained and pawed in the hands of the men at their heads. Mr. Butterfield gave a final inspection, tightened a few harness buckles, reached up and gave his son a silent hand clasp, gave a signal to the conductor, and quickly sprang back into the coach. Exactly nine minutes had been consumed.

The conductor sounded a call on his bugle, then mounted to the seat beside young John. The horses were released and the next moment the first westbound Butterfield Mail, amid a clatter of hoofs and a cloud of dust, whirled away, heading west into the golden sunset. The only interest shown by the village spectators was a voice which called "good-bye" to young John. Little did they realize that history was being made at that moment.

At three-fifteen o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, September 17, 1858, the first westbound Butterfield Mail, twenty-one hours en route, dashed into Springfield over the old Boonville road, approximately four hours ahead of schedule. Amid several loud notes from the bugle of the conductor, young John Butterfield skillfully brought the galloping horses to a halt in front of the Butterfield station on the northeast corner of the square. A large crowd had assembled and Mr. Butterfield and his son were given a great ovation. A salute of several guns was fired in honor of the event.

After a rather rough ride of 14 miles, which we accomplished with our excellent team in one hour and three-quarters, we took a team of four mules (at Park's station), to cross the much-dreaded Ozark range, including the Boston Mountains. I had thought before we reached this point that the rough roads of Missouri and Arkansas could not be equalled; but here Arkansas fairly beats itself.

Had not a most extraordinary team been provided, I doubt whether we would have been able to cross in less than two days. The wiry, light little animals tugged and pulled as if they would tear themselves to pieces and our heavy wagon bounded along the crags as if it would be shaken in pieces every minute, and ourselves disemboweled on the spot. For 15 miles the road winds among these mountains at a height of nearly 2,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.

The mules, which had made the approximately 19 miles over the mountains, were replaced with horses at Woosley's station for the 16-mile stretch to Fort Smith. As the stage horses galloped down the long hill into the old riverport of Van Buren, the conductor sounded several "merry notes" on his bugle to announce their approach to the ferry men.

We crossed the Arkansas, in a flatboat much resembling a raft at Van Buren, a flourishing little town on its banks. Our course through the soft bed of the flats (which were not covered, owing to the low state of the river) was somewhat hazardous. as our heavy load was liable to be sunk on the quicksands which abound here. But by the aid of a guide on horseback, with a lantern (for it was night), we crossed the flats, and up the steep sandy bank in safety. Picking our way cautiously for five or six miles, we reached Fort Smith on the Arkansas River, just on the border of Arkansas and the Indian Territory, at five minutes after two o'clock A. M., having made the sixty-five miles from Fayetteville in fourteen hours and seven minutes, or three hours and eleven minutes less than schedule time.

Fort Smith was one of the earliest of the great chain of the old frontier posts. Its founding dates back to 1817, when a permanent military post was required for the protection of the increasing white population in Western Arkansas and also for the civilized Indian tribes in the Osage territory. There was not another town of equal size or importance on the entire Butterfield route after leaving Fort Smith, until Los Angeles, California, was reached, nineteen hundred miles distant.

We had anticipated beating the mail which left Memphis. Tennessee, on the 16th to meet us at Fort Smith several hours; but as soon as we entered the town at so unseasonable hour, we found it in a great state of excitement on account of the arrival of the Memphis mail just fifteen minutes before us. They had 700 miles to travel, 500 of them by steamboat, from Memphis to Little Rock, but it was said that they got their mails before we did.

Fort Smith is a thriving town of about 2,500 inhabitants, and they boast that every house is full ... As several other routes over the plains pass through this place and have contributed much to its growth, the people evinced much interest; and the news that both the St. Louis and Memphis stages had arrived spread like wildfire. Horns were blown, houses lit up, and many flocked to the hotel to have a look at the wagons and talk over the exciting topic, and to have a peep at the first mail bags ...

An hour and twenty-five minutes were consumed in examining the way mails, arranging the way bill, joining the two mails from Memphis and St. Louis, and changing stages; and precisely half-past three A. M. on Sunday the 19th inst., the stage left Fort Smith, being exactly twenty-four hours ahead of the time required in the time table, which had been gained in the first four hundred and sixty-eight miles of our journey. I was the only person in the wagon which left Fort Smith - besides Mr. Fox, the mail agent and the driver ...

It is said that about two weeks before the first mail coach swung out of Frisco headed for the East, the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable had been celebrated. But John Butterfield's coach reached its destination in St. Louis, October 9, 1858, before the cable flashed its first message under a similar length of sea.

F. P. Rose. Butterfield Overland Mail Co. The Battle Of Pea Ridge 1862.

Running through Oklahoma for 197 miles, the route had twelve stations within the state: Walker's, Trahern's Holloway's, Riddle's, Pusley's, Blackburn's, Waddell's, Geary's, Boggy Depot, Nail's, Fisher's and Colbert's Ferry. Cutting diagonally across what was then Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and across a broad expanse of Texas. Across the Red River at Colbert's Ferry, eight miles below Preston, Sherman, Diamond's station (one mile west of the site of present Whitesboro), Gainesville, Davidson's station, Earhart's station, Jacksboro, Murphy's station (a site near present Graham), Fort Belknap, Franz's station, Clear Fork station, Smith's station, Fort Phantom Hill, pass the route of the Texas and Pacific Railway, a mile west of the site of present Tye, Mountain Pass, across Valley Creek, Fort Chadbourne in what is now Coke County, Grape Creek near the south line of present Coke County, vicinity of Carlsbad, Texas, the headwaters of the Middle Concho River, Horsehead Crossing, Emigrant Crossing, down the east side of the Pecos, Pope's Camp, near the thirty-second parallel, down Delaware Creek, almost to its junction with the Pecos River, Delaware Springs, the Pinery, Hueco Tanks, Franklin, Texas (present El Paso), north along the Rio Grande into La Mesilla, the route ran westward on a line roughly paralleling present-day I-10, the way reached the Gila River and followed it into California, thru Tucson, Arizona, Arizona City (now Yuma, Arizona), Fort Yuma, California, Los Angeles, and terminated in Yerba Buena (San Francisco).

The route was changed slightly from time to time, the most important change being made late in 1858, when, in order to secure a better water supply, the stages between Franklin and the Pecos followed the El Paso-San Antonio road to Camp Stockton (now Fort Stockton) and thence to the Horsehead Crossing. Stations were spaced from 15 to 20 miles apart. In the arid terrain of then-territorial New Mexico, the stations had to be spaced further apart, either at existing springs or where wells were successfully dug. Businessman John Butterfield, Sr. chose the southernmost route because of the availability of water and few geographical problems. It operated from 1858 to 1861.

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The Mule As A Beast Of Burden | Horsecar Lines Created A New Problem For The Other Vehicles | Men And Horses | Jedediah Smith | Oregon Trail | Butterfield Overland Mail Co. | The Horses, They Were Not Ponies, Were Critical To The Endeavor | The Pony Express | These Projects Have Stories to Tell | Promontory Point, Utah | The Great Age Of Railroad Building | River Men | Wagons Began To Roll Westward | Stagecoach Makes Appearance In The West
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