The glory days of stage travel

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In our era of high-speed transportation by road, rail and air, it is difficult to recall the days when one’s chief means of public transit was by stagecoach. The full saga of stagecoaching in New Mexico has yet to be written.

 

 

In a general way, we know the story began when the first mule-drawn wagon carrying passengers and the U.S. Mail left Independence, Mo., on July 1, 1850, bound for New Mexico’s capital over the Santa Fe Trail.

Riders paid a $100 fare for the trip that covered almost 800 miles. Initially, service was only once a month. Then, in 1858, the schedule became weekly and finally triweekly, in 1866.

Operation was financially possible only because of a government subsidy to deliver the mail to Santa Fe. Even so, a number of companies that held the contract during life of the trail went in and out of business.

A second long-distance stage line, the Overland Mail Co., began service between St. Louis and San Francisco, in 1858, and passed through southern New Mexico. Incredibly, it covered the 2,800-mile route in just 25 days.

That route became known as the Butterfield Trail, named for the company’s financial backer, New York businessman John Butterfield. As the Civil War neared, however, the government cut back the postal subsidy and the Overland Mail Co. ceased operation. It had survived only three years.

Stagecoaches on the Santa Fe Trail, by contrast, lasted for a total of 30 years, not being extinguished until 1880, when railroad tracks reached Santa Fe.

At that point, stagecoaching in New Mexico took a different turn. Short-haul stage companies sprang to life, collecting passengers at the railroad towns and delivering them to remote communities and mining camps.

Many of these were small, undercapitalized and short-lived. But they provided a valuable public service to territorial New Mexicans for a quarter century.

Unfortunately, the feeder lines seldom left behind bodies of business records that would assist historians in piecing together their story.

Some compensation, though, is provided by existing runs of territorial newspapers, which regularly published features, schedules and advertisements related to the world of stagecoaching.

The Las Vegas Gazette, in 1881, for instance, printed an announcement under the headline, “Hack Line.” It informed readers that Strauner’s hack line was running weekly to White Oaks, an isolated mining town in far western Lincoln County.

The distance was 165 miles for which passengers were charged $15, one way. They were asked to make reservations at the Sumner House in Las Vegas, N.M., or in White Oaks at Burke’s Hotel.

Throughout New Mexico, the numerous short-lines, unable to afford stations of their own, or even ticket offices, would make arrangements with hotel owners to serve as terminals, a practice that aided both parties financially.

Incidentally, the mention n the Las Vegas Gazette to a hack line refers to the type of vehicle commonly used by the small-scale operators. A hack was basically a light wagon with three board seats and a canvas-covered cab.

As a rule, a two-horse team was enough to draw a hack. Its light weight also meant that mud, snow or deep sand were less likely to pose a problem.

So far, I’ve found only a single reference to the larger, heavier Concord coaches being used by one of the short feeder lines. That was on the company conducting stages from Kingston and Hillsboro in Sierra County south to the silver mining center at Lake Valley.

Owned and operated by S.J. Orchard between 1888 and 1902, the line depended upon a pair of beautifully crafted Concords, built in Concord, N.H., where the makers sold their coaches at a high price to customers around the world.

Mrs. Sadie Orchard, wife of the owner, won fame for herself when she was often seen on the road handling the reins from the box of one of the big Concords. Women drivers were practically unheard of in those days.

In 1883, William G. Ritch, secretary of the territory, published a list of the feeder stage routes when in business. They numbered 39, among them the Cerrillos Livery and Stage Line. Daily its coaches ran on five different routes to mines in the area. The firm also furnished twice weekly service to the distant Cochiti Mining District in the Jemez Mountains.

The old style of road travel, whether in a Concord or a hack, was slow, uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous. Most people, I suspect, are relieved that the age of stagecoaching is now lost in history’s dust.