Stagecoach history

In its time, Wells Fargo viewed the stagecoach as a vital link in a transportation network designed to offer customers the greatest speed, reliability, and accessibility. Initially, Wells Fargo was not interested in owning the transportation line, but only in utilizing the most efficient mode of transportation available for its express business. This business included ships that sailed around South America’s Cape Horn; steamships that took passengers to Panama and then by canoe across the Isthmus; railway carriers east of the Mississippi; and, where railroads had yet to reach, stagecoaches. Wells Fargo contracted independent stagecoach lines to carry its express packages, gold dust, and bullion. An armed Wells Fargo messenger often rode “shotgun,” sitting beside the driver to guard the express shipments.
Gold, currency, legal documents, and other valuable express packages were transported in Wells Fargo treasure boxes made of oak and pine reinforced with iron straps. The box traveled in the front “boot” of the stage, beneath the driver’s feet. Photo: Rob Prideaux

“I wish you and Nellie could see the coach that brought us to Bodie. It is a four-horse Concord stage. A shotgun messenger with a sawed-off shotgun, sits up on the high seat in front with the driver. He has the Wells Fargo Express box between his feet. Going out it is full of gold bullion; coming in it is full of gold coins.”

From Doctor Nellie, the autobiography of Helen MacKnight Doyle, M.D., 1879.

Artist N. C. Wyeth captured the excitement of riding the stagecoach in his 1909 “The Pay Stage” illustration of a stagecoach driver and vigilant guard riding “shotgun” alongside him.
In 1855, a banking panic swept across California. Wells Fargo was one of the few financial and express companies to have survived. Its reputation for soundness and dependability only helped its business grow faster, making it more important than ever for the company to own and operate a stagecoach system that it could guarantee would run regularly.
In 1894, a photographer captured this image of a puppy named Jack. He became a symbol of the alert and faithful canines that helped to guard Wells Fargo’s treasure boxes.
A viable opportunity arose when Wells Fargo joined with other express companies to form the Overland Mail Company, carrying mail twice a week between St. Louis and San Francisco, instead of the twice-monthly deliveries via steamship.

Reward poster, 1874.
Robbers found Wells Fargo’s gold and currency filled treasure boxes too tempting to resist. Stagecoach drivers were on a constant lookout for highway bandits, and company detectives lived by the motto “Wells Fargo Never Forgets” in their relentless pursuits of robbers.

“I am on trail of Cherry Creek robbers. They are 12 hours ahead of me. Expect to have them by tomorrow night.”

Telegram from John Thacker, Wells Fargo special agent, 1882.

John Butterfield, one of the founders of American Express along with Wells and Fargo, was named president of the Overland Mail Company, hence its nickname, the “Butterfield Line.” The idea of a regular coach service across the continent had long been a pipe dream. The contract that Butterfield signed with the U.S. government on September 16, 1857, promised to start mail delivery within one year and cover the distance in 25 days. At the time, much of the 2,757 miles of terrain from St. Louis to California had yet to be surveyed, and crossed over plains, rivers, deserts, and jagged mountains where no town or settlement was to be found. It required that every 18 miles a relay station had to be built and manned so the coach could stop to change horses and let passengers stretch their legs.
Mudwagon in Texas, 1861.
Mud wagons, a light and agile type of stagecoach with drop canvas coverings, were known for making it over rough trails.
With surveying and financial support from Wells Fargo, the Overland Mail Company managed to become operational one day ahead of the deadline. Taking a southwest route via El Paso, Tucson, and Los Angeles and then up through California’s Central Valley to San Francisco, the first coach made the trip in just under 24 days, traveling day and night at a pace of five to 12 miles an hour.

In 1861, the Civil War forced overland stages to a central route across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, and over the Sierras. Wells Fargo, which had assumed management of the Overland Mail Company, shared services with the Pioneer Stage Line from California to Virginia City, and with Ben Holladay’s Overland Express from Denver to the Mississippi. Then, in 1866, Wells Fargo took full ownership of all of these lines and created the world’s largest stagecoach network.
Stagecoach ticket, 1868.
In the 1860s, passenger tickets were written out by hand and often originated from mining centers such as Austin, Nevada.
Stagecoach advertisement, 1867.
Although this 1867 advertisement promised reduced fares and shortened times, a trip from Austin to Omaha, for example, still cost $275 and took two weeks.
Wells Fargo quickly earned a reputation for maintaining the finest fleet of stagecoaches available — the Concord coach built by the Abbot-Downing Company. The height of modernity in the 1800s, the Concord was made to withstand rough roads, sharp curves, and treacherous mountain trails. It could carry up to 18 passengers, nine inside and up to nine others, including the driver and shotgun messenger, on the outside. The familiar sight of a Wells Fargo stagecoach blazing across the rugged terrain inspired a sense of progress and a belief that the families and businesses were no longer so far away.
Moving stagecoaches from Abbot-Downing factory, 1867.
In October 1867, Wells Fargo ordered 30 stagecoaches from the Abbot-Downing carriage factory in Concord, New Hampshire, with the instructions, “Paint bodies red, carriage straw. Letter ‘Wells Fargo & Company.’” The new coaches traveled west on railroad flat cars.
Cisco, California, 1867.
While the transcontinental railroad was under construction, Wells Fargo stagecoaches bridged the gap between the unfinished tracks. In 1867, Wells Fargo coaches met Central Pacific trains at Cisco, near the Nevada border, and transported passengers 1,500 miles to the Union Pacific railhead in Nebraska.

““Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description― an imposing cradle on wheels.”

Mark Twain, Roughing It,1872

Stagecoach at the Wells Fargo office, Pescadero, California, 1890s. Wells Fargo often partnered with local business people to manage its offices. In Pescadero, California, the stage stopped at the Levy Brothers store, also the town’s post office and the Wells Fargo office.
Stagecoach at the Wells Fargo office, Virginia City, Montana, 1870s. In places such as Virginia City, Montana, stagecoaches were the primary link to other parts of the country.
Wells Fargo loaned its stagecoach for the filming of Wells Fargo, 1930s.
Directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Joel McCrea, Wells Fargo is a movie about a trail-blazing Wells Fargo employee who finds adventure, love, and marriage on the western frontier.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC
Wells Fargo stagecoach appearance, 1975.
The Wells Fargo stagecoach has remained a popular attraction at bank openings, parades, and civic events.
Rose Parade ®, Pasadena, California, 2007.
A guaranteed crowd pleaser, the stagecoach is in demand for all kinds of live events, including the Rose Parade ® in Pasadena.
First Wells Fargo stagecoach event, 1958.
In 1958, the Wells Fargo Stagecoach Appearance Program started when Dale Robertson, star of the hit TV show “Tales of Wells Fargo,” escorted a stagecoach to the opening of a new bank branch in Hayward, California.
Wells Fargo stagecoach at the 1973 Presidential inauguration.
The Wells Fargo stagecoach represented the state of California in the 1973 inaugural parade for President Richard M. Nixon. Photo: Capital & Glogau.