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Mailing a Letter to California in the Old West

The Overland Mail stage departing for San Francisco, October 23, 1858.
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated News
The Overland Mail stage departing for San Francisco, October 23, 1858. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated News

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BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we tell you about the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. We explain its place in the history of the first stagecoaches that carried mail to the American West.


BOB DOUGHTY: Across the United States, the speed limit on fast roads is generally eighty-eight kilometers an hour. But in the western United States, there are highways where the speed limit is one hundred twenty-five kilometers an hour.

These are usually in areas with little traffic but lots of open country. The roads are good, a driver can see far -- and a trip hundreds of kilometers long can take just a few hours. And if that is not fast enough, then people can drive to another part of the modern transportation system: the airport.

There used to be a time when the quickest way to travel across the western United States was in a stagecoach. A stagecoach was a large, enclosed wagon pulled by teams of horses or mules. The driver tried for a speed of about eight kilometers an hour.

BARBARA KLEIN: Our story really begins in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers in Congress wanted to make it possible to send mail all the way across the United States by land. Mail was usually carried west on ships that sailed around the bottom of South America and then north to California. That could take several months.

So, in eighteen fifty-seven, Congress offered to help any company that would try to deliver mail overland to the West Coast. A man named John Butterfield accepted this offer. He developed plans for a company that would carry the mail -- and passengers, too.

Congress gave John Butterfield six hundred thousand dollars to start his company. In return, he had to promise that the mail would travel from Saint Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, in twenty-five days or less.

BOB DOUGHTY: It was not possible to travel straight through because of the Rocky Mountains and the deep snow that fell in winter. So the stagecoach would travel south from Saint Louis to El Paso, Texas, then over to southern California, then north to San Francisco. The distance was about four thousand five hundred kilometers.

John Butterfield hired more than one thousand men who knew the Southwest. Some carefully planned the way the stagecoach would travel. Others built small structures to house stagecoach workers and animals along the route.

BARBARA KLEIN: Two hundred of these stations were built, each about thirty-two kilometers apart. The workers were to quickly change the horses or mules whenever a stagecoach reached the station. There could be no delay.

Each stagecoach was to travel nearly two hundred kilometers a day. Two-man teams were responsible for the safety of the mail, the passengers and the stagecoach. John Butterfield ordered his men never to let the mail out of their sight.

The Butterfield Overland Mail company operated from eighteen fifty-eight until eighteen sixty-one. It went out of business because of the Civil War, which began that year.

BOB DOUGHTY: One hundred stagecoaches were built specially for the job. Each one was painted red or dark green. These were the most modern coaches that money could buy. They cost one thousand five hundred dollars each.

They were designed to hold as many as nine passengers and twelve thousand pieces of mail. The seats inside could be folded down to make beds. Passengers either slept on them or on the bags of mail.

The cost would be one hundred fifty dollars to travel from Saint Louis to San Francisco. If a passenger was not going all the way, the cost was about ten cents a kilometer. The passengers had to buy their own food at the stations. The stagecoach would stop for forty minutes, two times a day.

But the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach needed to travel as fast as possible. It had to keep moving to reach San Francisco in twenty-five days as required by the government contract.

The company warned passengers about the possible dangers. A poster said: "You will be traveling through Indian country and the safety of your person cannot by vouchsafed by anyone but God."

BARBARA KLEIN: The Butterfield stagecoaches passed through dangerous areas. Some Indians did not want anyone to get too near their settlements.

These lands were home to the Chiricahua, Membreno, White Mountain and Mescalero Apaches. Two of their chiefs became very famous in stories of the American West. They were Cochise and Geronimo.

The Native Americans were experts at surviving in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. They were also fierce fighters.

Butterfield workers were instructed not to incite the Apaches in any way. Often the company would use mules instead of horses to pull its stagecoaches because the Indians had no interest in mules. But there was still trouble. Workers were killed, animals were stolen and stations were burned.


BOB DOUGHTY: The first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach left Missouri on September sixteenth, eighteen fifty-eight, on its way to California. It made the trip in twenty-three days, twenty-three hours.

The only passenger on that first stage to travel all the way through to San Francisco was a newspaper reporter named Waterman Ormsby. He worked for the New York Herald. He wrote several stories about the trip; later, they were put together in a book, "The Butterfield Overland Mail." Here is part of what he wrote about that trip.

READER: "We finally got under way again and pursued our weary course along the edge of the plain, thumping and bumping at a rate which threatened not to leave a whole bone in my body. What with the dust and the sun pouring directly on our heads … I found that day’s ride quite unpleasant, and at our several camps readily availed myself of the opportunity to plunge into the Pecos, muddy as it was; and I was heartily glad when about 10 p.m. we reached a station fifty-eight miles from our starting point in the morning ... "


BARBARA KLEIN: Today people can visit the ruins of one of the Butterfield stagecoach stops, now located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. To reach the park, visitors drive through the Guadalupe Pass, more than one thousand five hundred meters high.

In his description of that first trip west, Waterman Ormsby explained why the station was called "the Pinery."

READER: " ... on account of the number of pine trees that grow in the gorge of the mountain in which it is situated. As we approached the mountain, the hills and gulleys bore the appearance of having been created by some vast, fierce torrent rushing around the base of the peak, and tearing its way through the loose earth. ... [I]t seems as if nature had saved all her ruggedness to pile it up in this colossal form of the Guadalupe Peak …

"The great peak towers as if ready at any moment to fall, while huge boulders hang as if ready, with the weight of a rain drop, to be loosened from their fastenings and descend with lumbering swiftness to the bottom, carrying destruction in their paths.”

BARBARA KLEIN: The Pinery Station was a series of three connected buildings. The walls were made of local limestone and bricks of sun-dried mud called adobe. The roofs were also mud. A wagon repair shop and blacksmith barn stood nearby.

The Butterfield mail coaches used the buildings until August of eighteen fifty-nine. Then a new road replaced the one through Guadalupe Pass. It was better protected from Indian attacks because it passed by two Army forts. But the buildings at Guadalupe continued to be used by soldiers and others who passed that way.

BOB DOUGHTY: Today, the buildings are no longer there, just the outlines of where they stood, and some of the original bricks. But visitors to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas can still get a sense of their historic importance. The company is said to have never broken its contract with the government in its two and a half years of operation.

At the end of September two thousand eight, the park celebrated the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail. There were stage coach rides, living history programs and demonstrations of shoeing a mule.

It's easy to imagine those long-ago days of cowboys and Indians, and the spirit of adventure that led travelers to ride the stagecoach west.


BARBARA KLEIN: Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein.

BOB DOUGHTY: And I'm Bob Doughty. Doug Johnson was our reader. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be found at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.