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How West Met East
The Butterfield Trail blazed a 2,800-mile path into history.

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How West Met East

The stagecoaches of the Butterfield Trail, now the subject of a new book, blazed a 2,800-mile path into history right through southern New Mexico.

By Melody Groves
Photos by Myke Groves

 

If diners in La Posta Restaurant on the Mesilla Plaza near Las Cruces listen really hard, they might still hear the echoing chatter of people almost 150 years ago waiting for the next stagecoach to come in. While La Posta itself was a dropping-off point, delivering passengers to the door, so to speak, the actual stagecoaches were housed on the next street over, on Calle Principal. Today, the site is right across the street from a large hole that used to be Lemon's Grist Mill. "Transportation Row," a moniker given to this stretch of Mesilla in the late1850s, housed the drivers and headquarters of Butterfield's Overland Mail Co. Mail, packages, light freight and passengers waited there for the next stage to rumble through on the twice-weekly 2,800-mile, 25-day journey between San Francisco and St. Louis. The entire block on the south side of the Mesilla Plaza housed Sam Bean's saloon (brother to Roy Bean), a blacksmith's, the Mesilla Times newspaper office and the stagecoach offices.

A sign in Old Mesilla marks the one-time
way station for the Butterfield Stage.

Thanks to Las Cruces resident George Hackler's recently published book, Butterfield Trail in New Mexico, details about Transportation Row and the colorful history of the Butterfield Stage have been preserved and collected for a new generation of readers. Hackler's book has been 10 years in the researching and writing, he says.

The Butterfield Trail itself was likewise a decade in the making, if you count from the first impulse that created demand for the route. The historic trail began its long snaking across the western half of the continent after the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Desperate for money and adventure, tens of thousands of men and women left their families and friends and rushed to the goldfields of California. They flocked towards imagined fortunes, and newly populous California became a state in 1850. Soon after, in 1853, the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico became US territory with the Gadsden Purchase, which was signed on the Mesilla Plaza.

The Butterfield Trail in New Mexico by George Hackler, published by Yucca Enterprises, is available for $17.95 at COAS Bookstore in Las Cruces, Mesilla Book Center on the plaza in Mesilla, the Luna Mimbres Museum in Deming and Geronimo Springs Museum in T or C.

The people who migrated west during this frenzy eventually missed family and friends and desired a way to communicate with them. At that time, the only mail service available to California involved an arduous trip for the letter or package by wagon over rough trails, down across the Isthmus of Panama by wagon, then up the west coast of California to San Diego and San Francisco. It was a perilous trip at best, taking three to four months at least. People demanded that the federal government "do something."

In response to the outcry and demands of people on both coasts, the United States Post Office Department advertised for bids on a new, overland mail route to California. On first blush, this enterprise seemed pretty straightforward. Upon closer inspection, however, the daunting requirements would spin close to impossible: Whoever won the bid needed to have operations up and running within 12 months, along a route that would span 2,800 miles, which had to be traversed in 25 days. The winning company would need to hire 1,000 men, build 250 wagons, purchase 1,200 horses and 600 mules, buy 800 sets of harnesses, build 200 way stations, and dig 100 wells—all for $600,000 a year.

Word went out and several people vied for the contract. John Butterfield—former mayor of Utica, NY, owner/driver of several freight companies, and good friends with President James Buchanan—was awarded the contract and challenge of stitching together the growing nation.

Born in 1801, John Butterfield had little formal education, but his early years growing up in a hard-working Dutch farm family served him well. At 19, he moved to Albany, where he worked driving a hack between taverns and canal boat landings. He got married and bought a two-seat carriage, then added a second job driving it as his own boss. Always willing to jump into new enterprises, Butterfield erected the first telegraph line between New York City and Buffalo. He also constructed the first steam railroad and first street horse railway system in Utica. He and a few partners formed what would become the American Express Co.

Upon being awarded the contract to carry the mail to and from California, Butterfield rolled up his sleeves and, with the help of his sons, set to work. They hired frontiersmen who knew the woods and Indian tribes, surveyors, conductors, drivers, stationmasters, veterinarians, blacksmiths and wranglers. They drew up specs and oversaw the ordering of 250 Concord and Celerity wagons and water tank wagons. Surveyors plotted the 2,800 miles, grading fording sites, opening new roads or improving old ones. Butterfield and his crew established supply bases and repair shops. With the promise of so many hungry animals, they also procured several thousand tons of hay and fodder. Every 20 miles, a way station was built using locally available materials. Wells were dug where no natural water could be found. Butterfield's son, Daniel (who also wrote the words for the song "Taps"), made up the delivery schedule.

All of this was done on time. Most of it, at least: There are reports that a few way stations were still being built as the first stagecoaches rumbled through. But by and large, things were ready by Sept. 15, 1858. The Butterfield Overland Mail service was ready to launch itself into history.

 

At 2,800 miles, the Butterfield Trail would be the longest stage line in the world. For 1,100 miles in the middle, it crossed the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Colorado Deserts. It entered the Chihuahuan Desert at Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River and proceeded west across Texas, passing the Guadalupe Mountains en route to El Paso. The trip across Texas alone took eight days. The trail then turned north to the Mesilla Valley, then west across the desert, passing beneath the shadow of Cooke's Peak, near Deming. It entered Arizona near Stein's Peak and the Sonoran Desert around Apache Pass, then crossed through Tucson to Yuma. As it turned northwest into California's Colorado Desert, the trail headed for Los Angeles and finally San Francisco.

John Butterfield himself would carry the mail on the first leg of the westbound trip, although he had never before been west of Buffalo, NY. Wearing "a yellow linen duster, a flat-brimmed hat and pants tucked into high boots," according to one account, he picked up two bags of mail at the St. Louis post office. Accompanied by a correspondent for the New York Herald newspaper, Waterman L. Ormsby, Butterfield set off for Tipton, Mo., where his son, John Butterfield Sr., waited with a Concord stagecoach and a team of fast horses. Leaving his father at Fort Smith, Ark., the younger Butterfield and Ormsby drove off into history. Simultaneously, an eastbound stage set off from San Francisco.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, 2,812 miles later, Ormsby famously proclaimed, "Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it."

The primary purpose of the Butterfield Overland Mail was to deliver mail coast to coast as quickly as possible. Passengers were deemed more a nuisance than a pleasure, but it became clear early on that paying passengers were a necessity to keep the company operational. The stagecoaches were initially designed to carry four passengers, but as many as nine sat inside and many more on top.

Initially, the fare was $100 in gold if you were traveling east from San Francisco, but $200 if you were heading west from St. Louis. After a few months of confused and grumbling passengers, the compromise price of $150 in gold was established, regardless of which way you traveled.

The stage ran day and night, stopping every 20 miles to changes horses or mules, but not enough time for much of a leg stretch for cramped passengers. They were afforded two longer stops a day (still no more than 40 minutes) for meals, which cost upwards of $1. Breakfast, as reported by the first eastbound passenger, was jerked beef (cooked on buffalo chips), raw onions, slightly wormy crackers and a bit of bacon. Dinner was bread, tea and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope or mule flesh.

The Concord and Celerity coaches, crafted in New Hampshire, were painted either bright red or green with the running gear a bright yellow. They were inscribed with "O.M.C." above the doors, for the "Overland Mail Co." The Concord wagons weighed 3,000 pounds and had a load capacity of two tons. Celerity or "mud" wagons, much lighter in design, were used on more rugged areas and across the desert. Both coaches were set on leather straps, which gave a comfortable ride but the forward/backward sliding motion caused a great deal of "sea sickness" among passengers.

Inside the coaches, passengers sat on one of three padded benches. One faced towards the rear of the coach, directly under the driver's seat; this was considered the "choice" spot, as not as much swaying occurred there. Another bench faced forward and a third could swing down in between to accommodate three more people. Passengers rode with baggage on their laps and mail pouches beneath their feet.

Raphael Pumpelly, who traveled west to Tucson, recounted his ride: ". . . and there being room inside for only 10 of the 12 legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support. . . . Unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constantly bent forward."

Then 
&
 Now
Passengers were limited to 40 pounds of luggage.
  Airline passengers are limited to approximately the same amount.  
Breakfast cost $1.
  Breakfast burritos at McDonald's run about $1.
Butterfield Trail ran from Las Cruces straight west to Tucson.
  I-10 crosses over the Butterfield Trail twice and parallels it to the south.
Cramped, crowded seats, knees up around your chin, packages beneath your feet.
  Fly anywhere in coach...
       

At night, the benches folded down to make beds that would hold four to 10 people. The coaches ran night and day, covering 125 miles in 24 hours.

The drivers, referred to as "jehu" (as in the phrase, "Drive like Jehu," after a Biblical chariot driver who became king of Israel), were required to know every inch of their 60-mile segment of the route, since often they had to navigate at night. Lanterns were set on the front of the coaches. In areas where river fording was necessary, an additional horseman would ride along with a lantern.

Horses were used in the east, but Missouri-crossed Mexican mules proved a better choice in the desert. Willing and able to eat almost anything, they were sturdier than horses. The biggest problem with the mules was that they were often stolen by Indians.

During the two-and-a-half years the Butterfield stage was in operation, every eastbound and westbound stage arrived within the 25-day contract time. Sometimes the trips took just 21 days. The mail service was so reliable that the British government sent official correspondence destined for British Columbia by the Butterfield Overland Mail. When it first began operations, the company transported only letters, but later added newspapers and small packages. The stages never hauled valuable freight or payrolls, however.

 

In 1858, Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, boasted the largest population between San Antonio and San Diego. More than 3,000 people called Mesilla home. And it was here, on the plaza, in what is known as Transportation Row, that the Overland Mail Co. placed the headquarters of its southwestern sector.

Today's La Posta restaurant is generally accepted as the final terminus or place to layover for other connections. Originally, the entrance faced west on Calle de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the building included only the walls forming the grape room, kitchen and the room by the reservations desk (known as the Corn Exchange Cantina). Sam and Roy Bean operated a passenger and freight service to Pinos Altos from this building during the 1850s. In 1870, after the stage no longer ran, this building became the Corn Exchange Hotel.

According to Hackler's new book, however, "The divisional headquarters for Butterfield Overland Mail Co. was a block west of La Posta in the building now housing El Patio. The main street, Calle Principal, passed on the west side." Corrals, located behind what is now a Nambe store, housed mules and horses. The Overland Mail, when pulling away from the headquarters, would proceed north on Calle Principal, then turn west on Calle de Santiago, travel over the acequia madre, then follow the water channel north out of town towards Picacho Peak. To make good impressions, teams of horses were used for the first 15 miles, then at the next stage stop and before reaching Picacho, mules were switched for horses for their long trek across the desert.

H.D. Barrows, a passenger in 1860 who likely paused in Mesilla, once fondly summed up the experience of riding the Overland stage this way: "To many people who think more of their ease than they do of robust physical health, a stage ride of a thousand or two thousand miles may seem a very formidable undertaking. But for those who had a liking for adventure, and a desire to see something of the world, a long ride of two or three weeks, practically in the open air, possesses a wonderful charm, especially in remembrance."

 

The famed stagecoach line's history was as brief as it was colorful. In early 1861, the Civil War loomed back east. As if that weren't bad enough, war with Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico heated up. In February 1861, Army Lieutenant George Bascom wrongly accused Cochise's tribe of kidnapping a half-white boy. Up until this time, Cochise had allowed peaceful passage of the stages through his territory, even supplying firewood to the way stations. During this misunderstanding, however, Cochise's brother was captured, then hanged. Understandably outraged at the injustice, Cochise declared all-out war against anyone who wasn't Apache. The station manager at Apache Pass was killed, along with a couple of other drivers and Butterfield employees. This fiasco became known as "The Bascom Affair," and its precise facts are still debated today.

Meanwhile, the spread of the telegraph had already begun to make the stage obsolete for getting communications across the country. The telegraph would directly doom the Pony Express, which had sprung up in response to demand for a northern mail route, similar to the Butterfield Trail. Residents of fast-growing Colorado, Utah and Oregon wanted a trail; citing bad winters and high mountains, however, Butterfield declined to cut new roads. The Pony Express launched without him, in the spring of 1860; express riders took mail from St. Louis to Sacramento and points in between for $5 per half-ounce, riding 75-mile stretches at breakneck speed. After 13 months, however, an even shorter lifespan than the Overland stage to the south, the Pony Express perished due to the installation of the transcontinental telegraph. By 1862, 48,000 miles of telegraph lines would cobweb the United States.

But it was the pending outbreak of the Civil War that actually halted operations along the Butterfield Trail. According to Hackler, on March 2, 1861, "Rather than have the Overland Mail Co.'s property fall into Rebel hands, the Postmaster General ordered the Overland Mail. . . to discontinue service immediately and move all the coaches, livestock and equipment north to the Central Overland Trail." That meant abandoning everything Butterfield and his crew had worked for. To add insult to injury, the Confederates seized all the Butterfield stations and coaches in Texas.

John Butterfield, already in ill health, would die in 1869. His Overland Mail Company shut its doors, leaving only the echoes of what had once been a 2,800-mile adventure through history.

Melody Groves grew up in Las Cruces and now lives in Albuquerque. She has published two Western novels, The Quest and Sonoran Range, has a Guide to Rodeo book in the works for the University of New Mexico Press, and has written for New Mexico magazine, among others. She last wrote for Desert Exposure about roadrunners (May).

 

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