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Utica man was driving force behind first transcontinental traffic line

Lou Parrotta, Sentinel columnist
Posted 5/6/23

“Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth should stop the U.S. mail!”

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Utica man was driving force behind first transcontinental traffic line


“Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth should stop the U.S. mail!”

Such was the mantra of veteran stagecoach driver John W. Butterfield as he boarded the inaugural run of his Overland Mail Express Company on September 16, 1858.

That day began the first truly transcontinental traffic line in North America.

Butterfield, born in Berne, N.Y., on November 18, 1801, came to Utica at a young age. At age 19, he began driving stagecoaches in Albany and then Utica.

He organized and operated the Butterfield, Wasson & Co. stagecoach business in 1849, and in 1850 merged his company with Wells & Company and Livingston, Fargo & Company.

This new firm became the now famous Wells & Fargo and American Express.

Elected Mayor of Utica in 1856, Butterfield won a government contract a year later, on September 16, 1857, to deliver the United States mail across the country.

He incorporated his Overland Mail Express on October 22, 1857 and set out to build the line.

The government had strict parameters for Butterfield to follow: begin operation within one year, cost no more than $600,000 to operate, provide semi-weekly service, and deliver the mail within 25 days. This was definitely a risky endeavor for an entrepreneur.

Butterfield’s operation consisted of eleven directors, including Rome resident Marquis L. Kenyon, the only other person with any type of stagecoach experience besides Butterfield.

Among the many employees of the massive organization were Butterfield’s son-in-law, Alexander Holland, who served as treasurer.

His sons also played integral roles. Charles served as the senior superintendent in Fayetteville, Arkansas; John Jr. worked as a senior company assistant in Utica; and future Civil War General and writer of taps, Daniel served as clerk to record the route of the trail and the station sites.

Over the course of the next twelve months, Butterfield bought 1,200 horses and 600 mules and dispersed them throughout the nearly 2,500-mile route.

He ordered 250 wagons, several thousand tons of hay and fodder, and built 200 way stations spaced approximately every 20 miles. (These way stations are modern-day rest stops like those that one would see along the New York State Thruway. Butterfield rightly deserves ample credit for introducing them to weary travelers.)

He had 100 wells dug along the route, surveyed over 2,800 miles of new and improved older roads, and created a run-schedule that had stagecoaches leaving from the east and west every Monday and Thursday at 8 a.m.

The route’s starting points were St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee. The two would converge at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and then proceed through Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) on to Texas (in today’s El Paso area) across the southwestern part of the United States (today’s Arizona and New Mexico).

From there, the route went west to California, and once in California, north to Los Angeles and on to San Francisco.

The first traveler on the lengthy route was a New York Herald journalist, Waterman L. Ornsby, who published a book describing the travel as “… now know(ing) what hell (was) like.”

The travel was rough, and it was not cheap. To be a passenger on the route the entire length cost $150 ($5,521.39 in 2023 dollars).

If desired, a passenger could pay 10 cents per mile ($3.68 in 2023). To mail a letter, typically half an ounce, 10 cents was the fee.

When there were travelers on the stagecoaches, they stuffed themselves in among the mail satchels and personal baggage, and sat in cramp-inducing positions, for miles on end along rough “roads.” Definitely not the luxury people have today when traveling.

The Overland Mail Express Company only lasted three years. It met its demise over infighting among company directors that resulted in the pushing out of Butterfield from the presidency in 1860, a major error by an employee that left a Cochise Indian Chief’s brother dead, and, ultimately, the Civil War, which spurred the Confederate States of America to close the route through Texas.

The impact of the Overland Express Mail was big, however. This was the first time in American history a passenger could travel 24/7.

Teams changed out horses every 15--25 miles, similar to a pit crew changing out tires on hot rods. Meals, served in record time of 45 minutes or less, consisted of bacon, beans, onions, meat and coffee.

After meals were finished, clean up occurred and the stage was back on its route.

The Overland Mail Express Company had an unequaled safety record with Butterfield at the helm. His coaches strictly adhered to a tight schedule, and the time of travel shortened as time went on, decreasing to 21 ½ days by 1859. The company carried at least 12,000 letters per trip, and cities like El Paso and Los Angeles grew because the stagecoach went through them.

Alas, this adventure was short- lived due to the aforementioned circumstances.

Butterfield returned home to Utica, and suffered a stroke in October 1867. He died at his home on November 14, 1869; just four days shy of his 69th birthday.


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