16 September 2010

16 September - Butterfield Overland Mail

Today, in 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail started operations from Tipton, Missouri, on its way south and west to end up in San Francisco, California, some 23 days later.  This was quite a feat, at a time when such a trip took months to accomplish, whether overland by the Oregon Trail, or by sea, around Cape Horn or the shorter but equally dangerous crossing of Panama.

Realizing this required a great deal of planning, and a great ordering of supplies, including the Concord coaches so beloved of Western Movies, and their lighter and less-beloved cousins, the Celerity wagons.  Stage stops were set up in already established towns or built where there were none, where new teams could be harnessed and passengers might have time to grab a bite.  Mail was the first priority; no shipments of money or gold were allowed, to prevent highway robbery.  Passengers, at $200 going west or $100 coming back east, could ride inside the coach, bouncing and jostling over the entire 2800 miles, but their comfort wasn't a consideration.  "Nothing on God's earth must stop the mail!" said John Butterworth, and that included travel-sick and weary passengers.

The food available to the travelers varied according to locale.  In the established towns along the route through Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and northern Texas, the hungry traveler might find milk, butter, eggs, and vegetables to accompany whatever meat and bread was served.  Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald and passenger on that first trip, wrote that in West Texas he breakfasted on jerked beef cooked over buffalo chips, raw onions, slightly wormy crackers, and a bit of bacon, and that was likely the fare through New Mexico and Arizona as well, until they reached the farmlands of California.  Occasionally, the meat (often floating in grease) might be venison steaks; there might be hot biscuits or cornbread, beans, and coffee made of ground roasted chicory roots, sweetened with molasses.

That is, when they had time to eat, and there wasn't much of it.  The travel time was 25 days or less; in order to achieve that, the coaches ran 24 hours for the most part, taking time only to change teams or coaches.  The two stops for breakfast and dinner were not prolonged, and passengers were encouraged to carry food with them for the stretch between meals.

In spite of the discomfort, it was a major accomplishment.  In its 2-1/2 years of operation, mail and passengers could arrive in San Francisco or St. Louis in less than a month, bringing the eastern and western sides of the United States that much closer.  The looming Civil War brought an end to the southern route; transcontinental mail would be carried first by the Pony Express and then by the another company under the ownership of Ben Holladay, over a more central route to the north.

Today would be a good day to raise a glass of wine from the Butterfield Station Winery to those hardy souls who ventured cross country on the most rapid transit available at the time.