Like covered wagons and cowboys, stagecoaches have become symbols of the West. It helps that Wells Fargo, one of America's oldest and largest banks, uses a red Concord coach to celebrate its long history. Like most legends, the stagecoach story is a mix of fact and fantasy.
Wells Fargo & Co. ran stagecoaches in California for five years during the 1860s, but, as company President Louis McLane observed, staging looked good in pictures "but was the devil in reality."
From its founding in 1852, the company contracted with stage lines across the country to transport its green, iron-strapped treasure boxes--and cagey owners painted the prestigious name on their stages to show they carried "Wells Fargo Co's Express." In the public's mind, gold on the move meant Wells Fargo, an image the company later carefully promoted in the silent movies it delivered to theaters.
The Abbot-Downing Co. of New Hampshire began building its legendary Concord coaches in 1827. The company's success rested on an invention: 3-inch thick ox-hide "through-braces." They mounted their coaches on leather braces instead of steel springs to prevent injury to the horses, and Mark Twain called the coach that carried him west in 1861 "an imposing cradle on wheels."
"The stage whirled along at a spanking gait," Twain wrote. Utah's Echo Canyon "was like a long, smooth, narrow street" shut in by "enormous perpendicular walls of coarse conglomerate."
His driver took the opportunity to "let his team out."
"We fairly seemed to pick up our wheels and fly," Twain recalled. Twain loved "the life and the wild sense of freedom" of a stagecoach trip, but most travelers found the experience less inspiring.
"Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic," the Omaha Herald warned in "Hints for Plains Travelers" in 1877. "Expect annoyance, discomfort and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven."
"Spit on the leeward side of the coach," the Herald advised "If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling."
The Herald suggested purchasing stimulants before setting out since "ranch whisky is not always nectar," and cautioned against drinking any liquor in cold weather for "a man will freeze twice as quick while under its influence."
Demas Barnes found "the water brackish, the whiskey abominable, and the dirt almost unendurable" on his trip to Denver in 1865. English adventurer George Frederick Ruxton described the American stagecoach as "a huge lumbering affair" with leather springs that creaked and groaned over dismal roads, "thumping, bumping, and dislocating the limbs" of the unfortunate captives in its "convulsed interior."
Typical stagecoaches were known as "mud wagons" and were, as the name suggests, not as impressive as the Concords. But all stages were prone to disaster. After watching a coach topple over and dump its cargo, editor James Hutchings helped "the passengers underneath to get out. Fortunately," he noted, "no one was seriously hurt."
A stage crossing at Applegate Creek in Oregon in 1885 "was suddenly attacked by a drove of salmon." The hungry fish "swarmed over it," a newspaper reported, and despite a lack of details, there was every reason to believe the passengers "fell victim to the salmon."
Stage drivers became famous for their fancy dress and iron nerves. After crossing the Sierra, future vice president Schuyler Colfax told a crowd in Hangtown: "It requires more nerve, talent and genius to be a stage driver" than it did to be a congressman. Especially when threatened by man-eating salmon.
Wells Fargo historian Robert Chandler provided the author with material for this column.