A railway construction boom in the 1800s saw major cities and towns connected by train service. Wherever possible, Wells Fargo used the railroads to take advantage of their speed and efficiency.
Colorful stickers designated the origins of valuable goods shipped in the care of Wells Fargo.
A Wells Fargo wagon meets the train in Napa, California, 1892.
The creation of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad to connect the east and west coasts, and everything in between, represented a new way for America to communicate and do business.
Construction had begun in 1863 along the Overland Route, with the Union Pacific crew working west and the Central Pacific crew laying tracks east.
On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake, officially joining the continent from coast to coast by rail.
Central Pacific promoters, led by Lloyd Tevis, were determined to maintain control over lucrative transcontinental mail and express contracts by rail, but they also recognized that no company had more transcontinental express service experience than Wells Fargo. For them, the solution was to acquire controlling interest in the company. In an October 1869 deal that became known as the “Treaty of Omaha,” Wells Fargo received exclusive express rights for ten years on the Central Pacific, plus an infusion of capital, and Tevis became president of Wells Fargo, a position he held for 20 years.
This illustration of the celebration at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, does not show the many Chinese and African American workers who laid the thousands of miles of track that made this American milestone possible.
Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress
This map shows the extent of Wells Fargo’s express business around the world in 1907. The company contracted with different railroad lines to carry express shipments over 47,000 miles of track, serving communities in 28 states and Mexico.
Rail transportation allowed Well Fargo’s express business to flourish in the late 1800s, while its business by stagecoach gradually declined. By the time the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Wells Fargo was serving 10,000 offices in the United States over 80,000 miles of railroad.
Passengers could get tickets from Wells Fargo agents with blanks for insertion of rail-to-stage and stage-to-rail transfers on the Union Pacific line.
In 1888, Wells Fargo reached 2,500 American towns from ocean to ocean by rail, including St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1914, a wagon banner ad announced the opening of Wells Fargo’s first office in the nation’s capital.
The January 1913 issue showed Mississippi River traffic under the Eads Bridge in St. Louis.
The March 1916 cover featured the skyline of Philadelphia, an important market for Wells Fargo.
The August 1916 cover depicted a tugboat guiding a merchant ship into New York Harbor.
Between September 1912 and June 1918, Wells Fargo produced a monthly employee magazine called the Wells Fargo Messenger. In addition to company news, it contained works of fiction contributed by employees and art by well-known illustrators. The magazine’s cover often featured transportation themes related to the express business.
The company had also extended express operations overseas by ship to Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Central and South America, and many European countries.
“We not only have an express office in Honolulu, but we also have the entire Hawaiian islands as exclusive territory. This means that we operate on the great steamers plying across the broad Pacific from San Francisco and Seattle to Yokohama, Hong Kong, and Manilla, and stopping almost invariably at the crossroads of the Pacific...”
Wells Fargo Messenger, August 1916
After Wells Fargo’s express business was nationalized in 1918, it continued operations under its own name internationally. The Wells Fargo office in Camaguay, Cuba, was fully staffed in 1924 to serve its customers in the Caribbean. Wells Fargo had offices in many international locations.
In 1886, the Wells Fargo offices in Mexico promoted cross-border commerce by producing a guide on U.S. and Mexico buyers and manufacturers.
Photo courtesy: Thomas Gugler
In 1917 alone, Wells Fargo handled the shipping and delivery of more than 80 million packages to both merchants and consumers. In addition to carrying millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver over the years, Wells Fargo transported goods of every type, including motorcycles, telephone switchboards, auto parts, farm plows, livestock, wine grape cuttings from Europe, fruitcakes, oysters, cheese, and bolts of cloth. One Kansas man, who went broke in Texas, even entrusted himself to Wells Fargo, asking the company to send him home to his wife collect.
A familiar sight across the nation, the Wells Fargo express wagon picked up parcels from the train or stagecoach depot and transported them to their final destinations.
The Wells Fargo diamond sign signaled company wagon drivers to call at businesses for a pickup.
Photo courtesy: Rob Prideaux
Recognizing the potential advantages of motor trucks to the express business, Wells Fargo began training drivers in automotive skills and making motorized deliveries in Detroit in 1917.
As the company’s slogan touted, “The Fargo Way” meant that every shipment was handled with care and delivered safely and on time. Wells Fargo’s refrigerated railcars moved the first commercial shipment of ice to Los Angeles and carried berries from Oregon, as well as lettuce from Colorado and peaches from New Jersey.
Ice is being added through the top of this Wells Fargo refrigerated railcar to keep a shipment of Asparagus fresh in 1913.
February 2, 1915, was declared “Fargo Way Day” by the company, a time when all employees were asked to pause for 30 minutes to consider how to serve the customer better. “The Fargo Way” became a slogan appearing on delivery wagon banners.
In 1901, 16 year old Garrie Buckner left home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The acclaimed African American school officially opened on July 4, 1881 with 30 students and Booker T. Washington as its first principal − a position Washington held until his death in 1915. Garrie’s mother Eva bridged the miles between her and her son by sending a care package by Wells Fargo.
“The most polite and courteous treatment of all customers, however insignificant their business, is insisted upon. Proper respect must be shown to all ― let them be men, women, or children, rich or poor, white or black.”
Wells Fargo, Rules and Instructions, 1888
Wells Fargo’s emphasis on customer service led the company to publish bilingual directories of Chinese merchants during the 1870s and 1880s. Photo: Rob Prideaux.
Wells Fargo continued to thrive, despite new competition from the U.S. Postal Service which introduced parcel post delivery in 1913. For the first time, people could send packages over 4 pounds by mail as well as by express. Customers continued to line up at their local Wells Fargo office, confident in the service they had received over their lifetime.
“Service is the very backbone of the express. We have very little else to sell in our business. Our merchandise is courtesy, willingness, and human ability.”
Wells Fargo Messenger, February 1917
In 1908, the typical Wells Fargo office looked much like this one in Antioch, California. By 1918, Wells Fargo had offices in 10,000 U.S. communities.
Wells Fargo recognized the skills of women in the workforce, and hired its first known woman agent in 1873. Emma Howard (center) in Ashland, Oregon, was one of the over 350 women who ran express offices for Wells Fargo.
In a 1912 pre-Christmas advertisement, Wells Fargo reminded customers of its many services ― money orders, travelers checks, and package deliveries to all parts of the world.
Wells Fargo was not just a shipping company during this time. Customers also turned to their local Wells Fargo agent when they needed access to sophisticated financial tools like money orders and travelers checks.
Customers buying merchandise from catalogs welcomed the convenience, ease, and security of paying for goods with a Wells Fargo money order.
Prior to World War I, luxury ocean liners encouraged more people to travel abroad. Magazine ads appealed to well-heeled women by implying that sophisticated women never left home without Wells Fargo travelers checks. Introduced in 1903, travelers checks made it easy to convert money into foreign currency.
World War I brought new challenges for Wells Fargo. In 1918, as a wartime measure, the federal government nationalized all express operations across the U.S. The nation’s four leading express companies, including Wells Fargo, consolidated into one: American Railway Express.
Few people had personal checking accounts in the late 1800s, so Wells Fargo’s introduction of express money orders in 1885 was welcomed as a safe way to send money over long distances.
Photo Courtesy: Rob Prodeaux
Renowned painter Edward Hopper illustrated a patriotic theme in the February 1918 edition of the Wells Fargo Messenger in support of American troops fighting in World War I.
Industry consolidation abruptly ended Wells Fargo’s express operations in the United States, and left Wells Fargo with only one line of business — banking — and only one banking office, located in San Francisco.
“… the nation loses an institution hardly less distinctive than the great Capitol down at Washington itself. For sixty-five long years our company has kept the faith. Its task has been trust, and no man has ever trusted it in vain.”
Wells Fargo Messenger, June 1918, the last edition of the company magazine
On July 1, 1918, Wells Fargo signs came down in over 10,000 locations. New York employees posed for a photo the day before their Manhattan office closed.