Riding cross-country in the 'cradle on wheels'

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California, from El Dorado Co. birth, marriage, death and land records and often from interviews.

A young man named Enoch Cummings was one of the men to drive a stagecoach from the company's headquarters - based first in St. Joseph, Mo., and eventually, in Atchison, Kansas - to Placerville. He was actually the first to drive from Placerville back to the other end of the line.

It was 1861, and the Overland Stage Line was an answer to the need for a reliable, commercial transportation company to carry passengers from one side of the country to the other.

Traveling by stagecoach in those early years required grit, patience and determination. The faint hearted need not board.

To reinforce this point, the Omaha Herald published a list of recommendations for stage travelers in 1877. Today they make for humorous reading, but at the time, I'm sure they made sense. Here are some of them:

  • Never ride in cold weather with tight boots or shoes, or close-fitting gloves.

  • Bathe your feet before starting, in cold water, and wear loose overshoes and gloves two or three sizes too large.

  • When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary.

  • If a team runs away, sit still and take your chances; if you jump, nine times out of ten you will be hurt.

  • In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor while on the road; a man will freeze twice as quick while under its influence.

  • Don't growl at food stations; stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

  • Don't keep the stage waiting; many a virtuous man has lost his character by so doing.

  • Don't smoke a strong pipe inside, especially early in the morning.

  • Spit on the leeward side of the coach.

  • 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.

  • Provide stimulants before starting; ranch whisky is not always nectar.

  • Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping.

  • Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.

  • Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous.

  • Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.

  • Don't linger too long at the pewter washbasin at the station.

  • Don't grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable "tater" patch.

  • Tie a silk handkerchief around your neck to keep out dust and prevent sunburns.

  • A little glycerin is good in case of chapped hands.

Concord Coaches were used by ambitious Ben Holladay's Overland Stage Company and they were handsome contraptions, in fact, they were far superior to the common spring wagon.

Where the old spring wagons bounced and bucked their way over ruts, tossing their passengers into the air with each bump in the trail, the new Concords cushioned the ride because of their setup of braces, which were made of thick leather straps that were slung between the front and rear axles. The resulting ride consisted of a swinging and swaying motion.

Mark Twain described the Concord as "a cradle on wheels."

The Concord, by itself, weighed a ton or more, and was strong enough to carry nine passengers inside the coach, as well as up to a dozen on top.

However, its very weight and tendency to get bogged down made it less desirable during the wet winter months, and many a Concord sat in "dry dock" inside a barn during that time of year. The low-slung mud wagon was then called into service.

Not all stage operators could afford the steep cost of a Concord, either. At $1,200 to $1,500 each - delivered to California - they were an enormous investment. However, by 1853, one writer counted no less than 67 coaches operating in and out of Sacramento.

The distance from Atchison to Placerville was 1,913, with stops at 153 stage stations, which were located from 10 to 15 miles apart. This would cost you $225, at its lowest rate. You were allowed to carry on 25 pounds of baggage. Extra baggage was charged at $1 per pound. Meals were also an extra charge. At the time, the Overland Stage was probably the most important stage line in the country, if not in the entire world.

For more local travel, there was the California Stage Company, which was in business, following a merger of several companies, starting in 1854. It had its headquarters in nearby Sacramento at the Orleans Hotel. The route at that time covered some 450 miles within the northern part of the state, extending west to San Francisco, San Jose and Monterey and east to Placerville, Auburn, and various mining camps in the Sierras.

The fare, in effect as of Jan. 11, 1855, was $3 from Sacramento to Mud Springs, Diamond Springs or Placerville. To Coloma or Auburn, payment was $5, and for $3 more, you could go to Iowa Hill. Another $3 would take you to Yankee Jim's.

For a time, Ben Holladay was perhaps the most successful private owner of a stage line, receiving $650,000 per year from the federal government for hauling mails, in addition to the revenue he generated accommodating passengers and express. He would meet tough competition, however, with the startup of Wells, Fargo and Company, on July 1, 1861.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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